What I Learned From Alex
When I was in high school, there was a kid in my class named Alex. Friendly and theatrical by nature, he was the class clown and got along with almost everyone. Almost everyone. There were a few guys a grade above us who never cut him a break, giving him flack for the way he dressed, how he talked, even the bands he liked. They called him names and were especially tortuous in the locker room. I’m not proud to say that I — or anyone else — never stepped in. Alex seemed to take it all in stride and even after the worst days, always returned to school with a smile on his face.
But one day, he didn’t show up at all. He had perfect attendance and was never late, so we all took notice. When he didn’t come the next day or the next, rumors started circulating. Some people said he ran away, others said he was sick in bed with mono. But no one had any solid information, nor did they seem much interested in finding out the truth. The fact was, although he kept us laughing in class none of us were really friends with him outside of the school walls. He never came back to school. I got wind that he’d moved to another state, but again, no one knew or sought out the details.
A few years later, I ran into Alex and we decided to grab some lunch. When I asked what had happened all those years before, he told me his story. Nothing could have prepared me.
One day after school, Alex’s mother walked in on him and another boy in his room. She flew into a rage, screaming obscenities and calling him the same horrible names the guys at school had, before demanding he leave and never come back. She had berated him his whole life, which was why he had never confided in her about his sexual orientation. The torment at school hadn’t improved his confidence on the topic, either. He told me that hearing his mother echo those cruelties is a pain he will never forget. As he packed his bags to leave, he threw in a bottle of sleeping pills. He went to the park and downed nearly half of them before being found by a neighbor who helped him get to the hospital.
Alex was put on a mandatory suicide hold and received intensive counseling. He said his doctor helped him work through the constant bullying he’d faced both at home and in school and together with Child Protective Services, they decided he’d do better in the care of his aunt. A fresh start at a new school couldn’t hurt, either. I sat in stunned silence, wondering how someone who had seemed so happy and carefree could hide so much pain for so long.
My new understanding of Alex, combined with the knowledge I’ve acquired about mental health in college, has given me a lot of perspective. Those in the LGBT community are three times as likely to experience a mental health condition like depression. I didn’t know for sure what Alex’s sexuality was, but I heard the locker room torment. If I’d simply asked myself just once, “What if he is gay?” I could have considered that maybe he just needed a friend to talk to. When all he was met with on the topic was ridicule, it’s no wonder he didn’t tell anyone about it.
I also realized that even if he hadn’t been grappling to understand his own sexuality, I still should have stepped in. You can never really know what’s going on with a person behind closed doors, the conflicts they may experience at home, or the insecurities they may be hiding. A few kind words could have gone a long way. Standing up for him to cruel teenage boys could have gone even farther. I justified my silence with the way he seemed to let the comments roll off his back — but what other choice did he have? If he’d shown his tormentors how much they really affected him, the abuse and bullying likely would have just gotten worse.
In adolescence, most of us were terrified to be seen as “different.” But in so many ways, Alex wasn’t. He didn’t change his style no matter what people said, and I think that’s why the guys were so cruel — they were secretly jealous. While they took their style cues from Kanye, Alex had his own. He didn’t look to others for how to act or dress or speak. It was something we should have admired him for, but instead we shunned him. We never invited him to go to the movies or football games with us, to our birthday parties or our homecoming dinners. In a way, we let those guys bully us, too — because if we were nice to Alex, we could be next on their radar. We chose security over kindness, and if we’d been brave enough to do the opposite we could have been there for Alex in his time of need.
I’ll never forget Alex, his story, or his incredible strength. If we let the bullies of the world win, amazing people like him may lose their light or worse, their lives.
Steve Johnson co-created PublicHealthLibrary.org (http://publichealthlibrary.