By Courtney Ray
September …. always a mixed bag of emotions for people — the end of summer, a new school year, football is back, and it’s fall, with the limited season we have of it here in San Diego.
September is also Suicide Prevention Month. For me, it is now the month before Kurt Cunningham took his life by suicide.
Unfortunately, I am no stranger to suicide, whether accidental or with purpose; it has touched me too often in my life. Each time as shattering as the last.
For those who did not know Kurt, he was a member of our community dating back at least 20 years. He was many different things in the years that I knew him: a devoted son; a volunteer; an activist; an esthetician; a mental health counselor; his alter ego, “Summer Meadows,” was an Empress in the Imperial Court system; and yes, he could also be a royal pain in the ass!
For me, he was like a brother, and I affectionately called him “Sissy.”
In the early years, I knew that both Kurt and Summer did their fair share of substances, which weren’t exactly the best of choices.
Since I worked at a nightclub that really had to tow a hard line with regard to illegal substances, I kind of steered clear of that behavior, and those who indulged in them. And to be honest, at that time, I had enough drug worry in my own inner circle, I could not take on the worry of Kurt’s choices.
By around 2006, we started to become super close. He would often come visit me at my restaurant job and meet his various friends for lunch or happy hour. Sometimes he would bring his beloved mother, Lisa, in for lunch when she came down from North County. You did not have to look far to see how much he loved his mother, she was his world.
We would often sit and giggle and spill the tea about so many things; he loved a good shade session. I am so grateful for those memories and for the people who Kurt introduced me to, some really fine people.
For me, I can pinpoint the day when Kurt changed and first started into the downward spiral. It was after an event during CityFest; Summer Meadows was supposed to make an appearance, but Kurt did not feel like it. Someone he had been spending time with had broken things off and Kurt was devastated. He had a bottle of Jack Daniels in his bag and continued on that bottle until it was empty. He showed up, already half intoxicated, and the day just got worse from there. Things were never the same after this day.
It was a combination of many things that helped contribute to Kurt’s depression; the closing of his salon in North Park, the death of his mother, the death of two very close friends, drinking, and yes, a little more drug use.
In 2012, he attempted to take his life by stockpiling medications. This was not the first time he had attempted suicide, and like the past attempts, he was unsuccessful.
I know he was very unhappy that he survived, but after his initial hospitalization and recovery period, he seemed to be on the road to wellness. He was seeing his therapist on a regular basis, he was trying to find the balance with his meds, he was in a stable living environment, he landed his dream job … he was seemingly doing all the right things.
Boy, was I wrong!
In October of 2015, Kurt’s final attempt to take his life was successful. He had been planning this outcome for years.
In the eight-page letter that he sent to his closest friends, he stated, “A few years ago the the loneliness really started to affect me emotionally, and now that my mother is gone, the empty feeling in my heart is unbearable … The thought of continuing my life alone is too much.”
In the letter, he journaled his last days and really did think this through. He did go back and forth, but ultimately his dark thoughts won. He made sure he had enough medication this time; he did not want to survive.
“I don’t want the cause of my death hidden from the community, [because] depression and mental health issues are always swept under the rug,” Kurt’s letter went on to say. “I want people to be aware and not be afraid to seek help, or discuss things with friends before it is too late for them.
“I know most people aren’t really educated on mental health issues. Suicide is not selfish, please do some research so you all have an understanding of depression. To allow people to say suicide is selfish, is extremely disrespectful to that person who suffers from depression.”
While this was not easy to read or hear, I knew that this was what Kurt wished.
While I didn’t — and still do not — agree with his choice, I have had to accept it, and it has made my resolve even stronger to speak out about depression, mental illness and suicide.
Did you know that suicide is the leading cause of deaths in San Diego? Or that our suicide rate is nearly 50 percent higher than the overall rate in all of California?
Suicide can be prevented … start with listening and educating ourselves on the signs that point to depression, anxiety or mental illness. Therapy is a must.
There are many programs available for those that think it takes money to see a therapist, it does not!
It is also a misconception that talking about suicide makes it more likely to occur. The fact is, talking to someone who is at risk is often the best way to prevent harm.
We must all start erasing the stigma of mental illness and depression. Speak up and out, especially when you hear wrong information being dispensed. Our language is also very important. Take the word “commit” out of the sentence when describing death by suicide. Start with the smallest things and build your education from there.
For me, I always knew Kurt held his own fate, but that did not make his choice any easier. The reality that he is gone is sometimes hard to accept, and yet, we have to keep moving forward; there is work to do.
I just really miss him, now and forever.
—Courtney Ray has been a member of the Hillcrest community for many years. She is a “Friend of the Community” Nicky award winner, as well as a Peacock Crown Princess in the Imperial Court. She is currently a manager at Harley Gray in Mission Hills.