On Sources and Sadness and Suicide

RIP Hayes Ledford, a good man — and a friend

I’ve been trying to write this for days.

I guess it’s weeks now.

It still doesn’t feel real.

I keep wanting to call Hayes Ledford up. I want to ask him, “Hey, how bitchy do you want me to be?”

But I already know the answer. Because I knew Hayes, and Hayes was a political staffer and a lobbyist. He had to suffer fools on a professional basis, but off the record, most often, the gloves were off — in the most hilarious way possible.

I couldn’t decide if I should do a reported obituary and call all his other friends for comments. You know, the type of proper formal send-off he would have gotten if there wasn’t a decimated news industry and a pandemic and more than a couple of full-time reporters who even knew him. I thought about it, and I thought about it, and I knew I couldn’t do it. The prospect of sobbing on the phone while trying to take notes was too much.

To be clear: I did cry on the phone. I hadn’t known Hayes for decades, like some of y’all reading this, but he had been there for me in the past two years when many people were not.

My god, how I wish I could go back in time right now to repay the favor.

***

Hayes died on August 5, 2020.

Hayes killed himself. This is open knowledge.

Hayes was 47. He would have been 48 in October. He left behind two daughters whom he loved dearly, and dozens, probably hundreds, of friends and colleagues who felt the same.

None of us saved him. Not his former boss, former Gov. Don Sundquist. Not his former boss, former House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick. Not Erlanger Hospital, for which he formerly lobbied. Not all of the other prominent people he knew, and not any of the nobodies like me.

I’ve been open about my struggles with depression and anxiety since high school. I even gave a “senior speech” about it, just a couple of miles from where Hayes had graduated four years earlier, not that I knew him then. It’s never easy being open about one’s own mental health struggles (and I have the screenshots from awful people in this year of 2020 to prove it). But it is still somewhat easier to talk about mental health issues or to seek help if you’re a woman.

There are so many dumb things about our country — and this, Hayes and I did agree on — but one of the dumbest is how men are supposed to be strong and tough and suck it up and provide for their families, and if they don’t, then they’ve failed.

It’s not a failure to need help. It’s not a failure to get help. And it’s not a failure to go broke.

***

I know about going broke. (I know so much about going broke.) When I lost my job in July 2018, Hayes was one of the first people to text me about it.

Hayes never gave me money or anything like that, because he was struggling financially too. We never went into the details of how broke we were, we just commiserated about applying for shitty jobs. I started waiting tables in one of the most dysfunctional restaurants in existence last fall and would text him about the bad tips and infuriating management practices. He told me about the retail jobs he was applying for. He kept saying he’d come down and get a beer while I was working, but he didn’t.

It was so easy to cancel plans before pandemic, because we had all the time in world.

We joked about our awful experiences on dating apps in Chattanooga, too. Hayes never talked to me about his divorce — we weren’t that kind of close — but he made fun of me because I had “No Trump Voters” in my profile (like every reasonable single, liberal woman does). Sometimes we’d just talk on the phone and gossip all the political gossip and laugh and laugh. Hayes had that laugh. If you knew him, you knew that laugh.

Hayes, of course, was anything but a liberal. Although he wasn’t much of a Trump fan, he was anything but a Democrat. Hayes and I didn’t agree on a lot of politics, or on football either. He was a diehard Vols fan, as everyone who knew him knows. His funeral, which I surreally watched via a Facebook live stream, ended on “Rocky Top.” It was the only way for him to go out.

***

I know some of y’all, who don’t actually know me, are reading this flummoxed, like, “What, Cari was friends with a GOP lobbyist?” It’s so easy to think performative tweets are real feeling, right? And it’s also kind of weird when some sources actually become friends, but it does happen, sometimes.

Becoming friends with a source doesn’t mean that you run with every tip they give you or stop fact-checking things. It just means that you actually like that person and talk to them about things besides the stories you are working on. Like their work and their kids and their favorite football team.

Maybe there are a few journalists out there who can retain strict sociopathic boundaries with everyone to whom they talk. (Those are probably the same white men who refuse to vote.) But I’ve spent a long time cultivating both sources and my own empathy, and I am a better journalist and person for it. There are people of both parties who are terrible humans, of course. But most people are complicated and most people have deep streaks of kindness in them — even if they believe completely crazy things, like that the Vols are going to win a national title soon.

The night I found out Hayes died, I spent two hours on the phone crying with a different GOP lobbyist. She was crying too.

***

The last text exchange I had with Hayes (besides an “LOL”) was in April. It was about how badly Gov. Bill Lee was handling the COVID-19 response.

Hayes couldn’t stand Lee. He said he was either going to write in his good friend Scottie Nell Hughes or University of Tennessee Athletic Director Phil Fulmer for governor in November 2018. (I have no idea whom he did end up writing in, for the record. Scottie told me she didn’t think it was her. )

But this is the text from Hayes that I’ll always remember now, although I had forgotten it until he died. When I started waiting tables last summer, I (of course) complained about it on Twitter. Then (of course) a couple of trolls chimed in about how I was such a bad journalist because I was forced to wait tables, because I guess going public about your bad job with demanding physical labor so that your car isn’t repossessed or your entire household belongings in storage aren’t auctioned off is evidence of being bad at a field you chose before newsrooms got rid of half of their mid-career journalists (and that was before the pandemic).

That text got me through that shitty shift and that shitty day and that shitty month and that whole shitty fall last year. And I am so sad and so angry that Hayes didn’t reach out for me to return the favor this summer. I’m so mad at myself for not knowing how hard he was struggling.

I think the last time we talked on the phone was early May. He was frustrated about not being able to even get temp work. I don’t know why I didn’t call him over the summer. I was busy with work. I was drowning in pandemic panic. I saw his Facebook pictures where everything looked ok.

I didn’t know it wasn’t.

***

Hayes killed himself almost exactly a year after one of my favorite musicians did. I wrote about that last summer. David Berman was a musician on the Drag City label, and here’s what they posted after he died:

We hope that everyone who feels the same way, who has thoughts like the kind that led David to this, please stop what you’re doing and take them very seriously. Talk to someone about them. Stay with us. We count ourselves among those on both the speaking and listening ends of these conversations, and these feelings are not foreign to us.

It can be okay. Very likely it WILL be okay. It was okay so many times before.

Call the 1-800-273-8255. That's the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Here's a link for resources outside the USA.

But also, in the very likely chance you are reading this on your phone, know that you are very, very likely already in possession of dozens (maybe even hundreds) of suicide prevention hotlines. These are the numbers of your family members, your close friends, and who knows, maybe even casual acquaintances. Whether they are aware of it or not, and whether you are aware of it or not, they are all waiting to hear from you. And possibly to be heard by you. If not, do you really need them in your fucking phone?

Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death between people among 35 to 54, according to the CDC. Men are 3.7 times more likely than women to kill themselves. But depression is treatable. I know. Or I wouldn’t still be here, writing this. And if you need to talk to someone, please reach out to me and I will try to connect you with better resources than me. No one wants you dead. No one.

***

I have a few friends who have contracted COVID-19 so far. One of them almost died; the rest have had comparatively mild cases, and for that I feel very lucky. But COVID-19 killed Hayes Ledford just as surely as if he had contracted the virus.

Politics was Hayes’s life, and politics killed him.

Hayes killed himself because he was struggling emotionally but also because he was struggling financially. If the U.S. Senate had passed a second round of stimulus checks earlier in the summer, Hayes might still be alive. If the Tennessee Legislature, his former employer, had passed expanded unemployment benefits or any kind of economic stimulus instead of wasting their time trying to trump each other’s Trump support, Hayes might still be alive. If this state had a livable minimum wage, paid childcare, or expanded Medicare so that mental health treatment was easily available — if all of these pro-life Republicans actually cared about anyone’s life after they left the womb, Hayes might still be alive.

You’re damn right I’m mad, and you’re damn right I’m going to politicize his death.

“The party let him down,” a very Republican (and very pro-life) mutual friend texted me a couple of weeks ago. “We don’t live up to the ideas we champion. And we’re losing our friends because of it.”

I’ll miss you, Hayes Ledford. And I’ll really miss fighting with you about how much and in what ways Tennessee needs to change to save more lives like yours.


I know there hasn’t been much writing lately. I got a new full-time job — writing, just not writing political journalism — and then pandemic brain, in addition to so much else. But you can still send me tips! I’m on Signal, Confide,  Twitter and Facebook, or you can reply to this email.

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