Brent Runyon's Story A Beacon To Others Who Suffer From Depression
By: Michael J. Rausch
Brent Runyon considers it his mission in life to reach out to people in distress—people in so much personal pain that they are considering taking their own life.
Mr. Runyon can easily identify with someone contemplating suicide because he tried it himself. The 35-year-old resident of Woods Hole was just 14 years old when he attempted suicide by lighting himself on fire.
“Most people are not defined by decisions they made when they were 14 years old,” he said. “I am defined by it.”
Mired in a depression that had already led him to attempt hanging himself, and to cut his wrists, Mr. Runyon left high school one day in February 1991 for his family’s home in Falls Church, Virginia, where he climbed into an empty bathtub, doused himself in gasoline, and then set himself on fire.
The pain was immediate and excruciating, he said. Survival instincts took over 45 seconds later and Mr. Runyon turned on the shower to douse the flames. The damage, however, was already done.
He said that he recalls the look of shock and horror on the face of his brother, who was at home and who found him and immediately called 9-1-1. Mr. Runyon said that he caught a glimpse of himself in the reflection of a kitchen appliance. “My face had been distorted, my hair was burned away, it was a total shock and it took me a long time to sort of come to terms with that—that is my face, that is who I am,” he said.
I’m sort of the sum total of those two decisions. I’m the decision to light myself on fire and the decision to put myself out, and both of those decisions together led me to right here, right at this moment.
His journey back from not just his near-fatal injuries, but the depression that led him to try to end his life, have been chronicled in Mr. Runyon’s autobiographical book, “The Burn Journals,” written in 2004. He has also given dozens of talks around the country and received thousands of thank- you letters from grateful would-be suicides. “I never thought that my experiences, my mistakes, would ever change someone else’s life, make it so they don’t make the same mistakes that I did, but that’s what people tell me,” he said.
Next week, Mr. Runyon will share his journey in a talk at the Jonathan Bourne Public Library. The event is co-sponsored by the Bourne library and the Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands, as part of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month for September.
“I think it’s a story that some people can relate to,” he said. “Everybody’s been to that darkest point where they feel like ‘I can’t go on’; my own personal experience, I took it one step further and did this horrible, destructive thing to myself,” he said.
Mr. Runyon said that many readers of “The Burn Journals” have told him that they have felt the same way he describes himself in his book. He said that the book provides them with a perspective into their own anguish and it gives them a feeling that they are “less alone.”
“I think that’s a huge piece of what I try to do with my story: just try and tell what I’ve been through, the decisions that I’ve made, the things that I’ve experienced and lived through, and how that’s shaped me,” he said.
The suicide attempt burned away 85 percent of his skin, and doctors had to piece him back together through a series of skin grafts, he said. He spent three months in intensive care in the burn unit at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, and another three months at the Alfred I. DuPont Institute, a rehabilitation hospital in Wilmington, Delaware.
“It took a really long time to recover from it; it was a year before I went back to school again,” he said. The scorching also burned away the pores of his skin, so he does not sweat. An avid soccer player in his youth, he said that now it is very hard to get a lot of exercise without overheating “because it’s like a traffic jam, all the sweat comes up through my head.” It also takes him a long time to cool down, so instead, he turns to things like swimming for exercise. He also walks a lot. He and his wife have a 3-year-old German shepherd dog who “drags us all over town.” “We probably walk like four miles a day on a good day,” he said.
Mr. Runyon’s affiliation with the Samaritans grew out of his work as a reporter with The Falmouth Enterprise. Two years ago, he was covering the police beat for the newspaper when he noticed a spike in the number of suicides. As he followed the story, he reported on 10 suicides in Falmouth that year, up from the yearly average of two.
“As a reporter, I had to sort of take a big picture look at it, but I was also feeling very emotionally connected to it because of my own history,” he said.
For his article on the sudden surge in suicides, Mr. Runyon went to several Samaritans meetings and wound up talking with the president of the Samaritans, Peter L. Clark, who invited him to join the group. He said that he had served on the group’s board of directors for about a year, but then found it increasingly difficult to devote time to the organization, so he stepped down. The Samaritans recently contacted him and asked if he would consider doing some talks, such as next week’s event at the Jonathan Bourne Public Library.
To learn more about Brent Runyon's story visit "The Burn Journals" website.
He said that he and the Samaritans have also discussed going into the schools and making himself available to students. He said that while he has spoken at schools and before groups around the country, he has not really done much here on the Cape. He said that he has made occasional appearances, such as one at Sandwich High School shortly after “The Burn Journals” was published, and he has given some talks through the Suicide Prevention Coalition, but he has not gone to a lot of schools.
“I would love to do more school visits,” he said. “It’s a really important thing to do; I really love it.”
Mr. Runyon said that the depression that led him to try to kill himself is something he continues to deal with to this day, and probably will for the rest of his life. “A lot of it’s probably just biochemistry, brain pathways, a tendency toward depression,” he said.
He said that writing “The Burn Journals” actually took him “back into that same dark tunnel” he was in at the age of 14, but having done some research, he realized that it was simply depression. “It is something that can be treated once you know that that’s what you have and you recognize the symptoms,” he said.
“I’m sort of the sum total of those two decisions,” Mr. Runyon said. “I’m the decision to light myself on fire and the decision to put myself out, and both of those decisions together led me to right here, right at this moment.”
“An Evening with Brent Runyon: Author of The Burn Journals” will be held next Thursday evening, September 27, at 7 PM, at the Jonathan Bourne Public Library. The event is free to the public.
Leave a Reply
In order to comment you need to be logged in.