Today, I am thinking about how many times I have interviewed someone about some story or another, and that person has said to me, "I always heard about this or that thing on the news, but I never thought this would happen to me."
Norman McQueen Jr. was a former New York City firefighter. He aided relief efforts at ground zero in the aftermath on Sept. 11.
Well, three years ago tomorrow, the person saying that was me.
Three years ago tomorrow, my brother took his own life. My handsome, hilarious, infuriating little brother. His name was Norman, but I don't know anybody who called him that. I liked to call him Conan — as in Conan the fireman — because, yes, he was a firefighter and, yes, he was totally buff. From high school on, he asked his friends to call him Wade. I have no idea why. And most of his brother firefighters called him Mac. But most of all — and maybe this is a black thing, I don't know — in my family, we mainly just called him Brother.
If you mentioned Brother to anybody in my family, or my close friends, then you'd know we were referring to him. It is fitting because, to me, that's who he was, and the word really means something. And if you have lost a sibling, then you know what I am about to say is true. When you lose a sibling, you really feel as if one of the limbs on your favorite tree has been sawed off by a thief. It's been three years, and I still find myself looking for the raunchy birthday card from him that I still can't believe is not coming. Every now and again, I still think of something I want to tell him, about something that happened at work or one of my kids' events, and I have to say to myself, "Oh, wait, I cannot." And then, when his birthday rolls around, I find myself racking my brain for a gift for him that I know he will make fun of — he was really hard to buy for, with that bodybuilder neck and all that — but for which he would have written a beautiful thank you note anyway.
So you can imagine why I was sad — but not shocked — to read in the Wall Street Journal last week about a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the number of deaths by suicide has risen dramatically in the past decade, surpassing even those caused by car crashes and some of the most fatal diseases. The number of suicides in a year rose 31 percent, from just over 29,000 in 1999 to more than 38,000 in 2010. And my brother was one of them.
Suicide rates for working adults are now double that of the other demographics, according to the Journal's article, with people in their 50s showing the highest numbers — men most of all, with suicide by middle-aged men outnumbering that of women 4 to 1 — and with all of that, the article goes on to say that this is a crisis that has gone largely undetected, under the radar, as it were.
Can I just tell you — maybe it's my survivor anger talking, but I'm not buying it.
Throughout the world, and throughout time, people, especially men, who feel worthless find a way to die when they don't think they can provide for their families in the way they think they should. When they don't think what they have to contribute to the world is valued. When they don't see a way up or out, they find a way to die. And yes, access to guns is part of it, lack of access to good mental health care — or a lack of willingness to seek it out — is part of it, access to decent employment is part of it, losing your home is part of it.
Is any of this really news to anybody? Is it really that hard to figure out? My question is the same question I find myself asking a lot these days, which is, "How many more?" How many more funerals do we need to have, before we look the problem in the face, and fix it?