As I entered the woods with the pistol, the realization that my life was a 50-50 chance quickly sank in.
I was a 17-year-old child, and I was trying to decide whether my life was truly worth continuing.
I walked to one of my favorite spots on my family's land and began to deliberate. I cocked the hammer but my body froze up and I collapsed onto the ground.
Maybe it was the shock of the situation, maybe it was divine intervention. Call it whatever you want.
The point is: I walked out of the woods that day.
This is the first time I've talked about this incident.
In fact, my parents are reading about this for the first time.
You might wonder why I’m writing about this now. As someone with personal experience with this subject matter, it has become harder and harder to stay quiet when I hear of a young person taking her life. This isn’t something I want to write, but I feel it’s something I have to write.
As the Elizabethtown community continues to mourn the loss of 16-year-old Olivia Cook, whose July 2 death was ruled a suicide, I can't help but go back to that wooded area 11 years ago.
It is my hope that my story can reach those who are battling depression and help them understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I don't know what personal demons were haunting Olivia. But I feel certain I can relate with some of the thoughts that were in her mind.
I remember the feeling that my life had no worth, that I was destined for failure and no matter what happened in my life, there would be a gray cloud of hopelessness eternally hovering over me.
“Teens don’t have abstract reasoning skills,” said Marilyn Walker, the director of the outpatient clinic and assessment services at the Behavioral Healthcare Corporation office in Lancaster. “They’re still developing those in the adolescent years. For them, everything is right now and concrete. They feel like, ‘This is how I feel right now, and it’s never going to change.’”
While the thoughts I had in the woods that day have long since passed, I often think of what might have happened had my body not instinctively shut down.
As a teenager, I was infatuated with sports. Like Olivia, I was a high school athlete who showed potential. Sports was always a huge part of my life, and it wasn’t until later on that I realized that it provided a distraction from my inner thoughts.
Olivia was a rising junior coming off a promising sophomore campaign for the Elizabethtown softball team, which appeared in both the L-L League and PIAA District 3 playoffs.
Emily Brubaker was a senior on that 2016 Elizabethtown squad and remembers Cook for her determination to always get better.
“As a softball player, she was very hard-working and dedicated,” Brubaker said. “She was one of the best all-around players I’ve ever been around.”
But the outpouring on social media after her death reminded us that she was more than an athlete. She was a friend, a daughter, a 16-year-old girl.
“Liv was everything you needed or wanted in a friend. Whenever someone was having a problem, she was there,” Brubaker said. “She and her best friend, Jocelyn (Zook), would always be there to make you smile, even when you didn’t want to.”
But now she is being mourned by her team, her town and her family.
She leaves behind a collection of people who will miss her to a magnitude that cannot be simply measured in "likes" and "retweets."
“None of us expected it,” Brubaker said. “When I called some of my softball teammates and friends, we were just in shock and kept wondering if this was real and if this really happened.”
For me, it is easy to understand why Brubaker was shocked. I didn’t speak a word about my feelings right before my experience in the woods. After that, I remember first trying to talk to my friends about my personal troubles. Their advice to seek professional help had little to no effect on me.
After all, I was the homecoming king, class president and a varsity athlete. I ignorantly assumed that admitting I had any kind of mental issue would be a sign of weakness.
But what I did get from opening up was a better understanding that I was not alone.
I learned that the unlikeliest of people were dealing with the same issues I was. These were people who had futures so bright that it was impossible to see the darkness that surrounded them.
“It’s important to let them know in any way you can that there is hope and then try normalizing the situation," Walker said. “A large percentage of the population gets depressed sometimes, and the vast majority of them get better and they need to be reassured of that. Then it’s about making sure they are getting medical treatment starting with an evaluation from a family doctor.”
According to research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 percent of students in grades 9-12 seriously considered ending their lives in the year 2013.
I should say that I'm not trying to preach the typical PSA instruction of looking for warning signs in the people around you. Unfortunately, sometimes there are no warning signs.
My message is to the people who are dealing with these difficulties right now.
You should know that there are more people like you than you think. You should know that keeping all of your problems bottled up can cause you to not think straight and possibly make irreparable decisions. Simply opening up and talking about how I was feeling tremendously eased the pressure I was putting on myself.
“Think of how you felt when you were 15. This is your life, and everything is dramatized and everything is bigger than life, especially the challenges they go through,” Walker said. “Sometimes they feel like they don’t have anyone.”
I have found my support system in my girlfriend, friends and family, and I strongly urge you to find yours, professional or otherwise.
“I would definitely encourage people who are feeling that way to talk to somebody,” Brubaker said. “I feel like that was the biggest thing that a lot of us felt after this happened with Liv. We really wished we could have talked to her more about it or she would have talked to us.”
While looking for support, you may find yourself supporting others. You may even help someone else walk out of the woods.
Any time of day, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You'll be connected with a skilled counselor in your area.