I remember the place, the moment, the book, and the transformation that happened within me when I read: Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
I was reading a book on Buddhism and trying to find a way forward in the months following my Dad’s suicide – 17 years ago today. His birthday is tomorrow. He would be 79.
When I read these words all those years ago, my heart and my mind and my consciousness and even my body were being consumed with questions, ravaged by noise:
How could it have been different?
Could it have been different?
Did I say what I needed to say?
Where did he buy the gun?
Who sold it to him? What did he tell them?
I wonder what they'd think now?
How long ago did he buy it?
When had he made the decision to finally do it?
What was going through his mind?
What was he thinking about me?
Was he thinking about me?
Who am I now?
What about Mom? My Sister? Brother? Their kids?
How do I process that I’ll never get another hug?
How do I hold on knowing I will never here “I love you, son” again?
What about everyone else? The ones who didn’t know he struggled with Depression? Who didn’t know about his childhood sexual abuse?
Why don’t I want to see anyone? Talk to anyone?
Why does a crowded place give me anxiety?
Why does the world seem so noisy?
I could write 100 more easy, but you get the point. When I read those words - that suffering is optional - it clicked. My mind slowed. The questions quietly faded. They were still there, just not so loud, so dominant, so consuming. They had been manifesting my suffering and my struggle. The more I struggled, the more questions, the more I suffered. And, the more I fed that suffering, the less I had within me to invest in healing, in reconstituting myself in a new reality. Stuck. Not living.
Those words started my life over.
There was only one undeniable set of facts, without question, that I needed to accept: he was gone. I was here. It hurt like hell. And, it’s inevitable, and it’s life, and it continues.
If I couldn’t own the pain, the pain would own me.
These simple words also offered insight into my Dad’s suffering with Depression and the harsh and confounding reality of mental illness for those of us who do not struggle with it ourselves. For my Dad, pain was definitely inevitable. But, for him, suffering was not optional. Given his Depression and trauma, it too was a fact. Inevitable. Life. He made the choice to seek help, to go to therapy, to change his diet (sometimes), to take his medication. While these at varying times and in varying ways offered him some reprieve, his suffering was still there. It was as persistent as the beat of his heart and as pervasive as the blood it circulated throughout his body.
As I look around at the world today, I find myself coming back to these words again. I find myself suffering. I tense with anger at the chosen-state of gun violence. Of murdered children in schools. I feel despair at the self-centeredness that drives our society and distorts our democracy, which, after all, is built on a premise of we – we the people. I mourn the world my daughters live in and will have to manage when I’m gone. I cry for them. And, I don’t know what to do. I do know I’m suffering. I am very aware that I’m still feeding that suffering. I know it is optional, and I must make a different choice. I just have to figure out how.
For ten years, probably longer, probably since we learned we were pregnant with our first child, I have imagined the conversation when I would share with my daughter that her grandfather, who she’s named after, died by suicide. His grandfather moniker was “Bugsy” for the older cousins. She never met him.
It was never about shame or anything like that, it was just about figuring out what would be the right time and age to process it in a healthy way. I even wrote a blog about it when she was just 2 years old.
Over the years, I have worked to set up this conversation by talking about mental illness, by talking about how Bugsy died from a “disease of his mind”. Talking about his life.
Yesterday, as I picked her up from school, she was excitedly describing how she had been Googling members of the family and among other things, had come across an article from years back recognizing and celebrating my Mom. We talked briefly about what an extraordinary person my Mom is and what meaningful life she has led. And, then I asked my daughter if she had read the whole article. She said she had skimmed it.
“The article talks about how Bugsy died. Did you read that?”
“Well, it’s important that you hear it from me and not from finding it in an article anyway. I’ve just been waiting until you were old enough to have the conversation. Your Bugsy died by suicide.”
Holy shit. It was out. A 10+ year mental narrative now written, looking and sounding nothing like I’d imagined and being unceremoniously delivered on a drive home from school.
I again talked to her about mental illness and explained that Bugsy’s mind was the thing that might have saved him but that it was actually the thing telling him he was an awful person and a burden to the rest of us. That he felt terrible about himself despite how much we loved him and how much he had accomplished. That’s the thing about mental illness. That he had gotten help and taken medication and done all he could do for decades until he couldn’t anymore. It was Depression that killed him.
I reinforced that it was never about keeping his suicide a secret from her. It was just about her being old enough to process it and to ask the questions she needs to ask. We don’t do secrets and no question is off limits.
I explained to her that if she chose to tell others - friends, teachers, etc. - that they may not understand. That they may try to judge Bugsy, say he did something wrong, say he was weak. This is not our truth and it is not his story. So, if she gets that kind of response, she has to know the truth.
Of course, I told her she could talk to any of the family if she had questions, when she has questions. That we talk openly and honestly about our lives and his life and his death.
She didn’t have any questions at that point, in the car, on the way home from school. Just another day. She now living with suicide too.
The car got quiet. I turned up the Christmas music just a touch.
“So, how was your English quiz?”
The other day I had this idea for a blog. The next day, it wrote itself.
You see, every year around this time, I try and write something about living with suicide, my Father’s suicide, 16 years ago on April 27.
I was thinking the other day about who I am (versus who I might appear to be) every year on that day (reflecting on tragedy and loss). And, then who I am on the following day, the 28th, which was his birthday (celebrating life and love and missing that). And, then again who I am the day after on the 29th, the anniversary of the day that my life was forced to begin reconstituting, redefining, re-framing with part of its core missing (recognizing healing is a process).
Despite 16 years, I am rarely who I seem on these days. I am at work, but I am distracted. I am laughing but I’m hurting. I’m smiling and engaged but, as soon as I turn away and am back by myself, I am often bleary-eyed and exhausted. You may never see this. Those who know me well will sense it. I am not particularly good at hiding it.
As I reflected on my experience on these three days in particular, I was also mindful of a close friend and colleague who has shared his own experiences with me, those certain days of the year – the birthday, the death anniversary, the times around family holidays – when life is hardly endurable. You may never see this. Those who know him will sense it.
These days, regardless of the passage of time, are often too tender to talk about, especially at work. There is an emotional recovery period that often just isn’t practical and some work relationships you’re just not sure are ready for the transparency.
But, sometimes it’s helpful just to know that other people know that my random Wednesday in April is not the same as theirs. My Wednesday can be brutal even if the sun is shining and everything else seems normal. I don't have to think about it. Somehow it is imprinted on me now. My body knows.
Then, one day last week as I was thinking through my own experiences, remarkably and tragically, I was teaching a virtual leadership session and one of the leaders of the group stopped me before I got started to share that the team had lost a colleague the previous night to suicide. I read the faces in the little Zoom boxes as quickly as I could. I could see a couple who I knew were struggling. Many had their cameras turned off. Some turned them off at that moment. Today was not what it seemed.
I could have taught that session without ever knowing this information. I could have delivered what I wanted to deliver and felt like it was a success. And yet, without this information, without having the chance at least to acknowledge it, to pause in recognition of where people are, the session would not have been what it seemed. And, given the news of the death, without the opportunity and willingness to empathize by briefly sharing my own experience with suicide, the session again would not have been what it seemed. Not for any of us.
Every day, people are mourning, dealing with stuff, and sometimes just getting through the day without ever feeling that they can share where they are. Settle the ground. Stop hiding. Stop pretending. Ease the white-knuckling. Ask for help. Ask for space. Ask for silence. Ask for some acknowledgment. Ask simply for a little empathy.
Until we open ourselves and allow others to do the same in a safe and supportive way at work or anywhere, until we stop trying to hide our struggles and pretend they don’t exist, until we neutralize the presumed judgment of our vulnerabilities, tragedies, and very lives themselves, today will rarely be what it seems.
It’s April. The month of my Father’s birthday. The day after his death. Suicide. It’s kind of a shitty month. Thank god for Spring - and friends.
I write something every year around this time out of a commitment to talking openly about suicide, Depression, and sexual abuse – no fear, no shame, no judgment. But, this year, I’m feeling reflective in ways I am not ready to express despite the 16 years that have passed. I am good, but I have thoughts that haven’t yet coalesced as to my own Fatherhood unfolding and the conversations I’ll be having before long with my daughters.
So, here I am instead writing something that has been on my mind for all of those 16 years since Dad died. Long overdue. Finally ready to be written.
It’s a story about a friend, a term redefined in this experience. Not an action story. Perhaps an inaction story. A story about something deeper. Silent. Eternal. Strengthening.
When my Dad committed suicide, in celebration of his life, we welcomed hundreds of people into our house. They were literally lined around the block. People who loved my Dad. Loved my family. People who were seeking solace themselves. People who didn’t know what else to do but show up. And, for hours, the line continued. Hugs. Tears. Confusion. Sympathy. Incoherent thoughts and reflections.
I ebbed and flowed as I greeted people. Strength coming as I consoled the old classmate or previous neighbor who never knew Dad suffered from Depression. The long hugs from those who whispered quietly in my ear that they too had been sexually abused as a child or suffered from Depression. The moments of despair when I collapsed in someone’s arms, not knowing the specific trigger, but unable to take any more in that moment. This was a community of people, of love, of trying to come to grips with suicide, with loss, with the contradiction of a powerful and confidant and formidable external persona and the person who couldn’t find himself worthy to live.
I don’t remember a lot of details of that day, or really that time for that matter - months - but I do remember this general scene as if I had watched it from the ceiling. And, I do remember my friend, vividly, the friend I met when I was 10, playing All-Star baseball at Shelby Park (the picture is a few years later, I still look 10 and he looks 17), the friend with whom my connection had been immediate, grown deep and personal over time (20 years then, 36 now), intuitive, and yet at times distant as our lives followed divergent paths, a friend who stood there in the front room of our house, hands clasped in front of him, button-down shirt, for untold hours, right there beside me.
He stood there seeming only to move when he knew I had the strength to be still, and being still when he knew I might collapse under the weight of the moment. An exoskeleton.
For hours, I never saw him leave. I never saw him eat. I never saw him go to the bathroom. He didn’t muster much conversation with anyone. He just stood there, steps from me, never leaving his post. Still. Upright. Guarding me. Protecting me. Sustaining me. I can see him today as I could see him 16 years ago.
I know he was a wreck too. I know how much he loved my Dad. And, yet.
I have no idea what I said to him that day. I have no idea if I thanked him for being one of the first to arrive and last to leave. He couldn’t know what his presence looked like, felt like, to me as I found myself looking to him - as he only looked forward - to find my strength, to find my backbone, to know that something was solid in this moment of loss and world-shifting fluidity.
For 16 years, I have held this image of Andre standing there, by me, with me, for me, as me, when I just didn’t know how I might do it myself. Not doing anything. Not needing anything. Not knowing that you were doing anything other than what you should be doing. This is the gift. This is the offering of healing from a friend when healing was yet to begin.
I have never had the courage to write this. The gratitude is easy. The writing is difficult. But, the time is finally here to say thank you. I don’t know what else to say. It feels insufficient, out-of-date, and yet as deep and profound as I can offer from one human being to another.
And, 16 years later, unsure of my words for today, April bringing a new season, a new year without my Dad, it is in long-overdue gratitude that I find my voice and continued healing.
Thank you, Uncle Dre. I’m sorry it has taken so long.
My Dad suffered deeply from Depression. He was sexually abused by a neighbor as a young child. Surrounded by religious judgment. Guilt. Conditional love. He wrestled with these demons his whole life. Ultimately, he committed suicide a day before his 62nd birthday. 15 years ago this month.
The last words we received from him: “I love you all, but I hate myself.”
Thanks to a neighbor who recently shared this video with me - found on a VHS tape in an attic - I just heard Dad’s voice for the first time in 15 years.
Oh, his way with words. His tone. Silky flow. Weather worn. Southern drawl. It could sooth just as it could cut. Eloquence colored by the language of a sailor.
I remember as a small child his reading me Cinderella and the sound and vibration and depth of the clock striking midnight as he slowed for dramatic effect - BONG! BONG! BONG! - my head resting against his chest. Feeling the vibration.
His life was brutal within - those vibrations - but most never knew it. He was charming and gregarious and made you feel like you mattered - no matter who you were or where you’d come from. He knew others’ darkness in ways no one else could understand - ways others didn’t even understand about themselves - and loved them for it. He also fought for those people, his people - in schools, in the neighborhood, anywhere he found them.
He took on challenges - in court as an attorney and in life as a Dad and Husband and as a community activist with my Mom in rebuilding our neighborhood - that just begged him to fail. I actually sometimes think he wanted to fail. It would have proven him right about himself. Fulfill the darkness.
But, he didn’t fail.
Yes, he had failings and weaknesses and flaws like any of us. But, somehow, he transformed his deepest demons into a life of beauty.
Today, amid the noise and all of the activity of our daily - often transactional - lives, we look but we never see. We do but we rarely just be. I am as guilty as any.
There is no nuance. There is no suggestion. We are missing the thrilling contradiction of bold humility, the creativity of belief, and the acceptance and ownership of the battles between our demons and our best selves. We are missing beauty.
But, we cannot have beauty without honesty. We cannot have beauty without vulnerability. We cannot have beauty without tragedy.
This is the truth of the human condition.
This is the truth of my Dad’s life in hyper-focus. This is the truth of my memories. Our lives. This month. A suicide and a birthday. The contradiction. The tragedy. The beauty.
Dad’s words in this video about our violent, crumbling, and forgotten neighborhood - an undeniable metaphor of his inner life - ring profound today as I reflect on it all:
“You’d have to be blind not to see there was some beauty there.”
My Dad committed suicide 15 years ago this month.
He didn’t ask for Depression.
He didn’t have any control over his sexual abuse as a child.
He had no way to prevent his MS.
He did what he could for as long as he could - until he couldn’t anymore.
Since he died - the day before his 62nd birthday - I’ve been ever more conscious of time and of the things I can control and the things I cannot during my time on this planet.
Choices versus just life.
I have been hyper-aware of my own mental state wondering if and when that chemical imbalance of Depression - surely marked somewhere in my genes - might show up and throw me into a tailspin. Just life.
I’ve been ever cognizant of my aches and pains and weaknesses in my joints, dizziness in my head, wondering if and when MS might show itself. Again, life.
I am grateful every day that I have not yet experienced the physical brutality of MS or that dark hole of Depression. But, I also know that their absence in my life is no more because of my choices than their presence in my Dad’s was due to his.
The last year has been rough on all of us as we daily face new questions and determinations of what is in and out of our control, what is really a choice - doing our best to get through the day either way. We have been stressed and stretched in new ways and like never before. We have proven we are bigger and more expandable and flexible than we ever knew and at the same time more vulnerable.
Nobody asked for a pandemic.
Nobody had any control over a tornado or a derecho or a flood or a damaging 70 mph hail storm.
Nobody could have prevented 2020 in all of its trauma (and 2021 has been mostly more of the same).
Yet, we have done what we can do to get by - and for me, as long as I can do it.
For the first time in my life, I met a mental breaking point in December. I was never Depressed and certainly not suicidal, but something in that experience awoke my Dad’s ghost.
I rebooted for a few days and went back to work and life just as I’d left it. Back to grinding. Nothing changed. Nothing newly controlled. No new light.
I learned that as I kept pushing myself and kept grinding that something in my psyche kept getting ever so slightly darker and dimmer. Will this growing darkness awake those sleeping genes somehow? How long can I stay in this trauma before something in my biology gives?
A shadow sits just over my shoulder. Just out of sight. Just out of reach - telling me I best be mindful of where I come from.
And yet, as I openly and willingly talk about mental health with my children and with others - encouraging them and helping them get help - I find myself tested for the first time and failing. My hypocrisy around my own mental health adds another layer that dims the day further ever so slightly.
I must step up. I must control what I can control. I must practice what I preach.
I must listen to the ghost of my Dad and live the life I can while I have it. I have no idea if or when Depression or MS or another pandemic or anything else may come knocking.
Who knows what tomorrow may bring?
Today, I am fortunate to have choices.
I simply must have the courage make them.
At some point late in 2020, I was riding in the car with my wife - an unusually painful process at the time due to a bulging disc - and after a few quiet moments in my own head, I blurted out:
“I haven’t felt this…just…ravaged since Dad committed suicide.”
I’m not one for drama or overstatement. 2020 had taken its toll. The tornado. The pandemic. The school situation. The concern for family. The loss of a dear friend. The economy and its impact on my startup. The extra hours each day of work. Mourning my children’s loss of their school and their teachers. The isolation - without the alone time. The state of politics and discourse and democracy. The state of truth and those conversations with my children. The disc situation.
I felt like absolute dog shit - physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
Within a few weeks, we’d add a Christmas-morning car bomb that rattled my house and an insurrection against our government to the ravaging mix.
It’s been 15 years on April 27 since my Dad committed suicide. I have written extensively about it and have always focused my language around “living with suicide” because that’s what I do every day. But, that experience took a toll on me that was remarkable and long lasting - both confounding and clarifying. It forced a sort of reckoning with my understanding of my own sense of capacity and control - taking and giving me some of each.
I have the capacity to live with suicide.
I have the capacity to prioritize where and how and with whom I spend my time and energy and love.
I have the capacity to create and iterate through my life - even when that includes tragedy and trauma.
I can control where and how and that I allow myself to grieve (just not that I need to).
I can control the kind of people I surround myself and my family with.
I can control who I am as a person and how I live regardless of the circumstance.
I don’t have the capacity to ignore my emotions and just “get by”.
I don’t have the capacity to invest in shallow relationships.
I don’t have the capacity to be all things to all people or to be my best self - especially when I feel ravaged in my very being.
I can’t control that suicide and mental illness are facts of life.
I can’t control people who don’t or can’t or won’t love unconditionally.
I can’t control what life is going to throw my way.
With all of that, I don’t know if my Dad’s suicide left me a little more dead or a little more alive. At the time, it was certainly the former. But, over 15 years of processing and evaluation and prioritizing and growing in my own life and with my own family and with my own capacity and control, I am at least more fully human than I was back in 2006. And yes, sometimes that means more tired and more hurt and more ravaged and maybe feeling a little more dead inside. But, it also means I see life with a longer arc and recognize my own capacity to bend it.
So, I come back to my query as to the toll 2020 has taken on me - and surely on all of us. What capacity has it taken from me? What has it given or shown me? What control has it proven I don’t have? What control has it proven I do have?
Has 2020 left me a little more dead or a little more alive?
I guess I don’t know yet. But, at least I do know that I have the capacity to help define the answer.
See also: Trauma Without Tragedy (The work of 2020 is just beginning)
14 years ago on April 27, 2006, my Father committed suicide. He had no light inside.
Living with suicide for all of these years, I am ever aware that I have never had to fight that darkness - that Depression that ultimately consumed him, killed him.
Largely thanks to my Mother’s tireless effort, indefatigable will, and a light that is implicit in her being, my Dad left me a light inside that he never had. My Mom’s light continues as a living gift to me and all who know her.
Light and shadow go hand-in-hand to create form and beauty.
Today, I am inside - every day. Looking for light. Like all of us, thanks to the pandemic, I am living in mostly physical isolation. But, I am also “inside” doing a lot of work mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to sustain my best self and try to remain a light of my own, to find the essence of this moment, to be present with it.
A light defined by shadow. Shadow defined by light.
I have captured these images of light and shadow throughout the inside of my house, the home where I was raised, where my wife and I are raising our children - the house still full of the light and shadow that so defined me.
I am sharing these thoughts and images because I can. I am sharing them because I must. I am sharing them because it has been 14 years since I learned what darkness means and in that time I’ve also come to understand light.
I hope you find your light in these dark times, and hold it dearly, grow it, share it, that it may be what guides you and those you love out of and beyond this shadow.
Some days my heart allows me to dream. He’s still out there somewhere. Maybe in Idaho or Montana or Arizona - somewhere alone with his demons, but liberated from his guilt that they were also haunting others - the ones he loved. Alone, maybe thinking of us, free in his suffering - if not of it.
My brain knows better than my heart, but often in April - even before my brain realizes it’s April - my heart can sneak up and insert this vision. His birth month. His death month. A beautiful day. A big sky. A beautifully unsettling storm. An image of my Dad in some big country, feeling as small as he needs to, expanding as large as the day will let him.
I’ve said to many who knew my Dad that he probably should have lived life as a drifter, someone alone, detached, and free to move on when he needed to wrestle with or run from his demons of Depression, sexual abuse, and religious shame and guilt. I tell them that his choice to settle down with a family, in a place, to build a neighborhood was the hardest personal path he could have taken. But, he took it - until he couldn’t anymore.
He committed suicide on April 27, 2006 - a day before his 62nd birthday.
Suicide was the only way he could silence his demons. He was tired. He felt old. He had M.S. I sat with him, wringing his hands, scrubbing them, staring hollowly and telling me how awful he was, sobbing, un-human, not my Dad. He believed deeply that he was the worst thing that had ever happened to his family, to me. “I love you all, but I hate myself.” His final words scripted in his elegantly violent handwriting.
I don’t know if my heart’s dream actually makes me happy. I don’t know if I find it comforting. It just appears in April. I guess for a fleeting moment it makes me feel slightly less alone - a selfish indulgence. But, quickly, I’m glad he’s no longer suffering. I’m glad he’s not here - not even out there. The contradictions of living with suicide.
Some days my heart allows me to dream, and for a moment the world is different - slightly warmer, a little bigger, but not necessarily better.
On the day before his 62nd birthday, my Father committed suicide. I’ve written pretty extensively about this in previous blogs. Needless to say, I sobbed. In fact, I broke.
I was on emotional lockdown. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t want to talk. I needed quiet. Noise actually physically hurt. For the first time in my life, I understood what anxiety really felt like.
I was hunkered down. Surviving. It had been almost a year.
Around that time, a homeless friend brought a 10 week old puppy to my Mom’s house. It had followed him from wherever he lived - he would never tell us. But, our friend was drunk and this tiny, fluffy, adorable, little puppy was annoying him. So, he left it with my Mom and said she had to take him.
Mom had a dog.
Mom calls me.
I go see it.
I call my wife.
Now, we have a dog. I should mention here that I am actually allergic to dogs - but the sweetness of this little animal was an antihistamine.
But, wait. Ugh. What just happened!? I didn’t want a fucking dog! I didn’t want any new relationships! I wanted less. I wanted to be left alone. I sure as hell didn’t want to have to take care of some helpless little animal. I was having enough trouble taking care of myself at that point.
I had swooned at this puppy’s cuteness and I regretted it immediately.
But, then I started to love him - Augustus Buster a.k.a “Gus”.
But then, within months, we were at the vet. Gus had severe hip problems, probably wouldn’t live for very long - at least not without severe pain.
Goddamnit! I knew I didn’t want this fucking thing. This was all just a setup for more fucking loss and hurt and loneliness.
I was furious. So mad at myself. So mad at the world. So mad that I had opened myself up to this little animal - this creature for whom we were already predicting his end-of-days in his first year.
But, I also started healing.
One of my first blogs about my Dad’s death was entitled “Living With Suicide.” Before I got my dog, I wasn’t. I was surviving suicide. But, when I opened myself to loving him, as painful and frustrating and scary as it was - as temporary as it might be - I began to live again.
Today, almost 12 years later, we had to put my dog down. Cancer.
I sobbed. I broke.
I’ve not cried like this since I lost my Dad. I feel the horrible emptiness of losing Gus, but it has also pulled at something deep in the wounds from my Father’s death. I’ve thought about this day since that first visit to the vet. I knew it would be brutal. I knew my dog’s death was coming. But, I had no idea how badly this would hurt.
I miss my dog. I miss my Dad.
My natural instinct again today is to hunker down, but I can see my dog looking up at me with his big, brown, knowing eyes: “did you miss the whole point!?”
Life and love are full of fear and loss and anxiety and vulnerability, but they are also the source of healing and peace and our connection to something beyond ourselves. Life and love take courage, but also create meaning.
Death doesn’t take that meaning away. It reminds us of it.