Friday evening my phone rang, and I ignored it. I never answer the phone; anyone who knows me texts. Then it rang again, with a number not in my contacts. I hit the end button and set it down, and it started ringing again. I picked it up then, knowing someone was dead.
“I just got the news about Conor”, my boyfriend said. His voice was gnarled with static and shock, calling from Germany, where he was at some hacker conference. “Are you ok?” he asked. He sounded terrified. He said something about Twitter. “I’m fine, baby, what’s going on?” He told me he’d heard one of our friends was dead by his own hand. He told me he was with M. and Q., that they were ready to help if I needed anything.
I was puzzled. Why would I be in danger? I’m in remission, the longest, solidest remission of my life, over a year. And I felt absolutely no surprise at the news. It incorporated itself instantly into my worldview, without a second of shock. Truthfully, I was more frightened for Q., whose cherished young ex-boyfriend killed himself last year, and M., whose husband killed himself in 2011.
I logged onto Twitter for the first time in years and saw a flurry of posts around our friend’s name. “People are going to Neil’s”, I told my boyfriend, “I’ll go there, it’s just a few blocks away. And don’t worry about me, sweetheart. I’m perfectly safe.”
I took the bottles of some kind of liquor that had been in one of our kitchen cabinets since my 45th birthday two years ago and put them in a bag, and drove to Neil’s. He was in the doorway of his West Oakland Victorian, handing money to a pizza guy for stacks of pizzas. “Neil?” I asked him, an unspoken question, and he gave me a nod that was more like a flinch, telling me it was true. It was true, and Conor’s wife Ava, my friend, was a single mother to their four-month old daughter Finn.
I went inside and handsome young people with tattoos and piercings hugged me. Some of them were crying, some were in shock. “Worst party evar”, someone murmured periodically, and we all laughed bitterly and hugged each other harder. I sat with my ex M., who had dated Ava before she married Conor. SF is a small town, and most of the people in the room had been lovers. “It’s not ok with me for my friends to die”, he said. “It’s never happened to me before.” He looked at me gently, knowing it was different for me.
“I want to punch him”, I kept hearing people say. I couldn’t understand their surprise or their anger. Do people get angry at people who die of cancer? I have no idea; I’ve never known anyone who died of natural causes.
His friends told stories of his life, his brio and beauty and sweetness. I say I was his friend, but we were more like collaborators on the project of trying to keep his depression from killing him. His friends did things like go to the climbing gym with him. They got high on drugs I’ve never heard of in the desert with him. They drank artisan cocktails in fancy bars with him. I sat at his dining table and paged through the list of participating providers on the mental health care section of his insurance company’s website. I made a Google doc where I marked the therapists and doctors I’d called, the ones who were accepting new patients, the ones who sounded promising. I sent him texts like, “Did you talk to the psychiatrist about trying a different med yet?”
I was not his friend; I didn’t actually particularly get him. He was masculine, athletic, conventionally gorgeous, outdoorsy, and a goth in the black-and-chrome housewares/industrial music way rather than the tattered lace and Keats way. I respected him and valued him and desperately hoped his life could be saved. We worked together on the project of trying to get him medical care for the disease that was killing him, because his wife had the courage to reach out to her friend most qualified to help.
I was alive to help because a year earlier, after I’d been 5150’d into the Kaiser ER and trudged through Kaiser’s outpatient treatment program for depression, my boyfriend got me onto his health insurance. When I found myself preparing my will and saying goodbye to friends, I called him (he was in Germany, at some hacker conference, as usual) and he came back early, and I called my mom and asked her to find me a therapist and a brain-doc. I knew I had to change meds, because the ones I was on weren’t working, but the Kaiser psych staff had refused to take the risk of taking me off them. They felt I simply wasn’t “stable” enough to take the chance.
I couldn’t have begun to cope with the hassle of figuring out how to use the Blue Shield site to find a psychiatrist who was taking new patients and a therapist who was a good fit; I’d been sleeping eighteen hours a day and getting up only for my part-time job. Each day as I drove home all I could hear was death. My mom searched the site and made the calls and left the messages and made an Excel doc, and I found a doctor who could see me and was willing to stop my Wellbutrin and Celexa and try something new. He picked Cymbalta and it worked. I started talk therapy again, even though I was sick to death of it, even though I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was seven, because the stats say talk therapy combined with medication yields the best chance of relief from depression. November of 2012, I went into remission.*
So when I heard Conor mention being depressed at New Year’s, I wanted to pay it forward. I was so goddam grateful to my mom, who’d saved my life by finding me medical help as surely as she had when she put me on a plane to Hazelden in 1989. I made a coffee date with Conor, and we talked about depression, and Ava and I entered into a compact of what we hoped would be helpful communication around the situation. She was pregnant and working fulltime, totally unfamiliar with depression and life with a depressive partner, and she faced it with the fierce bravery that is her defining quality. We found a therapist he liked, his doctor adjusted his meds, and things seemed to be improving. I’d go over to sit with him sometimes, and embroider while he talked.
In July I organized their baby shower, and hoped he’d see her born. But there was a complication; he was using drugs and drinking on top of the antidepressants. His depression was killing their marriage. Desperate and terrified, Ava sent me a heartbreaking text. I came over on a Friday night to do anything I could to make the case for inpatient treatment. I knew that because he was using and paranoid, confronting him would undo all the trust he had in me, and probably end my usefulness to him.
But it seemed like I had to try. I told him over and over that his life was at stake. That he could die at any time. That his baby couldn’t be born into a house where her father was so distraught, rageful and intoxicated he was punching himself in the face. That his job couldn’t fire him for being sick with a mental health crisis. We talked about using the company EOP to get additional counselling, about outpatient programs, about his seeing a harm reduction specialist. (Even though harm reduction is not something I believe in. I was going to push anything that might clear the alcohol and benzos out of his system enough for his meds to work.) I talked to my therapist about it again, asked if she knew any outpatient programs that had sessions at night.
He was determined not to leave Ava on her own two weeks before the baby was born. He was determined to tough it out. He was young, physically perfect, successful, strong. He couldn’t imagine going into the hospital for his brain. He couldn’t conceive of going into treatment and abandoning his wife, of not being there for Finn’s birth, of risking the job he needed to support his family. He couldn’t trust that his bosses at a tech startup would recognize a mental health crisis as a legitimate illness. I said everything I could think of, including the things that would make him angry, knowing I was spending myself as an asset. I was out of my depth, at a loss, because I know what it’s like to self-medicate depression with drugs and alcohol, but it was a long time ago. I never took anti-depressants until after I got sober, so I have no idea how the interaction feels. I could understand his depression, but not what it felt like to be a man who wanted with all his heart to be the best husband and father he could. I told him it was better to miss his baby’s birth than her life, but he could not hear me.
He didn’t understand he was desperately sick, sick unto death, was what it came down to. Even if he had, he was a genuinely tough guy. He might have been as unable to accept help if he had had cancer that needed surgery right before his baby’s birth. I didn’t know what else to do. We left town for a conference, and the baby was born, beautiful and perfect, and I was hopeful. But things didn’t improve, and Ava sent me a text asking if I knew anything about depression causing intense paranoia. I told her that sounded more like someone who was using stimulant drugs and hiding it, that he might be lying about reducing his drinking and drug use. I had no idea what to do if he wasn’t willing to go to treatment. We saw Conor and Ava at parties but never together. They separated, moved into different apartments in their building.
Then on Friday Ava was on Twitter asking if anyone knew where he was, because he’d been AWOL since Thursday. I was nineteen and in San Diego airport when I called my mom from a payphone and she told me my boyfriend had been missing for three days. There are things you know, and Ava knew. There is no feeling like it on Earth. I fell, like a cup toward a tile floor, and my friends caught me, and we caught her last night, but it doesn’t matter.
My best friend in high school, Gilly, used to say “It never gets better and you never get used to it.” It was a joke, part of our ghastly jaded New York in the 80’s drug addict posturing. I used to come into school every day late, and at Stuyvesant you had to get a late pass if you missed Homeroom. I’d go see the lady in the attendance office, and she’d shake her head at me. One day she asked, “What are you going to do when you get out into the business world and you have to be on time for things?” I didn’t miss a beat; I said, “Oh, I’m not going into the business world. I’m gonna drop out of high school, become a heroin addict, and die of an overdose on the Lower East Side.” “Let me know”, she said, “I’ll send flowers.” Gilly’s husband died in the North Tower on September 11th, and like me, she is haunted by the dreams. He’s still alive, it was a mistake, he just wanted to leave me, why didn’t they tell me he was alive. In those dreams you feel ecstatic, then scorched with corrosive guilt.
Today, long after I dropped out of high school and became a heroin addict, long after the times the paramedics came for me, almost twenty five years into sobriety, I met with my mentor and she said, “Some of us, for some reason, are able to get help.” It’s that simple. Depression and addiction, intertwined and unbelievably hard to understand, are fatal illnesses. Some of us are spared for a while, some for a lifetime. Friends can help, community can help, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, postpone a crisis long enough to get the medical care we need. But what we need is medical care, and we have to be willing to accept it.**
A friend of Conor’s was devastated that she had been hundreds of miles away when he texted her on his last night. But if she had been there, she might only have been a witness. People blame themselves for suicides, but we don’t think we can talk our loved ones through a bad patch of cancer. People say, I should have known. But depressives and addicts are secretive. How many times did I walk away from a party, smiling brilliantly, holding it together, to collapse in tears in the car?
Some of us take a perverse pride in concealing our depression. I couldn’t stop myself from having the feelings, but at least I could control whether people had to see them, and that felt like the only strength, the only pride, I had left. The only control over the disease I had. Some of us do it pragmatically, knowing that if it people see it, it will drive them away. Depression is boring and irritating to be around. It makes people dislikable, the sum of their worst characteristics. Depressives are repetitive, rigid and frightening, and we know it. We put on a skin of normal to protect our loved ones. We make plans for the future because we hope, desperately, that we won’t have to hurt them. That we’ll find a way to cope with the pain enough to stay.
My boyfriend and I were at a Krampus party a few weeks ago. We were talking to my friend M. about her new job. “I was going to leave you my stuff”, I said, without thinking about what I was saying. Both of them looked at me in horror, but it was sort of funny to me, from the shore, with a year of remission under my belt. “You know, because you’d been unemployed for so long and you’re really good at selling things on eBay. So my mom and this guy wouldn’t have to deal with all of it, and I knew the money would help you.” She smiled at me, touched and completely understanding, but my boyfriend was shuddering. “I – I’m just glad I came back from Germany early”, he said.
I was glad he did too; it mattered to me that he came back early, damn the expense and the conference obligations, because he loved me. It matters a lot in our relationship, every day, that he did that for me. But that’s not what saved my life. His getting me on insurance that offered more options for mental health care saved my life. My mom navigating the nightmare of the American health care system for me when I was unable to, and getting me medical care, was what saved my life.
We are each other’s keepers in the aggregate, not individually. We are a net, not a bowl. You can’t expect absolutes from human beings. Not absolute love, not absolute understanding, or absolute vigilance. We save each other every day, except when we don’t, and most of us aren’t doctors. Help get your friend a doctor if you can, and maybe it will help.
*About remission: as of May 2022, I have been in total remission from depression for almost ten years.
Despite the world as it is today. Plenty of anxiety, distress and grief, obviously, but not depression.
**I wrote this piece in a single burst in 2012, from my position of white, cis privilege.
I saw medical care as the best response to depression, because it put the person in the position of being treated as a sick person who needs care, not a flawed person who needs to buck up.
But today, in 2022, I see changing the world as the best response to depression. Providing structural support to individuals and communities, removing carceral and white supremacist terrorist institutions, ensuring that human rights are respected and bodily autonomy is honored. Every individual in crisis needs concentrated support, but I understand today that medical support may be completely unsafe for people who hold marginalized identities. I know that medical resources may be withheld or come with toxic gaslighting or unreasonable expectations, for many. I believe in harm reduction, today, and that We Help Us. I still believe we are a net, not a bowl. But I believe in the importance of the net more than ever.
Many are asking how they can help Conor’s widow, Ava, and their 4 month old daughter, Finn. Please visit this site: https://www.wepay.com/donations/finn-turing-fahey-latrope-family-aid-support
If you or a friend is suffering from grief as a result of Conor’s passing, or suffering from depression in general, here is a page of grief & depression resources. http://finnturing.com/grief/
Rob Delaney’s amazing post on depression and getting help.
Allie Brosh on depression. Her experience of depression differs from mine, but this powerful and beautiful work of art seems to help many depressives feel understood and to help people understand depression.
A person I don’t know wrote an amazing post here :
about all the ways having depression is cognitively frustrating. It contains the deeply true and well-said phrase, “I don’t want to need medical care for my fucking feelings. ”