For My Friend

I've been putting this off.

It's painful, and part of me believes when I finish writing this post...well, that there's a finality involved.

But this needs to be shared. I made a promise that I would share this, and this will tear me up inside if I don't.

Last Saturday was a day full of emotions for me. My oldest child graduated high school. A lot of people see graduation as the end of a road...just like getting a black belt. The goal was set and has been reached! I learned long ago that getting a black belt is just the first step...a weeding out process. After you get that black belt, the REAL learning begins.

Now that my child has that metaphorical black belt, a world of possibilities is now open.

That's a big deal, right?

We live in a different state than my children from my first marriage, so we made a long road trip to celebrate graduation.

As it turns out, our trip coincided with another celebration.

Later that same day, I had the opportunity to reminisce with some old friends at the Unitarian Universalist church that I started attending right before my divorce.

I went back to that church for a Celebration of Life...what others would call a memorial service.

You see, a friend, husband, father, master of puns, and avid forager left us. He left us by his own hand. I'll always remember the day he left us. It was my 45th birthday.

Exactly how he left us is unknown to me. His family requests that the details not be asked about, and really it doesn't matter. This beautiful soul is gone from this existence and his memory lives on.

In a sense I do know why he left. It's because of something I myself am painfully aware of: depression.

Actually, it's one of the things that brought this friend and me together.

Early on after joining this church, our families became friends. They have kids close in age to my kids, so we would share the joys and commiserate as parents do.

A year or two into this new church life, an opportunity arose for me to make dinner for groups of people on Wednesday nights. That's when there were all the music rehearsals, meetings, and some people who just came for dinner and to hang out.

This friend had a great appreciation for my cooking. He always thanked me, he expressed eager anticipation about the next week's menu, and he told me on more than one occasion that I should seriously consider opening a restaurant. It was an ego boost and humbling at the same time.

Around that time, he approached me for the first time with an offer. I'm not sure if he sensed the depression in me, or if someone told him. He offered to listen, if ever I wanted to talk about what was going on. He said that he knew well what living with depression is like and he'd be happy to lend an ear.

He made that offer several more times over the years. I don't know as I ever really took him up on it. Maybe a few thoughts here or there, but I never really poured it all out.

That's the great irony with depression...mental health in general: we often feel shame at feeling the way we do, and don't want to burden anyone else with it. We turn it inward, and it grows and deepens. Often, we isolate ourselves too...which makes the cycle worse. We don't want to bring others down, maybe we think we should just be able to snap out of it.

You see, I worked on an acute mental health unit. I've talked with a lot of people living with depression, and a lot of those people exhibit suicidal ideation. There are two levels of SI. SI itself is having persistent thoughts that your family, friends, the world would be better off if I was dead. That's serious, but SI with a plan is even more serious: I'm going to end my life, and here are the details of exactly how I will do it. That's critical.

I used to tell my patients that most people (I would term it this way so as to not invalidate anyone's feelings), most people don't actually want to end their lives. Most people get into a severe depression, or are in extreme physical, or emotional pain and they want that pain to stop. Many see the only option to ending that pain is to end their life.

Keep in mind, I was working in a locked mental health unit with brilliant psychiatrists and social workers in case one of these patients needed immediate care. Talking about these matters is always delicate, and I’m glad my patients had a safe environment to express those feelings in.

Sometimes, people do like my friend did. My understanding is that for years he told his wife that one day he'd just walk into the woods and not come back.

I think that's what he did.

From the outside, it doesn't make sense. He has a beautiful wife, and beautiful children, and from the outside things seem pretty good.

It's never that simple with depression though.

From the outside, I have a beautiful wife, and beautiful children. We have a pretty good life, but for me, even when everything seems to be nearly perfect, often times I find myself pausing and saying to myself "What the hell's wrong with me? There is absolutely nothing I would change in my life right now...so why can't I be happy?"

And I'll let you in on a little secret: no treatment I have tried over the last 25 years has ever worked for me long term. I have tried a whole laundry list of antidepressants, anti anxiety, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, bipolar meds...I've even done something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation...an uncomfortable, sometimes painful series of magnetic bursts being directed into specific areas of the brain in order to jumpstart the correct neurons into firing properly.

None of it worked long for me.

So I've resigned myself to maintaining a spiritual, exercise, and music practice in order to manage my symptoms. Honestly, sometimes that doesn't work either.

I don't know what daily life was like for my friend. Admittedly, since I moved away, we kept in touch mostly through social media, sharing that mutual love for word play and puns. I never thought to ask how things were going. I mean, sure, there was the typical inquiries that friends do, but I never asked, "No, really, how are things?" with that compassionate, caring look that I saw in his eyes all those times he offered to listen.

Maybe on some level I figured that if he was offering an understanding ear to me, that he must have his own depression well in hand. Maybe that's just the story I tell myself because I don't want to admit that I'm a hypocrite. That I was out there helping other people with their mental health issues while I was barely keeping mine in check. Or that if I was paying attention, and not in denial about how my own depression was crushing me, that I could have seen that my friend needed help. Maybe by offering to listen to me, he was trying to help himself too. Maybe if I would have opened up to him, he wouldn't have taken that walk into the woods that day.

I know. That's wasted energy thinking that way. I know I’m not responsible for anyone else’s choices, but there's always that part of me that will wonder if I could have helped.

I had been thinking about him over the past couple of months. We went to a workshop on edible plants in Florida a couple of months ago, and the presenter wrote a book on foraging in Florida. I thought how much my friend would enjoy that book, and exploring edibles in a new place, but then thought it might not be practical since he probably doesn't get to Florida all that often. I didn't get that book for him, and I never thought that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to give it to him anyway.

We were driving through Georgia when my wife told me. A mutual friend sent her a text informing her the night before, not realizing our relationship with the family. My wife waited until she had a little time to process and ground herself so she could be supportive of me.

I've lost a lot of people. When I got the call that my Mom died, tears instantly poured down my face, but I never cried for anyone else right away until my wife told me our friend was gone. I just kept saying "it's not fair." Over and over again. And the tears did come. With all the loss I've experienced, I've never experienced one from suicide.

But in those moments after I learned of his passing, my friend gave me one last gift. I've experienced suicidal ideation, sometimes on a regular basis. In those moments as the thought "it's not fair" repeated itself in my mind, I decided that when it is my time to transition from this life, it will not be by my own hand.

As someone who's studied some psychology, and who married a psychologist, in the midst of a flurry of textbook responses, like flying through all of the stages of grief in a few minutes, that one realization remained constant: I will fight for every second of life. In those moments, I made that vow to myself, and my family, and my friend.

I don't know if he ever realized how much I appreciated his offer to listen back then, and in a sense he'll never know how precious his final gift to me is, but I will remember. I will remember and I will work to share my experiences so when others walk into the woods, they will come back.

Bright blessings in the next life my friend.