A Bit Off Topic

By | Tuesday, March 19, 2024 Leave a Comment
Content warning: discussion of suicides

Here in Illinois today, voting is underway for the Democratic and Republican primaries. It's basically an election just within a given political party to see who formally will represent the party later in November. And I find myself thinking about the people I've known who committed suicide. (There is a connection there that I'll make in a bit.) Officially, World Suicide Prevention Day isn't until September 10 but suicides can happen at any time, so I'm going to about it now as it's top of mind for me.

My first "encounter" with suicide was when I was sixteen. The brother of my good friend, Jim, his life. He was several years older than us and I had only met him very briefly twice. Consequently, I don't know what he may have been going through or dealing with. I really only knew the impact it had on my friend. He never talked about it much, but I got the impression that it came from some issues that his brother had been wrestling with for most, if not his entire, adolesence. But given the town and the era, I expect most people's response to his pain was, "Be a man and suck it up!" Which clearly didn't help. Jim seemed to manage our remaining time in high school reasonably well; I think he knew and at least internally acknowledged that his brother was unwell, so he was able to process that it wasn't anyone's "fault" per se. I've never been able to keep up with him, though, to see how he fared beyond high school -- he has a fairly common name so it's almost impossible to look him up. There are at least a half dozen people with the same name about the right age living in the same region as where we grew up, and he never struck me as the type to even consider signing up for any social network platform, even just to see what the fuss was about! Jim, if by some chance, you happen to read this, let me know how you're doing.

The way my college degree program was set up, pretty much everything after freshman year has us pretty isolated into our cohort. There were about 25 of us that took all of the same courses in the same order at the same time. I think we each got an elective during senior year, but otherwise all 25 of us were in literally every class together for four years. Obviously, some people got along better than others, but I think we were all pretty friendly with one another. There was one guy who seemed initially pretty fun-loving and care-free; Paul always had a smile on his face and was often making jokes. I did get to know him a little better during our the program, and later came to realize he was more of a manic-depressive type. He was able to turn on the jovial attitude for larger groups, but he could get a bit more somber when you were with him by yourself. A couple years after we graduated, I learned that Paul had moved out to California and one day just walked into the ocean. I didn't know him well enough to know what exactly he was going through, but I did know him well enough to not be overly surprised. Paul carried a darkness with him that you could only glimpse occassionally, and only after spending a fair amount of time with him. When I knew him, though, I was young and inexperienced enough to recognize that for what it was.

I only ever knew Gregg electronically; we never met in person. Initially, he helped me on my old FFPlaza website, writing issue reviews and such, but over time, we got to know each other better talking about work and relationship problems and forty-year-old TV shows and whatever else. He would occassionally disappear offline for a while, only to pop back up months later. Eventually, he confided in me that he suffered from depression and those times that he went silent were when things got bad for him. He repeatedly tried getting treatment but kept running into beaurocratic roadblocks that would sometimes prevent him from being able to go to therapy and/or refill his prescriptions. On one occassion, he tried committing suicide but was found in time and rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. But a year later, I found out from Gregg's brother that a second attempt was his final one. Gregg probably had the most "classical" form of depression-leading-to-suicide that's what most people would recognize, and I regret that we lived far enough apart that I wasn't able to see and act on that more directly.

Derek's passing was similar in that I was also physically removed from day-to-day life with him, but he ran into a different set of issues. He was a recovering alcholic, but I did not know that when I first met him. In fact, it wasn't something he ever mentioned to me one way or another. Like so many friendships, we originally met to talk about comics but little bits of our own lives would trickle in to the conversations and we got to know each other over time. However, when his father started showing signs of dementia, he moved away from his family to take care of him. Despite several other relatives living much closer already, none were willing/able to help at all and Derek felt responsible enough that he wound up taking on much of that burden himself. While this would be challenging for most people in the best of circumstances, his father's condition also meant that he got increasingly emotionally and verbally abusive. Without his normal support network -- his wife was still working at her job over 1000 miles away -- Derek returned to drinking and one day, after several months of this, effectively drank himself to death. His death was accidental, but again, with no nearby support network, he had no one able to check up on him.

Most recently, and why the primary elections have me thinking about suicides, is my friend Matt, who passed away in 2022. Of the five people I've noted here, I easily knew Matt the longest. We had more than a little in common and our discussions ranged all over the map. One thing I always found particularly interesting about them is how we would come at an issue with significantly different approaches, but arrive at similar, if not identical, conclusions. I might look at something with an economic outlook backed by my MBA and he might come at it from the perspective of political history, which was something of great interest to him. And with each of us looking at the same issue independently, we came up with different -- but decidedly complimentary -- reasons to come to the same answer. In the past decade or so of his life, Matt became decidedly more political. I suspect this had to do with his moving to Ohio and seeing how the politics were surprisingly different than his home state of Iowa. He was a very active participant in a variety of campaigns, helping local mayors and state representatives get elected that he felt could make things better for Ohioans. But after several years of that, and seeing first-hand how the political machinery actually operated, he found himself asking, quite literally, "What can I do?"

He asked that to me directly in a very non-rhetorical sense. He had spent years directly and actively helping to get the "right" people elected and helping to get "better" legislation passed, and came to the conclusion that what he did hadn't ultimately mattered. Not that he didn't help sway votes, not that his preferred candidates didn't try to do what they said they were going to do, not that anyone said he wasn't doing enough... but rather, he looked at the political machinery directly and eventually realized that it was so much bigger and more fundamentally broken than any elected official -- from the US President to the most insignificant alderman -- could do to make a meaningful difference. The political system was an almost sentient gaping void of corrupt power in and of itself; Matt stared into that abyss, and it looked into him. He wrestled for several years with how to come to terms with that and, ultimately, decided that it was meaningless. It would only end when it collapsed in on itself, and he didn't want to live in the inevitable chaos that would follow that. That typifies our biggest difference of outlook: he was more of a nihilist whereas I'm more of an existentialist. (Although both labels are a bit reductionist in this context.)

The reason why I'm listing these all out is that, from my decidedly third-party perspective, they all looked very different and only one of them -- at most -- looked anything like what I think most people would consider a "typical" suicide. After Gregg's death, I started trying to be decidedly more conscious and aware of potential warning signs people might be exhibiting, but because each one of these looked different, I have 100% failed in that capacity. I think that in many cases, particularly those where there's some level of significant physical separation, it's virtually impossible to pick up on potential concerns. It's easy to write off someone's depression as simple tiredness or temporary fatigue if you only see it in small doses, and many people indeed do try to pass it off like that. Or perhaps they acknowledge the mood, but dismiss it as being depressed (a temporary state) versus having depression (a mental disorder). Again, the two might be indistinguishable to an outsider with minimal exposure.

Everybody has bad days from time to time, and I'm not suggesting you start dragging someone to a therapist the moment they're not visibly happy. But please be aware that not everybody who's contemplating suicide look and acts the way you might expect, and it doesn't hurt to check in on any of your friends or relatives.

If you yourself are in need of help, please please please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. If you have recently lost someone to suicide, here are some resources that my friend Matt himself had posted right after his passing.
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