Several years ago, Robb Nash received an urgent phone call from a high school principal. One of the school’s students had killed herself and in her suicide note revealed that she and a friend had a suicide pact. She didn’t say who.
Nash, a Canadian musician was already becoming a popular motivational speaker for teens. He visited schools and performed his songs and shared stories about overcoming adversity. But now, the school asked if he could address suicide directly.
It was a subject Nash knew all too well.
Standing in front of that room of teenagers who were still reeling from the loss of their peer, he opened up about when he was suicidal. How, in his darkest moments, he had no longer wanted to live.
“I know someone in this room is having these feelings,” he said he told them, “You’re not alone.”
A girl approached him after and handed him a folded piece of paper. It was her suicide note. She told him through tears that she’d planned to kill herself that weekend, he recalled.
In that moment he said that he realized that in every school he visited there could be a kid in the room with a similar note, waiting for someone to reach out and give them a reason to live. Now suicide awareness is a cornerstone of his presentations. He shares his story and that of the other kids he’s met who once wanted to take their own lives. Hundreds of them have come to him afterward and reached into backpacks or pockets or wallets and handed him the suicide note they’d been carrying.
It’s their way of saying: I won’t be needing this anymore.
So earlier this month, Nash picked 120 names from those notes and had their signatures tattooed down his right arm. Now, when he gives presentations, he can hold up his arm and say, “Look, here are 120 kids who have those thoughts just like you and they’re still here. Your life isn’t over. There is still a purpose for your life.”
One of those kids is Taylor Bowman, who was 15 years old when Nash came to her school. Bowman kept a suicide note under her pillow for months. She had a bracelet she’d always worn that she planned to leave with the note for her mom. She said she was just waiting for the moment that would push her to take her life.
But listening to Nash, and all his stories of survival, she felt like she could survive too. She waited for all the other students to leave and she approached Nash. She slipped off her bracelet and handed it to him. “I don’t plan on leaving it for anybody, anymore,” she said she told him.
Because of Bowman, now 19, Nash had bracelets made up with a lyric — “just for today” — from one of his songs and gives it to students who hand over their notes, or the razors they use to self harm, or to those who are emotional after the show. The bracelet becomes a symbol of their breakthrough. Nash said he’s given out 20,000 of them.
“We’ve all got a story,” he said he tells the students. “I had voices in my head trying to take me out. There is someone out there who needs your story. You are going to meet a kid someday going through the same thing and you’re going to recognize it and you get to be that kid’s hero.”
Nash, a popular athlete in his senior year, almost died when he was 17 years old. He was driving his friends one night, speeding down an icy road feeling invincible as teenagers often do. He pulled around a car not seeing a semi-truck coming straight for them. He slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. He hit it head on. His friends somehow walked away, but he was unconscious, bleeding from his head. The paramedics on the scene pronounced him dead on arrival.
But in the hospital, doctors worked to save him. They rebuilt the left side of his skull, his right shoulder and his clavicle with steel bolts. When he woke up, he couldn’t remember what happened, just that he was in so much pain. The near-death experience didn’t provide him enlightenment. He just felt bitter and angry.
He couldn’t get a manual-labor job because of his injuries, and he couldn’t get an office job because he didn’t have the schooling. Once a jock, he could no longer play sports.
“Every option I thought I had was gone,” he said. “I had a lot of dark thoughts. I didn’t want to be alive.”
People were always telling him that “everything happens for a reason” to try to console him. But that only made him feel worse, like he was being punished for something. Then, about a year or so after his accident, his brother-in-law said the thing he needed to hear: “I think I know the reason you were hit by a semi truck,” Nash recalled him saying. “Because you were going too fast on an icy road.”
That’s when Nash realized he had control over what direction his life took. He began writing music and formed a band called, Live on Arrival. His band started to have commercial success; they were touring with bigger bands and had songs on the radio, he said. But he walked away from it all when given an opportunity to start performing his songs and telling his story in schools and prisons. So, he ripped up his record deal, he said, and embarked on what is now his life’s purpose: To encourage kids to discover theirs.
This is now what Nash does, traveling across Canada — where suicides are the second leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 24 — doing on average 150 shows a year to talk to kids about issues often too painful to face. He speaks openly and vulnerably about his own experience. This bold, confident rocker shows them that having emotions doesn’t make you weak. Those feelings can be a gift, he’ll tell them, if you channel them toward expressing creativity and compassion.
He’s created a community. Kids write to him openly on social media, and if one mentions they are struggling then the other kids who follow Nash’s pages will see it and bombard that kid with messages of hope.
During his presentations he shows videos and tells stories of the kids he’s met who once struggled too, and are now thriving. His main message is for the kids to know they are not alone.
And he now has his tattooed arm to prove it.
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