Our parent’s generation left Sri Lanka so their children could grow up in a better place without racism and violence. Little did they know that some of us would grow up in a society facing a different type of racism and violence.
I grew up in a housing complex where only a few South Asian families resided. There were things I saw and faced that my parents would hate themselves for if they ever found out. But I can honestly say that it saved my life and led me to become the strong individual I am today.
To this day, I have vivid memories of my friend, big brother and mentor, Chris. He was one of the gang members who lived on my floor, someone I ran into almost every day in the stairwells since I was too afraid to take the elevators.
He was also the first dead person I saw – when I was 7 years old.
I never understood why he looked after me the way he did. Yet despite living in a negative and frightening environment, I never felt afraid because of him. Even at a young age, he took the time to teach me a better way of life, the big picture. He saw the man in me before I saw it in myself.
And then there he was, laying in the stairwell covered in blood – an image I still see in my head almost every day.
A while later, I remember going home frequently with bruises on my face, my arms and my ribs. I never got bullied at school, but in my neighbourhood I was a constant target. I was alone and unconnected to the streets which made me an easy mark. I used to think that if Chris was still alive, he would have protected me.
After years and years, I stopped going outside. I avoided being seen until my younger brother started going through the same thing. Now, instead of getting bullied, I made myself the target so they’d leave my brother alone.
I got into fights and became isolated, paranoid, angry – lost in my head with an empty feeling growing in the pit of my chest. I didn’t know what I felt at that time, but it was a dark, painful and empty feeling that kept getting worse.
Some days it was so bad that I felt like I was drowning, unable to breathe. Most days it was hard to get up and go to school. I started self-medicating just to hide how I really felt and to hide who I really was.
The sober periods were when my friends and family realized that I was not normal and that I was not like them. But I thank them for still loving me no matter how different we were from each other. For 9 years, I managed to self-medicate and grow as a person with achievements. And I have Chris to thank for that.
At the age of 16, I started working weekends and holidays. Chris always told me to keep busy, make money and stay out of trouble. Working weekends and holidays was the best option for that. But no matter how busy I stayed, that dark feeling inside my chest never left.
When I started working security about four years ago, memories of my childhood came back to me. I worked in apartment buildings and housing complexes that were consumed with poverty, drugs, prostitution, crime, homelessness and violence. I saw things that I saw as a kid but never really comprehended at the time.
I could tell you numerous stories about working security in public housing – like when a prostitute came into the lobby after being stabbed by her ex-boyfriend and his friend, or gun and drug raids, drug overdoses and physical violence. My eyes opened up and the interactions I had with alcoholics, the mentally ill, drug users and dealers, gangsters, pimps, and male and female prostitutes helped me figure out who I was. Their stories and advice reinforced the things Chris taught me when I was younger.
Chris told me that wanting to be a gangster and living that life wasn’t worth it. Here I was, more than 10 years later, hearing the same thing from guys who had spent 25-30 years in jail for murder and other charges. Chris told me to always find a way to manage life one day at a time, and don’t stop until you find happiness.
Only now do I realize that if it not for Chris and all the things he talked about and inspired me with, I would have been just like everyone else. I would have let myself go and achieved nothing.
I spent years searching online to find out what had happened to Chris the day he died. But I couldn’t. All the details from my childhood were blurry, and I couldn’t find anything until I heard that suicides are never published or shown in the media.
Then it hit me. Chris wasn’t shot by someone else. He had killed himself. All those things he had said to me and did for me were his final good “deeds” – before he couldn’t manage anymore.
It all made sense now – from what he had tried to teach me to why I had that dark feeling inside of me. He knew that I was like him, and he had tried to help me until he couldn’t help himself anymore. He had tried to inspire and motivate me so that I wouldn’t end up like he would, knowing we both shared that same dark feeling.
I’d like to share a few things that Chris always repeated to me:
I met my happiness – my wife – in 2013. We were legally married in 2016. I got to marry my best friend – the one person in the world who is able to help, support and make that dark, painful, empty feeling disappear.
I used to be afraid that self-medicating by smoking and drinking wouldn’t be enough, and that I would need medication in order to be normal like everyone else. I now realize that I don’t want to be like everyone else. I’m happy to be me. I didn’t give up on finding happiness because without my wife and Chris’ words, I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be doing right now.
I now spend whatever free time I have by volunteering and mentoring young kids, hoping to be a role model who can inspire them the way Chris inspired me.
Don’t judge people or make assumptions about them. Don’t be afraid of who you are. Trust your experience and trust your struggles. Don’t stop until you find happiness. And when you find it, don’t let anyone take it from you.
– Samson Ravi