Remembering My Friend Who Committed Suicide in College, and The Lessons He Taught Me

My mother has always said that suicide is the most selfish thing anyone could do. For a long time, I believed her. But when one of my friends committed suicide during the first weeks of college, I began to seriously reevaluate what suicide means, and why people turn to it when times get tough.

August of 2009 was a terrifying time for me. I had just moved 600 miles away from my home in New York to Ohio to begin my first year of college. I spent the previous two weeks enduring waves of panic attacks over this big, new step in my life. What if I couldn't navigate my tiny, liberal arts college campus? What if my roommates didn't like me? How would I make friends?

Luckily, there was orientation; a structured, weeklong icebreaking program specifically designed to teach confused and overstimulated freshmen how to function without their parents shepherding them at every turn.

I wasn't sure how anyone could think that, much less say it. I hated how suicide seemed to invite people to speculate on the strength of a person's character.

During that week, the people in my orientation group became my first college friends. We'd eat lunch together every day, wave to each other as we passed one another on campus, and attend nighttime orientation events. One of the men in my orientation group was named Victor*. Victor was a tall, lanky black man who didn't say very much — but when he did, it was pretty hilarious.

During one of our orientation exercises, we passed around sheets of paper with different characteristics written on them. We were instructed to write down what sort of preconceptions or stereotypes we knew about different races, orientations, and backgrounds under each of their labels. We then each chose one and read the sheet aloud. Coincidentally, Victor got the sheet labeled "African-American." He read out all of the stereotypes our largely white group of nervous freshmen had written down, making a point to address each one in a humorous way. Victor turned what could have been a very awkward, divisive situation into one that made us all laugh and feel a little better.

By the end of orientation, I knew Victor would be someone I would be friends with. He seemed self-assured and undaunted by the prospect of a new beginning. Victor was the kind of person I wanted to surround myself with while I navigated the ups and downs of freshman year.

Two weeks into the school year, when syllabi were still warm from the printer, cop cars surrounded the oldest dorm building on campus, which was notorious for being haunted. Though we all brushed it off, thinking a party had gotten busted, an email from the University's president notified us that it wasn't. It stated that a student had committed suicide in his dorm room.

I can't remember when I found out it was Victor, but when I did, it didn't click. I had just seen him near my residence hall no more than a day ago. We were just together in our orientation group a week ago. How could this have happened?

I spent the following days in shock. Yes, it was true I hadn't known Victor for very long, and mourning him excessively would seem inappropriate. So why did I feel so sad? No matter how much I talked to my friends about it, I couldn't place it.

A couple of days later, the school organized a candlelight vigil, which was attended by the majority of the student body. It was then, as I proceeded toward the dorm where Victor had chosen to end his life in a shower stall, that it hit me. As someone who had battled depression for the better part of my adolescence, it was heartbreaking to see my compatriot, who I didn't even know was my compatriot, fall prey to the insidious, creeping sadness I had done my best to evade. If self-assured, witty Victor couldn't escape depression's grasp, then perhaps neither could I.

Weeks passed. Victor's family explained that he had been on antidepressants, which may have initially increased his risk of suicidal thoughts. Rumors floated around that he had been acting bizarrely in his last days. Hushed talks in dorm rooms and academic halls blamed Victor for his actions, asking why he hadn't gotten help before it was too late. I did my best to block it out.

I wasn't sure how anyone could think that, much less say it. I hated how suicide seemed to invite people to speculate on the strength of a person's character.

If Victor had died from cancer, would people be chastising him for not getting chemo sooner? Would they swap rumors about him going overboard with the Sweet and Low at breakfast, or chain-smoking cigarettes between classes? No, they wouldn't. They would just be sad that grave illness took another life, which is, ironically, exactly what happened to Victor.

When I hear people say that suicide is selfish, or speculate about Robin Williams' motives for taking his own life, I think of Victor. And I remember to refrain from the gossip.

College was full of many tests for me, all of which taught me different things. Victor taught me that we must make a choice to remember people the way they lived, not the way they died. I choose to remember Victor as a strong, funny personality — someone I am proud to have known. I was proud to be his friend, and I hope he was too.

* Name changed out of respect for the subject's family and friends.

Editor's note: If you're struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can reach the U.S. National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. International hotlines can be found here. You are not alone.