I’ve struggled with the blues and depression with a small ‘d’ since I was a sophomore in high school, “the existential age,” as Tony Soprano put it to his teenage son A.J., which I suppose never really ended for me.
Some people are born with thick skins. Some people are rhinoceroses. I am not. I’m sensitive, ruminative, introverted, extroverted, happy, sad, and 100 percent bloody human. As such, life itself can exhaust me (see: news headlines and the fast-ramping chaos/violence of the world), so over the years I admit I’ve been prone to fantasizing about checking out and taking the big early nap. But I’ve never taken the leap because in the end I love my family and friends, and I’m passionate about all the joys that life guarantees.
For Suicide Awareness Prevention Month this month, mental health organizations in Australia and beyond have adopted the phrase and hashtag, “R U OK” as a way of encouraging conversation and reaching out, so I’m doing my part by confessing my low-grade melancholy, which is not to be confused with clinical depression, and letting you know that if you’re discombobulated by this world you’re not alone. Suffering is part of life, as the Buddhists teach and as anyone with any life experience can attest. What works for me when it gets too dark is to find something or someone to live for, and to take to heart the spirit of this quote, from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”:
“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing that the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
Works for me. I’ve also learned how to best navigate my emotions —
through music, writing, reading, meditation, basketball, walking, the power of positive thinking, healthy food, organic drugs, and paying close attention to the micro and macro human condition, which at this manic moment has never felt rawer. I also know that lending a helping hand and serving somebody or some greater good is good for the soul and psyche and, when all the noise gets to be too much, I recalibrate and go seriously inward and stoke the soul coals so I can later go out and be present around other humans.
September may be when health officials most loudly clang the warning bells about suicide, but for me it feels like it’s everywhere at the moment, from the book of short stories I carry with me by David Foster Wallace, who killed himself a few years after writing them; to the sound in my headphones as I write of “Naubinway,” singer/songwriter Adam Levy’s brilliant ode to his son Daniel, who killed himself four years ago; to the horrific hangover left by the Minnetonka father of three who killed himself and his entire family two weeks ago; to the seemingly weekly shattering news of friends, strangers, and acquaintances who lose their battle with the relentlessness of the big bad world.
Almost daily, my friend Jessica posts photos and memories of her son, Wesley, who took his life in the spring, and the grief and her mama howl melts the computer screen every damn time. She is inconsolable, her grief unfathomable, and whenever I encounter her white-hot pain I’m reminded of something a therapist said to me about 10 years ago, when the topic of my own suicide came up: “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” she said tenderly; “that’s like throwing your pain at a fan. You don’t know where the shards are going to hit.”
I can’t remember her name, but I can still see her blue blazer and soft face. It helped then, and it does today. Thanks, doc.
Her point was that you simply can’t know how one person’s life — and therefore sudden death — will affect the rest of the tribe, a lesson that has tragically played out in my family over the last year. Last November, we buried my cousin Ann and her husband Tim’s son Mark at Lakewood Cemetery. Of all the cathartic and memorable moments of the two-day services, one scene remains forever with me, that of Mark’s little brother Paul wailing and weeping into his big brother’s grave as the casket was lowered into the earth.
Thankfully, I saw Paul again over Labor Day weekend at our family’s annual Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge getaway, and now I have a new memory of him: A smart, smiling, exuberant little dude whom we all got to know better, thanks to a tragedy that no kid should ever have to endure.
That Saturday night, as his mom and aunts sang at an impromptu talent show in the lodge, Paul sat down next to me as I was talking to another adult about the meaning of Mark.
“What did you say?” he asked, having appeared out of seemingly nowhere.
I told him that I was just saying how everything about the weekend, and everyone there, felt more precious since some of us are no longer with us. He gave a quick nod, jumped out of his chair, and did a little shimmy to the piano player’s jump-blues. His silly dance cracked me up on the spot and I’ve thought a lot about that moment ever since, and about the gift of appreciation and seeing things anew that the people who leave us behind provide us with, and now I figure if little Paul can get up in the morning and face the world with a smile and a song, so can I.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org