I was at the mall yesterday looking for a new case for my cell phone.
The guy at the counter was showing me a few cases from a stack and on the third one, he turned a sparkly, funky case around and we both caught each other’s eye as we looked at the label,
we both said softly in unison.
Perhaps because Spade’s suicide was coupled later the same week with another well known and well loved celebrity, Anthony Bourdain, passing away in the same manner, it’s a topic that has been dominating our news cycle, and subsequently has been at the forefront of my mind.
I just want to share a few thoughts from my own experiences with suicide, because if nothing else, I think it is something we need to talk more openly about.
My first experience with suicide came at 17, three weeks before my friends and I were to graduate from high school.
I was sitting at the neighborhood library after school on a Monday in a place we called “the Village.”
I was trying to recover from what had been the most traumatic thing that had ever happened to me to that point, losing the Provincial High School soccer final in overtime, a couple of days before.
I had been there for a couple of hours, deep in work trying to right size the sinking ship that was my second semester grade 12 report card.
It’s funny the life changing things you remember so clearly, and over twenty years later I remember every little detail about that afternoon and night, starting with the date:
Monday, June 2, 1997.
I was at at table with people from a mix of grades around me, when an erratic classmate walked in and started spewing at us the day’s gossip.
As he came at us a mile a minute, I tried to concentrate both on my math homework, while half listening to what he had to say.
“I heard Mr X did this in Science Class, So and so got caught smoking outside the science portable, oh and LB died.”
The last item of news was delivered so casually, so quickly, I thought I hadn’t heard right and had to ask him to repeat himself.
What? LB died? I asked disbelievingly.
Yeah, he answered casually, like he was telling me about what he ate for lunch.
I heard something about it from someone after school today.
To that point, the only person in my life that had ever died was my granddad. But in my mind he was old and was supposed to die.
My friend was 18.
Flustered and in a time before cell phones, I jumped up and started to ask around to try and find out if anyone knew what had happened.
LB was a friend of mine in my grade, and his younger sister L was also a friend, and had been on the field with me when we lost in the aforementioned provincial soccer finals a couple of days before.
I found a pay phone in the library and called my friend Jess’ house, who was also a good friend of LB’s younger sister L, to see if she had heard anything.
Her twin brother answered the phone and as I asked him breathlessly if he knew what was going on,
I’m not really sure what’s going on, but something is, he said. I just know that L just called the house hysterically crying and Jess ran out of the house saying she was going to pick her up. I haven’t heard from her since and have no idea where they are.
My head was spinning.
I came out of the library to get in my car to drive around to try and find them, when I encountered the sister, of L’s best friend.
Do you know what is going on. Did something happen to LB? I asked her frantically.
She looked at me sadly.
I’m pretty sure LB died. My sister just told me before going somewhere. I don’t know how though.
So with that I got in my car hysterical, barely able to see as I drove with no plan, and trying to find my friends. All I could think of, was if something had happened to my brother, who I wasn’t half as close with, as LB and L were, and I cried even harder.
Suddenly as if guided by the gods, I pulled on to a side street, outside the house of another one of our high school soccer teammates, when I saw Jess’ car sitting outside.
I pulled over, wiped the tears off my face, and tried to gather myself, and knocked on our teammate Chelsey’s door.
Her Mom wordlessly answered the door, and with a mournful face, said nothing more to me besides, they are downstairs.
So I walked down the stairs, bracing myself for hysteria, trying to figure out what I would say, when I opened the door and saw my three teammates sitting downstairs laughing.
All I could think to myself was what the fuck is going on as I sat silently as the three of them continued talking, laughing and telling stories.
Finally, likely sensing my confusion, L, LB’s sister looked up at me solemnly, and said, it’s true.
Oh my God. I said, my eyes welling up.
L began to share with us, coming home from school with her Mum and finding her beloved brother dead in the backyard from his own hand.
He had been getting into trouble and was sent to live with an aunt for a time in another town, but as our friend group was close, he still was a constant presence around all of us, despite falling off track to graduate on time.
It took every bone in my body not to break down crying and just sit quietly and hug L, trying so desperately to be strong.
I remember shards of the rest of that night.
We drove up to L and LB’s house. L, a bit of a wild child, asked me to pull over at the neighborhood corner mart and as she always did, made us laugh with her antics as she jumped out and stole a hanging basket from the closed shop, to bring home to her mom.
I remember sitting in her kitchen, as her aunt opened up LB’s address book, and in his teenage hand scrawl had a page marked, “Drugs” that his aunt proceeded to go down the list and call one by one.
I just wanted you to know that my nephew killed himself tonight, and what you are doing to people by selling your drugs. she would say into voice mail after voice mail before hanging up.
We all just sat in silence and as she went down the list and dialed number after number in a frantic way, like in some way it would bring L back. We listened and for a moment snapped back into being teenagers, silently watching someone getting into trouble, scared to make a sound.
I remember seeing a boy I had gone to school with in grade 8 who I had fallen out of touch with when I changed schools, on that page of drug dealers.
I remember my guy friends, LB’s best friends, coming to the house, crying. Some of them sobbing as they hugged L and LB’s Mom.
And thinking how weird it was to see my guy friends cry.
I remember just the feeling of shock that just radiated out of all of us as we just sat there, with so little to say.
I remember as I sat in his kitchen, thinking back to the last time I had seen LB, a couple of weeks before, at a park that we all used to go and drink at, and how on that Saturday night, I had asked LB for a beer and he had snapped at me uncharacteristically.
And then apologized a little while later.
I remember wondering for a split second if he was ok, because he was the kindest, funniest person, and it was so unlike him, but I was in the midst of my own teenage drama and forgot about it quickly.
I wished in that moment that I had pulled him aside and asked him if he was ok, and wondered if it would have made any difference.
I remember going up to L’s house every morning for the rest of the school year to pick her up for school, trying desperately for any act of kindness to take even a fraction of her pain away.
And the hopelessness of knowing there was nothing that could.
I remember that week, having our whole grade be called to the theatre portable as a grief counsellor talked to us about what had happened. I remember a tough guy in my grade, when the counsellor gave us a chance to speak, standing up in front of all of us, starting to cry and saying that he wanted to know how much all of us meant to him. That we were like a quilt, and that it would be noticed if one of the patches was gone, just like it was so obvious to all of us that LB had departed.
I remember thinking why did it take something so horrible to happen for us to tell each other how much we cared for one another and loved each other.
I remember not attending one class of school that week, and how our whole soccer team, best friends despite being 4 years apart, sitting in our coach’s counseling office, trying to make sense of something that never would. Our arms wrapped around L, as she tried to process her brother being gone.
The roller coaster of emotions as we would be laughing one moment. Crying the next.
I remember the funeral. The horrible, horrible funeral, exactly one week after losing the soccer game that for three days had been the worst moment of my life. Incredulous about how much could change and happen in one week as the soccer game seemed now so utterly trivial, replaced with trying to wrap my head around losing a friend.
I remember my teammate, LB’s sister L, hugging her brother in the open casket, hysterical, and having to be physically dragged away from him, all of us hysterically crying.
I remember in the midst of the sadness, one of the adults in front of me, as we were paying our respects to the open casket, whipping out his camera and taking a photo.
I remember the stunned faces of all of teenagers looking at each other as we had no idea if taking photos of the body was normal funeral protocol. Because the majority of us had never been to one.
I remember crying so hard I didn’t think I’d be able to stop, and not caring how bad I knew I looked.
I remember our graduation three weeks later, his parents bravely handing out a scholarship in his name. In memory of their only son, that was supposed to be up there with us.
LB’s memory has stayed close with me. We had a mutual, weird love of Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins who was both of our favourite NHL player, and used to be obsessed with all things number 8 and for that reason in college I wore 88 (8 had been retired). I was proud every time some idiot heckled me from the side for having a hockey number and gave a silent shout out to LB.
He’s been in many versions of my password for the last twenty years, as in some weird way in remembering him, I hope wherever he is, he knows that he will always be loved and missed.
While I was able to memorialize LB through soccer numbers and passwords, for those that daily lives are changed harshly and for eternity through suicide, I know with certainty the pain does not end once the funeral wraps up, but it is the beginning. And I think of L still often.
For anyone that has ever been to Vancouver and been on the corner of Main and Hastings, you know that it resembles nothing short of something that resembles a zombie apocalypse to a level that causes grief to the depths of my soul every time I walk down there.
Its the most bizarre blending of rich and poor, as well dressed people head off to their next appointment sidestepping the human carnage that lay on the floor around them.
For some the separation is easy, as it is a world that is far away from the one in which they live or they think anyone they know. I’ve heard some describe Main and Hastings as a place, that people have landed through their own bad choices. Like in some way it justifies or makes them deserve to be there. It pisses me off every time I hear someone insinuate it.
As for every drugged up person I see in an alley way shooting up, or out of their mind wandering the street, I see LB’s sister L.
She was a very very talented soccer player. And on the path to joining the rest of us playing soccer in university when LB passed away.
A few months after finding her beloved brother dead, she came and visited me at university on the opposite coast.
L always was a bit of a wild child, but losing LB set her over the edge and I spent a week trying to keep her away from every bit of mischief that is common place on college campuses at the behest of her Dad. And I failed miserably. And I worried about her and where she would ultimately end up knowing in my teenage mind and heart that her pain would drive her to a bad place.
There are photos of us soccer girls all reunited a few weeks later on New Years that year, and then L moved and slipped out of my life. Word came out over the years, that she ended up in the neighborhood of Hastings and Main, lost in a world of drugs, with some of her loyal and closest friends going down into the dregs of the neighborhood looking for her for years after.
Every face I see in that zombie apocalypse, I see L.
I wonder what horrible things happened to them that they did nothing to deserve, and that landed them in such an awful place immersed in the drugs that give them respite from the trauma they’ve experienced.
And my heart breaks for that reason, every time I am down there.
I’m brought back to that awful day in June 1997 when things were irrevocably changed in ways big and small for all of us.
Almost exactly twenty years later, we lost another friend in our same group in high school to suicide. Another funny, sweet, caring person who’s company I enjoyed every time I saw him. Who’s laughter and jokes also masked an immense amount of pain, the depths of which none of us had any idea.
It was the same sadness. The same pain. Same deep heartbreak for the parents he left behind.
Twenty years later surrounded by the same friends, sobbing as we said a goodbye to someone that we all wished again we could have done something to save, to have one more day and one more laugh with.
When LB passed away, I remember so clearly sitting in the counsellor’s office at school, sobbing. It was because I remembered my lowest moments of high school when I had no friends, and how I contemplated the option of just ending the pain. I just didn’t have the guts, or the mental illness as the push to get me over the edge and actually do something. But those dark empty, lonely feelings felt real. Suicide was something I thought about, like a cloud that passed through the sky of my mind but that I felt safe looking at, because I had the certainty that there’d never be action connected with the thought.
I told the school counsellor, through a wall of tears that I knew what alone felt like, like LB must have felt, and I just wish I could have done something to let him know I cared.
Similarly in the midst of my friend Leigh’s passing twenty years later, I was in the midst of another tough time, where I felt his loss more deeply than I may have had if my life was going according to plan.
I know that I’m lucky in a sense that I don’t have the chemical imbalance that gives me some safety that even in my lowest moments I have always been able to see the other side of the storm clouds.
I see a world though that is not built for people in pain. Last year I saw that in the times that the lifeboat is sinking and you’re throwing out a hand for someone to hold, that so many of the ones that you thought you could count on, pretend that they don’t know you as they turn their heads and take their boats the other way. Boundaries though important and something I understand, can also be filled with kindness, empathy and care. Something that our world so often seems to lack.
We live in a world buoyed by social media, that sometimes filled with positive posts and constant upbeat enthusiasm misses the part that pain or vulnerability or sadness isn’t weakness or lesser. That it’s normal, that its part of the human experience, and there is no shame in those moments of expressing that.
In fact we need to do it more and take the stigma away from being open and vulnerable. Especially from guys.
We need to change the idea that vulnerability and sharing feelings is not weakness, it’s strength.
And maybe sometimes we need to slow our lives down to truly hear those around us that are struggling. Or if it makes us feel uncomfortable, take a moment to look within ourselves to wonder why we want to run from someone that is expressing their pain. We may not save anyone, but kindness, love and a lack of judgement never hurt anyone.
See the people that are acting in a way we feel compelled to judge and instead get curious about what the burden is that they are likely bearing and if there is any way at all that we can help shoulder some of it for them.
Suicide is never anyone’s fault. Like walking into a burning building, I know what the heat feels like, but I’ve never come close to feeling that the walls were on fire trapping my way out the door. I imagine that’s what it feels like to someone that chooses to leave this world. The fire is right there around them and they feel they have no other way to get out.
There are no answers. Kindness and love and lack of judgement is a start, but the decision to leave this world is beyond anyone who still stands here.
But my 17 year old classmate had it right when he said that we are all patches of the quilt and a hole is always left the moment any one of us decides to go early.
LB and Leigh, I will always remember you and am grateful to have known you.