So you want to kill yourself? Is that why you’re here? OK, well, I’m sorry you feel that way, I know it can all feel horribly, tremendously wrong. I’ve been there. I’ve stared at sharp objects behind fences and wondered what would happen if I were to jump on them and end it all. For about an hour or so at a time. Fun stuff!
Was I the only one who felt this way? The only one who would have such feelings? What can I say, I was a teenager and I thought I was unique. What I was was stuck in a depression that was eating me alive even as I found it to be so comfy in its absoluteness. Lucky for me it was a phase that I was able to put behind myself with a conscious effort.
My friend Paul wasn’t so lucky. He fought his depression several times over a couple decades. After a long battle he chose to fight alone, he took his own life. He wasn’t the easiest guy to know, but at his best he could make me laugh and think about all sorts of new ideas for hours on end. I still miss Paul even though it’s been over 10 years since we last hung out. This is for him.
Don’t Talk About It
Certainly the thing that Paul was really good at was shutting people out when times got rough. It was an uncanny ability if you could try to classify it as some sort of a skill.
“So how are you feeling tonight?”
“You been taking anything?”
“Goddammit. Can you get up to to open the door when I get there?”
These were the bad times. The times when Paul would just turn off to the outside world. Sometimes there was a slight gap you could coax into a minor opening, but usually it would clamp shut right in front of you. I’d swing by his apartment and he’d let me in, or maybe a roommate did, and then I’d talk next to him for an hour or so.
The responses were grunts or the occasional word. One time after a session of looking through his DVDs and pretending to talk about movies he said, “I’m not going to get up for a while.”
“A while? An hour or so?”
And I’d try telling jokes or talking about things I liked or even bouncing popcorn off his forehead one time, but nothing worked. When Paul got better he would refuse to talk about his mute sessions. He said he could handle it, he had his own way. I let it go even though I doubted his way was working all that well. He was surrounded by piles of stuff everywhere I could see.
This all happened in San Francisco in the 90s and the young and the brilliant people like Paul were concerned about getting more hours in the day to work on their dotcoms and go to more parties. The clever solution many found was crystal meth.
Many of my friends tried meth just for a brief bit until they realized that they didn’t really need to clean their rooms at 4 am or stay up for 3 days straight and just who were these people who were crashing on their couch? They smelled like garbage.
Paul never did smell like garbage, but his friends who were addicted sure did. They also had very gray complexions and the creepiest glares I’ve ever seen. As a bonus, they always seemed to have a scheme of some sort: identities to hijack and stolen credit cards to max out. More on that later.
One thing they all said about Paul though was that he was the Good One. That meant Paul paid for his drugs with his own money that he had earned by coding for hours at a time as high as he could be. He never resorted to stealing. Basically winning by default.
Since none of this was what was even on my radar as being something I would consider fun we weren’t the best of friends at this time. I’d just drop in for the occasional visit every few months and never give my real name to his friends. Once in a while the Old Paul was still there, but it was fainter, an echo.
Keep Hitting Bottom
I followed the advice of others and kept my distance, watching Paul hit bottom after bottom from afar. Maybe I should’ve been more proactive, but I was more interested in living life and enjoying the days as they went by than hang out in the darkness. One thing I learned from all of it is that as long as you’re living you can keep finding another bottom.
Paul hit bottom when he lost his job. Paul hit bottom when his friends stole all his stuff. Paul hit bottom when he got his stuff back, but blew most of his money on meth while celebrating. Paul hit bottom when his friends stole his parents’ identities and racked up massive debt in their names. Paul hit bottom when he started injecting. Paul hit bottom when he started sharing needles with people who were HIV positive.
That last one did it. He stopped hitting the snooze button and quietly asked everyone to leave. To their credit, they did. It surprised me that they were glad to see him try and clean up. They had no plans of fixing their own lives, but they still supported his decision. And Paul caught one bit of luck in not getting HIV himself.
So I got my last call from Paul asking me for help getting out of town. I came as soon as I could and helped pack up the things he cared about into a duffel bag. The rest had already been scavenged by his friends.
I dropped him off at a rehab house in San Rafael where one of his old friends was living. I didn’t even recognize the guy, he was one of the worst of Paul’s friends from before, but now he was alive and vibrant and so excited to be in the world. He had grown into a surfer dude with a surfer girlfriend and I couldn’t resist giving him a huge hug to congratulate him. He had a great raucous laugh and assured me that Paul could do it too.
It gave me hope. This could be the future for Paul. There was no way he’d ever be a surfer, but he could be Paul again. To be able to talk in complete paragraphs again and have our ideas ricocheting off of each other would be sweet.
But no. In reality I’d never see him again and he’d kill himself a couple years later. All of my emails to him left unanswered.
Deny, deny, deny
Paul has a unique last name. Not “unique” as in unusual or slightly odd that many people use it for, but as in singular. It was a hyphenate of two names I’d never heard of before, each from a different country. So a few years later when I searched for his name I find an online memorial right in the top 10 results. His parents had put it up after he’d killed himself. I wish I could say I was surprised or shocked, but no. It was the ending I was half waiting for.
I reached out to his parents and got a response from his mom. She knew exactly who I was and was surprised Paul hadn’t kept in touch. She also filled me in on what had happened since I last saw him.
Paul didn’t stay at the rehab house long. He went back to the Midwest after a week, using the TV money for bus fare. He also never did any drugs ever again. He was on the up and up.
After a period of silence, Paul did start to talk again. He started talking quite a bit. He engaged with the world and found a girlfriend. He even joined a theater group and was a big part of technical assistance for productions. He was doing great. Finally back to the Old Paul and kicking ass.
But he never talked about his problems. It was all over for him. Done. Why are you talking about that? Why do you want to bring that back up again? Life is good now.
Until something happened. I don’t know what it was except that it was sudden. Something threw Paul off the rails and, soon after that, no more Paul. His story ended. It could’ve had a few more chapters.
Paul is gone, but we’re all still here. Life can suck. Life can suck for long stretches of time. But there are also so many things about life that are just jaw-droppingly amazing as well.
Standing behind that fence and staring at the pointy bits of metal I had some romantic notion of a funeral. Oh, all the woe, just for me! Like I said, I was a teenager. But then something else popped up. I wouldn’t see any of it. Maybe I’m just not seeing the good stuff. There needs to be some cool stuff I just don’t know about yet. So I started asking people about it. What made them excited?
I got one answer from a drunken guy at a party: a spud gun. He described how to make a potato launcher out of PVC pipe. He went on about all the details and how fun it was to use science to blast spuds into the sky. A couple days later I found myself in Home Depot getting all the pieces. FYI, Home Depot people get really excited about helping you if they think you’re making a bong. Best customer service ever.
My friend Matt and I assembled the spud gun in his backyard and tried to fire it. Since we had no clue what we were doing, not much happened. A faint whoof sometimes, but that was it. We were robbed. The idea was just a drunken rambling of an idiot and BANG!!! Holy crap! We just took out your neighbor’s tree branch! Put it away NOW NOW NOW!
We couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the day. We had made a booming cannon out of some plastic pipe meant for plumbing. We were gods! Gods of launching stuff! Gods that needed to make sure to launch stuff in a generally safe direction and not point cannons at neighbors’ houses!
It was exactly what I needed at the time. An explosive reminder that there is so much out there to explore. There is so much potential and this was before the internet was what it is today. Now there is so much you can dig into. I’ve been lucky to have had many more beautiful moments and met so many wonderful people and now have a family of my own. All something my teenage self could have never imagined.
This was something that I’d hoped to pass on to Paul during our many conversations, but the message was wrong or the timing was off. I have no idea. Sure, I knew Paul was going through his own pain and just saying “look at the good stuff” would never change a thing, but I was hoping that by just being there I could show there was a possibility of something different. If he ever made the choice to climb out I could help out somehow and we could enjoy one nice day together.
I never got the chance, I can only say I tried.
Bye, Paul. You’re missing out, buddy.