Oh, God, I forgot the belts….
That’s the first thought I had when I read the details of Robin Wililams’ suicide. I forgot the belts.
A little over twelve years ago, I was working as a Human Resources Specialist. I became friends with one of the managers there, a young man named Andrew. He was quiet, not very social, timidly nice with a dry, sardonic sense of humor. We were “work friends,” meaning that we interacted as friends at work, but not in our personal lives.
Then one day I got the call. I was sitting in my office, doing my normal duties and Andrew’s manager called me. She had Andrew on the line. She was worried because he hadn’t showed up for work, so she called to check on him. She wanted me to talk to him because he was emotionally distraught and close to the edge. I anxiously accepted the call. In a cautious voice, I said, “Hello, Andrew. What’s going on?” He replied, “I don’t know. I’m thinking of killing myself. I was getting the rope ready when she called.”
In one way I was numb. In another way, I went into crisis mode. Thankfully while I was in college I had done some peer counseling and was even trained in crisis counseling. I continued talking to him, mostly listening. Letting him talk. Giving him the opportunity to let out whatever he felt comfortable releasing. Once I felt that he was in a calmer space, I told him I was coming to his apartment and had him agree to do nothing until I got there. I then transferred the call back to his boss and directed her not to let him hang up, but to keep him talking.
My boss was unsure as to whether I should go when I explained everything. I told him that I had done peer counseling with depressed people, I had experience (didn’t mention my own failed attempts), and I knew I could help the situation. His boss was adamant, I should stay at the office because it was too dangerous. What if Andrew did something to me? That possibility was the farthest thing from my mind. I was confident that he wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, but my boss’s boss wasn’t sure. My boss, although he was a jerk most of the time, finally agreed with me and told me to go. When his boss asked what he was going to do if something happened to me, his only response was, “Well, then it will be one helluva worker’s comp claim.”
I arrived at Andrew’s apartment. When he opened the door, the only word I could think to describe him was hollow. That’s what his eyes were…hollow. Almost like Andrew wasn’t there anymore. He was, but wasn’t. He invited me in and said that his boss was still on the phone and wanted to talk to me. His phone was in the bedroom. I walked through the living room, and the first thing I saw was part of a rope hanging over his bedroom door. The rest of the rope snaked on the floor around his bed. I stopped and just stared at it, a weird, unreal feeling filling me. I had to remind myself that I needed to take care of this, deal with my own baggage later. So I hesitantly, and painfully, stepped over the rope to get to the phone. I let his boss know that I had arrived, things were fine, and I would take over from there.
Andrew and I sat in his living room and talked more. Again, I just let him say whatever he needed to say, keeping my facial expression as neutral as possible. Given my own struggles, it was hard – and rather triggering – to hear some of the things he was saying. But I couldn’t let him see that it was upsetting me. That wouldn’t have helped him and would have likely made things worse. After talking for about thirty-five minutes, I got him to agree to go to hospital. I didn’t want him to be surrounded by strangers at this critical time, so I offered to drive him. He thanked me. It was the first spark of him I saw in his eyes.
We arrived at the local mental health hospital. After briefly discussing things to the admin, we were escorted to a private room so initial assessment could be done. After taking basic information, the woman told Andrew that she needed to know more about what was going on, and if he felt comfortable, she could talk to him alone. I started to get up, saying that I would wait in the lobby. Andrew looked at me and said, “No, please stay.” In that moment, although we were close to the same age, he reminded me of a lost child, desperately wanting someone…anyone…to take care of him. I sat back down and listened.
I learned more private things about him that day than I ever knew about anyone in my entire life. It was the rawest, realest experience I have ever had. Andrew didn’t just have a case of the blues. He and I actually had some things in common, although I had never told him. As a child he experienced sexual and repeated physical abuse. On two occasions a family member had tried to kill him. Once by stabbing him in the left side above his hip. The second time by hitting him in the head with a baseball bat, an injury that had caused frontal lobe damage. As if this weren’t enough, he had been wrestling with something that he hadn’t been able to control – the voices. He heard voices. Sometimes the voices told him to kill himself. Other times the voices told him to kill other people, just randomly kill people. He said he just wanted it to stop.
After he explained everything as best he could, he was admitted for inpatient treatment. I gave him a hug and promised to visit him the next day.
I couldn’t return to office. I drove back to my apartment and finally let it all wash over me, crying the entire time and even after I got home. I hurt for him. I hurt for myself. I hurt for the number of college students that I had talked to who were also on that ledge. One thing was clear…I was committed to helping Andrew.
I visited him in the hospital every day. Since he couldn’t leave, I would bring him whatever he wanted, which was usually cigarettes and Mountain Dew. I would spend my evenings just talking to him, letting him know some of my story, and teaching him different ways that I meditated. During this time he told me what the official diagnosis was – schizoaffective disorder. He had been prescribed multiple anti-psychotic medications, in addition to group counseling and individual Christian counseling. He spent his days working on himself, then would spend the evenings with me just trying to relax.
Unfortunately, his insurance only paid for two weeks of inpatient treatment, so after fourteen days, although he was not much better, the hospital released him under the guidance to continue the medicine and counseling sessions. During that entire time I visited him every single evening. His parents didn’t visit him at all. Along with his childhood experiences, the fact that his parents couldn’t be inconvenienced to visit him in the hospital was a fact that caused a great deal of anger within me. I seriously felt like the abuse was continuing. Even if it was no longer physical abuse, it was emotional abuse…the scars of which can be much worse.
The day he was released, I drove him to his apartment. The first thing I did was gather up all materials in his apartment that could be used to hang himself. Rope. Cords. Neckties. I placed everything in the trunk of my car and told him that once he felt more comfortable and wasn’t tempted to use these things, then I would return them to him.
But I forgot the belts.
The weeks following were tumultuous. He continued the treatment and tried to work some. He would come over to my apartment and hang out with me and my friends. Our friendship grew even more. Although we were only friends, our shared experiences created a bond between us that wasn’t necessarily romantic, but it was a type of chemistry that in some ways went beyond anything you would feel in a relationship. We were kindred souls. A memorable time was one evening at my apartment, we had been chatting and drinking with friends. I had drank a little too much and was quite tipsy. Because of his medication Andrew hadn’t drank anything but Coke. When he went to leave, we were standing on my porch. I tried to hug him, but in my slightly drunken state I almost fell the few feet off the porch. Andrew caught me. As he held me in his arms, I looked up into his face, and he whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall.” After everything he had been through and was going through, he wouldn’t let me fall. It was one of the most precious moments in my life. That’s how we were. Nothing romantic, nothing sexual, not “normal” friendship, but that closeness that can only be created when people find comfort in each other.
Not long after this, Andrew was hospitalized again. This time he recognized the warning signs and took himself to the hospital. He called to let me know, and again, I spent almost every evening visiting him (I did miss one evening of visitation with the second hospitalization). This time, his parents finally saw fit to visit him…one time.
As I saw everything that Andrew was going through, I had a bit of a moment of clarity. Up until then, and because of my own experiences, I was adamant that suicide was a great evil. Everyone who has these thoughts should get help, and it will get better. With Andrew, I realized that we had come a long way in science, medicine, and our understanding of mental illness. Unfortunately, we haven’t gone far enough. The bleak reality is that for some people, the only way to truly get the pain to stop is to end it themselves. I’m not saying that I support suicide, as I would never encourage it or suggest that it’s the only way out. I’m just saying that I came to an understanding where the sadness and anger over it melted away. I knew, without a doubt, that regardless of what I did, what medications there are, what therapists said…if a person decides to end it, they’ll end it, and the only thing that I can really do is be a friend.
So for better or worse, I had one of the most difficult conversations that I could with Andrew. We sat on his hospital bed together, facing each other. I told him that I had come to realize that with some people, even him, this is a decision that is made because the pain is just too overwhelming. I said, “I know that regardless of what I say or do, one day, you might make this decision for yourself. I won’t judge you. I won’t think less of you. I just want you to know that for as long as you’re on this Earth…whether it’s a few more days, a few more weeks, or until the age of ninety….there’s at least one person who cares. And if you ever do make that decision, please try to find a way to say good-bye.” He nodded, told me if it happened, he would say good-bye, and that he loved me. It was both the most heart-wrenching and peaceful conversation I have ever had in my entire life.
He was shortly released. Again, his insurance only paid for two weeks, although again, he wasn’t much better.
Because of all of the missed work and pressure, Andrew resigned his position. We accepted his resignation, and to me, it was in part a blessing. I knew that the stress of work would only aggravate his condition, and it wasn’t healthy for him. The problem was that without income, he made the difficult decision to move back in with his parents. This option scared me. With what I knew and the anger still brewing inside me, I felt like going back to his parents’ home was like going back to the lion’s den. It would be just as dangerous for him as work was. But, I couldn’t afford to take care of him myself, and he felt like he couldn’t “inconvenience” any of his other friends, so he went back to his home, the place with so many dreadful memories.
He tried his best. He continued treatment and given his situation, he applied for disability benefits. As happens too often, his SSI disability claim was denied. I was shocked. How could any rational person think that he, in his condition, was able to work? Even more, with having a history of hearing voices that told him to kill other people, isn’t there any other implication of having him in the workplace with others? Still, his claim was denied, and he became desperate. He wanted money so that he could move back out from his parents’ house. Yet, without the disability, he did the only thing he knew to do – he got another job. I was convinced that work stress would only land him back in the hospital – or worse – but tried to be as supportive as possible.
During this time I took a different job. I was just getting settled into my position when my sister called my office. Thankfully I was able to take the call when the phone rang. She said, “I wanted to call and tell you because I didn’t want you to hear from someone else. Andrew is dead.” I just nodded and took it all in, saying, “okay…okay…okay…okay….” When I hung up the phone, I couldn’t keep myself from sobbing loudly and uncontrollably. Thankfully a dear friend took me outside and walked with me, just being with me, until I was calm enough to drive home.
When I got home, I turned the TV on to a random station, just to have the background noise. I then called his parents. I had never met his parents because quite frankly, I didn’t trust what I might say to them if we were face-to-face – they lived over an hour away, so there wasn’t even the possibility of a chance meeting, for which I was thankful. But given the circumstances, it felt like the right thing to do. His dad answered the phone. When I identified myself, he gave the phone to Andrew’s mother. They had already had the funeral. The arrangements were made very quickly. They found him in his bedroom. It happened November 27th, the day after my birthday. She said, “I know we’ve never met, but Andrew talked about you all of the time. He really thought the world of you.”
After I hung up, I became very angry. I was angry that he didn’t find a way to say good-bye. Logically I knew that in that moment, most people are not going to notify anyone, once they have made that final decision. Doing so means that someone might try to stop things. Still, I was angry. I paced back and forth in my apartment, crying, screaming in frustration. Music from the TV caught my attention. It was a song I had never heard before, and it had a very somber melody. I started listening to the words, which made me cry even more. In that moment it was as if he was giving me my good-bye:
In the gloaming, oh my darling
When the lights are soft and low
And the quiet shadows, falling
Softly come and softly go
When the trees are sobbing faintly
With a gentle unknown woe
Will you think of me and love me
As you did, once long ago?
In the gloaming, oh my darling
Think not bitterly of me
Though I passed away in silence
Left you lonely, set you free
For my heart was tossed with longing
What could have been could never be
It was best to leave you thus, dear
Best for you, and best for me
In the gloaming, oh my darling
When the lights are soft and low
Will you think of me and love me
As you did, once long ago?
I don’t think bitterly of Andrew. I think fondly of him. I’m honored that he shared some of his life with me. I take peace in the fact that his pain has ended.
And that’s what it comes down to. When talking about mental illness and suicide, though circumstances are complex, your response should be quite simple. We don’t need your approval or disdain…your support or encouragement….your judgment or understanding. All we need, quite simply, is your compassion.