Brent Runyon in the intensive care unit of Children's National Medical Center in Washington D.C. in 1991 with his mother Lin Runyon. This is the first time he opened his eyes after setting himself on fire and burning about 85 percent of his body.
When Brent Runyon was 14, he went into the bathroom and set himself on fire hoping to escape his depression.
“I go to schools now and talk sometimes, and what I talk about is that I made two decisions when I was 14 years old that changed the rest of my life,” Mr. Runyon, 32, author of “The Burn Journals,” said this week in a phone interview. “One (decision) was to try and kill myself and the second decision was to put myself out and walk out of the bathroom and to live.”
Mr. Runyon’s memoir details his recovery from the burns that covered 85 percent of his body. Some Northwest Georgia school officials recently took the book off library shelves because of its content.
Walker, Dade and Catoosa school officials are reviewing the book to decide if it should be available to middle and high school students.
This is an edited transcript of Mr. Runyon’s interview.
Q: Can you take me back and talk about the experience you describe in the book?
A: So, when I was 14, in eighth grade, sort of everything in my life fell apart all at once. I was doing bad in school and I had these feelings that I had disappointed my parents one too many times.
A particular thing that happened was that I was in gym class one day, and I was trying to sort of impress my friends in the locker room. I found a book of matches in the locker and lit the matches on fire and then threw it into the locker. There was a shirt in the locker that wound up catching on fire.
The teacher had told me whoever had done it was going to be expelled. To me, that was the worst thing that could have ever happened. My mother is a teacher and my dad worked at a university and that was like the worst thing that would have ever happened is getting expelled from school. Instead of getting in trouble for that, I decided to go home that day and kill myself.
The way I decided to do it — because I had tried to kill myself a number of other times and nothing had worked — I decided I would do something I couldn’t go back from and take a can of gasoline and pour it all over my bathrobe and light that bathrobe on fire, thinking really that I would blow up, just explode into a million pieces.
But what happened instead, when I actually did it, was probably one of the most painful things anyone can endure. It’s every nerve on my body kind of exploding. Instead of exploding into a million pieces it was just extreme pain.
Q: Why had you tried to kill yourself so many times?
A: Well, I think the larger issue is that I was probably pretty depressed.
I didn’t know there was really such a thing as depression. This was in 1991. This was way before there were Prozac commercials on TV. At the time I think even a large portion of psychologists didn’t believe that young adults or adolescents could be depressed, could suffer from depression.
I didn’t understand what was going on with me. I just thought I was screwing up in so many different ways that I wanted to die, or not so much die, but be out of the situation I was in.
I wanted not to have to feel the things I was feeling, not to have to feel so badly about myself. Although I had a lot going for me, in retrospect. I had a lot of friends. I did well in school up until the point that things started to go bad. That seventh- and eighth-grade year my grades started to drop and I was getting in trouble and getting suspended.
In retrospect, there were probably a lot of signs and a lot of ways I was showing that I was dealing with these things. At the time no one recognized that or didn’t recognize it for what it was, which was me slowly working my way up to killing myself in this very dramatic and terrible way.
Q: So that all happens at the beginning of the book? Is the rest of it about your recovery?
A: Yeah. The book begins on the day when I set myself on fire. And the entire rest of the book is recovering from that decision.
I don’t think a lot of people make decisions at 14 years old that affect the rest of their lives, but I certainly did.
The rest of the book is about the recovery process and healing my body and my life and then the book ends in the moment I’m going back to school for the first time. It is like things are moving toward being OK. I’m passing through the threshold of high school.
Q: How was that first day back to high school? Was it awkward and scary?
A: It was terrible. It was absolutely terrifying. Plus, there is this whole added silent stigma (about suicide). People would say things like, “Oh, at least you don’t have to wear a Halloween costume now.”
Q: How did you deal with that?
A: For the first maybe five years, I tried to make up stories or lies about it or not say anything. I’d say, “Oh, I got burned in a house fire.”
Q: What was your parents’ reaction?
A: You have to understand, they didn’t know what was happening. They didn’t see it coming at all. They had no idea I was depressed. They probably didn’t know that depression is something they should be aware of.
The first couple of weeks I was in the hospital, I wasn’t able to talk or even express what had happened. So they just thought maybe I had some sort of accident or someone else had done this to me.
Q: Didn’t you tell your brother about it?
A: I told him what happened at school but I didn’t tell him what I was about to do, so it didn’t make sense to anyone. Maybe they pieced it together, but I did have to tell them, this is what had happened and I had tried to kill myself before and I think they were really shocked by that.
The person I was on the outside to other people was much more — I played sports and was in drama club and had this reputation of being fun and funny and doing crazy things. But I don’t think people were able to understand how much pain I was in or how much I didn’t want to be the person that I was.
Q: What have you found out about that depression? Is it still with you?
A: It is something that I had to come to terms with. Writing the book made me realize this is something I am still dealing with.
I haven’t tried to kill myself since I set myself on fire, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t still suffering from depression because I was and I am still being treated for that. It is something that I still deal with and have to be kind of constantly aware of.
Certain times of the year are harder for me, certain stressful situations, my mind kind of switches to my default position, which has kind of a negative, “this isn’t worth it” kind of feeling, so I have to be aware of that and take care of myself.
Q: What do you think about the controversy the book causes? What age do you think the book is appropriate for?
A: If this book was in the library when I was 14, it would be the kind of book I would want to read.
Now do I think it is appropriate for 12-year-olds or 10-year-olds? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t give it to a 12-year-old, but I know that there are thousands of people who have read it that feel very strongly about it. It is able to express something that is very hard for them to express.
People write to me and they say things like, “You’ve saved my life.” I don’t really believe that and I don’t take credit for that but that is what they say. I think what the book does for people who connect to it, it kind of expresses something that most books don’t try to express.
It’s the feeling of being so alone and lost that all you want to do is end your life. At the beginning of the book, my life is so much better than at the end of the book. But the character at the end of the book wants to live.
Essentially, it’s a story about somebody who goes to the darkest place possible and then somehow figures a way out of it.