At the lowest point in my life, I almost did the most horrible thing imaginable.
I grew up in a chaotic and violent household. My mother tried to take care of my brother and me, but she too was a victim of my father, a violent and evil man.
My stepfather was not much better, replacing outright horror with drugs and crime. At 14, I was kicked out of my house for brawling with him. By 11th grade, I was a quiet, sensitive, obese social outcast with an affinity for poetry and comic books. I had no home and often slept outdoors; I felt alone and unloved.
The isolation and bullying eventually became unbearable, and at 16, having already dropped out of my Denver high school, I tried to reach out for help. I went to a mental health clinic I’d passed to discuss my anger and my suicidal thoughts. I had no idea whether it was the right place to go. I knew only that the sign said “mental health,” and I needed some help on that front.
I met with a very young “care provider” who did not seem trained to identify my problems and did not agree that I needed inpatient care. She sent me home.
Facing utter hopelessness, I snapped. I tried to get a gun; I wanted to take out as many people as possible — people who had tortured or ignored me — and then kill myself.
It was 1997, and I had two possible locations mapped out: my school and a mall food court. I wanted to be heard. The abuse I’d suffered had closed me off, and I wanted to feel an emotion other than pain. I wanted to feel, for once, like I was in control, even if that meant spreading destruction and death.
But two things happened that stopped me. First, I couldn’t quickly get a gun. The gun store seemed out of the question, because I was under 18 and raised with a deep fear of authority, thanks to frequent evictions, drug use at home and my own truancy.
So I sought a group of local gang members who gathered outside my school. They had dealt drugs to people in my family, and they knew I didn’t use myself, so they trusted me. They always talked about “being strapped,” and because I was not raised around guns, they were the only connection my young mind could imagine.
I approached one member and asked about a rifle, something that would let me inflict maximum damage in a small amount of time. The exchange was businesslike. He suggested that he could procure one, and we exchanged phone calls for three days.
But on the third day, something else stopped me — and altered the course of my life. I was shown love and kindness at a time when I felt there was no love left in the world for me, that I had no future whatsoever, that I was barely human. It came from Mike, who lived near my family. Mike and I shared interests and a sense of humor. He came from a loving, intact family, and his parents were kind and supportive. He’d stayed in school while I lived a life of evictions and fast-food jobs.
Despite our differences, he showed me compassion. He never once condescended to me because I didn’t have any money. No matter how bad I smelled from sleeping on pavement, or how much of his food I ate to get a meal that wasn’t stolen, no matter how much I cried and raged about my life, he never once left my side. Even when every other person in my world pushed me away — and they did — Mike never treated me like anything other than a person worthy of love and happiness.
Mike took me in that night, letting me sleep in his room against his parents’ wishes, sneaking me leftovers from dinner. He helped me wash my clothes and let me take a shower. Being my only friend, he knew how bad my life was. He did not know what I had planned, but he knew I needed help. He gave it to me. And it made a lifetime of difference.
All my problems didn’t vanish right away. A couple of months after my near-explosion, I was in a deep suicidal state. I had used up any couches I could possibly surf, and I was going to have to sleep in a field (not for the first time) on my birthday, with nothing but cold and loneliness to look forward to. So I’d decided to end it all.
I hadn’t shared my feelings with anyone, but someone was watching. Mike’s friend Amber knew me a little, and we’d hung out, though we weren’t especially close. Nevertheless, she invited me to hang out that night.
I expected to see a movie with her and Mike, then return to my solitude. Instead, she’d organized a surprise party, complete with a blueberry peach pie and a place to sleep. Her mom made sure I showered. Again, an act of kindness saved my life.
Eventually, I realized that my urge to destroy had nothing to do with the kids at my school or the random diners at a mall. My hatred and pain were directed at myself. When someone comes to believe he is worthless — as I had been told I was by my classmates, my father and others over many years — he eventually will believe it. It took being shown that I was indeed worth something, that I was a good person shoved into a terrible life, for me to get over that belief.
Mike helped me see that: When you are at the bottom, being shown that you matter can save you.
My recovery took a decade. Therapy helped, as I faced what had happened to me. All the abuse, every bit of the hurt I had been subjected to, was laid bare. The more you know about something, the less it can scare you, so I learned as much as I could about myself. It was an arduous road.
All of this was 25 years ago. I grew up, married and became a proud father. I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve overcome, and while I occasionally battle depression, I have a support system now. My life is no longer in danger — and neither is anybody else’s.
I do not say any of this to get attention. I’m not trying to advance a partisan anti-gun message, and I’m not trying to say that mental health is the only issue.
But if I’d possessed a rifle, I would have been a killer.
And if I’d known love, I would never have wanted a rifle.
So instead of seeing the outcast kid as a loser or a threat, regard him as a possible friend. Instead of running to the FBI when a troubled teen says something strange, ask him to lunch.
Give love to the ones whom you’d be most uncomfortable loving. They need it the most.
Aaron Stark, a stay-at-home dad, is a writer. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.