Someone I knew killed himself today. I didn’t know him all that well, but he was part of our circle at SAW. Mostly I’m worried about friends of mine who were very close to him. Just the same, it triggered something in me. See… I’ve witnessed a suicide first hand. It was shocking and caused me to have a breakdown, and not even 6 months later my best friend from childhood (who I had been unfortunately estranged from) threw himself off the Y bridge in Akron. The self same bridge I drove over on 3 separate occasions when I was at my lowest, wondering if I could find it in me to follow my old friend over the edge. Fortunately, the third time across that bridge I realized once and for all that I didn’t have that in me. In fact I pretty much knew then that I didn’t have a truly crazy act of any kind in me, just a lot of questions. Unfortunately I realized this after 24 hours in an institution. Oh, I had the depression, the fear, the self doubt, but not the courage or depth of madness to take that final leap.
On this day I was mostly worried about a friend of mine who was a lot closer (I mean an awful lot closer, profoundly closer) to the man who killed himself than I was… I barely knew him, but he had been part of my life since my first days in Gainesville. All the same, I wasn’t hurting for myself, but for my friends who were closer.
I never know what to say when it comes to this sort of thing, so I sent a string of emails to the person I was most worried about as I thought all this through. I opened up too much, again, I think this incident triggered a response in me from prior, far greater, traumas. Here is what I wrote:
“There’s a funny thing that happens after this… people always say “He should have reached out to the people who loved him,” and things like that. Problem is, one learns pretty quickly when one is in such a state that the last thing people want is to be around that, or to hear about that. And even if they are available, they don’t get it at all, and always say the wrong things. And the person in that state soon learns that they don’t want to burden others with it. So they withdraw and suffer alone. It can so easily spiral out of control. The fight can be fatiguing, but a person can’t let up, never for a minute.
The bottom line is, we all need to realize that mental and emotional illnesses are as valid as physical ailments, they aren’t just petty annoyances, but very real sicknesses that can be utterly debilitating. People will stay at a person’s side if they have cancer, but if they have emotional or mental issues… well, they tend to keep a healthy distance.
It’s a complicated mess, no one is to blame, and I think people have a lot of mixed feelings about dealing with another person’s depression or issues.
Sorry… I always ponder this after something like this happens, I’ve just never put it into words. Not even sure if these are the right words or thoughts… but they’re out now.”
And the follow up:
“Hope that wasn’t too much. But I’ve really do end up wondering about this after the fact… every time. Truth is, it’s all really too much for us to make sense of no matter how much we think about this stuff.”
“Having witnessed a suicide… this stuff perplexes me pretty deeply.
I was worried about you. Didn’t think you needed one more blow.”
And the final:
“On the other hand… I had once taken it upon myself to help my friend Meghan out when she hit rock bottom with depression. I lined up a therapist, took care of her… but soon learned she wasn’t willing to take care of herself, make appointments or take meds. So… what did I do? I kept a distance. Why did I keep a distance? Because I had witnessed the same patterns with my friend Phil… then years after Meghan, again with my friend Ryan (in Korea) who also had to be cut loose.
It’s a bitch.
None of the last few emails were meant to be negative… just sorting through unresolved thoughts.
I do hope you are taking this with as much a stoic spirit as your emails suggest. If not, call me, I’ve been around this bend from all sides.”
I was floundering in those emails, only hitting upon parts of the truth. There are people you or I or anyone could reach out to… the problem is… one often doesn’t know who they are. One often reaches out to the wrong people, which can simply make things worse. And having done that, one might learn not to reach out… thereby missing the right people to reach out to.
But, see, none of that really got to the heart of the matter, not at least so far as how this had hit me on a personal level–which is what this blog is all about.
The guy who killed himself always seemed so happy, so sociable, so kind, likable, calm and together. Every time I met him I felt humbled by his gentle spirit and easy humor. I always felt rather like here was a guy who really had it together, who had made the transition to adulthood with so much more grace than I had. To be perfectly honest, I felt childish, immature and emotional… like I just didn’t measure up. I sometimes shame myself for how poorly I seem to have adapted to adult life, to this culture, and to my place in it. I often feel totally lost. But not this cat, no man, he had it together… and people really really liked him.
Then I found out that he was an alcoholic.
WHAT! He was an alcoholic! No way! After being saddened by it, I thought: “Not that guy, he had it so together.”
Then I found out that after he moved away things were going badly, and if I’m remembering correctly there was even a really sad DUI incident.
And now I learn he has killed himself.
As the evening played out, I realized a number of things… one of which is that we just don’t know. We just don’t know the realities of the lives of the people we might compare ourselves to, or diminish ourselves before. Sometimes the people and the lives that we measure ourselves against, quite frankly, don’t measure up to our measurements. Things can be going on that we just can’t see, and we can’t imagine the pain other people might be in. And sometimes we have to accept that maybe we aren’t doing all that badly in life after all.
Be careful out there. Perhaps we do measure up, perhaps we are simply measuring other people (and ourselves) very inaccurately, or more urgently, we (or I) need to stop taking such measurements at all! We just don’t know, we just don’t know, but I know this… as it turns out, I’m not all that lost after all. And I’m determined to remember this lesson for as long as I live.
And I hate that I had to learn this lesson under these circumstances, but that’s the thing with lessons, they come when they need to come, and that, my friends, is that.