Joseph Keogh: I Witnessed A Suicide at TEDxPSUBehrend (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Penn State Behrend freshman Joseph Keogh’s TEDx Talk presentation: I Witnessed A Suicide at TEDxPSUBehrend conference. In this TED talk, Joseph tells the story of how he witnessed a shotgun suicide of one of his classmates. This TEDx event took place on April 8, 2017 at Erie, Pennsylvania.


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Joseph Keogh – Student at Penn State Behrend

So it’s June 15th 2016, a warm summer day. I had just graduated high school and I’m riding the euphoria of all that comes along with going away to college.

Now, most stories start off with today was not a normal day but not mine. Today was anything from normal, from sunup to sundown. I cancel plans with my friends. I decide to not go to my favorite museum with my family. And I wash my car by hand. All of these actions are really out of the norm for me.

For whatever reason, I was home all day. And just after drawing off my car, I was in my room, not really doing much. And my little sister Allison comes in. She asks, “Can we go pick up Maddie from Jason’s house?” I say yes without really giving a second thought, and within a couple minutes we’re driving.

A little backstory on Maddie and Jason. Jason is a junior, goes to my high school, and he’s dating Maddie, a freshman who’s friends with my sister.

Now my sister likes to throw parties like any other teenager does. So I’ve gotten to know Jason a little bit. And what I’ve learned from watching him is that he is the center of his social group. He is the one that everyone looks to, to see what they should be doing, and if they like it or not. Now I’ve also noticed that he can get angry sometimes and has a hot temper.

When my sister first asked if we could go pick up Maddie, I said yes pretty quickly. And this was for a couple of reasons.

The first was that it’s kind of weird for me to pick up a friend from a boyfriend’s house. Usually I just chauffer for my sister from house to house.

The second was that I had heard in school about Maddie and Jason having some relationship problems, and that kind of set an alarm bell off.

The third was that my sister wears her arm on her sleeve, so it’s really easy to tell that she was anxious about the situation also.

So we arrived at Jason’s house and I parked my black sedan on the right side of the street, opposite from his house. I opened the car door and I stepped out into the warm cloudy afternoon Virginia air. And I noticed that Maddie’s sitting on the porch, which is out of place. Normally my sister’s friends just wait inside for a text or knock at the door.

But Maddie walks across the yard. I open the car door behind mine and she gets in. I shut up behind her.

Now at this point I have to admit that I’m really relieved that Jason is nowhere to be seen and that there had been no incident or altercation.

So I head back in the car, buckle my seatbelt, close the door and start a three-point turn to head home. The first turn was the left in Jason’s driveway. I put the car in reverse to back out and I look up at the house and noticed a figure in the doorway that wasn’t there before. I recognized him instantly from his red, white and blue American flag tank top. It’s Jason, and he’s holding a broom in his hand, it looks like, but as I take a closer look, my heart begins to thump inside my chest as they recognized the metal in wood as a shotgun.

I begin to think about what’s about to happen. My first thought is that Jason is just trying to show that he’s more manly than I am. I can’t hurt him. And the second but more scary is that he’s going to come out and show his anger through the firearm. And that’s what I act on.

I put the car in reverse and I back out of the driveway. I stop and I’m about to head home and I put the gearshifter and drive, and then park. Chunk… chunk… chunk… drive for getting away safely and park for getting out and trying to talk some sense into Jason.

I choose drive, slowly lift my foot off the brake and feel the car start to push into my back. I take one last look at the house to make sure everything’s still okay and I don’t see Jason anymore. But I see red, white and blue at about waist level and notice that Jason’s bent over like this. As I scan my eyes down, pop. I see what looks like a pink mist covering the door that Jason was standing behind. I’m trying to wrap my brain about what just happened and I forced myself to come to the conclusion that what I was seeing was Jason’s brain matter splattered on the door and the skylight above.

I hear a faint Joey something just happened from the backseat and I realized that I know something the girls don’t: Jason just shot himself.

My first thought is to get the girls away. I put the car in drive and begin to speed away across one intersection and maybe even two. I hear rustling from the backseat and next to me the girls are starting to panic. There’s rustling in seats, slamming on windows, so I locked the car to keep them in.

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I grab the phone and dial nine-one-one. The operator picks up and I have to utter the words: “I’ve just witnessed a suicide” and chaos immediately erupts inside the sedan.

As I’m trying to relay the information to the operator, like the address, my name, and for some reason my birthday. I get a faint look from my sister with tears in her eyes and asks if Jason is going to be okay. In order to keep myself together I have to look away.

I pull the car over and get out because I cannot keep myself together inside with those two girls. I know that I have to stay, at least, calm and collected to keep them there and away from that door.

I finish relaying the information to the operator and they say, “Hang on, the police will be there soon.” And then click. The phone line goes dead. And the operator hung up. And I’m all alone.

I stand outside in the familiar neighborhood of Vista woods knowing that I am the only one that knows what just happened. The whole world is oblivious. A car drives behind me. Someone is mowing their lawn off to my right, and I hear little kids playing to my left.

Everything is normal as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But I am stuck in a different universe than the rest of the world. In a movie when something like this happens, the screen goes dark and ominous music comes from underneath. But it’s not like that. I was scared and I couldn’t do anything about it.

Now I tell you that story because today I want to tell you what it means to experience trauma. Sorry. So there’s no real book on parenting as all parents know. There’s no textbook you can turn to, to know what to do next. And even if there was a textbook on parenting, I seriously doubt that any of the chapter titles would have been “What to do when your child misses a shotgun suicide?”

So my parents did the best thing they could think of and took my sister and me to a talk therapist in town the very next day. And we set up more sessions for that summer, and throughout that summer we told her what happened and our feelings and stuff like that. And it definitely helped but it didn’t help where I needed it, which was in my psyche if that makes any sense. I’m really into knowing where people are coming from in their thoughts, actions, and words. And I subject myself to the same analysis.

And over the summer, I was doing these intrusive thoughts and what I was coming up with was I was milking it. I was fine and didn’t need any extra attention. And I think a lot of people go through that. I thought to myself: “This event is in the past Joey; just move on and get over it.”

So I start school here at Behrend in the fall and on the surface everything’s great. But there were these little things that were happening that showed me that everything was not great. For instance, I would be in my dorm room or in a classroom, I don’t hear kids down the hall laughing and instantly I would think that they were crying. It’s really amazing how much hysterical laughter and hysterical crying sound the same.

I would blank out into this thousand-yard stare replaying the event in my head and would be scared over something moving or someone touching my shoulder.

And finally I would cry myself to sleep at night, not a sad or angry cry, just there staring at the wall with tears rolling down my face.

So I’m a bit of a nerd and I started researching what was happening to me. And I learned that your brain talks through the exchanging of charged particles through neural pathways. And when these pathways get used more, it’s easier for your brain to follow.

Now most people have heard of “fight or flight” and what this is, is it’s an instinct that happens when your body feels in danger. Your amygdala which is the oldest part of your brain takes control and tells the rest of your brain what to do and your body.

Now if there’s a tiger in front of you, you’re really not going to benefit that much from thinking: what am I going to do next? Oh what’s the tiger going to do next? It’s a lot more beneficial for your longevity if you fight the tiger or run away really fast. And that’s what the amygdala triggers.

Now my brain thought that the right way to act in a sad or scary situation was to do what my amygdala set on June 15th, which makes sense. It was just trying to protect me. But what it was actually resulting in was a torrent of emotions that I had never felt before.

Now despite all this, I was just telling myself: “Joey, you’re just a freshman. You’re just anxious about this semester starting to ramp up, and you’re homesick.” Now you know that part in a movie where things start to really get bad, this is that part. And the part where they really started to not get okay were my dreams. I was struggling to sleep without nightmares and eventually started sleepwalking. And one night I started sleepwalking, left my dorm room, left my building, and ended up eight miles away from campus, in rainbow flip-flops.