A year ago in Huntersville, John Deem went downstairs for a cup of coffee and instead found a new way of looking at the world.
There, in his laptop, he came across an essay that his daughter Mary had written and left for him to read.
She called it, “I would have told you.”
It was directed at two area high school girls who had recently killed themselves, the same two deaths that gave Davidson its final push to confront suicide and start “Davidson Lifeline.”
In it, Mary Deem, 19, described what she’d learned from her own suicide attempt in 2010, what it was like “to have everything in you scream that you don’t belong in this world,” to eventually learning “the value of every day.”
Her words brought tears to her father. It also changed his journalistic take on suicides and mental health.
From that point on, John Deem started naming names.
He started with Mary’s. Her letter, and the details of her suicide attempt two years before, appeared in the Lake Norman Citizen, where John Deem is a senior editor. “I would have told you” soon became one of the best-read stories on the paper’s website.
Inspired by his daughter, John Deem began writing about his own battles with depression and the trauma of growing up in a household where his father beat his mother. With the cooperation of grieving families, he also profiled several of the suicide victims in Davidson and his own town.
And, he joined Davidson Lifeline, hoping that one day a similar mobilization will occur in Huntersville.
“We are about stories. We are about connections, and that’s what touches us about John’s writing,” says Lynn Hennighausen, co-chairman of the Davidson Lifeline committee.
“We’re trying to extend the conversation, if we can create a place where people can share their stories. Once we do, then we can recognize that everybody has one.”
Jaletta Desmond, a friend of Deem’s and Hennighausen, also did her part. Her daughter Jocelyn was one of the students who committed suicide last March, and Desmond wrote columns for DavidsonNews.net to mark the teen’s birthday as well as the anniversary of her death.
Deem says he always wrote with the approval of the surviving families. No one ever turned him down. Because he writes for a small-town audience, he says, many readers had already been touched by the tragedy before they read what he had to say.
“I think that it was important for me to acknowledge that this had happened and to humanize it a little bit,” Deem says.
“Here’s this person, with a supposedly perfect life, and it wasn’t, and you don’t know if another person with a perfect life may be going through the same thing.”
Along those lines, Mary Deem says she heard from a young person who was contemplating suicide before reading “I would have told you.”
Agreeing to have her experiences published “was a huge thing to let people know.
“But I felt like I needed to do it. There was this weight on me because I felt like, maybe, I could have saved those girls if I could have told them what I know now.”
Both Deems believe the time for parsing words is long past. Mary says she hopes to join Davidson Lifeline soon.
“I mean, they are taking this head on,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘We have a problem and we need to do this,’ and they’re not trying to hide this anymore.”
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