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Death Is For The Living

December 13, 2010

This weekend, along with many people close to me, I mourned the loss of an amazing spirit from my community. I’m not going to wax poetic about him, because it’s pointless, and a matter of perspective. But I am going to rail relentlessly against the fact that he took his own life. And I like that phrasing, because the loss of his life is a robbery of a heinous and pernicious sort. 

And I don’t blame him. If anything, I applaud and support him. I hope that in the moments leading up to his death he FINALLY felt some semblance of peace and control over his life, because he never felt it when he was alive. Wherever he is, I hope he has what he needed, even if it is as simple as peace and quiet. But god, it hurts in my chest, literally burning, when I think about it.

So why do I want to rail relentlessly against the fact that he took his own life? Because for decades leading up to that moment, this man suffered, almost relentlessly, from a disease so serious that it is not only fatal, but extraordinarily painful. If you watched someone die of cancer, and it took 20 years, and they were in pain the whole time, and you felt that people were looking at it with scorn, that your friend was filled with pain and shame, and that no one took it seriously, you’d be railing too. (I hope.)

So let’s get good and clear on a few things.

Mental Illness is a massive health problem.

  • According to the NIMH, 26.2% of Americans will experience a mental disorder that impacts their lives in any given year.
  • Of those, more than 22% will be serious enough to be called “mental illness” and merit medication and / or inpatient treatment.
  • By comparison, 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, that’s HALF as many.

Mental Illness can be fatal.

  • In 2007, suicide was the 10th leading cause of all deaths in the US. For every successful suicide, there were 11 attempts. In 2007, suicide was the 3rd leading cause of death of people between the ages of 15 – 24.
  • 90% of people who commit suicide had been previously diagnosed with depression and / or addiction. (Those often go together.)

Mental Illness is physical, just like diabetes and cancer.     According to the NIMH:

  • There is no single known cause of depression. Rather, it likely results from a combination of genetic, biochemical, environmental, and psychological factors.
  • Brain-imaging technologies have shown that the brains of people who have depression look different from those of people without depression. The parts of the brain responsible for regulating mood, thinking, sleep, appetite and behavior appear to function abnormally. In addition, important neurotransmitters–chemicals that brain cells use to communicate–appear to be out of balance.
  • Some types of depression tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic link. Genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of multiple genes acting together with environmental or other factors.

It’s been interesting to watch how people are reacting to his suicide. Reactions are running the gamut, which is not surprising. I understand all of them, but the place that I get stuck is the anger. People are going through what seems like a very natural stage of anger at him for doing this.

I guess I’ve been too close to suicide and mental illness, too many times. I’ve watched people I love slog through their lives in a state of constant pain and hopelessness. It is as hard to watch someone’s soul die before your eyes as it is to watch their body die before your eyes from cancer or old age – something I’ve also watched. I’ve never been angry at someone I love who slipped away from cancer or old age. I’ve been relieved that they are no longer suffering, and consoled myself with memories and lessons that I gained from them.

I feel the same way about suicide. As much as I miss my friends, I don’t blame them for ending their suffering, and I wouldn’t suggest that they should have held on longer just because I didn’t want to lose them.

Death is for the living. What will we learn from the loss of our loved ones? What will we change about our lives? How will we carry them with us and honor them? And in the case of suicide, what will we do to change the world so that others don’t have to suffer like they did?

Last year, when another friend committed suicide, I listened to people say things like, “he’s weak,” and “he’s selfish.” With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the mentally ill suffer quietly, behind dark doors held shut with layers of shame? And as long as they are hiding, afraid to talk about it, how are we supposed to develop understanding, that leads to cures – or at least to a compassionate society in which they can exist?

So ya, I’m pissed, and I’m railing. But not against the people I love who have suffered until they can suffer no longer. I’m pissed and angry at the rest of us who call them names, hide from them and don’t look for a solution.

As for those of us who are feeling the impact directly, not just in a societal sense, and wondering what we could have done, what we should have done. The answer is: nothing. We couldn’t save him. We couldn’t fix him. We couldn’t do anything other than be who we were to him, and let him do the same. At the end of the day, all that any of us can do, for anyone, is create a safe place for them to explore, discover, hurt and heal for themselves. We are not gods, not even for moments in time when we are so sure of the power of our own love.

But if we band together, and make a big giant safe place for people, then we can begin to see the problem, address the problem, and maybe even solve the problem. That’s how we honor those we love, and fill the void that their loss has left.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Delta Hranek permalink
    December 13, 2010 3:26 pm

    I love you so hard. This is what’s been going on in my head too. I miss him terribly, but I saw how hard it was for him to live. Not just wake up every day not dead yet, but to really be the person he knew he was here to be. I understand when people are angry and lash out, they don’t understand, they want things to have made sense for him like they make sense for us. But each of us has our own experience, and what makes sense for us doesn’t make sense for others, that’s why we have more than one religion, political party, genre of book, career path….
    I can be no more responsible for the end of his life than I was for the beginning, or anything in the middle. He did the best he could with what he had, and if that doesn’t seem “right”, well, that’s not something we get to decide, so figure out what *you* want to do with what the world is now and carry on.

    But by the gods I miss him.

  2. Ben Kaufman permalink
    December 13, 2010 5:19 pm

    Thanks for your thoughts on this Alyssa. They help and resonate in a difficult time.

  3. December 13, 2010 5:28 pm

    Thomas Brooks was neither glib nor pernicious. He said as much on his voicemail greeting. I love him as if he was my own brother. I feel sad about the things we missed together. He was supposed to officiate my wedding ceremony but a few days before he was committed to the county hospital for his safety. I feel a bit of loss

    I also had some really good times with the man. I need to cherish those and learn from those moments what I am supposed to. Thanks for touching on this subject. You are right on target.

  4. Bruce S - co-worker at AT&T permalink
    December 14, 2010 1:33 pm

    Many of us at work knew him, but only in one context – still, we saw what an amazing spirit he had – smart, and a smart-ass, and a sometime pain in the ass – yet he was unmistakeable in his ovice, his approach, his humor. I was fortunate, as were many, to embark on a journey of getting to know him. What is so sad is knowing that he could have lived, and made all of our lives richer – a selfish reposnse, yet I know that perhaps had he not taken the way that he did (and there is no way to know if he really had a choice), he could have had an amazing life.

    It’s a short time here. It can also be longer than you think, with so much more possibility than you can imagine.

    Here’s to Thomas. I’ll raise a parting glass.

  5. Molly Janis permalink
    December 14, 2010 4:41 pm


    Thank you for writing this. I knew Tombro from Burning Man. His memory lives on every time we bend over to pick up a scrap of trash left by another, something he never hesitated to do. He was a pillar of our Burner community.

  6. mometarily anonymous permalink
    December 14, 2010 8:09 pm

    Two months ago my grandmother died. She would have turned 94 if she lived a couple days longer. We rushed to the hospital that morning when the nurse said to come quickly, though we weren’t quite quick enough. My sister, mother and I cried, held one another, and gently swept the hair from my grandmother’s face. She’d had a stroke years before. Then another. She’d been on a long, slow decline in her health in the years since. We all (my grandmother included) had a long time to come to grips with her mortality. It hurt like hell when she died, but it also felt like she was freed of the body that had increasingly defined the limits of her living.

    Switching gears, I’m married to someone with severe depression. There have been the times when, arriving home after school pickup, I want to get upstairs before my daughter just to make sure that she wasn’t the one to find her mother’s body. Thank god that’s never materialized, but there have been days when, walking in the door, I just wasn’t sure .

    I can’t imagine living in that enveloping pain. It is enough in its diluted 2nd-hand form.

    When I was 13, a family friend committed suicide. My mom told me, and we cried together then, too. She was shocked that I wasn’t mad at him, but I could only strive (and fail) to empathize with his pain, and feel sorrow. I’m not sure how I would react today if that dash up the stairs was punctuated with an ending other than finding her sleeping with the covers pulled over her head. Like with my grandmother, I’ve gone through the mental exercise of bracing myself so many times… an awful experience, itself.

    Which brings me, belatedly, to my twin wishes…

    I wish everyone with depression can find the community, physician, friends, kick-in-the-ass, therapist, family, support and/or medication that they need to make substantive improvements in the quality of their life.

    If that fails, I hope that they find some measure of peace.

  7. Linda permalink
    December 25, 2010 10:46 pm

    I felt a connection to this man from the day I met him in AT&T boot camp months ago. His brains, his wit, his style, his quick-with-funny. Unbelievable. I can’t believe he’s gone and think about him every day. I wish I’d known he was in such pain. I’d have reached out …

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