Opinion: One North Carolina teenager's story and how it can save lives

Photo contributed by Baker Burleson / William Burleson, left, is stands with his parents, Amy and Baker, at a ceremony to start his senior year in Charlotte, NC.

Meet William Burleson, a high school senior in Charlotte, N.C., graduating this spring, with plans to major in English and psychology in college. He's also training for a half marathon, plays pickup basketball, loves Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain and has been known to cheer for the Carolina Panthers. (I know. Don't hold it against him.)

He's also a writer.

At 18, William is trying to save lives through writing.

This winter, William touched the abyss and returned from it. Other teenagers - at school, church, the team, even your own home - are close to the abyss, as well.

His story is their story.

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Around midnight on Dec. 11, William was going to quietly slip out of his bedroom, down to his Jeep Cherokee and drive it - 75, 85, 95 mph - into a highway median. He'd already tried his dad's gun safe. (Locked.) He was leaving behind his fourth suicide note. (The ink ran out during the third.)

"My pain was intolerable," he would later write. "Suicide felt like my only hope for some twisted form of salvation."

On the outside, he laughed it off, creating a persona of carelessness; he stopped wearing his seatbelt, intentionally walked into traffic. I'm fine. I'm just tired. It's my senior year, who doesn't slack off? Or party? Or gamble?

On the inside, he was in free fall.

"I felt like two different people. One was charismatic, social and clever. The other wanted to kill himself every day. I did not want anyone to know about the second guy – so I tried to keep it a secret from everyone – including myself," he wrote. (William and I spoke multiple times over the phone and via email.)

Countless American teenagers feel the same way. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 10 to 34, reports the National Institute of Mental Health. Everywhere they look, teenagers see headlines that tell them their world is collapsing.

That December night, moving towards the window then his Jeep, something stopped him.

He saw his slippers. His old, ragged, beloved UGG slippers.

William Burleson inhaled.

Exhaled.

And walked towards his parents' bedroom, asking for help, deciding to live.

"I wish I could write about a profound reason that stopped me from committing suicide," he wrote. "A blinding flash of light or a voice from above. But there was no singular thought that compelled me to stay. Somehow the sight of my trusty slippers broke the siren song of suicidal ideation just long enough for me to reconsider. I do not really know why."

The abyss.

And the return from it.

After his parents - the unfathomably resilient and loving Amy and Baker Burleson, who did all the right things - embraced him, rushed him to the ER, then a behavioral care center, then residential treatment at a center called HopeWay, William slowly began to heal.

And he began to write.

William's always been drawn to words. One Christmas, his parents gave him a big book of Dylan lyrics. He studied it, marked it up like a coach with game film.

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On his way to HopeWay, he and Amy stopped by their house. As she parked the car in their steep driveway - as if the hill itself somehow represented the arc of that moment - he looked at her, tears in his eyes, and said: "I need to help other people."

In mid-January, William began posting a free Substack series of essays about his mental health journey.

It's his offering to anyone who needs help.

"For every one person speaking out," he said, "there are another 100 fighting in silence."

He calls it "Semicolon."

"When an author has the option to end a sentence, but decides to keep going," he writes.

He's posted eight entries - narrative form, themes and motifs, exquisite and vulnerable writing - with 2,500 subscribers, some 60,000 views, with hundreds of messages from readers near and far, his dad told me. A friend shared it with me; I knew immediately I wanted to share it with you.

"William, we have never met but I have just read your story. My brother just lost his 25-year-old son ... to suicide," one reader posted. "Your story will be such a blessing to my brother and to so many others, helping them understand the struggles of depression ... Your writing is brilliant and powerful."

"William, every word puts me in the room with you," posted another. "Your writing and vulnerability, your strength and honesty ... Your posts will surround countless others with slippers of their own - a moment to pause and ask for help."

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William uses a large whiteboard to plot out his series of essays. He writes from a place of hero's journey wisdom, having descended into the darkness and returned with light. William understands the dangers of today - the "wicked game" of social media, the "potency of modern marijuana," the "pressure cooker of catastrophe" that these past few years have delivered - while also seeing clearly the beautiful, saving love of others: nurses, doctors, his dad, his "angel" mother, friends and strangers.

"There are very few stories that are truly universal and can affect everyone," he said. "This is one of those stories that can save a life."

Thank you, William, for your life and writing, both of which are gifts to our world.

To sign up, visit williamburleson.substack.com.

David Cook is published on Sundays. He can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6357. Follow him on Twitter @DavidCookTFP.