John McAndrew

Ghosts

In Thoughts on June 9, 2011 at 3:32 PM

In the last two months, two old friends from my days in publishing have committed suicide. I had not seen either of them for many years, but had been in touch with both online in the last year through Facebook and e-mail. This brings to four the number of my friends and acquaintances who have left life by choice, at their own hands.

* * * * * *

I am the luckiest person I know. I mean that. I don’t believe most of my friends know anyone much luckier than I am. I have never known what I wanted to be when I grew up. Yet I had a fifteen year career in publishing as a sales rep for Harper & Row, later Harper Collins. I got all of my books, and most of my music, for free. I got to spend time with Barbara Kingsolver, Muhammad Ali, Tony Hillerman, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Clive Barker, and many many more. I have also benefitted from two inheritances, one of which was a complete surprise, which have permitted me to live a life of relative leisure and absolute financial security for the eleven years since my career at Harper. Before long I will have to work again, which I look forward to, but I have had my retirement in the middle of my life, and it has been a complete blast. I have traveled a lot, and learned a lot. If I were to contradict my earlier statement about not knowing what I wanted to be, I would say that I’ve always known that I wanted to live a life of inquiry. I have learned a little Spanish, and am now learning German. I’ve been privileged to volunteer for, and learn from, some wonderful organizations. I have earned a certificate in paralegal studies, taken an introductory course in permaculture, taken a short course in publishing at Stanford (so when I run for office and say I went to Cornell [College] and Stanford, it’s true!), and read lots of books – but not as many as I’ve bought. I’ve lived in Santa Fe and the San Francisco Bay Area. My life has not been what I imagined it would be – there’s been no life partner, no lifelong career, never much of the sense of direction I associated with adulthood when I was young – but it’s been full of wonderful people and experiences. I’ve been very, very lucky. Luckier than anyone you know, probably.

And I’ve been suicidal.

Life can be hard. As much good luck as I’ve had, others have had that much bad luck. Accidents and disease and war and abuse and bad work and relationships can wreak real havoc on a life. When I walk down the street and look into the faces of the people I pass, I often wonder what is happening in their lives today. Are they worried about an exam at school? How is their mother’s, or child’s, health? Have they just had a first date with someone who makes the world’s colors more vivid, the music more vibrant? Have they just discovered that they are pregnant? When someone shows that they are irritable, is it because it’s a bad day, or a bad life?

Life can also seem hard, be perceived as hard, even when all one’s circumstances are golden. The seeming, the mental state of suffering, that we call depression, melancholy, bipolar disorder, and so on, can put a scum on all the joys and challenges of the most overwhelmingly lucky, happy life. Simon and Garfunkel sang about how everyone wanted to be Richard Cory, until he went home one night and “put a bullet through his head.” No amount of love, beauty, money or light can penetrate this kind of darkness. You have to wait for it to pass, like a bad flu or a case of the runs. At least that has been my experience. Depressions come and, fortunately, they also go.

I’ve escaped my friends’ fate by the skin of my teeth a couple of times. The closest I’ve come to committing suicide is lifting a leg over a railing of a hotel room’s balcony. I had just moved, changed jobs, and had a promising relationship ended by my hoped-for partner before it even really took off. I was alone in my room. No one pulled me back. I just didn’t jump.

A few years later I turned 40. I threw a dinner party for 30 of my friends for my birthday. My brother even came down from Portland for it. I wore a tux. One friend stood up and gave an unprompted, warm and gracious testimonial. She invited others to stand and do the same. None did. I paid for thirty of my friends to have dinner with me, and none of the rest of them could think of anything nice to say.

At the time I was in the midst of an affair with a married woman. I had always seen myself as a good guy. I met her husband – I was invited to their home for dinner – and did my best to put him at ease in case he had any suspicions. He was a very nice guy. He didn’t deserve to be cuckolded. I was being a complete shit, and I knew it.

Of course, depression came soon, it was bad. I was at home one night, lights out, sinking into a vortex, approaching an event horizon. For some reason I called my friend Jody. She had left publishing to pursue a career as a therapist. I left a message asking her to call me whenever she got home, as I wasn’t doing very well. She did, and we had a good talk. I also went to see my doctor, and told him how I was feeling. He said it was like watching someone get cut open from the inside. He prescribed exercise and a change of diet, and gave me some herbs to help me over the hump. Friends invited me to go out for dinner with a group. Just the look on my face prompted one of them to say, out of the blue, “Poor John.”  The depression lasted for months. I have a pet name for it: the Great Depression.

Depressions are also my inheritance. My mother suffered from it. My brother, who is as different from me in every other way as a sibling can be, has struggled with it. My guess is that my father had the worst of it, but he died when I was in my mid 20‘s, before I knew to ask him about such things. He was an alcoholic, kept to his own room a lot, and felt much more at ease and at home with his birth family than with the woman he married and children for whom he provided.

Right now I’m good. But I know, as surely as a woman knows that she will have another period, that depression will return, albeit not on a predictable schedule. I can keep it from getting too bad by eating well and exercising. But there will be times when my mind will ask me if there isn’t a way out, if I want to go through another round of this.

* * * * * *

I don’t know the inner experience of my four friends who have committed suicide. I knew  that my friend John, who was the first suicide I knew, struggled with a lack of direction and a frustrated love life. Some of his other friends knew he had attempted suicide before, but I didn’t know that. I saw him two weeks before he did it. I remember – maybe it’s a memory created after the fact – saying goodbye and that I would see him next time I was in town. If I remember right, he shrugged noncommittally. Two weeks later, on Halloween or All Soul’s Day, he drove to Desolation Wilderness and shot himself.

Marianna was more an acquaintance than a friend. She was going to watch my dog while I went to Costa Rica to study Spanish for three months. We had met not long before at an organization where I was volunteering, and we hit it off at first. As time went on I became more uncomfortable around her, as she seemed to have difficulties with observing and respecting boundaries. She didn’t seem to behave as expected. It was a kind of social color blindness or tone deafness: she would, so to speak, go when others would stop, or sing along enthusiastically, but profoundly off-key, or maybe the wrong song. I found someone else to watch my dog. While I was gone, she jumped off a bridge with a bouquet of flowers in her hand.

I won’t give the details of the last two, Barbara and Martin. I hadn’t known them that well recently, don’t know the details of what happened, and the concrete of their actions is still too fresh to tread upon.

My friends’ suicides has changed one thing permanently: I will never let a joke about suicide pass. If you say something about ending it all, even obliquely, you will see my demeanor change immediately to one of solicitude and concern; you will be asked some fundamental questions about your state of mind and life; and you will be guaranteed that, should you ever call me while in that state, you will have an immediate claim on me and my time and resources. A friend has done the same for me, and even put it in writing (I kept the e-mail, Jim). It says, in part, “call me at 3 a.m. anytime and i will come out there & slap you upside the head.”

I always wish I’d known ahead of time. I always wished that there was something I could have done. But if their experience was anything like my worst, there is little or nothing that can be done by others on the outside. Still, the emotional wallop is enormous. Why didn’t I know they were hurting so badly? Why did they value their lives, and our friendships, so little?

I don’t know that my friends’ suicides could, or even should, have been prevented. I know very well a pain akin to what I think they experienced, and it is not my place to demand that they put up with it. I fervently wish the pain wasn’t there for them, and that there was something I could do – to hold their hands, hug them, and tell them, with conviction, that it would be alright, soon.

I see suicide as a choice that, to this point, I would not choose to make; a choice that I would do my utmost to make unnecessary and unattractive to others. Of course, it may be possible that some could commit suicide to hurt people, or due to some madness or mental illness other than depression. The latter may have been the case with Marianna. Still, it is a choice that is, not just personal, but profoundly private. I cannot adequately convey what my despair feels like. It is fundamentally ineffable. Pre-verbal. It simply arrives unannounced as an immense, non-negotiable fact, and it speaks the most uncomfortable truths imaginable. The pain of others is, I must assume, as much a mystery to them as mine is to me, and beyond my understanding.

I know the beauties of life, the way every cell glows and expands with the sights and smells and sounds and touches one loves. I love the amazement at being a living, sentient creature able to observe the world of which I am a part. Suicide may not be a repudiation of those beauties, of the value of our most treasured experiences, memories and people. If it is due to depression it is, I presume, a declaration of blindness and deafness: a testament that those things most dear, which made our own life dear to us, are no longer visible, touchable, audible. And that that isolation from all that made life Life, is intolerable. We can endure so much grief and tragedy – and must, because there is much to the natural cycles of life and death that is painful. To be living, medically, physiologically speaking, but to find all that is true, good, and beautiful out of reach, is to live life as a ghost in the world: among the living, but not alive.

Before the act is committed, I will be its ferocious opponent, because I love these people, and know the pleasure and relief of “coming back,” of getting to depression’s other side, and wish them to get there. After the act is done, I will accept it: not just because there is no way back, but because the final decision is a result of factors weighed on one’s own private scale. Whatever pain I and other loved ones must bear must be less than what our loved ones were crushed under; I would rather endure that pain than insist that they continue to endure theirs.

  1. I appreciated all of this – but particularly your final insight about being isolated from the feeling of love that vibrates through life. When some unfortunate chemical cocktail and/or weary inner silence turns that sense off – for isn’t it a sense, like sight or smell? – there is little reason to stay. Especially for the creative, the engaged, the most truly alive ones. The bright lights like the reliably positive and wise Barbara who, even without having seen her for thirteen years, sustained my my own sparkly spirit just by being out there. (I suppose she’s still out there…)

    I get so mad at some people who commit suicide. Even if I don’t know them, like the teenage girl from Danville who gave up too soon. Others, like the guy off the Alameda beach, I weirdly respect their choice. I really don’t know how to feel about Miss B. (It’s kind of a lot of everything, starting with bewilderment.) But thanks, you gave me some ideas.

    Your friends are so lucky to have you, to have someone with reserves who can make the commitment you just did.

    What a sad story about your birthday. A simple failure of manners, if not sentiment. I’ve been in situations like that, overwhelmed by shyness, unable to find words, knowing I’m failing to do the right thing, knowing I’m letting someone down. There are generations of kids growing up today without learning how to give a toast. No one taught me. The best toasters I know are the ones who sought the knowledge.

    There’s always something more to learn. Or to teach. Right?

  2. All of these responses are beautifully written. Thank you. I’ve had my share of depression and if you want to know about it John, just email me. I’ve actually come up with a strategy I use for my depression that might work for you.

    Sometimes I wonder about depression and how it seems to be so prevalent in our society. It’s so easy for us to get the basic necessities (remember the basic necessities? We learned about them in school, but they probably don’t even teach them anymore since they’re so easy for us to get), that instead of worrying about housing and food, we worry about an app that didn’t load quickly enough on our phone. Or something like that.

    But WTF is it that 30 grown ups couldn’t act even halfway decently when you hosted them for your own birthday party??!!! I hope those people are not in your life anymore John. Those “friends” of yours, and what a helluva way to find out their true colors, must have been intelligent, well-read, and interesting, Yet they lacked kindness and decency. The Heschel quote comes to mind. “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

    I hope for your next milestone birthday, whenever that is, you’ll have a room full of kind people, who love you, and aren’t afraid to show it. I’m glad you’re in my life John!!

  3. Hi John, I feel that I shouldn’t be catching up with you in this way but I, too, am very moved by your emotions and the personal tragedies and triumphs unfortunately so familiar. A common thread through most lives and in many at middle age as we are now.

    I still find my personal demons about the subject of suicide difficult to discuss but can separate myself from one that happened about 8 years ago when I was still living in the Bay area. A former life partner of a very close friend of mine took his own life in the most spectacular and terrifying way that I can imagine – he chose to jump off of the Golden Gate bridge. He had meticulously left instructions for those around him to execute about all of the material things left behind. His current partner and my friend were each assigned a role and duties that related to his home, business and final celebration. He and my friend had maintained much love and respect for each other as good friends. In some ways, I think the two of them might have found their way back to each other one day. He had run a successful business and was truly a gifted and energized human being – when he wasn’t depressed. And the he just wasn’t there.

    On a personal note: Good to know you are well and sustained. I hope the grand adventure is delightful, insightful and joyous every minute!

    I will continue to review your posts. Thanks again for bravely sharing of yourself. It makes it easier for me to do the same,

    Susan

  4. I’ve finally made the time and space that this post deserved for reading, John, and I am truly grateful for your presence and your honesty. And your ferocity.

    I don’t really think there are any ‘answers’ to depression, when experienced at that deep level, or the impulse to take one’s life. I suppose in some cases medications of some kind might take the edge off, but what you’re writing about is a deep level of suffering, one that has its roots in a number of different dark places… and ultimately, we each have to make our peace with that big question. I’ve only experienced anything near that a couple of times in my life, but it was scary.

    I’ve known two people who have killed themselves — one a former client when I worked as a mental health counselor, and one a distant friend in a meditation community I belonged to. In both cases, it was shocking and sad, though with each they gave plenty of messages that this is what they intended to do, and I wonder if there would have even been any way to ‘prevent’ their actions. They were determined to check out of this life early.

    This piece of writing is really powerful, John… and full of the life force. I hope if you ever feel that desperate again you will a) reach out to those of us who love you and b) read this essay back to yourself. It’s a fierce, life-loving piece of writing.

  5. Like Winston Churchill, I also refer to my intermittent depression as the “black dog who stalks me”… Thankfully I’ve never been close to taking my own life, for that I thank the children that I am responsible for – plus I’d be embarrassed for anyone to actually see my finances. It’s a horrible feeling when I feel that dog at my heels, just lurking there in the gloomy shadows. Thanks to the dog, I’ve slowly made my peace with John’s suicide. I have learned to respect his choice. I don’t remember if I ever felt angry at him, but I know I often felt guilty and sad that I wasn’t a good enough friend. I’m not rationalizing when I consider his suicide his “choice” as opposed to my failure – at least I don’t think I am. I do miss him, though.

    Thanks for sharing this – it was nice in a weird way to remember John and that I shared my love and respect for him with many other wonderful people – like you.

  6. Such wisdom, John; but then I wouldn’t have expected less from you.

    Our experiences, direct or vicarious, inform our choices.

    I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate as well, but as an idealist, my
    life always falls short of what I imagine; and I fall short as well.

    I’ve come to believe that longing is both frustrating and essential.

    I’ve found dear friends and kindred spirits, but not a life partner.

    I’ve both exceeded and failed reaching my skill levels and career goals.

    There’s so much I’ve longed for but will not likely know.

    I sometimes wish that I could believe in second (unlimited?) do-overs.

    Thank you for initiating a contemplative pause.

    I’ve only faced ‘the decision’ once in my life, during my divorce in the 80’s.

    I continue to look at life as ‘a fast moving river of choice and chance’ (Crosby, Stills &Nash)

    I continue to feel somewhat lost, but I’ve learned that if I just keep walking,
    like continuing to move in spite of a cramp, or like breathing through fear,
    I’m ok and I find something positive.

    Feeling love is at the core… even if it’s only the love of who I am or of who
    I want to be. I’m so very grateful for the love I’ve felt with so many who
    have been in my life, and that includes you.

    On that note… I send love from Santa Fe, and thank you for sharing your
    thoughts and feelings so generously.

  7. Beautifully written, John. We’re so frightened of death in this culture, but especially suicide. Thank you for the soul-stirring honesty.

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