Tuesday, January 30, 2007


After Twenty Years...

(First, this is going to be a heavy one, so if you're looking for something more upbeat--either before or after you read this--I would happily direct you here, where you will fresh Art Lad today. Get it while it's hot.)

A few months back, I ended the latest round of October Moments on a bit of an off note. Of course, I don't have to tell you that true ghost stories often end in the most unsatisfyingly unresolved way, but that wasn't the reason I hit a clinker with that one. The reason is, I just didn't have the heart to finish it right then.

As you may recall, my best friend Shawn and I had tracked down a man who had a rep for being a legit psychic and he proved it to me by spouting some facts about me that only I knew. Then, he freaked me out further by wanting to have a private word with Shawn. I ended the story without telling you what the man said to my friend. And the truth is, it was years before I found out.

When Shawn came to visit me for Christmas during our junior year of high school, we not only got up to one last ghost-story adventure, my friend also finally revealed what the Witch Man had said. As Shawn related it, the man told my friend that he was special because he would have a rare gift and that gift would be control over life and death. Shawn told me this with a funny kind of smile, which I mistook to be a smile of humility. I predicted that Shawn was going to be a doctor or a veterinarian, which had been his ambition since we were kids.

But too late I would realize that the funny look Shawn gave me that day was the look that indicated he wasn't telling me the whole story. I never found out what the Witch-Man really said to my friend, but I have a feeling it was something to the effect that my friend would have control over his own life and death.

See, Shawn killed himself. Twenty years ago today, in fact.

I've told you a little bit about what happened, but not nearly all of it.

I will never forget the moment I found out. I had just gotten out of the car of a classmate from college who had given me a lift home for spring break. We were to meet my mom in a parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire, and from there I'd ride home with her. But it turned out my mom and dad were both waiting for me. Dad had been sober for a couple of years at this point, but he had spent so long in detox that he was still working crazy hours to dig our family out of the financial hole his unemployment had left us in. He was supposed to be working a night shift finishing a wastewater treatment plant upstate. It was not like him to take time off just to pick me up. Unless something was terribly wrong.

After we transferred my bags into the back of the truck, I hopped into the cab beside my mom and she grabbed my wrist in a grip that I'm sure was meant to be firm yet gentle, but in fact her fingers thrummed with tension, and her nails dug into the soft part of my flesh under the forearm.

"Oh God," I said before she could even utter a word. "It's bad news, isn't it?"

My mom looked me square in the eye. "Yes. It's bad. It's very bad." And when she told me that my friend was not only dead, but had taken his own life, I just lost it. My first impulse was to get away from her, from the news, and I actually laid hold of the truck door, thinking to jump out and run away, even though we were already rolling out of the lot at 25 miles an hour. My mom, always surprisingly strong for her size, pinned my arms to my side and held me fast. I was crying so hard it felt like I was having convulsions. I thought I had prepared myself for bad news, but nothing could have prepared me for how hard I was hit. My mom held me in her arms like that and I cried for the entire two-hour drive north.

It was March when this happened. We didn't learn of Shawn's fate until two months after he was in the ground. My mom had received a brief note from a teacher she had been friendly with in Kansas, and this woman had thought to send a memorial card from the service. In what was to be the first of many mindless fits of rage, I shouted at my folks--and at no one in particular--demanding to know why we hadn't been told sooner. I'd have wanted to go to my friend's funeral. But really, of course, I was mad because I'd have wanted to know he was in trouble in time to go help him, somehow.

Our friend's letter was very short and offered no detail. But I was determined to know, so the next morning, I got her number out of directory assistance and phoned her up. She wasn't happy about it--she didn't feel it was her place to tell me what I was asking--but in the end she shared with me the fact that my friend, who had grown increasingly moody in recent years, had sunk into a full-blown depression since the last time I'd spoken with him (which had been the fall of the previous year). There were numerous triggers for this, and I talk about some of them in a previous post, but here suffice it to say my friend's depression was serious enough that he was put under psychiatric evaluation at the campus health center where he was going to college (studying to be a veterinarian, incidentally). He was going to be put on a bus for home by that weekend, but instead he managed to sneak out of wherever he was staying, got to his car and drove himself to a secluded spot where he wouldn't be interrupted while he ran the hose from the exhaust pipe in through the window. That was January 30, 1987.

About five years after the fact, I had a chance to go back to Kansas for work. In the time since I'd left Kansas, the old house my family had lived in had been converted to a bed and breakfast, so I was able to make reservations for my old bedroom. I used the time to wander around town, visiting some of the old familiar haunts. I told myself and others I bumped into that I was merely indulging in a nostalgic visit to an old home. But in truth, I was on some kind of personal salvage mission. I was there to absorb as much of Shawn's memory and life as I could, and that quest culminated in a visit to my friend's grave at a municipal cemetery in Ottawa.

In general, I'm not emotional about grave sites. When people die, they don't stick around by their graves, I've always figured, anymore than I might go to the dump to visit an old pair of shoes I've worn out. But once again, the rules were changed where my friend was concerned. When I found his gravestone, close to sunset that hot summer day, I collapsed in front of it, tears in my eyes, and spent a good two hours there, just listening to the trill of the cicadas in the dusk, smelling the high sweet smell of the tall grass in the field beyond the cemetery and thinking about my friend and all the adventures we shared in Kansas when we were kids. I'd like to tell you my reminiscences were fond, but at that point, all I could feel was the bitter senselessness of what had happened.

I've heard the word "tragedy" overused when attributed to bad turns, but if ever an incident deserved the term, it was this. I have always tried to believe that you can find the good in anything if you look hard enough, but my friend's death is one of those events that just belies that notion. Every way I look it at it, this was just something that should not have happened. And not just because my friend died, and not just because he died by his own hand, and not even because it happened when he was so young, with so much life and great potential ahead of him. To make the matter worse, his suicide had a terrible domino effect in his family, particularly among the siblings he so loved and who he took such good care of when we were kids. Not a year after my visit, Shawn's brother sat himself down in front of the gravestone--no doubt where I myself sat--put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself instantly. He would have been in his early 20s, possibly even his late teens. His sister, who had been just a toddler when I knew her, had grown into a troubled young woman and tried twice to follow her brothers. Last I heard, she was still in a psychiatric hospital. I don't think she's even 30 years old yet.

Shawn's last sib, another brother, was still alive at last accounting, but up to his eyeballs in trouble, mostly over narcotics, which he apparently used with abandon. Jesus, wouldn't you?

Understand, I don't blame Shawn for the turn his family's lives have taken. He already had more than enough responsibility for them laid at his feet when we were kids and I would never add to that burden, even posthumously. But that doesn't stop me from feeling that some terrible unnatural wrong occurred here. It doesn't stop me from wondering how it could have been averted. More specifically, how I could have averted it. If only I had somehow realized what was going to happen. He was my best friend. We considered him a member of our family. How could we have missed it? How could I?

This just wasn't supposed to happen, and I would give anything--really almost anything at all--for the chance to go back and keep it from occurring.

Shawn was 20 when he finally decided to exert what little control he felt he had over his life.

After today, he will have been dead longer than he was alive.

In this world, anyway.

But not in my heart.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Wow, what an emotional post. That last sentence was especially touching. I really wanted to write something to express how much that post affected me, but I don't have your amazing way with words MM. Thinking of you.
i'm sorry you're hurting. sometimes there just isn't justice, is there?
I can see how this was a difficult post to get to, it wasn't an easy revelation to read and couldn't have been easy to write. I'm sure you stayed his hand for a while with your friendship, but people can hide their pain well and you couldn't always be there with him. This is not something to blame yourself over.

Thanks for sharing your stories of the times you've spent with Shawn. You were and remain a great friend to him.
9 years ago, at this time of year, the exact day I don't know, I decided that it was time to die. (I was 15 at the time.) I was lucky and had very involved parents who spotted trouble (I can't hide anything) and got me help.

I can't say I know how you feel, but I've been to the edge and have some idea what Shawn may have felt.

I haven't thought about it much the last few years. Thanks for making it feel okay to remember and prompting an all to rare cry, one that I've been needing to have.

Thanks again.
I found out many years ago that one of my close friends tried suicide while in a serious depression by taking an overdose of medication. He fortunately called a friend of his to say goodbye, and she called the paramedics who got to his house and rescued him in time. I'm sorry for your loss, and thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories.
I'm so sorry for your loss, MM. Your numerous stories about your adentures with him make clear how important he was to you.
I had a college roomate that killed herself. We had both been seeing therapists, used to joke about it, in fact. I wigged out, months before she did, and left college, and my apartment. The last time I saw her she asked me if I thought she had a hairy face. We both had that baby fine fuzzy hair by our hairline. But don't get me wrong, she was a beautiful California girl. She was in the one of the best sorority's at UCLA. Her parents were both very prominant doctors.

She took rat poison, and died in her family house. She was jewish, so there was no funeral at all. Our other two roomates came to tell me.

I told them what she had last said to me. They thought she was crazy, but I didn't. I understood the intense self hatred she had. Made perfect sense to me. We were very much alike.

But still, I am so angry at her. It seems to me, that for girls with such low esteem, suicide is an awfully concieded and self important act. I know she was sick. I feel for her,

But I feel more for her parents, her little sister, and her friends.

I honor your candor. In reading this, I know that life is a gift, no matter how hard. I am sure you were a very good friend.
I picked up on the Shawn connection back in October and figured you'd tell the rest when you were ready.

I believe, Shawn knew that you would be there in a heartbeat, if he asked for your help or if you knew something was wrong.

That's why you didn't know, he didn't want you to.
Thanks for sharing this very emotional story with us. I could really feel your pain in the last few sentences.

Shawn was/is lucky to have a friend like you.
This post really hits home because only a small number of hours ago, I spoke with an acquaintance of my wife who is suffering from suicidal depression. I spoke with her because like other commenters, I know all together too well the lovely blackness that can never be satisfied and drives out almost all light and hope.

I hope I was more successful in helping this person than the people immediately around Shawn. Only time will tell.

From having been suicidal, I know a bunch of the things to watch out for and I hope this information helps others prevent a suicide. If you are dealing with someone who is in that much pain, ask them a few simple questions. These are hard to ask but the more defined the answer, the higher the level of risk.

Have you planned how to kill yourself?

If yes, how do you plan to kill yourself?

What do you think would happen if you did kill yourself? How would you affect other people?

Do you have the materials you would use to kill yourself?

An example of high-risk answers are yes, hanging myself in the basement, they would hurt but they'd get over it, yes, lots of copper wire, a lag bolt, and a rafter to screw it into.

On hearing this, a good doctor would advocate hospitalization or at the very least not leaving the person alone. But be very careful, suicidal people are incredibly inventive at destroying themselves. hospitalization is also a crapshoot. Hospitals/emergency room doctors don't have the time to do the full diagnostic process. They just want to keep you alive long enough so you can see a someone skilled in the art of psychopharmacology. And speaking of psychopharmacology, a good psychiatrist will tell you it takes time to find the right medication, that not all medications or treatments work for all patients.

Severe depression saps your life. It makes the world miserable for those around you. It doesn't mean that you should leave, it means that you should honor the wish of those around you who care want to see you feel better.

Depression can be treated, and it's a hard long path to find a solution. I don't think it hurts to remind someone struggling with treatment that the treatment process reveals gifts previously undiscovered or suppressed. The gift could be as simple as enjoying a hobby again or discovering an unknown talent.

For me, the bipolar depression cycle started up somewhere in my late teens to early 20s. It was not successfully treated until I was almost 50 but in the treatment, I received a wonderful gift. I learned that I had a talent for telling stories. Not the same way that magazine man does but my stories amuse friends and family. But the most important gift revealed by proper treatment is that I'm alive and sometimes even feel okay. it's real easy for someone depressed to lose sight of that prospect especially after a number of failed medication trials.

but the flip side of support is caring for yourself. I've seen what my depression has cost my wife. Never forget you can't take care of someone entirely on your own and that's why it's important to build a network of support and professionals to call if something goes wrong.

I apologize for rambling/preaching on but like I said, this is a real hot button given my experiences of the day. MM, I'm sorry your friend didn't have you around. I'm sorry his family is in a world of hurt.
You wrote:
Understand, I don't blame Shawn for the turn his family's lives have taken.

Thank you for that. After my Dad died, my brother became a coke head and progressed(?) to crack head. I got SO tired of hearing people say, "If your father hadn't died..." as if my father had died on purpose so my brother could become a crack head.

I noticed everyone here talking about depression but often when there are that many problems in a family, it was something else - like insidious family abuse. I hope not, but you never know.
Not all stories can be light hearted, foot loose and fancy free- such as the ones of companionship that you and Shawn had for a space in time.

I'm so sorry for the loss of your best childhood buddy. It's obvious that you still think of and miss him terribly. My heart goes out to you and everyone who has had gone through something like that- it's a breaker.
I have nothing to add to what you've said. You're right that this just seems clearly wrong on so many levels. I'm so sorry.
There but for the grace of God, go I. At 25, I seriously attempted suicide. And but for a series of amazing events would have been successful.

The last thing out of my mouth before I combined the poisons were, "Okay God, let's see you get me out of this."

Battering rams and ambulances followed.

Let me tell you that I had the sweetests of friends, a fantastic family and everything I needed to be happy. And yet, I was hopeless. Events in my life combined into a toxic coctail that poisoned me from the inside.

My friends and family were floored. No one knew my the depths of my pain.

I woke up in ER, spent the night in ICU and another four days in the psych ward. Afterwards, I was fine. I've not been depressed since.

MM....I certainly feel for you. But I truly believe that every one of us is so different that trying to understand is fruitless.

Be grateful for the lessons and the fun with Shawn.

If I could give you one wish it would be for three questions for Shawn. I just wonder what they would be?

A couple of quick thoughts.

From the little background you gave concerning other family members, I'd hazard a guess that clinical depression is something that runs strongly through the entire family. If so, Shawn didn't trigger any domino effect. It was just the same illness he had manifesting itself in his relatives.

His remaining sibling, in using narcotics, is probably subconsciously self-medicating, as opposed to taking the drugs as a result of the horror seen.

As Sharfa so excellently pointed out, you had a very strong and trusting friendship with Shawn, so if he had desired you to know anything or had wanted help, he would have told you. You should have no regrets on that account.

The above is easy for me to say, of course. You're the one living it. You'll be in my prayers tonight.

Enjoy the beauty of your family, the gift that you've been given to express yourself, and the knowledge that all of us care and gladly offer you hugs, whether cyber or physical.
Lost my friend Teri 9/03 (hung herself) - since then I have been in a support group online:


I almost didn't finish reading your post - only because it mentally adds "1 more death to suicide" to the tally I keep in my head... *sigh*

The group always talks about how suicide seems to be "contagious".

Sorry MM.

Cindy in CO
"surivors_of_suicide" ***

that last part of the site was cut off...

Cindy in CO
I'm really sorry for the loss of your friend, MM. I have known people to take their own lives, but never anybody as close to me as Shawn was to you.

But that final sentiment was beautifully stated and a great tribute to your friend.
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