A lot of people on missing persons databases such as the California Department of Justice one are listed as “voluntary missing adult.” I’m not sure how accurate this is in a lot of cases, as it seems to be the default classification for any adult that goes missing and doesn’t have any serious medical conditions or any obvious signs of foul play. But I know many adults do go missing voluntarily. Or some of them just leave and aren’t aware that anyone is looking for them. Today I’d like to write about the “classic” cases—like the ones where someone goes out for a jug of milk, takes a taxi to the airport instead, hops on a plane to Phoenix and starts a new life with nary a word to anyone. It’s much harder to do that than it used to be, but it still happens.
I would consider this kind of disappearance to be a symbolic form of suicide. The two actions have a lot in common. Both the MP and the suicide are basically trying to obliterate themselves and their identity. They both seek to escape a life that, for whatever reason, has become unbearable to them. In both cases (I believe) mental illness and/or drug abuse is often a factor. And both dropping out of sight permanently and killing yourself are abominably selfish things to do, and leave your family and friends torn at the seams and feeling confused and guilty for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, I do feel some sympathy for most adults who choose to go missing, as I do for suicides.
I figure your life has to be REALLY bad before you are willing to simply drop off the face of the planet. Even if it appears good on the surface, there’s a lot of things that aren’t obvious to anyone other than yourself. Who knows what lurks inside a person’s head?
To give an example: a young man named Matthew Wilson, a native of Oklahoma, vanished without a trace from Houston, Texas in December 2007. He was a full-ride student at Rice University, one of the most prestigious schools in the nation. He was brilliant and hardworking. He got straight A’s at Rice, something that’s very difficult to do—a C really is a typical grade there, unlike most other colleges that practice grade inflation. He seemed destined for a glittering future in his chosen career, computer science. He also had a very loving, stable family. His father had died when he was very young, but he had two older sisters and a mother who adored him.
And then he was suddenly gone. He vanished during final exams week and never completed his coursework for two classes. His car disappeared with him, but almost nothing else did. He left quite a bit of money behind in his bank account, over a thousand dollars I think. For a missing adult man, there was quite a lot of press about him, because his life seemed so stable. He looked like the last person you would believe would run away.
But run away is what he’d done. Matthew was located eight months later in Berkeley, California, at the University of California campus. He was first arrested on a minor charge (I think he had a laptop with the serial number filed off) that was later dropped. Then he was committed to a mental hospital, as the police suspected he might be a danger to himself.
His mother was reunited with her son and later gave an interview with the press. She said she found out that Matthew had been deeply unhappy at Rice for a very long time. She didn’t say why, but I can guess—the pressure. Being a prodigy, an overachiever, is very hard to be, something I know firsthand. Everyone expects you to be brilliant all the time, perfect at everything, and you’re terrified that if you actually screw up at something (like every human being does once in awhile), everybody will be terribly disappointed and disillusioned with you. My guess, also, is that Matthew suffered from depression. He was apparently suicidal when the cops found him, after all. Having to keep up a rate of 100% success while being bogged down with depression…no wonder he burned out. No one had had any idea how he felt, and he was afraid to tell anyone.
It came out that Matthew had been living homeless in the Berkeley area since he went missing. For awhile he lived out of his car, then at homeless shelters and on the streets. He said he hardly had contact with anyone the entire time and certainly didn’t form any relationships. What a dismal and miserable time he had: sleeping in the bushes, scrounging for food. But he didn’t come back, he didn’t contact anyone. I think I remember that he even initially gave the police a false name when they found him. Whatever he was running from was apparently worse than living impoverished, anonymous, roofless, alone and far from home. He’d heard about himself in the news and knew people were worried about him and looking for him, but even that didn’t make him reveal himself. I hope he’s feeling better now. Last word is, he went home to Mom and they were going to try to work things out. Hopefully this included lots of therapy. Mom said he probably wouldn’t be coming back to Rice.
Obviously, I feel a lot of compassion for Matthew. But that isn’t to say I agree with what he did. He wasted thousands of dollars in resources from the police and other people trying to find him. He caused horrific pain to those who knew and loved him. If I were one of Matthew’s friends or a member of his family, I would be pretty angry with him.
I firmly believe that walking away from your life without a trace, permanently, is one of the most selfish things a person can do. On some level, it’s even more selfish than suicide. With suicide, at least your family and friends have a body to bury, and they can go and visit your gravesite, and they know what happened to you and can, maybe, come to peace with it. But when a loved one is just missing, that’s a wound that never heals. For the rest of their lives they will have to wonder what happened to you. Many times I’ve heard from the parents of missing children that it would have been easier if their child had died.
But I think when an adult runs away, you shouldn’t necessarily just assume the person is simply irresponsible and doesn’t care about those who love them. There’s probably a lot else going on that no one else will ever know.