“When I’m 64”
On April 16, 2015, I had the rug pulled from beneath my feet, when I woke up to the news that my best friend had chosen to end his life. If I had to put my pain into words, I’d say that this was the day that my childhood got up and walked away from me. Before I begin, I’ll address the elephant in the room, and that is the fact that my best friend was 64 years old, and a former teacher of mine. Yeah, it’s kind of weird, I guess.
It took me until I was in Grade 10, and 16 years old, to differentiate properly between debilitating depression and “the blues”. I wrote myself off as tired, lazy, and stupid, and my teachers at school did the same. It never occurred to me that my lack of motivation in school (and in life), sleeping between 0 and 20 hours a night, and crying for 5 hours a day weren’t necessarily attributable to being a sleepy, apathetic, insomniac-ridden, hormonal adolescent. I never got help. I just hoped it would eventually go away (just like all my friends did immediately after I opened up about being depressed – ha! No, but really).
I was in Grade 11 and the metaphorical lid that I had placed on my depression was bursting at the seams like a shaken up, carbonated bottle of I’m-dead-inside-and-need-urgent-help. I had just signed up to take Drama as an elective at school. The teacher was a total hippie: straight out of Woodstock, handlebar-moustache-sporting, beret-wearing, Beatles-obsessed type of fella. We immediately connected. I made a fool out of myself in an improv presentation on the first day, and he asked me to stay after class. I thought I was in trouble- as I usually was- but he just wanted to assure me that I had done a “great job”, and that I didn’t have to speak in front of the class next time if it made me uncomfortable. High school was a nightmare for me and no teacher had ever demonstrated that level of kindness or understanding with me before. I was blown away by the fact that someone finally looked at my (apparently evident) depression and anxiety as something more than just an excuse for failure. For the first time in my life I felt understood (the teenage angst was real, yo!). He was, and still is, the kindest, funniest, most selfless person I have ever known.
But behind his constant jokes, smiles and laughter, I felt his sadness, too. I internalized it. I so badly wanted to talk to him, but for fear of breaching the student-teacher relationship, I held back. All I could think about was the sadness that he carried, and in turn, I started feeling even worse. I skipped a full two weeks of class. When I came back, he was gone. A substitute teacher told us he wasn’t “feeling well” and that he might be back in a few weeks. I knew he wasn’t coming back and I went numb. I went home and immediately emailed him to see if he was okay. He said he was, and thanked me for checking up on him. I waited a few days and (apologetically) emailed him again. This time, he articulated exactly how I had been feeling: “Hey, thanks for writing again, this might sound really weird, and I promise I don’t mean it in any weird way, but I really trust you for some reason. I feel like you understand me – like you’re a kindred spirit, so please keep this on the down low”. He told me he had been coping with chronic depression and generalized anxiety disorder his entire life, and he was having a breakdown.
“Some days, just taking a shower feels like I’m climbing Mount Everest”.
The next 3 years consisted of almost daily emails (and not the hey-what’s-up kind, but rather, the 3000-word-this-is-the-story-of-my-life kind), and occasional coffee dates – he even came over to my house a few times and chilled with my parents and me. He quickly became the most important person in my life. Our daily exchanges meant everything to me. They pulled me out of my own sadness and made me feel valuable and human again. In truth, I don’t know if I’d be here today if it weren’t for all of his “yes you can-s”, “yes you will-s”, and “I believe in you-s”. He reminded me that I was smart and I reminded him that he was capable. I got him to finish a novella he had been working on since the 1960s, and he gave me that extra push I needed to keep getting out of bed every day.
“Dearest Chloe, don’t kid yourself. You do have an amazingly high emotional intelligence (I’m not sure if that’s a benefit or a curse), but you’ve got a really solid intellect, as well. You’ve got a pretty good handle on what is supposed to be going on in our brains, and you’re asking all the right questions. Those, plus that wicked sense of humor you have, tells me you’re pretty damned smart. But even more importantly, you’re a good person – absolutely wonderful, really”.
Towards the end of 2014, the emails started slowing down. I got busy with school, and he got busy with life. At first it was a few days, but then it turned into a few weeks, and finally, a few months before I’d hear from him. I would email him a few times to check in, but he never wrote back. Though I’d sometimes feel concerned, I figured that he probably just needed some space from me. I wished him a happy birthday in March 2015, and he got back to me with the news that he had just had the most difficult year of his life. We started talking again and it felt like no time had passed at all.
My last email to him was trivial. I had been complaining about school, as per usual, and I asked him for advice on how to help a suicidal friend of mine. He told me what not to say – never to blame them, or guilt them, because they genuinely do feel like the world will be better off without them. He wrote me about Kantian ethics – the particular theory that states that all humans are worthy of respect and need to be separated from their actions (which in retrospect might have been a red flag). He sent me pictures of his cat. He told me he was seeing a psychiatrist and getting help again. Compared to most of his emails in the past, this seemed like a hopeful one. He apologized for all of his past suicide attempts and promised to try to hang in there for me. He told me he loved me – a plain “I love you”- to close his email. It struck me as a little strange, but it didn’t seem as final as it did the next morning when I learned of his passing.
It’s been a year and seven months, and I am still left with so many questions. Why then? Why that day? Was there something that particularly exacerbated his sadness? Not a day goes by where I don’t wonder if there was something more I could have done, or if there was a cry for help in his last email that I couldn’t see. I have re-read it a thousand times over, analyzing every word, and I still don’t know. I am who I am today because of the piece of himself that he chose to share with me over the course of four, sweet years. I have learned to be sensitive, understanding, observant, and always genuine. Moreover, I have learned that life-changing friendships may spring from letting your guard down and celebrating the inevitable vulnerability that makes us human. When all is said and done, I feel that I once underestimated the concealed nature of mental illness, in spite of having experienced it myself. I saw him as someone who would always be in my life. Some may call it suicide, and some may call it selfish, but ultimately, my best friend died from depression.
If you take nothing else from my story, please, please understand that physical and mental illness are the same. Depression is no more than brain flu! Antidepressants are antibiotics for the brain. Anxiety is as debilitating as mono. Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character. Don’t invalidate what you can’t see.
As he would say to me and to all who knew him, “we are here, every one of us, to try to leave the world in a little bit better shape than how we found it”. To Bobby – thank you for having valiantly fought an invisible fight for such a long time. You made my life, and so many other people’s lives better just for having known you. To those of you who are quietly grappling with mental illness – whether you know it or not – you have made your mark too.