About a week ago, I was mindlessly riffling through Facebook and came upon a post from a friend’s wife. I don’t know her very well, but since she hardly ever posts anything, I stopped and read it. She’d put up a few pictures of herself with their young son and daughter at a table, and the caption was something along the lines of “enjoying daddy’s favorite foods on his birthday.” But my friend wasn’t in any of the pictures.
I knew they were going through a divorce. He’d revealed that to me a few months ago. It was heartbreaking news. My wife and I attended their wedding and it was beautiful. My friend was at his happiest then, the sort of happiness that could have only been matched by the eventual birth of their son and daughter. He loved them very much.
Ours was the kind of friendship that, over its course, had been interrupted by life a few times, most recently by my move to Chattanooga from Chicago two years ago. He and I met in Chicago at the church we both attended. We bonded early on over a shared love of comedy and theater. We wrote and even acted in a few scenes together. Then I got married and he got married. He and his wife started going to a different church, and for a long while, we dropped off each other’s radar screens.
But in the past few years, prior to my move to Chattanooga and after, we’d started to renew the friendship. We hung out a bit more, though it was less than when we’d first become friends. We went out for lunch. Talked philosophy. Attended a George Saunders reading, even met the guy, and we fan-boyed out for a few months afterward. We’re both writers and we talked sometimes about how, in 200 years, after we’d both won our Nobel Prizes, literary history would remember our friendship the way it remembers Lee and Capote’s, Ginsburg and Kerouac’s, Lewis and Tolkien’s.
We had something else in common: depression. We both dealt with it. I always appreciated how honest he was about his diagnosis and how it impacted his life. He never tried to hide it or minimize how bouts with it could rock his world. Conversations would occasionally go like this:
Me: How have you been?
Him: Not good. I was in the hospital because I tried to kill myself. How are you?
I’ve never been able to be that blunt about how my own depression effects me, how it morphs my thoughts and feelings, and even my entire personhood, into a much darker and wasted version of the me I want to be. I aspire to be healed of depression completely, but shy of that, I aspire to the level of extreme honesty about my own depression that my friend had attained about his. I’m not sure I’ll ever get there.
You’ve probably figured this out by now, from the tone of this column and my use of past tense in reference to him, but I found out my friend was dead. Something about that Facebook post by his wife sounded funny. Why would they eat his favorite foods on his birthday without him there? I immediately turned to Google, but faster than the speed of the internet, my gut told me he was gone. I found his obituary. And then another memorialization of him in a paper dedicated to Chicago’s theater scene, of which he was a part. Neither specified exactly how he died, but both explicitly noted he’d lost a lifelong battle with depression. I guess he could have been run over by a bus or had a heart attack, but “losing a battle with depression” is typically polite (and badly coded) lingo for suicide.
He’d been on my mind for a while. “I should see how he’s doing. I should call him”-those sorts of thoughts. The last time we communicated was via email, and the last thing I said to him was, “How are you? What’s been happening with the kids and your wife? I hope to be a better friend/supporter to you, just in general. Peace to you, my friend.” He died 16 days after I clicked send.
Beyond the sadness at his passing, at least for me, there’s fear. When I compare our lives, even on a cursory level, there are a lot of major similarities. Both married with young kids. Both writers who planned to use our writing to change the world. Both diagnosed with depression. So how am I still here and he is not? I wouldn’t call it “survivor’s guilt,” and depression impacts different people in different ways. But still, I wonder. His depression was obviously more severe than mine. But depression is a disease and diseases are usually progressive. Aren’t they? What happens if mine gets as bad as his? Do I just sit here and hope I get the luck that he didn’t, that what eventually kills me is cancer or a car wreck or a lightning strike? And not my own hand?
I miss my friend. Of course I wish I would have been there for him more than what I was. I can’t imagine what his wife is going through, not to mention what his kids will have to go through for the rest of their lives. I hope they find peace and I hope he’s found some sort of relief beyond life, since he evidently didn’t believe relief was available to him here. I’ll continue to consider, forever, how best to tend to my own depression. Monitor it, take my meds, talk about it when I don’t feel like talking. That’s all I can think to do.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.