Brent Runyon was 14 years old when he made a decision that would become a defining moment in his life: he set himself on fire.
His first book, "The Burn Journals," is the memoir of his suicide attempt in 1991 and the complicated emotional and physical recovery process.
Although this is a young adult book, it's more than just teen lit; it's a book about teenage despair and learning to recognize cries for help.
The story begins in February 1991.
Runyon was acting out a bit at school and was about to be pegged as the one who set a small fire in the boys locker room at school. Because no one got hurt, Runyon didn't think it was a big deal - until the teacher said he would find out who did it and make sure that boy was punished.
Rather than deal with disappointing his parents, Runyon made the decision to end his life. He had tried before - taking handfuls of Advil and cutting himself - but this time it was different.
He came home from school, doused his bathrobe in gasoline and lit a match.
"I take out a strike-anywhere match and hold it against the box. Should I do it? Yes. Do it. I strike the match.
Nothing happens. I bring it closer to my wrist and then it goes up, all over me, eating me everywhere. I can't breathe. I'm screaming."
Runyon's suicide attempt affected his family in ways he couldn't have expected, from his brother finding him and calling 911, to the struggles his parents faced to be with him daily at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he received care for the third-degree burns that covered 85 percent of his body. After months in the Burn Unit, he was moved to the Alfred I. duPont Institute in Wilmington, Del., where he stayed for several more months.
While in recovery, the family began therapy. Although Runyon is resistant at first to contribute - "You're all trying to figure out what went wrong inside my head. F***ing idiots. You'll never crack the code that's inside my head. You'll never get into my castle. You'll never even get past the gate." - he slowly realized that he has so much to live for and that his family really does care about him. The book honestly deals with Runyon's depression and how he learned to accept himself, scars and all.
When he finally was released from the hospital and went home, he was reluctant to return to his "old life." He worried that when he went out, people would stare at his compression garments or at the plastic he has to keep over his face to keep the scars from getting too puffy. As he wrote, "The only problem with seeing people you know is that they know you." Eventually, his family moved to another town where Runyon and his family could get a fresh start.
This book reminded me a lot of Augustus Burrough's "Running with Scissors" and James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" in that it accurately deals with issues surrounding depression and mental health.
While in therapy, Runyon was asked "why" he did what he did. And he didn't have the answer, because he didn't know.
He's a confused teenager who believes no one understands him - something that is relatable to anyone who suffered through middle school. And I think that is a strength of the book - remembering those awkward years where we all felt different and confused and unsure of how we fit into the world.
Despite all the serious issues raised in the book, there are funny moments, like when Runyon got to meet Magic Johnson at a special event and he realized he's wearing a signed Magic Johnson T-shirt, or when he worries about getting too "stimulated" during physical therapy when the young female nurses have to massage lotion into his upper thighs.
The important message to take away from the book is how we all can learn and grow from our mistakes - no matter how bad they are. "Before everything, I used to do this thing when I was upset - I used to take all my feelings and push them down inside me. It was like they were garbage and I was compacting it to get more in. I felt like I could keep pushing all my feelings down into my socks and I wouldn't have to worry about them. I don't think I do that anymore."
This is a difficult topic that will not appeal to some readers, but I definitely think it brings up issues that need to be discussed among families, classmates and friends. And Runyon's warning signs weren't so obvious, which is just proof that sometimes all it takes is someone paying attention and asking the right questions.
After "The Burn Journals," Runyon wrote two more books and continues to contribute to NPR's "This American Life" and as a newspaper reporter in Cape Cod.
He continues to speak out about suicide prevention.