[This is not only my longest post to-date, but it’s also the best piece I’ve written (and, at the risk of sounding self-righteous, it’s important). I’m not one to solicit readership if someone’s interest is waffling due to an essay’s length, but in this case, I’m asking you to stick with me. Thanks in advance for your time!]
The recent passing of Chris Cornell (frontman to Soundgarden and Audioslave) has put me in a funk for the past couple weeks. It’s been an interesting set of emotions swirling through me, and it’s been quite a process to work through. On one hand, while I was a *huge* Soundgarden fan back in the 90’s, I hadn’t listened to them very often in the past 15-20 years; on the other hand, the silencing of one of the most powerful voices in rock & roll had a deep impact on me, mostly because his death was determined to be a suicide. Not much makes me sadder these days than to hear about the taking of one’s own life, especially after having personal experiences with the act. More on that later.
Initially Cornell’s passing reminded me of the talented people who have succumbed to feelings of depression, anxiety, and helplessness during the course of my life. The first celebrity suicide I remember is Kurt Cobain, and the news of his passing absolutely slayed me. I remember watching MTV as Kurt Loder reported on the news, tears streaming down my face; that’s the impact Cobain and his music had on me. In recent years, the passing of comedian Robin Williams shocked the world. Here was a man who spent a lifetime making people laugh, yet he was tormented enough at that moment to end it all. And then a couple weeks ago Cornell’s name was added to the long list of sad, heartbreaking losses.
[May you rest in peace, sir. Photo credit: Rolling Stone]
The knee-jerk reaction to news of this nature is “How can so-and-so do something like that?! They have the world by the short-and-curlies; what on Earth is there to be sad about?” This seems like a fair question at the time of its utterance, but is far too simplistic and doesn’t address either deep-seated or situational issues that come up in people’s lives. And they happen, folks. Boy oh boy, do they happen. Again, more on that later.
After thinking about celebrities, I inevitably start reminiscing about people in my own life who have been lost to suicide: one family member, a couple of neighbors, a classmate’s father. But the one that hurt the most was a coworker of mine. We had worked together for close to a decade. I didn’t know this person socially; hell, I barely knew a thing about this person’s private life, and I didn’t pry. Why? Well, I’m a private person myself. As such, the two of us got along smashingly in that department. But where we truly excelled was in our work. Not to toot our own horn — arrogance is definitely not a strong suit for me — but we did excellent work together as programmer and analyst, relying on each other’s strengths to get a project done.
About six months prior to this person’s passing, I started to notice a change. I won’t pretend I was the only one who noticed it, but it shook me to watch a transformation in this person from strong, no-nonsense, and confident to unsure and anxious. The change was subtle at first, but like that proverbial snowball rolling down a hill and gaining size, the metamorphosis progressed rapidly toward the end. People tried to reach out and help, myself included. I saw the endgame coming if someone wasn’t able to get through. When we got the call that this person was gone, it didn’t come as a complete shock that the act had taken place, but it didn’t make the news any more bearable. I sobbed at my desk for awhile that morning, then took off for the day as I tried to work through my emotions: sadness, regret, anger, emptiness.
It’s been quite a while since this happened, yet I still think about this person often, especially at times when I hear about someone else being lost to suicide. Part of that is because I lost my colleague; we did good work together, and it felt like my right arm was cut off that day. But part of it is much more reflective than that.
Because any one of the aforementioned people could have been me.
First, some background. From a very young age I had to take on tasks that probably weren’t typical for a child to handle on his own. This wasn’t because my parents didn’t love me or purposefully neglected me. My parents worked opposite shifts through some of my childhood — one working and one sleeping — so I had to take care of myself when needed. This ultimately created numerous strengths in my character. I’m very self-reliant, self-motivated, self-this, and self-that. I was an excellent student, which switched to being an excellent employee in adulthood because I didn’t require hand-holding or micro-management by parents or bosses alike. Yet my greatest strengths became my greatest weaknesses when I finally went up against a problem I couldn’t solve on my own.
That time came within the last decade, and it brought me low. At the beginning I was unrightfully attacked and made to lose everything; by the end I was deeply hurting people with a series of lies, actions, and inaction that negatively impacted relationships for long afterward (some to this very day).
Six months into this seesaw of circumstance, I broke. I remember that day clearly because for the first time in my life I was contemplating an action that I would have told you wasn’t even possible in the years leading up to that moment. I was at a family reunion. I was a disaster inside, trying my best to hold it together. When I knew I wouldn’t be able to control my emotions any longer, I left. I drove down the road a mile or two, pulled over to the side of the road, and bawled my eyes out. In the midst of my meltdown, a lone thought came to mind, enticing in its ability to break through the fog of my brain with its clarity: there was no way back from what my life had become, and it was time to end it all. A plan quickly came to mind. The following day I would tell people I was going to work; instead, I would grab the shotgun in my crawlspace, drive hours away to a remote part of the state, and shoot myself. There was serenity in that thought, a calmness that washed away the tumult. But within seconds it felt like I had been slapped across the face. What the fuck was I thinking? Faces flashed in my mind, people I would be leaving behind. But more than that, a strong desire to keep fighting and *live* enveloped me.
Shortly thereafter I realized I needed some help to get me out of this situation. I had fallen so far down the well that I couldn’t see even a pinprick of light above me. I didn’t know the depths of despair went so deep, and I was completely unequipped to make the long climb back up the walls of my pit and reenter the light. But that meant I’d have to humble myself enough to reach out for assistance, and folks, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. Asking for help meant weakness. Remember, I was a person who could handle anything. I didn’t ask for help; I was the one who offered the help. Little did I know that asking for help and trying to get better wasn’t anything *close* to weakness. Never before had I been required to be so strong.
I took time away from work and entered counseling for a couple months. I did daily group counseling as well as private sessions once or twice a week. I took antidepressants for a short period of time while I worked through everything. I had to speak – honestly, candidly, painfully, guiltily, regretfully – to a room full of people, laying myself bare, relinquishing all of the unwarranted pain I experienced and admitting to the equally unwarranted pain I caused others. When I first started, those days weren’t much better than the day I pulled over on the side of the road. In fact, most days I had to force myself to find something that was joyful. I remember making the drive to the counseling center one morning, completely devoid of emotion and feeling, and I noticed the incredible sunrise before me. I made myself say “That is a beautiful sunrise, and I’m thankful for it.” I didn’t feel anything about that sunrise. It did not move me. But in some dark recess of my brain I knew that a sunrise meant something to me in the past, so I said it out loud, giving it voice. I would take long walks, if only to find something to do, and I would stop occasionally if I noticed a colorful leaf or even a bug on the ground, being concerted in my thinking and making myself experience even the smallest things in an attempt to focus on something other than the litany of thoughts rolling across my brain.
You’re a fuckup.
You don’t deserve to live.
You shouldn’t get a second chance.
Ever so slooooooooooowly, things began to improve. I owe a debt of gratitude to both my counselors as well as my classmates. They picked me up when I was too bruised and battered to get up on my own. They focused me on good things so that I could begin to walk out of the darkness. Over time, I started doing anything I could to find peace in my life – I started visiting a huge Catholic cathedral by my workplace, not because I’m Catholic (I’m not), but because there was solitude and calmness there; I took up drawing, a hobby I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid but hadn’t done in over twenty years; I took miles-long walks; I laid on my back and looked at the clouds moving by overhead or the stars twinkling in the night sky. I did whatever I could in those moments to continue to walk forward, to leave the past in the past, to not falter, to not lose.
To not die.
This entire process – world-shattering changes, mistake after mistake on my part, depression, recovery – was roughly a 9-12 month journey. Seems relatively short in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like a lifetime. My existence has never been darker than that year of time, and I pray to whatever powers that be that I’ll never experience something like that again.
I hear news of another suicide, and I think about the crushing weight of hopelessness. I also think about all of the moments I would have missed if I had taken my own life. I wouldn’t have married my wife, who is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I wouldn’t have my four- and two-year-old kids. I wouldn’t have seen the children from my first marriage as they grow into adulthood. I wouldn’t have inherited four stepchildren. I wouldn’t have traveled to Paris with my wife, or hiked the hills in Red Wing, MN, or seen the seas of flowers in Pella, IA. I wouldn’t have become a godfather for the first time. I wouldn’t have seen a billionaire blowhard become President of this great country (OK, I wouldn’t have missed that). I lived a pretty charmed life during my childhood and early adulthood, and I’ve lived a flat-out blessed life since the aforementioned episode. And all of it – ALL of it – would have been gone because of a six-month bad stretch in my life. Seems silly in hindsight, but I assure you, it was in no way silly at the time.
So why would I share something like this with the world? I admit it’s not something I’m proud of, nor do I relish reliving it. But I think it’s important to talk about this stuff because everyone, from a small-town nerd like me to a wildly talented and famous singer like Chris Cornell, can be ground to pulp in the jaws of depression and anxiety. You may think it’s not possible for you to go through something like this. I thought the same thing until I was at rock bottom. I guarantee you my coworker would have said it wasn’t possible until it happened. I’m guessing most folks who commit suicide would say the same thing.
My encouragement to you is twofold.
First, I ask that you pay attention to the people around you, no matter if they’re family members, friends, colleagues, fellow churchgoers, what have you. The changes may be subtle, but oftentimes they *are* noticeable. I suppose I may have been more in-tune with what was happening to my coworker because I’d been through a similar decline, but like I said, I wasn’t alone in noticing the warning signs. I tried to help at the time, offering to talk or to get lunch. I didn’t push too hard, and that’s probably my greatest regret: I wish I would have tried harder. It may not have helped (and likely wouldn’t have, because I wasn’t around this person outside of the office, and not necessarily in close proximity even when we were there), but there’s no worse feeling than seeing someone end their life and feeling like you could have done more. Please ask questions, even if it isn’t comfortable. Offer support. Extend yourself. Losing a person in your life is an awful scenario, and if it’s at all preventable, do something to walk that person out of their darkness and into the light.
Next, if you ever feel down or start spiraling from a situation, no matter how big or small, ask for help. This was my biggest obstacle to getting better, and how stupid is that? Pride and a lack of humility causing someone to dwindle away?! It embarrasses me to think how stubborn and prideful I was at that time. It cocked up my life longer than necessary, and almost led me down a path of no return. Find a loved one, a friend, a counselor, a priest, *anyone* to get the weight off your shoulders and help you refocus your energy on a way to get out from under the pressure. Left unchecked, the damage can be absolute.
With the exception of the options I listed above, which should be available in most communities, the only other resource I know of is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides education as well as 24×7 phone lines that allow people to call in and talk through a situation. I never used it, but I’m sure it’s a helpful resource for people who don’t know where to turn. I would encourage anyone to go to the organization’s website or call 1-800-273-8255 if they need help for themselves or someone else.
The title of this essay comes from a phrase I heard as a young man. It goes something like “Suicide: a long-term solution to a short-term problem.” It’s a flippant phrase in that it’s jokey and simplistic and makes light of people with long-term, compounded problems. But one aspect of the phrase *is* true: suicide is definitely a long-term solution, and one that makes me sad every time I hear someone has chosen that avenue. Keep your eyes and ears open, folks. Offer a hand if you’re ever in a similar situation with someone. Be a person who fights to keep someone from an irrevocable act. The world will be a better place if we can collectively keep hurting people here, all while offering the support they desperately need.
I’ll close with a poem I wrote while I was in counseling all those years ago. In a way, it marked a tipping point in which I went from languishing in the darkness to getting back to living life. The allusions aren’t hard to figure out. It’s also likely it sucks as a poem – I’d never written a serious one before, and especially not one about a damned flower – but I don’t care. It was powerful for me at the time, and the people I shared it with in class responded positively to it. I hope you will too.
The moon shone down upon
a rugged landscape
as clouds scuttled across the sky,
doing their best to block its light.
And they almost succeeded.
But before moon
was separated from earth
by the coming storm,
a ray of light penetrated
the darkness which enveloped
the world, illuminating
a single flower against the
As the wind raced before
the oncoming tempest,
the flower folded in on itself,
not in fear, but in anticipation
of the onslaught to come.
And so it began.
The air howled through the night,
kicking up dust and lashing out
at the world, doing its best to
grab hold of the fragile flower,
to send it somersaulting into
And it almost succeeded.
But the flower’s roots ran deep and
its stalk was powerful,
so while it bent further,
and further still,
it did not break.
the bloated sky opened itself with a
preface of thunder and lightning,
pelting the delicate petals with
a deluge of droplets,
desiring to bruise and batter
the flower into submission.
And it almost succeeded.
But the leaves’ stems held fast,
courageously reaching out to
the waterfall above,
accepting nourishment from
that which was meant to destroy.
And the storm raged on.
The ground sought to finish
what the whirlwind began,
drinking hungrily from the
saturation that churned
topsoil into quagmire.
As water met earth, the resulting
muddy concoction dowsed the
flower, seeking to blemish the
delicate beauty contained within.
And it almost succeeded.
But as night turned to day and
the storm’s dying whisper sighed
across the horizon, condensation
washed the flower clean, allowing
its purity to be known.
Glorious prisms of light erupted from
everywhere and nowhere as
the sun rose high. The flower opened itself, petals reaching up and
spreading wide, basking in the
warmth of a new day,
while the heavens marveled at its
beauty, strength, and vitality.
For the flower had succeeded
where others had failed,
bringing life to that barren terrain.
[Copyright 2017, Andrew Monge]
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Until we meet again…