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.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: I witnessed a suicide by Joseph Keogh at TEDxPSUBehrend
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.
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.
I was eventually found by the police, disoriented and confused. And their first thought was: “Dang, this college freshman definitely cannot handle his booze.” So he took me to the hospital and called my parents and eventually everyone realized that I wasn’t drunk or on drugs but I was having a PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) breakdown.
Now this sleepwalking incident was a wake-up call for me and my parents that I needed help, and that I wasn’t okay. And since my dad is a retired marine, we’re well connected with the military community. And we’re pointed in the direction of EMDR which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. And it’s a way to help our brains deal with trauma.
So I took a three-week leave of absence from school to go home to Virginia and start EMDR therapy. The first session was about an hour and a half and the therapist went over all the science of everything, which again I was into. She told me that EMDR is based on the research of REM sleep which is rapid eye movement sleep. And what happens during REM sleep or what’s theorized at least is your eyes are moving back and forth rapidly and randomly and you’re filing away all the information from the day.
So if you had a stressful day at work, your dreams might have some relation to that. Now REM sleep is almost like the visualization of what’s happening and those come out as dreams.
What was happening when I was dreaming was I was seeing June 15th in a different light. Now your brain during REM sleep is moving everything from your short-term to your long-term. And it kind of reads what it is, labels it and then sends away for filing. And it doesn’t always come across exactly in your dreams.
What was happening in my dreams was I was replaying the event over and over and over again because my brain couldn’t file it. It just kept trying to refile and refile. But it just wasn’t able to.
Now the way a typical EMDR session would go is the therapist would hold their fingers about 6 to 12 inches away from my face and swipe from my left peripheral to my right peripheral, back and forth. And they call this bilateral stimulation, because it stimulates both hemispheres of your brain.
She would tell me to put myself back into June 15th, back into the sedan and let her know what I was feeling and what was happening. And when I came to a part where I was upset or didn’t really understand what was happening or angry, she would input a sentence or two, and then we would swipe on that. And now I kind of cement that thinking into my head.
Now there were two really big problems that I was having with June 15th. The first was that I felt responsible for what the girls had seen. Now if you remember I turned left, but there’s a way to get home straight. And I thought that because I turned left that that was the reason the girls saw what happened that I was the reason they saw it. If I would have gone straight they would be fine.
The second was that I felt like I could have helped Jason. I don’t know what I could have done but I just wish I would have done something better for him.
What EMDR helped me do was realize that I could have done nothing better and that situation went the way it was going to happen.
Now with traditional talk therapy, you can say oh I’m fine; it wasn’t my fault; I’m okay. But you can lie; you can lie to the therapist and you can lie to yourself. What EMDR does is it really forces you to believe what you’re saying and thinking. Now one way to show this is when I’ve been researching EMDR, I found that people would start crying out of nowhere during the swiping. And I thought, no, no, that doesn’t happen to me. It happens to me.
We would be sitting there swiping back and forth and I would just start crying uncontrollably. It was like someone had taken a champagne bottle and pop the cork and all of that was coming out was everything that I had bottled away on June 15th. And now it was finally escaping.
Luckily, I only needed two EMDR sessions. Part of this is due to the fact of the neural pathways that I mentioned earlier and how when one gets used more it gets easier to follow. Now in my brain, the trauma only had time to set up a walking path through the woods that my brain could follow. But in other trauma victims, like someone who’s been to war or someone who’s in an abusive relationship, they might have a highway that’s been formed. For me all we had to do is take a rake and brush the leaves back over and my brain would forget it was there. But for someone else you may need to take a jackhammer to it and plant trees and wait for them to grow and that takes time.
Now, a little statistic on EMDR to show that I’m not just like a poster child. After on average of six 50-minute sessions, 100% of single trauma victims and 77% of multi trauma victims had zero signs of PTSD after. Now EMDR is just one of the ways that we’re learning about trauma and the way our brains process it. And who knows what science is going to bring us in five, 10 or 20 years. What I do know is that before this event happened to me I thought that trauma was just something you need to get over, just accept it and move on.
But what I realize now is that we have to help ourselves if we truly want to get past something. For months I was wanting to know why this happened? Why did Jason take his life? Why those two girls? And what I’ve learned is that some events in life just feel like a crappy movie, one where the last scene ends with more questions than answers. And do we want those answers?
But we can find peace even though we know we will never get those answers. I hope that you think about trauma differently than you did before and have a better understanding about how your brain process the world around you. And just remember that sometimes it needs a little help.
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