A friend died last week. Struck by a train.
He wasn’t a close friend, I hadn’t seen him in a few years. But his death has resonated with me so deeply, in a way that not even the death of a grandparent or uncle would. In fact, it has resonated with most of my close friends too – particularly given our age group.
Only now, a few days after first receiving the news, do I feel sufficiently comfortable or been able to sort my thoughts and emotions sufficiently to write about it. As always I’ve decided to be honest with myself about what I am feeling and experiencing and to speak (or write) openly about it.
The last close death in the family I experienced was my yiayia (my maternal grandmother) when I was about 6. I was close to my yiayia, who looked after me occasionally as a child while my mother returned to her career as a teacher. But, perhaps given my age or maturity, I still felt slightly disconnected from the event of my yiayia’s passing.
When I was first told the news by a mutual friend she described the circumstances delicately, even despite how horrific and graphic a fatality under the wheels of a commuter train would be. But I was bemused about how this sort of thing is possible. As the facts and circumstances of the death unraveled, it became apparent to me (and now I’m firmly convinced) that my friend was suffering from depression. No one knows exactly what or how it happened. I have only been told a few facts and the rest is probably speculation. But I feel that on that fateful night both the opportunity and some awful, despairing need arose for him. Finally, the suffocating weight of all the external pressures of his physical reality collided head on with the derailed psyche of his inner being. His apparent psychological isolation echoed in frightening reverberating silence. He must have felt he had no other logical option. In a momentary, but very ultimate, perversion of the instinct of self preservation, he decided to take his own life.
His death, and my own speculation about the real circumstances of it, has affected me greatly and I have been distracted all week by news of the event. In fact it has taken me 3 attempts to write this post. I keep needing to come back to it.
Why has it affect me so?
By way of deep confession, I am no stranger to that despair. Although, since leaving law school, our lives had diverged to separate paths, my friend and I shared a similar histories. We were both sons of Greek migrant parents. We both carried the parental and cultural weight of expectation to make something of yourself. So we shared similar psychosocial expectations and pressures. In some ways we both propagated the impression of a “perfect” kind of life. We were both intelligent and diligent and both pursued careers in legal practice (as had many others of our mutual friends). So we both experienced high-stress environments. No doubt we both lived similar levels of material lifestyle and the cost of supporting those lifestyles. In addition, my friend had also gotten married and, I expect, had a mortgage and a lifestyle to match his burgeoning career. No doubt there were many and varied pressures and stresses on him in his life.
In contrast (almost 12 months ago now), I made a very scary decision and stepped down from a well-paid role in a large corporate law firm. I did not have anything to go on. I just bowed out quietly. I had reached a certain point – mentally, spiritually, personally – and I could go no further with the life I was then leading. For at least 2 years prior to making this decision I had experienced many troubled moments – moments of conflict, moments of uncertainty, moments of despair. I was not in a good place. Having developed a certain amount of self-awareness, I knew I had to do something about it. Even my very regular exercise wasn’t helping me bounce back into a balanced state of contentedness with life. Typical of my personality, I intellectualised my dilemma somewhat and sought out professional therapy over the course of about 2 years. I also enrolled myself into a psychology course at University – my plan was to learn as much as I could about my psychological being. Physician, heal thyself?
For me, these sessions were an environment without judgment of what I said or who I was. The psychologist exuded genuine care for who I was as a person and helped me explore…me. It was during these sessions that I, for myself, came to realise the ridiculous and artificial superstructure I had heavily invested in and built around me. At that time, the personal and emotional energy I was investing in propping up the ‘external’ superstructure of my artificial identity was now threatening to sink the very person I was. I had my dark moments. I increasingly took more and more sick leave and often stayed home just “being” in a vain attempt to buy myself some solace amongst the increasing dilapidation that was my crumbling state of being.
But, slowly, came the realisation that all that pressure I was putting myself through was artificial, was external to “me” and was self-inflicted. Most importantly, I realised (and was given the opportunity to make the realisation) that I always was and still am empowered to do something about that. I had the power to stop the pain I was inflicting, subconsciously on myself. It was a dawning realisation not unlike the moment in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy is told by the Good Witch of the North that she had the power to return to Kansas all along. But it was still months for me, until I finally was able to click my metaphorical heels and return to that place that was, for me, my very being, my true, real, inside self. I again connected with what’s important to me. And that was me. The real me. The inside me that always me. The me that got trapped and buried under tonnes of external, artificial superstructure of my outward identity and personality. I am not the most content with my life that I have ever been. I feel I have everything I need. My hierarchy of needs are sweetly, contentedly fulfilled in the most part. I now look forward to the future joys of life ahead of me.
It is because of my own experience that I really grieve for what my friend had gone through in the weeks, months, even years, before that fateful decision he made last week. It’s sad because a quiet voice at the back of my mind reminds me: that could have been you. I know how bleak and dark and isolated and awful that spiritual, personal place is. Because I have walked that same path, I am familiar with that moment, the tipping point where it almost seems like a really good, sensible, logical option, to take the easy way out of your bleak miserable lonely existence – where you resent yourself and your very existence enough, that you make that decision to step out and into the path of an oncoming train. It is horrible merely to try and empathise with his state of mind, or try to relate to his feelings that night, in that split second in which he made that decision. It’s sadder because a quiet voice at the back of my mind says: he could have been saved. He could have had the state of being that I now have. But, alas.
No one should ever be in a place where they make a decision to take their life. No one should feel so isolated. So miserable. So powerless to do otherwise. I believe that people who are suffering from long-term, incurable, lingering illness should have the right and option to take their lives. Euthanasia is right in such circumstances. But a charming, effusive, handsome, intelligent man in the prime of his life, newly married and with a long life full of experiences yet to be lived should never be brought to the point of taking his life.
I have been greatly moved by this experience. It has spurred me to action. I will not let any other friend take their life because they felt they had no other choice. Because they felt trapped. Because they felt isolated. It’s just so sad. A waste of human life it ever there was one.
It’s such a small thing – but simply reaching out to your mate could make the difference one day. Depression is a very real issue in today’s society – particularly for men and particularly in our age group. Let us not be naive about it. Let us not pretend it isn’t a problem. It happens. It happens to most of us. It has happened to me and to many dear friends of mine.
Men, let us stop pretending “it’s going to be OK”. Reach out and be honest with a close bro about yourself. Men, let’s do something about it. Men, reach out to a friend who you might think might not be in a happy place. There are so many options for you to help you with what you are experiencing. There are friends who can help. There are organisations who can help. In Australia, BeyondBlue is an excellent organisation dedicated to helping with men’s depression. Try their hotline: 1300 22 4636. Try talking to a mental health professional. Call a mate.
It’s currently Movember. Funds raised during Movember go to BeyondBlue and to prostate cancer research. Get involved. Start talking about depression – start talking about how you an do something about it. Tell your mate it’s OK to talk about. Tell him it’s OK if life is getting you down. No matter what it is. Reach out. Do something. Because you never know when simply showing your mate you care and that you are listening without judging might make the difference between enjoying another beer together, or yet another avoidable tragedy.
Depression is avoidable. Suicide is not an option. Reach out. Talk. Listen. Care.