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By Jeremy Grimaldi
Jan 29, 2015
Michael Barrett Mother mourns: Heartbroken Aurora mother Barbara Taylor holds a selfie of her son, Hilton Lee, who took his own life Jan. 14. He suffered from depression for years and shut others out of his life. Taylor hopes other parents can benefit from telling her tragic story of an unthinkable loss.
Barbara Taylor was never sure what came first for her son, Hilton Lee.
Was he bullied because of his pervasive anxiety or was it the childhood bullying that caused his social anxiety and eventual depression?
What the Aurora mom — struggling to cope with her son’s recent suicide at age 14 — does know is that before he entered elementary school, he was a happy and, by all accounts, sociable young boy.
“He had lots of friends up and down the street. The sidewalk outside our home was like a kid highway: there was lots of mud and chalk and time spent in the sun,” Taylor said.
‘As soon as I touched him, I knew there was no bringing him back.’
But by Grade 3 at Northern Lights Elementary School in Aurora, Hilton began displaying worrying behavioural signs.
He was suspended from school after punching a boy, a result of being shoved by the same boy.
A number of steps were taken after this incident.
His mother enrolled him in karate to channel his energy but it appeared he began to distance himself from other youngsters.
Karate certainly helped, but the worrying instances continued.
Before Taylor knew it, she was being called about instances where her son called a boy a “Nazi”, which eventually escalated to “f***ing Nazi”, a display of inner rage at a perceived injustice, his mother would come to understand.
These outbursts were followed by another call about a swastika Hilton carved into his school desk.
“His moods, too, were getting darker,” she said, explaining French class was very difficult for him as other children would often mock his French accent. “I’m not sure the teacher knew how to handle it.”
In Grade 5, Taylor began to notice “scratches” on her son’s arm. Although Hilton initially told his mother it was the cat, she would stop believing his excuses after a third instance.
“The injuries would heal, but he’d get new injuries. He was wearing short sleeves and he wasn’t hiding them, but I never got a call from the school,” she said. “I eventually realized this was not an accident and it was happening at school.”
Hilton explained the cutting — mostly done with paperclips and staples — was a way for him to “feel something”.
“Over a nice lunch, he explained he had difficulty knowing he existed because he couldn’t see himself through other people’s eyes,” she added.
In other moments, he would ask his mother to “help him die” or, during an argument, say, “Well, I didn’t ask to be born”.
Throughout Hilton’s childhood, barring his years before school, Taylor said she doesn’t remember Hilton being invited to someone else’s home or him inviting anyone to his home after Grade 3.
As for birthday parties, he often had them, although it was not uncommon for only three people to attend, if that.
When Taylor brought Hilton in for psycho-analysis at age 11, he was found to be working at a Grade 10 level, but was also found to have deep-seeded anxiety stemming from social interaction.
In the lead up to Grade 6, Taylor decided to switch Hilton out of Northern Lights and into Aurora Grove Public School and to put him on anti-depressants, after receiving advice from medical experts that he was at the age where he could carry out a suicide.
He also began seeing a psychotherapist once a week.
“I told (school administration), you’re getting a broken boy and we need to put him back together,” Taylor said.
Slowly, supported by a team of teachers, a new principal and regular doses of Prozac, Hilton began to re-engage. [note that this assertion is contradicted two sentences later – SSRI Ed]
He joined the school band, using his abilities to pick up new skills at the drop of a hat, to help others with their instruments.
Despite this, his isolation continued as he refused to engage and held “himself aloof”, as his mother put it.
The only respite he would receive was in the martial arts dojo, where a sense of structure allowed Hilton and the others to better understand their boundaries.
“If someone laughed at someone else, he would get pushups; if someone swore or they were clowning around, they’d have to drop and give the Sensei 10 (pushups),” Taylor said.
But not even karate would give him the emotional bonds he longed for from other children.
His mother explained the ‘heart-breaking’ story of how Hilton excitedly told his mother of a play date he had organized with other boys, only to find out that he was confused and had not been invited.
By 12, Taylor said her son had completely closed himself off to his mother.
“He would show me what I was allowed to see. I had to take whatever scraps he would throw me,” she said. “I was happy to get a complaint, because it meant he had relayed some of the day to me. The face he was putting on at school, he would change it to come home and change again to go to the dojo. He was judging himself very harshly in everything he did. When he would have a bad day, I’d knock on his door and think to myself, ‘Is this the day (I find him)?’.”
Despite the disengagement, Hilton was improving from what he had been experiencing.
His self harming was becoming less frequent until it reached a point where it had all but stopped and he was co-operating during his weekly trips to his therapist.
Taylor said to understand Hilton, one must first grasp who he was and what kind of sense of humour he had.
From an early age, he was intellectually beyond his years, becoming a beta tester of LEGO Universe in Grade 4.
Video games continued to play a huge role in his life, right up until his death.
They acted as a portal into the life of a “normal” young man, his mother believes.
“He had a social blooming on video games. He was speaking and playing games with people who were regular guys,” she said. “Some were older, some were younger, he just happened to be playing through a computer screen. He liked the way people talked to him online, it was like he was a regular guy.” As for his sense of humour, his mother called him a sassy, dry-humoured and wise-cracking young man.
His former high school classmates, who attended his funeral last Wednesday, told a story about how Hilton, the “quiet class clown”, was caught reading a book by the teacher in class when he was supposed to be doing school work.
When the teacher took the book away, Hilton pulled out another book and when that was taken away, he pulled out another and on it went.
His mother further relayed one of the last photographs of Hilton, which was taken after she yelled out that dinner was ready and that she wanted to see “everyone’s face at the table”.
A cheeky Hilton, likely engaged in his favourite online games, took a picture of himself with his headphones on his head and placed the camera at his table setting.
“I love that picture. That’s one of the few I have of him when he’s actually smiling,” Taylor added.
Not long before Hilton took his own life, he had almost convinced his mother that the years of struggle had paid off and he was turning a corner.
“He appeared to have stabilized — he had three 98s on his midterm. I remember thinking, ‘Holy crow, it’s working. He’s doing what he needs to do, going where he needs to go’,” said Taylor, a cheese seller at Sobeys.
It was not to be.
On Jan. 14, just a little more than two weeks after the family celebrated Christmas, Taylor was “completely blindsided” when Hilton took his own life, leaving her, his sister, Elena, and father, Jeff Lee, in absolute pieces.
Her worst fear became a reality after waking up in the morning and going to fetch Hilton for school.
After opening the door, Taylor recounts going numb when she found Hilton on the floor.
“It was just horror. I don’t know how long that second lasted, it was just horrible…horrible,” she said. “As soon as I touched him, I knew there was no bringing him back.”
Taylor does not wish to share the fashion in which he died, for fear of others doing the same.
However, she wanted to speak of the unfathomable pain his death has left her in.
“I keep waking up before my alarm, realizing the day is going to start and he’s not going to be there,” she said. “A good mom is supposed to keep her kids alive, that’s our job and I couldn’t do that. I keep wondering, ‘What did I miss, could I have picked up on something?’ I guess he decided enough was enough. It’s not a prank or a dream. He did not pop up and say, ‘Ha ha, I fooled you’.”
Taylor said she doesn’t blame anyone for her son’s death, but wanted to tell his story to help people better understand that sometimes all it takes is a kind word to help those suffering.
“Just don’t look away. If you see someone and he’s off in a corner and he looks like he doesn’t want to be disturbed, I don’t know, drop a candy in his lap, engage,” she said. She said a memorial on Hilton’s school locker was dotted with comments about attempts to engage him. To this she responded: “Just keep trying to get through”.
Taylor added that she doesn’t want to pigeonhole her son by blaming the Prozac or the bullying, the depression or a possible chemical imbalance.
“I can’t point my finger at one person or at one thing,” she said.
As for her own situation, she asks everyone around her, including her neighbours, to reach out and not to feel awkward speaking about Hilton or his passing.
“It’s very awkward. People don’t know what to say. I just want to say, ‘Don’t look away, we’re still here, it happened, we can’t forget,’” she said.
A police investigation into her son’s death continues with officers taking her son’s computer for analysis.
Any donations in Hilton’s name to the Canadian Mental Health Association would be appreciated by the family.
Taylor also requested that the Kids Help Phone phone number be published at the end of this article — 1-800-668-6868.