Not waving but drowning

I’ve been getting mild flak from friends (unintentional alliteration!) about the fact that I haven’t been regularly updating my blog. I have wanted to write for a while now; I’ve known what I want to write about but I haven’t been able to figure out how.

One month ago today, on December 29th, a very good friend of mine committed suicide. It’s an extremely personal event and although I’ve felt compelled to write about it, about him, I’ve questioned how to make it universal and not self-indulgent.

I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor, so I can’t write about suicide and depression from a clinical perspective. Here’s what I can say. About John personally: he was a great person and a great friend. He was loving; he always demonstrated and spoke his love freely. He was loyal and giving. He was intellectually curious like no one I’ve ever met. He was humble and not afraid to ask questions. He loved music. He was smart, hard-working, and driven. He was loved, and I believe he knew it and felt it. And he suffered from bipolar (or manic-depressive) disorder.

From the National Institute of Mental Health:

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.

John developed this disorder when he was a teenager and was medicated throughout his life. There were times when he experimented with going off his meds and I don’t know if he was off his meds when he took his own life.

But I don’t want to talk about brain disorders just now. I want to talk about suicide and what it does to the people left behind.

John didn’t leave a letter, an e-mail, or even a note scribbled on a scrap of paper. We who loved him will never know why he made this final choice. And we will never escape the questions or the guilt.

I know about John’s disorder and I basically understand it—and depression in general—but I still question daily what I could have done to have prevented this outcome. I had dinner with John less than a week before he killed himself (he insisted on paying). We talked for hours, as we often did. He talked somewhat hopefully about fences being mended with family members and somewhat excitedly about going to a cabin with friends for New Year’s. We made plans for the summer. And a week later he was dead by his own hands.

What did I not see during that dinner and in the months prior? What did I not hear? How did I not reach out and take his hand when he was clearly not waving, but drowning?

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him
his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

Stevie Smith

I understand the feeling of going under, the feeling that you’re alone and no one cares. In those times we can feel resentful that people don’t reach in. They expect us to reach out if we need help, but how are we to reach out when we’re drowning?

(Warning: Two geeky yet completely apt paraphrases from Buffy and Firefly ahead. I apologize in advance. I wish I could use the excuse that John was a huge Joss Whedon fan, but he was more into Family Guy.)

The truth is that there’s culpability on both sides. As the person who is feeling the blackness encroaching, you have to reach out. When you can’t walk, you crawl; when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you. Pride may prevent this, but we all need some carrying from time to time—that’s what friends and family are for. Don’t feel resentful about having to reach out. You may think that people should be able to see your pain, but often others don’t see your pain because they’re too busy with their own.

As someone on the outside, you have to monitor your loved ones. You have to reach in and make sure everything is okay. Sometimes you have to prod. If you don’t, and if the worst happens, then you will never forgive yourself for selfishly ignoring the pain of others. Even if you are busy with your own pain, share your pain. Share theirs. Help each other.

Suicide is the worst thing you can do to the people you leave behind. I love John, but I’m angry with him for doing this to himself and to us. I’m angry at myself for not having seen it coming. I’m sad for everyone who cared about John who now has a gap in their life that will never be filled. I’m devastated that John felt he had no alternative. He had to know we loved him, didn’t he? Some have speculated that the reason he didn’t leave a note is because if he did, he would have had to face the fact that people loved him and would miss him, and maybe he would have changed his mind.

Still, although I believe John knew that we loved him, the lyrics from Lucinda Williams’s “Sweet Old World” have been rolling around my head for a month now:

See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips
The touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train
Wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm, cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
The beat, the rhythm, the blues
The pounding of your heart’s drum, together with another one
Didn’t you think anyone loved you?
See what you lost when you left this world,
this sweet old world….

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a very moving post. It is so hard to know what to say or how to wrap your head around something like suicide.

  2. I am so sorry to read about this…
    You’ve been on my mind for ages and I was about to e-mail you to say that I was thinking of you and miss seeing you. So, I just said it now.


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