A teen-age girl's battle for acceptance ends in suicide
Elaine Seely woke with start that October morning. Exhausted after a weekend of work at her Euclid pizza parlor, Elaine had already been awakened once, when her daughter Nicole stopped in to say she didn't feel well, that she wasn't going to school.
Not an unusual situation, especially in recent days. Elaine nodded already falling back asleep. It was 7:45 am.
At 9:30, Elaine was roused again, startled by something. She headed toward her daughter's room to see if Nicole was feeling better.
Opening the door wasn't easy. "I pushed and I pushed and pushed until I could get in there," Elaine remembered. "I thought she was asleep because she was making heavy breathing noises and I tried to rouse her and I couldn't. I pushed the door in a little bit more and that's when I saw the blood." ·
Nicole was slumped against the door, blood seeping from a wound in her head. A self-inflicted gunshot wound. By 3:05 that afternoon, 15-year-old Nicole was dead.
"There was no way you could have stopped this. This was something I wanted and needed for a long time. I was just sick of everything and I needed to get away. "
Away from the comments. Away from the snide remarks. Away from the looks she received for being different.
Since she was in third grade, Nicole had "gravitated toward masculinity" --sporting a short haircut, wearing boy's clothing, acting like a tomboy. "I think she was stuck in a girl's body," said her father, Greg. "I think she actually would have been a good candidate for a sex change."
Such a life path wouldn't have been Greg and Elaine's first choice for their youngest daughter, their blossoming artist, their wannabe NASCAR driver, their award-winning bowler. They knew the trials Nicole would have to face -- but they also knew they loved their daughter. "It certainly wasn't going to be easy," her father said, "but we didn't discourage her. I took her to shop and get her hair cut the way she wanted."
But her peers at Brush High School in Lyndhurst weren't quite as accepting. "She pulled the trigger of that gun because she felt it was the only way she could escape the torment inflicted on her by her classmates," said June Lund Shiplett, a friend of the family. "Every day she went to school was torture for her, and she didn't know how to stop it."
Nicole stopped it the only way she could think of. On Oct. 13, the high school sophomore braced her father's .22-caliber rifle between her bedroom wall and her left temple and pulled the trigger.
"Tell (Vanessa) I love her and to always think of me and if she needs someone to talk to, just turn up her music real loud and start talking because I'll be listening.· "
School was indeed rough for Nicole. It wasn't always blatant -- but sometimes those whispers in the hallway cut sharper than a shouted insult. "She was very sensitive," said her sister, Vanessa. "She had a very soft heart. She would walk around with her head down a lot."
Life was different for Vanessa. With long blond hair and a perky smile, Vanessa, who was .14 months older, fits in better than Nicole. Unselfconsciously she admits that she belongs to the cool crowd, to "a higher class of people."
"I was friends with people not in my grade," Vanessa said. "My sister would get jealous of me." Not that she wasn't picked on. "People will pick on you no matter what," Vanessa said. "Even the cool people get picked on."
But that didn't stop Vanessa from protecting her sister, whom she called "Colie," when she was harassed. Different crowd or not, Vanessa had the warrior instincts of an older sibling. When she heard people picking on her sister, "I would yell at them" she said. "I would try to make them feel so stupid."
Even now, Vanessa stands up for Nicole. "So many people came up to me, saying how horrible they feel for saying things. I'm like, 'Good, you should'." she said. "l make them feel worse." But she also admits that Nicole's tormentors weren't aware of the impact of their statements. "It's something that everyone does," Vanessa said. "You really don't realize how much it hurts some people."
"I'm not scared to die. I'm just scared what might happen after I die. I hope I die instantly because I hate pain."
The hatred hadn't always been directed at Nicole. Although she occasionally had discussed her gender identity with counselors since she was 8 or 9, she got through grade school just fine. "I remember younger days when she seemed to be more openly happy a lot of the time," her father said. But those days were years ago.
"Within maybe the last three years she started to just draw into herself," her mother said, "She decided that her outside persona was more like a boy. She presented this to the world and said, 'This is who I am.'
"Because she was different they would tease her a lot. I guess some of them were really, really nasty when they teased her."
The problems stated cropping up in eighth grade, while Nicole was attending Memorial Junior High school in South Euclid. The Seelys moved to South Euclid the previous year, but seventh grade wasn't as torturous perhaps because Vanessa was with her.
When her older sister moved on to Brush, though, the harassment began. And it didn't end until that fateful October morning. "It wasn't just guys, it was girls, too, that were harassing her" Elaine said. "I really wish I had known to what extent she was-being harassed. I think one of the reasons why she didn't tell us was because she thought are would interfere and it would get worse."
"This is for the best and if you don't know that then I don 't know what to tell you."
So the dark-haired youngster simply kept her problems to herself. School officials were even unaware that she swallowed a handful of Tylenol in September, a move that sparked more counseling. "When I think of her, I think guarded," said Sue Cicero, Nicole's guidance counselor at Brush High. "Nothing ever surfaced as far as people mistreating her."
"I don't think we had all those pieces," added Principal James A. Irvin. "If we had the pieces, we would have acted on that information, I know that for a fact."
Nicole knew help was available, Cicero said. Brush has teams that deal with social and emotional problems as well as counselors and social workers. "If something comes to our attention, we move on it," Irvin said. "When it's done openly and someone hears it, we deal with it."
Since last school year, Brush has focused on diversity; this year, school started with a motivational speaker who spoke on accepting others. "When it comes down to it," Irvin said, "a school can't make kids behave differently. You can only make kids aware," he said, "Everyone is designed to let young people know that with their actions, there will be reactions. It's up to the community, to parents, to everyone to make kids aware what those reactions can be."
Part of Nicole's reticence might have involved a simple desire to handle her problems herself "She could take situations she didn't like and make them palatable to her," Cicero said, recounting conflicts that Nicole resolved.
"Give my junk to Carly And tell her sorry about the Aerosmith concert and I'll still see it, just not with her. But in her heart."
But confusion about her gender identity -- and the torment it brought about-- turned into something she couldn't handle on her own. Nevertheless, Nicole didn't share her confusion, didn't talk about the pain that others were causing.
Some of her pain may have been channeled into hard work; the meticulously drawn pictures in which she experimented with perspective and color. But it wasn't channeled into conversation. "I wish she had said something," said Carly, Nicole's best friend. "I don't think she knew how many friends she had. All my friends were friends with Colie."
In fact, many of those friends thought Nicole was doing fine. She had recently joined the junior varsity soccer team and seemed to be happier than she had been in a long time. "She fit right in with our team," said Coach Jayson Macauda "She got along with everybody." Such friendships might have been the only thing that kept Nicole from ending her life sooner.
"We were thinking that since she was on a team, it was great," her father said. "She was making friends, doing things with the girls from the soccer team."
"It may have kept her from doing it sooner than she did," her mother added.
"Don't think of it as an ending but a new start! Just go on with your life. You'll be OK."
But in Nicole's mind, a handful of friends couldn't make up for years of torment. And now those friends have to deal with the fact that Nicole is gone.
"I thought my sister would always be there," Vanessa said. It's just beginning to hit her: Colie won't be there to talk to, to shop with, to plan the future with. "I don't get to buy her anything for Christmas" Vanessa said. But moving on requires finding a ray of hope wherever possible.
Almost a month after Nicole died, Elaine Seely woke up again, this time stirring from a dream of Nicole. "She was just sitting there eating," Elaine said. "I told her, 'I miss you so much.' She just stood there with a big grin on her face."
"I know she's happy, wherever she is."
Doctors can offer help to confused teen-agers. Anger. Fear. Confusion. A combination of tormenting peers, gender-identity confusion and normal teenage angst can release a wealth of emotions that a youngster just doesn't know how to deal with.
"Life is hard for any teen-ager," said Dr. Sylvia Rimm, a child psychologist and director of the Family Achievement Clinic, at MetroHealth Medical Center. Adding gender identity issues to the mix only makes things more stressful.
"Teen-agers are so vulnerable," Rimm said. "They haven't established their own identity."
And vulnerable teens often express their own·fears by harassing others. "There's a number of teen-agers having these fears," Rimm said. "It's a kind of projection. The uncertainty that so many young people feel in their lives causes them to be mean to others."
People going through situations such as those involving I5-year-old Nicole Seely have to talk about it, experts said, Nicole received some counseling, but in the end, the confusion and lack of acceptance fueled her suicide.
"Also, sexuality is very powerful during our whole life," said Rimm. "During the teen-age years it's just awakening. These young people really need support, open minded support."
But it's hard, said others who've faced such crises, to know what to say. "I never talked to anybody about it because I didn't know what I would tell them," said Mitch, a 30-year-old man who began his life in a woman's body. "I was frightened. I figured I was the only girl who didn't know how it meant to feel like a girl.
"People have heard of being gay," he said. "But transsexual is so far from anybody's understanding. Most people don't get up in the morning and look into the mirror and question, 'Am I really a man? Am I really a woman?'"
"While homosexual people may be targeted in similar ways, transsexual people tend to stand out more," said Karen Gross, director of TransFamily of Cleveland. "They don't fit into gay or lesbian or straight," she said.
"But not fitting in isn't a reason to take your own life," said Dr Herbert Hendin medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "It was OK for Nicole to be angry," Hendin said, but her anger should have been focused on those who were tormenting her instead of herself, she was not to blame for being born the way she was.
"Her reaction should have been that the other people are ignorant," Hendin said.
“She should have felt a certain anger or contempt for them for being so ignorant. It’s such a shame that so many transsexuals take their own lives because they can’t cope with the inner conflict of the condition, but then you have the added burden of harassment and ridicule, in the end it’s all too much.”
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