I like social media, but sweet Berners-Lee, people, the things you post. The other day I stumbled upon a message that led to the discovery that one of my childhood sweethearts committed suicide days before.
Without social media tools I may never have learned this. On the other hand, maybe somebody would have picked up the phone and told me, or I would’ve heard over a drink some years down the road while visiting my childhood home. Maybe I don’t need to know. Fuck you, Facebook.
The truth is that I hadn’t seen this young lady since shortly after high school graduation. She called me out of the blue and invited me over to revisit for an afternoon a childhood romance that came and went in the ninth grade. Our love was true for all of maybe a month, never outside of school hours and passed notes.
I moved away shortly after that afternoon, and she and I lost touch for close to thirty years. When Facebook came along she got back in touch. We followed the prescribed pattern for old farts on Facebook: an initial flurry of catch-up emails followed by an intense interest in each others’ posts that eventually tapered back to the general disinterest of people who no longer know each other.
And then I had to find out that she overdosed.
I immediately went to her Facebook page and worked backward through the flurry of RIP messages, past the family’s post describing the incident, and found my long-lost friend’s last post. It was a Youtube link to the Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You,” a masterful use of Youtube as mix tape if ever there was one.
Within twenty-four hours I was in a group email with childhood friends expressing confusion, guilt, and concern about people in their own lives who suffer from depression. I felt like an owl in the eaves while reading their conversation. I’m not good at collective grief, I was thirty years and three thousand miles removed from the situation, and the whole scene was like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.
During those thirty years I’ve scratched at the walls myself, a delightful cocktail of obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety leaving me on the brink of posting cryptic musical farewell messages more than once. The narrative section of Why It Matters is in the middle of one of those episodes if you’re interested, but that’s not really the point. The point is that as I read these poor people’s grief and helplessness I realized that they genuinely had no idea of what seemed evident to me based on my own experience.
So I jumped into the thread, and I felt better for doing so. I don’t know if I helped anyone but I tried, and that’s enough.
Do you know someone dealing (or more appropriately not dealing) with depression or other mental illness? I feel for you. We are genuine pains in the ass. Here’s what I told my old friends. If there’s something in here of use to you make the most of it, and for God’s sake limit your Facebook posts to crappy jokes and photos of your desserts.
First things first: I didn’t know ____ as well as any of you, so I can’t equate my grief with yours. You’ve lost a good friend, and I feel quite badly for you.
_____ and I played childhood sweethearts for a little while in the ninth grade, back when I was rocking feathered hair and she was working the Dorothy Hamill ‘do. She was sweet then, too, but even that far back something weighed heavy on her.
And on me, too. In the thirty years since then I’ve been on that same edge that ____ inevitably stepped over many, many times, and I can tell you with all confidence that there’s absolutely nothing that any of you could do. I understand and share the reflexive impulse to look for signs of trouble and things you could have done differently, but they aren’t there.
Those of us who live with big, hairy depression monkeys on our backs don’t make it easy for the rest of you to decipher what’s happening. Some of us mask what’s happening with one facade or another, others are so consistently heavy about what’s happening that it becomes sort of white noise. Either way — smiling idiot or chronic mope — you’re being unfair to yourselves if you think that you should’ve been able to decode that this moment was somehow different.
The problem with depression (or in my experience any mental health issue, really) is that the moment that you need help also happens to be the moment when you want it the least. And on top of that things like insurance and money and telephones and driving directions seem insurmountable.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bailed out of a phone call for help because some intake person wanted me to describe my problem. It’s embarrassing and humiliating and a hassle and honestly that’s all just the depression talking, which is why we go around and around and never get help.
What finally got me to some legitimate help is ugly, and that long-winded story doesn’t really have any place in this conversation. However, when I look back on that unspoken moment, a much easier path would’ve been to have a strong advocate in my corner.
I don’t mean a cheerleader, but rather someone who would make the calls, drive me to the office, deal with the accounting, pick up the prescriptions (another example: Several times I was prescribed meds that I never bothered to pick up because…well, because).
It’s funny — right now my daughter is walking around with a broken ankle. People open doors for her, carry her backpack, get out of her way, etc. But with a broken brain people don’t really realize just how hard it can be to do simple things like pick up the phone, for example.
I’d recommend getting actively involved in your friend’s/family’s mental health care until he or she is far enough out of the hole to want and be able to take care of his or herself. Don’t ask him if he’s okay, volunteer to set up an appointment. Offer to drive her there. Spot him the deductible. She will be much more likely to get help if she doesn’t have to jump through a bunch of hoops.