Suicide survivor given gift of colorful life

Isaiah DeHoyos couldn’t handle his grandmother’s death.

That day, Jan. 17, 2018, started him on a spiral that led to his suicide attempt 611 days later.

DeHoyos, a pure mathematics graduate student at Oklahoma State University, was closest with his grandmother. At one point, they were neighbors in Bridgeport, Texas, DeHoyos’ hometown.

“I have memories of her and I watching Disney movies together on her VCR,” DeHoyos said. “Or her and I picking pecans from her pecan tree and giving them away, or her coming to my graduation when I was valedictorian and her taking photos of me with a disposable Walmart camera when everyone else had iPhones. She was definitely a goofy one.

“It’s hard to choose one memory, but I think my favorite thing about her was her outlook on life. She has a very straightforward outlook in the sense of you do what you have got to do, you do it with the people you love and you will have a happy life.”

DeHoyos’ mom, Cecilia DeHoyos, said the death of his grandmother was devastating to him.

“I’m not sure how to describe it,” Cecilia DeHoyos said. “He was just to himself and did not say much. We could tell he was very heartbroken.”

DeHoyos learned the value of family from an early age while growing up in Bridgeport. He didn’t have a choice but to be close to his family when there were eight people living in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house.

“It was the eight of us always working together like machines,” DeHoyos said. “Like, getting ready in the morning all eight of us had a specific spot in the one bathroom, which was the size of a small closet. We knew where to go, and we interacted so well with each other even though it was so cramped. But these are the people that will have my back. It did not feel weird.”

So, when DeHoyos’ family found out about his suicide attempt, a wave of emotions overcame it.

“Being so far from him, I was very worried, devastated and then somewhat angry that he would try to harm himself,” Cecilia DeHoyos said. “It was hurtful because I’ve always told him we are here for him, and we have always supported him. So why would he think suicide is a way out when he has his family that has always had his back?”

DeHoyos slit his wrists, swallowed 40 pills and drank three gulps of bleach on Sept. 20, 2019.

The police found DeHoyos unconscious on his bathroom floor after a friend called them, worried because he wouldn’t answer his phone.

DeHoyos woke up in a hospital room, trying to not throw up. Hours later, he was handcuffed and driven three hours to a mental health facility. DeHoyos has no idea where the facility was. It was too dark to see outside.

There, he spent the next 16 hours in a room writing down all the prime numbers up to 1,000, watching TV and eating food worse than what can be found at a high school cafeteria, DeHoyos said. Then his mom picked him up.

Bridgeport is also where DeHoyos learned about the way society portrays men as the tough guys who can never show emotion. Keeping his emotions hidden is one of the reasons he was afraid to share another deeply personal aspect of himself: his sexuality.

Growing up in a family that was Catholic/Jehovah’s Witness, DeHoyos was afraid his family and friends might not accept him if they found out he was gay. DeHoyos always knew he was gay.

“I think I still have thoughts of, ‘Oh, maybe my life would be better if I wasn’t gay,’” DeHoyos said.

Even in middle school, before coming out, DeHoyos was bullied for acting gay.

“Kids would kick me out of guy’s locker room because my voice was too high,” DeHoyos said. “One time I was punched in the face for acting gay, and I missed the school bus that day.

“I think I associated that with showing my emotions. If I were to show my emotions, that is acting gay or that is not being a ‘dude.’ And that was so deep in my bones that it stuck with me.”

DeHoyos correlates these events with how he acted in high school, focusing on his studies and involving himself in extracurricular activities so it forced him to suppress his emotions and fit into society’s standards.

DeHoyos began to tell people he was gay in private his senior year of high school. He didn’t come out until June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal. Because DeHoyos’ grandmother didn’t have social media, she didn’t know DeHoyos was gay until she was on her death bed. His grandmother was unresponsive when he told her.

DeHoyos isn’t sure she heard him.

“Those were my last words to her,” DeHoyos said. “I told her that I was gay, and I loved her and I hoped that she still loved me. That was the end of the phone call.

“I know that if she was still alive, she would be proud of what I am doing. I know she would be proud of me.”

DeHoyos completed his undergraduate degree in mathematics at Oklahoma State University in May 2019 and immediately jumped into graduate school. Before he was accepted into the graduate program, he had to work three jobs to pay for school as well as complete his honors thesis, take graduate classes as an undergrad, be involved in organizations, deal with his grandmothers death and questioning his sexuality.

During his senior year, DeHoyos had almost the same class schedule as one of his best friends, Niki Heon, who is also in the same graduate program. They worked on homework together until 3 a.m. more than once a week, rarely slept and constantly forgot to eat. Heon said she and DeHoyos had an obvious change in mental health.

“All of this combined basically threw mental health out the window,” Heon said. “There was no time for that when we had advanced calculus homework to get done. Anxieties were uncontrollable, at least for me, and I know he had the same struggles, if not more. We used to give each other Bible verses to share some hope.”

Since his suicide attempt, DeHoyos has a more positive and hopeful outlook on life. When DeHoyos told Heon about his suicide attempt, he told her it was God giving him a second chance.

“Ever since that weekend, Isaiah’s outlook has been way more positive and hopeful,” Heon said. “He seems more free. When trials do come, he doesn’t let them let them knock him over. Instead, he works towards letting go of bitterness and towards being a light to others in any way possible.”

On Valentine’s Day, his friends tried to give some of that light back to DeHoyos by helping him see color for the first time.

DeHoyos found out he has protanopia, a type of red-green colorblindness, in second grade when his teacher realized he was coloring trees, grass and houses incorrectly. While hanging out Feb. 5 with his friend Aviyonna Harrison, a student at OSU, DeHoyos jokingly mentioned to her he wanted Enchroma glasses to help him see colors.

“I kind of just played it off,” Harrison said. “But that night, I went and made a group chat to get them for him.”

The group chat ended up with almost 40 of DeHoyos’ friends in it, all of whom paid $10 toward getting Enchroma glasses for him.

Valentine’s Day, about noon, DeHoyos’ friends presented him with his gift. Harrison posted the video of the reveal on her TikTok account in three parts. These parts have about 8.8 million views.

Heon said it was one of the most wholesome things she has witnessed.

“I love that he is loved,” Heon said. “I walked with him throughout such a low point last year, and this year, and seeing him receive this unexpected and unasked for gift from 35-plus people who truly love him really showed how much his friendship has impacted us and how much his care for those around him lights up out world. If there is anyone deserving of this cheerful generosity, it’s Isaiah.”

One member of the group chat, Glenn Coffey, said donating for the glasses was the least he could do for DeHoyos.

“It was so nice to be able to help a friend who we all care so deeply about,” Coffey said. “Isaiah is a great friend who truly deserves the world.”

Not too long ago, a friend asked DeHoyos whether it was so hard to believe there were people who care about him.

Now, DeHoyos does not have to believe someone cares about him; he knows it and hopes to use color to tell his story to people everywhere struggling with mental health.

“I think it’s a perfect metaphor,” DeHoyos said. “It’s like looking forward to the sunset after climbing a mountain, and that day is truly when I saw my first sunset literally for the first time in color. Now I look forward to the future all the time so I can see what colors await.”

news.ed@ocolly.com