The Great Re-Set: Part 3: The Unexamined Life…
Suicide. The word still brings a chill when I hear it spoken.
I remember the day when I got the call. I had just returned to work from summer vacation. I remember the hesitation, the anxiety, the evasiveness, the urgency in my friend’s voice as she delicately informed me that she had news, but preferred to relay the details to me in-person, indicating that she would be driving up to have dinner with me that night. Since her social calendar was usually booked solid and she lived two hours away, I knew this would not be glad tidings, and I was not one to postpone urgent matters.
I persisted, telling her that whatever news she had to relay, I could handle it, and that it was silly to drive all the way up here when she could just inform me by phone. I could sense her resolve weakening, and I reassured her again. Even though I had no basis for the thought, in my mind, I knew that something terrible had happened to Michael*. He’s been in a car accident, seriously injured, in hospital, I thought. Just tell me, the voice in my head demanded with growing impatience as she continued to discuss logistics related to her impending drive up. Finally, my rapid analytic thinking, wild imagination, and increasing anxiety made an unfathomable hypothesis.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I blurted out in a matter-of-fact, ostensibly unemotional, detached tone, as if, like a police officer or trauma physician, I were somehow accustomed to presiding over such events. I waited, breathless, for her response.
“Yes, he’s dead. Took his own life last night”, she finally conceded. And then, tentatively, “Are you ok?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” I answered automatically, ever the one to manage a crisis by trying to impose calm amid chaos. “There’s no need for you to drive up here tonight,” I continued, “though I appreciate your concern.” In reality, my mind was racing and my immediate external world became distant, almost tangential, an amorphous reality. When our conversation ended, I just sat at my desk numb, in stunned silence. I did not cry, I just wanted details. I needed to review and evaluate the evidence for her outrageous claim. What time did this happen? By what means? How did people find out? Is he really dead? Where is his body? How could this have possibly happened to someone like him? Someone I thought, no matter how bad things became, he would always emerge from his crises. He always had, or so I had thought…
In that instant, life as I knew it had changed and would never again be the same. Innocence was lost in that moment. Life really was finite. That youthful disregard for time and belief in a seemingly endless supply of days was gone.
Less than five years earlier, I had lost a close relative to cancer. It was devastating, but the impact on me was different. It had been a lengthy battle, there was a steady decline, the outcome was sadly not unexpected. The family had had time to prepare themselves. In the case of Michael, there was no obvious warning: one minute he was living and breathing, larger than life; the next minute he was gone, reduced to nothing but basic atomic elements in the form of ashes in an urn.
I now understood the intent of the discomforting lesson a former professor had attempted to teach our class of health professional students many years previously. She was an older professor, perhaps approaching emeritus status, and she was clad all in black like a sister in habit when she appeared as a guest lecturer. Her message was about death and dying, and her basic question to the class was, given the choice between a slow death or a quick death, which would you choose? We all shifted uncomfortably. After a few minutes of allowing us to contemplate, she presented her own choice: a slow death. Why? Because it’s much easier on loved ones than a sudden death.
I don’t remember much about the rest of my day at work. I just know that I had made it through the day without tears or any outward signs of distress, and then had gone directly home. I had a piano lesson that night and resolved to keep it. When he had politely asked how my week had been, I remember telling my piano teacher rather perfunctorily that a close friend had committed suicide the previous night and then proceeded to play my assigned pieces like I had every other week… When I returned home, I remember speaking to my little sister by phone that night while hovered over my toilet scrubbing the bowl, and then spontaneously letting out what could only be characterized as a wail of heartbreak, uncorked from the recesses of a very tightly-capped bottle. My uncontrolled, emotional reaction caught my normally rational, stoic self completely off-guard. I’m still supposed to be in shock, I remember thinking. And, and more importantly, I was also not entirely convinced this news was to be believed. So, just what was it I was reacting to?
A completely irrational, unjustified emotion. The sad truth is that there is often very little one can do to prevent a person, intent on taking their life, from doing it. And when it comes to males in particular, they more often than not accomplish suicide, because of the more violent means with which they select to harm themselves compared with females. Nonetheless, I was a health professional. Someone with a degree of training in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental distress. I was supposed to save the world, save Michael. In my mind, I had failed in this duty to care for my patient. Except, Michael wasn’t my patient. He was my friend. Any attempts at critical evaluation would have inevitably been obfuscated by the personal biases or subjective rationalizations we have or make about our loved ones that serve to confound and shape our opinions. In short, we cannot be wholly objective with the people we love, which is why doctors, for example, are not permitted to care for family members.
Another sad reality was Michael and I had drifted apart. I now lived in a separate city, and I had only maintained loose contact with him over the past 2 years. Yet, he was still my friend and I still thought about him often. We would usually get together whenever I came to town. Over the years of our friendship, we had shared many intimate conversations, and so I believed I knew him well. Knew him well enough to know what level of burden he was able to personally bear.
If he was in so much emotional pain, why didn’t he reach out?
I last saw Michael two weeks before he took his life. I was in town for a wedding, and had suggested we meet up and have supper downtown. We had not seen or spoken with each other in months. I was somewhat nervous about seeing him again after the way we had left things, but I felt compelled to reconnect. I was back in town afterall…
I remember being somewhat surprised by the way in which he initially greeted me: an unusually tight, lingering embrace accompanied by, “I’m so glad to see you.” As if I were a long-anticipated soothing balm or emotional refuge… Ours had been a complicated, sometimes stormy friendship and I had learned to doubt the meaning behind actions that I might otherwise have construed as bearing the slightest hint of romantic intent in tone.
In all the years I had known Michael, I would never have characterized him as a happy-go-lucky person. He was anything but. A complex personality, fiercely independent, Michael was deeply intellectual and reflective by default. He was a problem-solver by nature, and over the years, he’d certainly demonstrated his considerable proficiency for solving quandaries big and small… He had family and friends who loved him. A great career. Seemingly everything to live for… Yet I can distinctly remember observing very early on in our acquaintance an underlying sadness in his eyes that revealed an uncensored vulnerability beneath that tough veneer, which had only endeared him to me more.
The supper we had — our last supper — was poignant. I saw a level of defenselessness that I’d not witnessed previously. On retrospect, there were emotional undertones and conversational cues that signalled all was far from well. And yet, the possibility that my friend would not get through his troubles (as he always had) — that he might take his own life — was so inconceivable to me as to not even enter my consciousness.
I remember the first time I asked someone if they were thinking about harming themselves. It was a role-playing exercise, part of my training toward becoming a residence assistant (RA) during my undergrad at university. On the surface, it looked easy. As I watched successive pairs of RAs-in-training play out the scenario to the larger group, I couldn’t understand why the people playing the role of RA or counselor were struggling so. Then it came to my turn. I was paired with a very tough, no-nonsense girl, by whom many of my counterparts often felt intimidated. She played the role of the student-in-crisis while I played the role of the RA. She immediately went into full character, donning a rough-around-the-edges, withdrawn, passive-aggressive, sharp-tongued personality. She rebuffed every attempt I made to reach out to her. Knowing the major objective of the exercise was to assess risk of self-harm, I clumsily tried to re-route the conversation in that direction. Finally, perhaps taking pity on my struggle, my colleague relented in her method-acting, and offered me an opening to pose the question I was charged with asking. I fumbled, awkwardly searching for the right words. I don’t remember exactly what I said, just that I had cobbled together something marginally intelligible. Mercifully, our facilitator intervened and the exercise was stopped. I now appreciated how deceptively difficult such conversations can be, but at the same time, how vitally important they were. It would be incumbent upon us as student-counselors to acquire a level of comfort and competence in initiating such conversations, should the need arise with our fold of student-residents.
It was only several days later when I’d had more time to replay my (last) night out with Michael — to reflect, analyze, deconstruct — that I began to genuinely worry about him and his emotional well-being, and his tendency to withdraw… I was on vacation, my annual summer respite. I had another wedding to attend. It was to take place in a small fishing village on the east coast, the hamlet’s little white wooden Catholic church overlooking the sparkling bay at the foot of the rolling verdant hill. I was so enchanted by the idyllic beauty of it all that I impulsively decided to send Michael a text message. My underlying purpose, however, was to check in with him and see how he was doing; commenting on the scene before me was my indirect, unobtrusive approach of reaching out. It had been a week since I last saw Michael. We ‘d never exchanged texts before — it just hadn’t been our manner of communicating — so I was not even sure he’d respond. To my surprise, he did, within minutes. It was a terse message, not uncommon in and of itself, particularly when he was busy. It stated simply, “Sounds great. Enjoy!” (It was to be my last communication from him.) I remember making two somewhat paradoxical observations about this message: one, it felt a bit dismissive and two, it seemed uncharacteristically effusive — a sort of ersatz enthusiasm one might convey to someone in order to not only reassure or alleviate perceived anxiety, but also to create distance to quell any further prying inquiries. I contemplated calling him, wrestled with the pros and cons of doing so, all the while not quite sure what I would say or how I could find out how he was truly feeling. In the end, I reluctantly decided not to call, thinking (wrongly, on retrospect) that he needed his space. Perhaps that vague, but persistent concern I had about Michael for the past week, was simply another case of me simply overinterpretating things. I decided to shift my focus and rejoin the weekend wedding festivities…
The last attempt I made to reach Michael was the night of my return from summer vacation. A week later. I had called during the late afternoon, but got his voice mail. I left a message trying to balance what I still preceived to be his need for space against my own concern about his well-being (and my desire to support him). He always returned my calls. This time, however, I heard nothing. As the afternoon wore on into late evening, I began to grow increasingly anxious. While the possibility he might harm himself still never crossed my mind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was dreadfully wrong. For some reason, I was convinced he had been in a serious car accident. Perhaps because I had recalled how, on occasion, he could make me nervous with his impatient driving. Having to work in the morning, I decided to get some sleep and that I would try calling him again tomorrow. Tomorrow turned out to be too late; he was gone…
I can only remember one other time when I felt the closing of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a new, uncertain one. It occurred following the loss of a job I had once been passionate about, when I walked through airport security, leaving my friends behind and the city I had loved and called home for almost 10 years. I remember feeling like I was crossing over a threshold, an imaginary divide, embarking on a new uncertain adventure, a new life, away from everything I had known as familiar.
Where was Michael now? Was he watching from above? Did he die peacefully? Were his plans for taking his life already in place when we had had supper that final time? Why didn’t he tell someone, seek help? If I hadn’t looked him up when I was in town, would he have even bothered to say good-bye to me?..
This fall will mark three years since Michael’s death. Although I have largely moved on from this painful event, it has left its indelible imprint on me and those of my friends who also knew him personally. It has made me view life through a different, more thoughtful, philosophical lens than my age-matched cohorts. It has also had a significant impact on my career aspirations, personal relationships, and leisure time activities, particularly around the choices I make with regard to how and with whom I spend my time. Life is a gift, and the time with which we have been bestowed — precious, ephemeral, and finite…
*not his real name