Most of the problems started when I was fourteen. My dad’s business started going downhill. He had emphysema and he’d smoke all the time. I was preoccupied with him, because I never knew how long he was gonna live. I was six-feet-four and 170 pounds. I started to get all these sexual feelings. They were homosexual feelings.
In adolescence, it’s common for one’s self-esteem to be shaky, but Ed’s problems were compounded. Searching for some validation as ‘normal’, amidst considerable internal doubts, Ed took the advice of friends and teachers and tried out for football. By his senior year, he grew to an imposing six-feet-five, 233-pound eighteen-year-old, relieved to be winning the approval of family and friends and happy that he could excel at the most popular sport in town. As Ed’s popularity soared, the adulation provided the opportunity for him to hide—in plain sight.
I thought, “What is this shit!” When I’d fantasize, the gay stuff would come up. I’d like it [but] I’d be scared at the same time, and I’d say to God, “Please don’t let anybody find out.”
I can’t appreciate enough how forthright and unflinchingly honest Ed was during the many hours we spoke. Ed is a large man, but one would be mistaken to attribute the effect of his presence to size alone. Rather, it’s the breath of his spirit, the passion with which he approaches nearly everything in life. He speaks graphically. Holding a listener in the powerful beam of his attention, he says precisely what he feels to be true. He may apologize later for startling one’s sensibilities, but he will not dilute or sidestep the facts of his life.
There is so much in his story that is illustrative of being caught in suicide’s dangerous cross-currents. This part vividly portrays how people begin to withdraw, hide in plain site, as I mentioned, and create a mask or façade to prevent others from seeing in and sensing the deeper, more tender, authentic aspects of one’s makeup.
I started having these conflicting feelings. I started being attracted to some of my friends. Some were girls, but some were boys. It was all normal, but I didn’t know. I didn’t tell anybody. That’s when a lot of it started. I started getting [withdrawn]. I couldn’t speak in front of the class without turning into a radish.
Withdrawal may begin in small increments, and from the outside it may not be easy to detect: little things left unsaid, eyes that don’t look up to meet your gaze, a faraway expression. A loved one may seem preoccupied—it seems s/he is somewhere else—or for a moment she shows a flash of irritation or anger, sadness or frustration, and then it’s gone, buried in silence. Speaking to him, you might get the sense that your words aren’t heard—that they fall flat or seem not to impact—or his words seem slightly out of sync, absent of feeling, not about what’s really going on. Often, one spends considerable effort to make things appear okay:
“I was just trying so hard to pass for normal.”
The “Withdrawal” is an identifiable stage as one descends into feeling suicidal. It’s complex process, with two complementary mechanisms. It offers protection, a cloak in which one can disappear, take refuge from overwhelming stress. Clinicians who are specialists in the field of trauma understand this to be a natural response. In a sense, it is nature caring for itself. On the other hand, the withdrawal often becomes generalized—a habitual posture of retreat from the world, which insidiously becomes a lifestyle and then a trap.
I made all-county and then all-state. I had a pretty good year, but it also put a lot of pressure on me. I’d imagine people wondering: “Why doesn’t he have girlfriends?” I put all my energy into sports. Not wanting to face my inner feelings, pretending I was too busy to do other things with friends. I actually took a girl to the prom. I knew she liked me, and I did have attractions to certain women, but toward the end of that year, the guilt of it all started really hanging on me. “Oh shit, man, how is this ever gonna work out?”
Ed was offered numerous football scholarships and chose the University of Pittsburgh, one of the best teams in the country. Almost, but never quite, outrunning his fears and anxieties, he entered into a near-Faustian bargain with the world:
I can play football. I can do that. And I can pretend, but please don’t let them see underneath. Looming over me was the big question: “Are they gonna know I’m gay?” I tried to live up to the beer commercials. I can remember my dad and his friend’s saying-—“faggot” this or “faggot” that.
Ed entered the ultra masculine world of collegiate football, with its rabid fans, intrusive alumni, and its single-minded obsession with victory. He was a young Adonis—strong, carefree, and sexually attractive. He represented heroic America at its best, and he did his best to throw himself into the role.
I played the game. I got tanked up and fooled around with some of the co-eds, and I enjoyed it, and I’d say to myself, “This was okay. I must not be gay. I’m not a fag!” I really hated those words and I really hated feeling this. Underneath, I was just very lonely. I wasn’t preoccupied with it all the time, but a lot, because it clashed with what I thought I should be. I wanted to be so much like others. I started communicating less and less. I [was afraid] it was like dominoes: if I ever communicated even some of my intimate feelings, it would [all] unravel and people would hate me.
The pattern had been established. Ed projected only the thoughts and actions that supported his idea of what he wanted other people to see. Everything else was censored.
I hated myself in many ways because I didn’t like this—this double life I was trying to lead. I liked to write poetry I liked to write things like that and be sensitive, and whenever a damn teardrop hit me, I’d say, “You fucking chump! What are you feeling that way for?”
He was celebrated on campus as one of the better football players, and when Pitt won the national championship, he was invited by the New York Jets to their tryout camp. His prospects soared and friends and family were pulling for the Ed they thought they knew. The adulation and his inner torment built to a near equal pitch.
Never in my life had I known such uncontrolled fear. Did I tip anyone off as to how I was feeling? No, of course not! At six-feet-six and 240 pounds, could Big Ed admit to anyone, even himself, that he was going under? I mean, totally losing it, and only partially being aware of the fact?
Each day Ed battled to resist his urge to relieve the tension and tell someone. He would not permit himself to divulge his secret to friends, but he felt he was about to explode. Agitated and confused, Ed made an anonymous phone call late one night to the university crisis center.
I remember going to a phone booth, looking up the counseling center number, and talking a little bit, saying, “Hey, I don’t want you to know who I am, but there’s a little problem. I think I’m a little bit queer or something. “ We talked just a few minutes—I don’t even remember what was said—and then I hung up. I remember it felt so good just to say it. And that she didn’t know who I was and didn’t care that I was well known or not. It felt so good knowing that somebody somewhere knows a little bit about me, even if they don’t know my name. It felt like it popped this internal balloon, relieved the pressure just to talk about it. I felt pleasure for months after that, but I didn’t realize and look closely that this was the way to go—talking about it. I didn’t capitalize on it and use it as a learning experience. I went back to football—back to the same stuff, the same old thing...(to be continued...)
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