Love Lessons from the Heart of Darkness: the Aftershocks of Suicide
Updated: Feb 5, 2019
Like a TV crime drama, I go over and over the possible details in my mind:
The way they must have opened the gurney, lifted his body, placed it into the body bag, zipped it up, wheeled him out and into the ambulance, and delivered him to the morgue. “DOA,” the paperwork would say.
Were his eyes closed when they found him? Did he need a shave? What color was the skin on his face? What was he wearing? The questions swirl; the answers, most likely, will never come, and I need to make peace with that.
In the days that followed, I found out that Michael had hanged himself—with a bungee cord. My thoughts moved on to swirl over his task of securing the cord, the spot he chose in his condo, the state of his mind as he was tying it up, the way his beautiful face must have distorted from the suffocation, and what, in God’s name, could have been those final thoughts before kicking away the chair.
The desire for these details consumes my mind each night when I try to fall asleep. Morbid as they are, they allow me to color in the lines. That’s what details provide: a way to contain and manage the chaos that swirls when something is so unfathomable.
Michael had only been my boyfriend for what now seems like all of 20 seconds over the years I knew him. But the bond that we shared for the past four years was nonetheless something extraordinary. We were connected in the way that people often speak about soul mates, with the kind of potency that comes from a deep place of wounds that need healing. We had the ability to go months and months without speaking and then reconnect as if it had been only a matter of hours. We shared a deep respect and a sweet tenderness. He trusted me and I felt seen.
I was magnetically drawn to his unique blend of charm, humor, good looks—and darkness. I felt if I could heal his pain, I would, in effect, heal my own. But my plan was ineffective. He had placed me on a pedestal in gratitude and admiration—the kind one has for a beloved teacher or older sister.
Because I am a love and relationship coach, he got to know me through the lens of wise counsel (although he was never a client). Romantic feelings were not going to flow easily in my direction despite our attempts to make it so. I’m a “sore loser” however, and my heart found it impossible to take his decision not to be romantically involved with me seriously. If I’m so smart, surely I could teach him how to love me that way, I thought.
Eventually, my affections took on an obsessive and addictive quality and he became a limerent object for me. For the most part, I kept this embarrassing information to myself and this made for a challenging and somewhat dishonest friendship full of sensitive topics and emotional turmoil. I loved him through it all, and in some fantastical way, I allowed a small ember of hope to burn inside me for four long years.
I have learned in a painful way that we can absolutely be in love with someone we know full well isn’t good for us; the greatest dangers arise when we are unaware of this fact.
The still-wounded parts of me hoped that he’d taken his life in part because of loneliness and an inability to reconcile his romantic love challenges—something I could somewhat understand.
But this was not the case.
In fact, six months before he died, he had met the woman of his dreams—a beauty who was perfect for him in a myriad of ways. It was actually an argument between them that triggered an irrational fear of losing her and set off his deep-seated anguish. No one knew he was a ticking time bomb of self-destruction—he hid this very well.
One of the first things Michael revealed about himself to me was his inability to ask for help—a bad habit, he called it. It felt weak to him and his ingrained need to be a hero prevented him from softening his grip on self-sufficiency. I knew he struggled with his darkness and that he lived with the constant pressure of perfectionism and impossibly high expectations and standards. This combined with deep shame made it nearly impossible for him to admit that he might have suffered from clinical depression.
In her book Night Falls Fast, Kay Redfield Jamison says that she has learned that depressive temperaments (particularly manic ones) have: “An infinite capacity for self-deception.”
Eight months earlier was the last time I had seen him. His body looked amazingly fit from the strict exercise routine he’d managed for a couple of years, but his eyes told another story. I asked him how he was, in the kind of routine way one does, and he emphatically answered: “Great!” But his face betrayed his words and despite the regular exercise, he had aged considerably since I had last seen him two years before.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I first met Michael he was in an extremely vulnerable state. He immediately spoke of attraction to my electric smile (as he called it), blue eyes, and comforting temperament. I was a woman, he said, who actually listened and didn’t tell him what to do. This established the dynamic of our friendship, which quickly progressed to heavy flirtation.
Soon after, Michael confided to me that only a few months earlier, he had gone to the train tracks, stepped out of his car, and contemplated throwing himself in front of the train. But he had a change of heart that particular night and ended up spending a blip of time in a hospital’s psych ward. Antidepressants were the parting gift and he took them for about six months.
As far as I know, that was the only professional treatment Michael ever received and a clear diagnosis for his mental state had never been truly established. He often displayed manic swings of emotion but an accurate diagnosis will forever remain a mystery.
His disappearance from this earth has snuffed out so much more for me than just his physical presence. There are multiple deaths happening all at once here: the death of obsession, fantasy, redemption, idolatry, and the death of hope.
And so, I keep reminding myself—this is not my personal tragedy, this is not my personal tragedy, this is not my personal tragedy. To take it on feels like a continuation of the burden I’ve saddled myself with these past four years. It’s time to let that all go now. Underneath the pain, this is the gift he gave me—quitting him, cold turkey.
As instant as the cry of a newborn, life can forever change.
I don’t intuitively understand suicide and I imagine I never will. Yet with the suicide rate steadily increasing in the United States and the current numbers nearing 45,000 deaths by suicide each year, it seems we have a responsibility to bring it out of the closet, lessen the taboo nature it still holds, and offer more accessible treatment for mental health patients.
Many people think that suicide is highly selfish—after all, it may end the suffering of the victim but it typically leaves a wake of suffering for loved ones.
However, suicide is not selfishness in any ordinary—I’m going to eat the last piece of cake—kind of way. When we’re in that much pain and our levels of stress hormones are raging, we simply cannot see beyond our own suffering. A friend who has attempted suicide described it as: “The house is on fire and you have to get out.”
Also, according to the research, it is common for suicide victims to feel like they are a burden to their loved ones. In their distorted way of thinking, they feel like the world is better off without them.
Michael was a spiritual man, but in the realm of spiritual discourse, depression is hard to understand and rarely discussed in any non-clinical context. This strips it of its humanity and in so doing, further perpetuates the stigma and the judgment. If we could grasp the human side of depression, we would have greater ability to factor in empathy, compassion, and sensitivity where they are now sorely lacking in our culture.
The top five emotional triggers for suicide are shame, guilt, anger, fear, and sadness. I can certainly see how every single one of these played a part in Michael’s choice to leave this world. Without the ability, tools, and willingness to face these parts of our shadow self, there can be no lasting or sustainable relief. Everything good will feel ephemeral and distressingly volatile if we live with so much inner turmoil.
I hadn’t known that all those times we would discuss friends, family, art, movies, politics, or music we should have been discussing his darkness. I didn’t know that suicide was still available in his medicine cabinet for a quick fix to end his suffering the way others might reach for an aspirin. I didn’t know that this emergency exit still existed in his life. I didn’t know there was such an “acute eye” in the vortex of his stormy, chaotic mind. I didn’t know that he was consumed with thoughts of — when will this all be over?
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
Once, during a back-and-forth conversation in Messenger, he wrote: “Ninety percent of my waking thoughts are about wondering when this will all be over.” I was so disturbed by the comment I immediately picked up the phone and asked why the f*ck he would say that. He laughed halfheartedly and apologized. “I didn’t mean to alarm you,” he said. And this was part of the problem; he wasn’t being truthful with me or anyone else.
I honestly thought he was well past suicide as a viable option. It seemed he had embraced the knowledge that he had “stuff” to work on and was (albeit slowly) taking care of it. He’d been reading and learning and coming to me with discoveries and pride for his accomplishments. He was so enjoying the books, the lessons, and his new love of running and cycling. “I am deeply grateful and continually evolving,” he would often tell me.
I don’t know if regret is a thing in the afterlife, but if it is, I am pretty sure he is full of it—there were so many things that gave him great joy.
Michael seemed annoyed, slightly offended even, when I wanted to check in with him the night we all found out about Robin Williams. He didn’t want me to think of him as the guy who might kill himself. And so it seemed like his situational depression existed as dark clouds that would pass after a few hours, days, or weeks depending on the circumstance.
My stomach is sickened by the ignorance I carried.
Research shows that there are always signs prior to a suicide attempt. What did I miss? My guilt will hopefully be resolved with time, and I am cognitively aware that I most likely could have done nothing to prevent this, especially given the nature of our distance and history.
I so wish I could have been a bigger presence in his life—one who could hold a loving space for his pain, a judgment-free zone, an easy connection between flawed humans. I would have simply allowed him to be seen, felt, appreciated, and valued.
He once told me he felt he was a fraud, and I dismissed the comment as nothing more than a share of insecurity laced with a need for validation and ego-stroking. I had already spent so much time and mental focus on how to get him to want me that I was just done by this point. I needed to move on and detach. I felt used and exploited, like my needs were being ignored. My nurturing tank for him felt depleted.
I can’t reverse time and I won’t blame myself, but if I could go back, I’d be there for him, unconditionally.
It’s time to take the obsessive energy I reserved for Michael and turn it toward myself. I will honor his passing by tending to my own darkness. This is an opportunity for transformation and healing. The lessons have been gut-wrenchingly fierce. Like the long, slow pull of a note off the string of a cello, I will stay with this ache for as long as it needs my nurture. I will not run from the shadow no matter where I happen upon it. I am in awe of its power and humbled by its grace.
Thank you, for all that you have taught me, Michael. I pray that peace has found your soul.
This article was originally published on Elephant Journal