Losing Joshua

On January 30, He Nearly Killed Himself. On April 16, He Did. A 17-Year-Old's Suicide and the Questions Left Behind

 Phoenix, New York—Debra Graham sat at her dining room table on a recent Wednesday morning and riffled through a stack of loose-leaf notebook paper, each page covered with the tortured scrawl of her 17-year-old son, Joshua. Today's just another day/where I don't feel good/and if I could find another way/you know that I would. In recent months, Debra has spent dozens of hours studying Josh's writings—his poems, prose, song lyrics. She put aside one page, then glanced at another. Lately I've been hanging around/tired of life in this dead end town/It feels like I'm stuck/and I can't get out/I pick myself up/but I'm thrown back down . . .

To Debra, these worn sheets of lined paper offer a chance to feel close to Josh for a few extra minutes. Maybe, if she just reads and re-reads his words one more time, she'll find the answer she so desperately craves. Her question, however, may be an unanswerable one: Why did her son decide to loop a rope around a tree in the backyard of his father's house, construct a noose, and slip his head inside? Six months ago, on the morning of April 16, she got the call from her ex-husband, who lives nearby. Their son Josh was dead.

Every year, 30,000 people in the United States die by their own hands. While murders receive more attention in the media, a far greater number of people take their own lives than end somebody else's. Some years, there are three suicides for every two homicides. The vast majority of suicide's victims are male, and among 15- to 24-year-olds, suicide is the third leading cause of death. Often suicides happen in spurts. One pocket of the country will experience a rash of suicides, and then a spate of them will occur elsewhere.

Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.

In the last six weeks, three students at New York University have jumped to their deaths. Across the Hudson River, three people died by standing before oncoming trains on the tracks of New Jersey Transit. In central New York State—in Syracuse and neighboring towns—the number of teenagers and children who are killing themselves is alarming. Since the start of 2002, 17 young people there have committed suicide, compared with eight in all of 2000 and 2001.

News accounts of suicides often leave out the details of deeply troubled lives, implying that the individuals' decision to kill themselves was spontaneous and unexpected. In fact, suicide is an end point, usually, to a long and tortured struggle, albeit one that is hidden from public view. People battle the impulse to kill themselves, searching for a reason to keep living; friends try to convince them not to give up; and in many cases, family members fight to obtain mental health care for their loved ones—the proper diagnosis, the right medication—before it is too late.

After Josh died, Debra Graham built a memorial garden in the backyard to commemorate her son’s death.
photo: Jay Muhlin

The Grahams' pale blue ranch house looks like any other on County Route 6 in Phoenix, a rural village 22 miles northwest of Syracuse. There is a swimming pool in the backyard; plastic decals of pumpkins decorate the back door. Josh Graham used to live here, but now the house has only three full-time residents: his mother, Debra; her boyfriend, Dave; and Zeus, Josh's oversize golden retriever. Josh used to drive to school every day; now his car remains in the driveway. It's a battered Dodge Lancer, which everyone calls the "Kissmobile," since the driver's door sports a sticker for the band Kiss.

The house is almost always silent, though it never was when Josh was alive. He would bang around his room, stomp down the stairs, trudge across the floors. Howard Stern's voice blared from his bedroom every morning. Many evenings, when Debra returned from her job at a financial services firm, she would discover both the television and the radio turned on, and Josh hunched in front of the computer, wearing a pair of headphones and IM'ing his friends.

From nearly the moment he was born, Debra worried about Josh. When he was two, he used to bang his head against the wall and tear out his hair. A doctor diagnosed him with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD. Josh seemed to get better as he grew older, but then, when he was 14, Debra thought he was very depressed, and so she took him to a counselor. To people outside the family, his depression remained a secret.

In school, he was known as the kid who could make anyone laugh. Every time there was a chance to get dressed up, he went all out. Pajama Day, Toga Day, Hawaiian Day—he enjoyed them all, shopping at Salvation Army to pick out his outfits. On Pajama Day, he showed up at school in a pink bathrobe. He was a member of the Teen Spirit Club, too, which does volunteer work, including attending events at the local senior citizens' center. Josh would dance with the elderly women in their wheelchairs, wearing a top hat and bow tie and carrying a cane.

Next Page »