On R.A. Dickey, Suicide, and the Last Taboo (Originally written Nov. 10, 2016)

CW: Suicide, sexual abuse, sexual assault

R.A. Dickey is no longer a Blue Jay.

I’m kind of heartbroken.

Yeah, the knuckleball hasn’t been knuckling and Josh Thole’s had a rough year and he’s no spring chicken and blah blah blah. He meant a lot to people. He meant a lot to me.

R.A. Dickey rocked the sports world in 2012 with his candid revelations about surviving childhood sexual abuse and a later sexual assault. In an acclaimed autobiography, he detailed the lasting impact this would have on his sexual and emotional relationships and how it informed his relationship with his wife and children. There was no shame, no apology. In that iconic, soft-spoken Tennessee twang, Dickey blew an age-old taboo to pieces and baseball was never the same. He received great praise for this act and rightfully so – I know people who’ve suffered sexual abuse and assault who credit R.A. Dickey with saving their life.

I am not a survivor of sexual abuse or sexual assault. I do not have PTSD. But Dickey’s fearless confrontation of another taboo saved my life and it’s something that has been curiously ignored in much of the discussion about him: R.A. Dickey once thought about killing himself. R.A. Dickey once thought about killing himself a lot.

The first time I made a plan to kill myself, I was seventeen. A particularly astute English teacher stopped me. I’d known kids who’d tried to kill themselves, known kids who’d succeeded. I understood then, as I do now, that suicidal ideation is so often borne of exhaustion. I was born with severe Generalized Anxiety Disorder and had my first major depressive episode at ten. I have Pure Obsessional OCD that causes minor seizures when I concentrate too hard. At seventeen, I was exhausted from living that way. I still am.

There have been peaks and valleys since then – mostly valleys. And while I was always able to talk about the depression, the anxiety, and the devastating impact my mental illness has had on my life and the lives of my loved ones, I could never bring myself to talk about that most persistent daydream. My doctor didn’t know. The revolving door of therapists and counsellors and social workers that I saw didn’t know. It didn’t seem worth bringing up. After all, I had asthma; suicidal ideation was as persistent and mundane for me as being short of breath when I go up a flight of stairs. I kept it a secret for almost ten years.

It was a secret I kept not out of shame so much as not wanting to upset anyone. Bell Let’s Talk would roll around or a celebrity would commit suicide and my social media feed would be full of the kind of “The saddest people smile the brightest” nonsense that neurotypical people think is helpful. And I’d see how profoundly unable my friends and family were to deal with the everyday realities of my illness. And I would keep my mouth shut.

And then I read somewhere – I don’t remember where – that R.A. Dickey once struggled with persistent suicidal ideation as a result of PTSD. And there were interviews, tons of them, where he discussed that struggle with no shame, no apologies, and most importantly, no fear that it might upset or unsettle other people. His wife knows. His kids know. His teammates know. It’s a part of his life that the people around him have to accept and come to terms with, the same as they might come to terms with a loved one’s diabetes. When I read his words, I saw someone who wasn’t ashamed of his suffering. I saw someone who had enough self-worth to know that he was more than a burden or a source of worry. I saw someone who was shattering one of the last taboos and was still loved.

We can (and probably will) talk about the legitimacy of the knuckleball and the merits of Dickey as a Major League pitcher. We can talk about the way he approached baseball as an art form first and a sport second, for better or for worse. We can talk about whether he’s a truly brilliant writer and intellectual or a Southern dandy gadfly who fancies himself one. We can talk about what he means to rape survivors and abuse survivors and people living with PTSD. I’m sure people more intelligent and qualified than I will dissect these things in minute detail as we look back on Dickey’s career as a Blue Jay. But right now I want to talk about R.A. Dickey living with suicidal ideation. I want to talk about how I finally told people about mine. I want to talk about how I am living without daily suicidal thoughts for the first time since I was a teenager. And I want to talk about how I owe so much of that newfound freedom to R.A. Dickey.

Good luck in Atlanta, R.A. Thank you for everything.

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