MOUNT OLIVE, Miss. — Nathan Pickering sat on a bale of hay in a field near his house and contemplated his death.
It was nearing midnight one summer day in 2015. He had sat there for more than an hour, shielded from the nearby road by a row of trees thick enough to provide solitude but thin enough for him to see the headlights of passing cars. Pickering had battled suicidal thoughts for two years. Overwhelmed and distraught, he decided to end his life when he got back home.
Pickering jumped off the haystack and walked through the trees, back to the road. He turned left toward home. Not once in the almost half-mile walk did he reconsider his decision, even as he strode through the yard, up the concrete steps, over the small deck, through the front door and under the three golden angels above the doorway. He walked past framed family photos, and his parents, Carla and Nathaniel, smiled at him from behind the glass.
He walked past the family’s dining room table and the living room with the two maroon recliners his parents always sit in. He turned into the kitchen, reached to the left of the microwave and grabbed a knife.
“When I decided to kill myself, it felt like the best decision in the world,” Pickering said. “I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. I wouldn’t be stressed about anything.”
Pickering was going to kill himself, right there in the kitchen in the one-story home his parents had owned for 17 years. He raised the knife — and then a voice in his head said, “No.”
Pickering put the knife down and walked to his room, past the recliners and the photos and the golden angels. He stepped into his bedroom, closed the door and fell asleep.
Nathan Pickering sits on a metal folding chair in a locker room at Seminary High School in early July. It’s hot and humid outside. Large fans blow cool air through the room. Pickering wears a white t-shirt and red sweatpants with white stripes running down either side.
Pickering is 6-foot-4. He weighs 290 pounds. He made 65 tackles for a loss and scored seven touchdowns over the past two seasons. He even kicked off in a playoff game. He makes good grades. This summer, he committed to play football at Mississippi State. 247Sports considers him one of the 50 best high school football players in the country, and he’s a member of the 2018 Clarion Ledger Dandy Dozen.
That’s not the story Pickering longs to share.
Fifteen minutes into an interview, unprompted, Pickering reveals the details of his past to two reporters he had never met.
“There’s been times when I’ve been suicidal,” Pickering said.
Pickering begins to tell his story. How he contemplated killing himself and, before that, dealt with an addiction to nicotine and marijuana. Before now, he has only told a handful of people.
Pickering hopes sharing his experiences can help somebody dealing with the same issues. He also hopes he can continue to defeat stigmas associated with mental health. NBA All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love recently shared their struggles — DeRozan with depression and anxiety and Love with a panic attack — now Pickering wants to as well.
Two months ago, tears welled in Pickering’s eyes when he read about the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, two icons who died by suicide within four days of each other.
“What if I had done the same thing?” Pickering said.
Suicide rates are rising throughout the United States, according to a study released in early June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The study said, “In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide.” According to the CDC, it’s the 10th leading cause of death in America today.
Pickering prays that if someone struggling with suicidal thoughts reads his story they’ll seek help. He wants them to know they’re not alone. He found happiness. They can, too.
Pickering’s cousins smoked marijuana. So did Carla’s uncle. All around him, people smoked. They also rolled dice. They gambled. Drug dealers, Pickering said, live near his home in Mount Olive.
“Anybody will sell you marijuana down here,” Pickering said.
When he was about 10 years old, Pickering wanted to participate. He wanted to feel included in a group of people much older than him. The first time Pickering asked to smoke marijuana, his cousin said no. Pickering begged until his cousin caved and handed him a joint.
Soon, Pickering started smoking cigarettes. He craved nicotine, and he craved marijuana. He drank alcohol, too. A day didn’t pass without him smoking something. (He said he never took a drug other than marijuana.) One night, his uncle got drunk and left two packs of cigarettes on the ground. Pickering snatched them and smoked one pack in two days.
Pickering hid his addictions from his parents. He knew his behavior was wrong, but he couldn’t stop. He smoked as far away from his house as possible. He’d pack clothes in a bag, smoke marijuana at his cousin’s house and change before he went home so the scent didn’t stick to his clothes.
The marijuana and the cigarettes and the behavior associated with them shrouded Pickering’s view of the world around him. He fought with his parents more, telling them he hated them. He questioned if they loved him, and his self-worth deteriorated. Suicidal thoughts crept into his mind.
“At that time,” Pickering said, “the only people I thought cared about me were the people I was doing drugs with.”
“Your son is riding up and down the road smoking cigarettes and everything else,” Carla’s mom said.
“No,” Carla said. “Not Nathan.”
“Yeah,” Carla’s mom said. “He is.”
Carla and Nathaniel never suspected their son smoked cigarettes or marijuana. She thought Pickering would have told her. She gave away her ticket and spent the rest of the festival in bed.
The day after returning from New Orleans, Carla ordered Pickering to walk next door to his grandmother’s house. She wanted him to fetch a cigarette and a blunt from her uncle. Carla once smoked marijuana and cigarettes, and Nathaniel had smoked cigarettes for almost 30 years while he served in the U.S. Army. They didn’t want their son to continue habits they kicked long ago.
When Pickering walked inside his grandmother’s house, Carla’s uncle handed Pickering a cigarette and a blunt without him asking. Pickering walked back home to find Carla and Nathaniel seated at the dining room table. Pickering put the cigarette and the blunt on the table and sat down. Carla told him to smoke them.
“No,” Pickering said. “I don’t want to.”
“Why not?” Carla said. “You’ve been smoking them.”
Carla grilled her son, and Pickering cried. He felt horrible for upsetting his parents. He thought he had committed an unredeemable act. His self-esteem already fractured, he felt worthless.
Pickering never smoked again, but he also believed he didn’t deserve to live.
“I always felt that guilt in my body that I did something wrong,” Pickering said.
Carla and Nathaniel didn’t trust their child — their only child — for a long time.
If Pickering went outside, they worried he was going to smoke again. Carla administered drug tests. She smelled Pickering’s breath, examined his fingernails and checked his lips. Nathaniel searched Pickering’s belongings for traces of marijuana or cigarettes. When both had to work night shifts, Pickering stayed with his grandmother. He had yet to start seventh grade.
Pickering enrolled at Seminary that August. He had played football since he was 5 and joined the school’s team. Soon, he met a girl.
Sadie Booth sat in the back of her Pre-Algebra class. She had met Pickering a year earlier when Pickering toured Seminary with his sixth-grade class from Hopewell Elementary School. Pickering had shaken her hand so hard it later brought her to tears. She remembered him.
A week into the school year, Pickering noticed an open desk next to Booth. He walked to the back of the class and sat down.
“He stared at me the whole time,” Booth said. “I finally asked him why was he staring at me? He told me I was beautiful, and it went from there.”
Booth and Pickering started texting each other. They began dating a year later when Booth texted Pickering and asked him out.
A few months into their relationship, Carla told Booth about Pickering’s substance abuse and suicidal thoughts, which he had shared with his parents not long after he quit smoking. But Booth didn’t break up with Pickering. She stayed with him and became his confidant.
Booth and Pickering formed a deep connection by helping each other manage the problems in their personal lives. He told her to pray. She found comfort in his care. They soon fell in love, and Pickering valued his life again. Booth gave him someone to live for.
“If she can love me,” Pickering said, “why can’t I love myself?”
At 10:30 p.m. that night in the summer of 2015, Nathaniel poked his head into Pickering’s room and said goodbye. He was going to work.
Knowing his mother was already at work, Pickering walked down the road to a field owned by a farmer. He used to trek across the field to reach the man who cut his hair, and he and his friends sometimes drove four-wheelers over the rolling hills. This time, he went there to escape.
Pickering and Booth had fought earlier that day. Sitting on a haystack, Pickering wallowed in his own self-pity. He hated himself for smoking cigarettes and marijuana. He hated himself for upsetting his parents. He hated himself for upsetting Sadie.
“I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on Earth anymore,” Pickering said.
Pickering’s fight with Booth triggered his suicidal thoughts, but his guilt had piled up over the years. One action motivated him to end his life. So much more led to his decision.
“All of a sudden a sense of hopelessness enters the brain,” said Dr. Dan Reidenberg, who has worked in suicide prevention for 30 years and is the executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “There’s no way through it, and it spirals out of control.”
But Pickering didn’t end his life that night. Instead, he lowered the knife. He still loathed himself when he woke up the next morning, but he didn’t want to kill himself. He decided to live, and his darkest moment did not become his last.
“It was God,” Pickering said. “It was nobody but God.”
More than a year passed before Pickering told his parents. Their potential reaction scared him. He thought they might put him in a psychiatric hospital. When Pickering told his parents, they questioned everything. They thought they had failed him.
“What have I done?” Nathaniel thought. “What haven’t I done? What have I said to him to make him like that? Was it me? Was I the cause of it?”
Nathaniel and Carla relied on their faith to provide answers and assistance. Nathaniel prayed. Carla spoke with their pastor. They are self-described disciplinarians with high expectations, but after that, they backed off.
“I didn’t want to lose my child,” Carla said.
The family communicated more. They sat at the dining room table, ate and talked about their lives. They wrote down things they wanted to know on a piece of paper and put them in a bowl, then pulled out a slip and discussed the question or statement on it. More than anything, they talked.
“I feel like (suicide) is something we can save our kids from if we talk to them,” Carla said. “I want them to know, him to know, any child to know, if those things are going on in your head, find somebody you can talk to.”
Looking back, Carla suspects Pickering had depression, but they never took him to a doctor or had him diagnosed — which is not uncommon. The CDC’s study examined trends from 1999-2016 and found in 54 percent of deaths by suicide, the person had not been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
A few months after Pickering almost attempted suicide, he stood in his yard talking on the phone with Seminary head coach Brian Rials. Rials told Pickering, at the time a 6-foot freshman defensive lineman, Ole Miss wanted to speak to him.
Rebels tight ends coach Maurice Harris called the house, and Carla answered.
“Son,” Carla said, “you just got an offer from Ole Miss.”
Pickering jumped up and down. He didn’t expect to receive a scholarship offer, but he said Harris told him the Rebels had been watching his film since Pickering was in seventh grade. At that moment, Pickering found the confidence he had lacked for so long. The scholarship offer gave him a direction. He committed himself to football.
“Football put his mind in a different state,” Nathaniel said. “He put his mind on football and fulfilling a dream.”
At the same time, Pickering devoted himself to Christianity. Growing up, Pickering went to church because his parents told him to wake up on Sunday morning — never because he wanted to. Early in high school, that changed. He believed God saved him for a reason.
As he improved his relationship with his parents and devoted himself to his faith and to football, Pickering’s suicidal thoughts dissipated.
“Now, I would never even think about killing myself,” Pickering said. “I know what my purpose is in life. I know whatever I do wrong, God will still love me.”
Pickering ushers at Lilly Valley Missionary Baptist Church on the first and fourth Sunday of each month. On this July morning, he wears a black suit, a white dress shirt, black shoes and a black tie. A rubber band holds his dreadlocks behind his head. Carla sits in a pew near the front on the right side of the church. She smiles and laughs often. A silver heart lies on her chest at the end of a necklace. The heart says “Mom” inside it. Nathaniel, a preacher, sits in a chair facing the congregation.
Early in the service, Pickering walks to the front of the church and grabs a brass tray for donations. As he moves down the aisle collecting money with his left hand bent behind his back, a song plays.
“The struggle is over for you,” the lyrics say. “You’ve been in this place long enough.”
Soon, Nathaniel leads a prayer. Pickering bows his head.
“Father God,” Nathaniel says, “we thank you for one more day.”
A few hours later, after performing in a praise dance group at another church and eating at Huddle House, Pickering stands in his family’s kitchen. Carla has gone to bed. Nathaniel is headed that way soon. Pickering has plans to go to the gym with Booth, who he will celebrate a four-year relationship with this month. He gave her a Pandora promise ring. They might get married someday.
“If I was able to choose who he would be with, it would be her,” Carla said.
In the kitchen, Pickering has been asked about the knife he almost used to attempt suicide. His family never threw it away. Pickering pulls the knife from a wooden block and places it on the kitchen’s island. He doesn’t associate it with suicide; he uses it to cut oranges.
It took years, but Pickering discovered how to cope with his darkest thoughts. He found purpose in football, a direction in faith and support in his family. Pickering never consulted a doctor or counselor — though his parents gave him the option — but he will always need to be aware of the inner workings of his mind. Suicidal thoughts can re-occur, especially in those who struggled with them before. Next year, Pickering will uproot his life and move to Starkville. The change could be turbulent. The family has not discussed it yet, but Pickering will have to find new ways to cope with stressors.
But that move is still a long way off, and there is so much left for Pickering to enjoy in high school. He will do just about everything for Seminary’s football team this fall. When he plays, Carla and Nathaniel will watch from the stands as children admire their son. Pickering will graduate in the spring, and when he does arrive at Mississippi State, he will become the first person in his family to attend a Division I college.
“He’s my hero,” Carla said, wiping tears from her eyes.
The knife rests on the surface of the island for a minute. Then Pickering picks it up and returns it to its place beside the microwave. He turns his back and walks away.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).