I was 17 years old when my best friend committed suicide. Having grown up with him for close to a decade, one night – seemingly out of the blue – he lay down on the train tracks, and suddenly he was gone. This week, Robin Williams also took his own life. Though his public profile, energetic comedy and dramatic performances were legendary and inimitable, sadly there is nothing unique about his actions. In 2011 (the most recent year of which statistics are available) 39,518 people in the United States ended their own lives. While Robin Williams has left behind an incredible legacy, each and every one of these other victims leave their own profound impact on their family and friends. Many others will write far more eloquently on the loss of Mr. Williams, so I will simply talk about my experience with the subject. Inside of the statistics, this is a story about just one of these losses.
Note: The details of the following story are entirely true, or at least as true as my perspective allows; all names have been changed however out of respect for the family and those involved.
It was late 2003. I was avoiding high school and woke up feeling ill on a couch after a particularly cruel bender. Alcohol and MDMA were consumed, possibly more – my memories of the night before are vague at best, as most of the good nights are. And as with any such good night, it was proceeded by a world of pain. As I got up to the wonderfully melodic tune of a few dozen beer bottles being knocked over, little did I know that a splitting migraine would soon be the least significant thing in my life. The couch, and the house it was on the floor of, were owned by Sarah, a girl I had been casually hooking up with. This made it particularly humiliating when she answered the phone to find my mother on the other end of the line. Being an adolescent male, I was furious that my mother had called the house of a girl I was trying to impress; mothers rarely have the desired effect on such a girl.
“Why the fuck are you calling? How did you even get this number?” I yelled. I was pretty sure even I didn’t have Sarah’s home number.
She told me that she had gone through my school diary and called all of my numbers to find me. I was even more irate and humiliated. At this point I had only been away from home for two days, nothing out of the ordinary for my somewhat anarchic youth. I couldn’t understand her concern. She told me she had to tell me something; she wouldn’t talk about it on the phone; she insisted on picking me up. Now, my mother is slightly prone to melodrama, and I am famously non-responsive to people. Oftentimes, I will receive text messages along the lines of “PLEASE CALL ME, URGENT”, only to be informed that my aunt’s birthday is three months away. I therefore pressed her as hard as I could. The most she would say was that it was about James.
A word on James. His childhood was somewhat turbulent. His parents had divorced in a particularly nasty fashion. In fact, it was largely because of this that we had bonded, over the course of 8 or 9 years, or so. The father was the money-earner, and as a result of the separation James, his little brother and his mother lost their house, forced to move into a low-rent planned community. His mother herself had her own problems; she was prone to hypomanic behaviour and the most extreme fits of vocal rage. I want to make it clear at this point that I am not attempting to assign blame to any individual or single factor, or to dissect his motivations. James’ mother had her own demons and clearly did not have the support which she required, and so the cycle was tragically passed down to her son. And as I will explore shortly, suicide is a result of a complex and extreme state of mind and I am not in a position to speculate about his ultimate motivations, nor do I want to. I do however think that it is extremely important for us to confront the underlying reality which leads people like him to this devastating act; underneath it all, James was unhappy and did not feel he had the support he needed – we ignore this simple fact at our own peril.
On the outside, James himself was quiet but intelligent. His behaviour could sometimes be borderline deviant; he was expelled from a private school for rather mundane misbehaviour. We used to sneak out at night and steal street signs. On one trip to Australia’s Wonderland, we both took an overdose of ADD medication resulting in the most amazing time on the rides and the most horrible hospitalisation afterwards. Even as kids, we had a bizarre friendship. When we were 9 years old or so, we had an ongoing rivalry to see which one of us could get the most of our real-life friends to worship our semi-imaginary friends (his was an empty floss container named Ottimino, mine was a thesaurus I called Hatchet, which I cherished for containing the synonym “one-eyed trouser snake” for penis). I must also confess, I stabbed him in the neck with a pen when we were in middle-school. It really was an odd friendship. But it was a close and inevitably fun one. In our younger teenage years he would stay over and drive my mother to borderline insanity by loudly throwing pieces of Meccano (Lego for nerds) against the wall. When my mother would burst in screaming at us to shut up and yelling that she was too old to be kept awake at 2am, James would reply by throwing pieces up in the air, loudly and musically singing, “mini-Meccano… wheel”, in what can only be described as the most cavalier and gleefully devious tone. It’s one of those you-had-to-be-there moments, and yet it was possibly the hardest I have ever laughed in my life.
In spite of the spark of craziness, James was still a charming young man, though, and while somewhat introverted, he could also be remarkably sociable and made friends easily. He was a tall, dark-haired, handsome and fit teenager; his greatest passion was reserved for cricket (for those in the USA, this is baseball in extreme slow-motion and without excitement). He had made state finals, routinely killed it on the field and had solid prospects of a professional career ahead of him. He was just generally an affable guy; a gentle giant, the kind that anyone could get along with. He never leveraged his size to his advantage in order to intimidate – he was always just happy to have fun and be stupid. Any depression he carried was always offset by his good natured humour, and despite the traumatic upbringing, nobody saw any signs which would lead one to believe there was significant danger in his future.
With all this in mind, having been told only that there was bad news about James, I assumed that he had broken his leg or something and wouldn’t be able to make the team for this cricket season, or something along those lines – God, help us all. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been exposed to death yet – I had already been to three funerals by that age, one for a friend in my group at school – or that I didn’t have concern for him. Rather, I simply didn’t expect there to be any reason to have any particular concern. James had always looked after himself and my mother was always prone to hyperbole. That was that. It was only the shaky and panicked tone of voice that led me to agree to have her pick me up. At this point my biggest priority was still my migraine, and I apologised to Sarah for having my mother call and relayed that it was probably about something stupid, assuming I would be back to Sarah’s later to hopefully make out with her.
My mother greeted me with a long and deep hug. We had not been close in my teenage years and I think I was so blindsided by it that I just stood limply, wondering what the fuck was going on. As we drove, my mother refused to tell me what was going on yet. Sitting in the car we drove past James’ house – I had expected us to stop there so I could visit him and find out what the deal was. Frustration finally boiled over and I demanded that she tell me what had happened. She pulled over the car and told me.
“James is dead. He was found on the train tracks,” my mother managed to get out through uncontrollable crying.
I sat there for a moment which I don’t remember. It could have been seconds or minutes. That moment is the one blank part of that day in my memory. The information made its way through my mind, crashing through every mental barrier: surely, ‘dead’ doesn’t mean dead; this is a sick joke; it must be mistaken identity; why would he do this? I told her to drive me to the nearest train station so I could buy cigarettes, despite her insistence that she should take me home. “I need to buy cigarettes,” I thought. I was on autopilot. I lit up my last one in the car and didn’t say a word. My mother didn’t admonish me either, though she despises the fact that I smoke. The entire car-ride was one long stretch of bizarre detachment. “Why isn’t she telling me to put the cigarette out?” I kept wondering.
I got out of the car in a daze as my mother drove off. It was like being in a dream. I wandered over to the convenience store and saw one of my friends who was over 18 and very matter-of-factly asked him to buy me cigarettes. He said he was running late for a class and he didn’t have time. I don’t know why, but that’s the exact moment that it hit; I completely broke. “I need fucking cigarettes!” I screamed maniacally as tears started to cascade out of my eyes and I was overcome by a sense of panic and desperation which I had never felt before. My friend simply stared at me with confusion, asking me what was wrong. That didn’t help; my words were coming out in a slur of crying and yelling, and for some reason the universal sign language for “please buy me cigarettes” was failing me, as I simply flailed erratically. We somehow finally crashed through the communication barrier and I got my cigarettes. That had been the overriding thought in my mind; I suppose it was just a goal, any goal, which I needed to feel like I had at that point. Just some sense of purpose. After that I was genuinely lost. I headed home, not for comfort, but only because I didn’t know what else I could do. Nor did I have any idea what I would do once I got there. I remember punching a brick wall of my house repeatedly until my knuckles were torn and bloody. I threw furniture with all my might, hit holes in the wall and screamed.
I had this sickening rage inside of me and yet I had never felt so utterly defeated.
The aftermath of that day offered no real solace. The train driver’s statement later noted that James appeared to move directly before the train hit, possibly having changed his mind a split second too late. It became clear that I was one of the last people to speak to him, two nights before his death, and that I had brushed aside a series of comments he had made about a relationship he was in “fucking with his head” as general teen romance politics, barely acknowledging it and changing the topic to talk about how great 50 Cent is, or something (it was 2003: I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry).
It’s the little things like that which weigh you down, and believe me, you carry that guilt eternal. Did I listen to the right words? Did I truly believe he meant what he said when he expressed that he was suffering? What if I had said something different? A phrase, a gesture, an attempt at reassurance – what could have bent fate along a different path? How often do we let these things pass us by, eager to get on with our daily schedule?
As he left no note, his ultimate motivations will forever remain unclear. In the end, attempting to parse out such motives is bound to futility anyway; a laboured effort to apply sense to the actions of one who is viewing the world through an entirely different, alien and hostile lens.
For me, while I did get my cigarettes, as time went by it became apparent that (like the cigarettes) that event had become a cancer. It infected a family. His room was kept intact for more than a year after his death; as the grieving normally do, his mother cherished each and every possession, pouring through his message histories in a vain attempt to understand how she could have lost her young boy. The disease also metastasized inside myself, with suicide now an actual thing: a path and a seemingly viable option rather than a word in a dictionary. Whenever things became rough in my own life, the darkest recesses of my mind would drift back there, subtly offering a seductively morbid flutter of images depicting potential ways out. That single day corrupted the way I thought, damaged friendships and hovered over me ever since – admittedly, it’s difficult to separate the effects of James’ suicide on my social interactions from the fact that I’m usually just an utter cunt.
As the infection spread, it wrought havoc on friends and family alike; each one experiencing a pure and empty void, a loss irreplaceable, and an uphill battle against the cynical outlook of this new world we had suddenly been exposed to. Perhaps most frightening, we were left with the sense of consuming dread that we could never know when we may confront the actions of the darkest demons of a human’s nature in the future. Who was next? Who knew? Do you know?
Through my own experiences, I have come to see that while these things may shock and surprise us, even with a note or a manifesto there is little by way of explanation, even and especially for the victim. The state of mind in those moments is distorted. Things feel different, taste different. The world appears as if viewed through a pane of foggy glass. For a person in those most lowest of depths, it is like being on a ship, sailing lost upon the oceans on a pitch-black night while a storm rages around you; you don’t know just exactly when or how hard the next wave will hit and it is thus impossible to brace yourself. All you really know is that you want it to stop. You just want it to stop, at any cost.
Some say that suicide is selfish or cowardly. I experienced anger at James for the longest time, so I can understand how people may see it that way and yet I must thoroughly disagree. When I was at an all-time low several years ago, I visited his burial site. I sat on a nearby bench with a scrappy exercise book and wrote out ten pages of how furious I was with him for abandoning me and everyone else, and all the in-jokes and memories that were now alone in my head only. I was filled with frustration at what the experience had done to my life and distortion it had applied to my thought-process. And yet, the letter ended with forgiveness and an apology – an apology from me.
That apology was the result of the realisation of a basic and yet important truth. That truth is that many people simply do not know what it is like to be on that ship. Hammered by waves, knocked off of your feet and surrounded by darkness, suicide is no more selfish than any other form of self-defense for a person who simply does not understand that there are other ways out. For those whose suffering blinds them to the fact that, while there are indeed some wounds in life that do not heal, all emotional states are temporary and even the greatest pain simply cannot sustain itself, if one has the proper support and treatment.
This week we lost a great comedian and a phenomenal talent. A decade ago I lost my best friend. This year some thirty-thousand people in America, three-thousand in Australia and a horrific one-million people worldwide will die by suicide. If there is a selfishness to suicide, perhaps it lays not on the side of the victim, but rather for those of us who may be well-meaning but are either too negligent, too busy or simply unaware enough to ask our friends and families how they feel. Perhaps it is in our inattentiveness and our timidity to engage with someone who may be suffering either because we think they are too much of a downer to be around, or our knowledge of the professional resources available to them is deficient.
After all, with so many choosing the same tragic fate as each other in a world filled with otherwise compassionate people, it seems worth asking: why do so many feel so alone? To those out there who are feeling the burden of depression and anxiety, maybe it’s appropriate to simply remember what Robin Williams told us: It’s not your fault.
Or speak to your medical healthcare provider, friends and family about receiving support; you are not alone.