My friend David went missing in late July. I’ve known him the longest of anyone, since we were 15 years old, and we stayed close even after I left Michigan for school in 2009. Always we were united in misanthropy and sadness, but somewhere along the line, it was like I went out the front door into the world and he slipped unnoticed out the back.
It started during the college years, when we were all in our 20s. He kept having these frightening breaks from reality. One time on acid he went mad on the Wayne State campus and allegedly attacked a security guard; I found him strapped to a gurney the next morning at Detroit Mercy Hospital. Another time he flipped out in the middle of a 10-day meditation retreat and the buddhists had to send him home. At first we didn’t know what was wrong with him, because there were all these confounding factors: drugs, the stress of meditation—but eventually he got diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes. It’s an affliction that looks a lot like schizophrenia, with an equally dismal prognosis.
He was never really the same after that. The medications clouded his brain and made him lethargic and unmotivated. It stopped the mania but somehow made the depression worse. He couldn’t work, which meant he had to live on a pitiful disability allowance. Then his car broke down, leaving him stranded alone in a tiny apartment in Hamtramck. One thing stacks up on top of another, and after awhile it becomes a case of how much can a person take?
Lindsay texted to say she hadn’t heard from David in a few days. This was standard protocol. Many times before he’d gone off his meds and disappeared for a time, but always he’d resurface, the hospital would pump him full of meds and he’d be back where he started. I checked our gchat history and found our last conversation was about a week ago. When I saw he hadn’t logged into google in more than five days—I think that’s about the time that I knew in my bones that he was dead.
A day later, neighbors called the landlord to complain about a smell. They found him decomposing in his apartment with a plastic bag over his head. That’s how he always told me he would do it: with helium and asphyxiation. He’d told me many times before that he wanted to die and he wasn’t scared. He stayed alive as a courtesy to his parents. If you’re thinking I should have said or done something, you don’t understand. I am the friend you can tell your darkest secrets to without judgment. This is one of my few, unequivocal gifts. In the aftermath people said things like, “I wish we’d done more to help him,” but those of us that knew him best knew that it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t for a lack of love. It was something deeper, hideous and ultimately unknowable.
I flew in for the funeral. Somehow, my friend Travis and I landed the task of identifying his body at the coroners. I expected them to open a large drawer and then dramatically unzip the body bag, but these days you just go into a room and look at a picture on a computer screen. He didn’t look at all like himself. His face was black, bloated and without expression. When the lady asked us, “Can you make a positive ID?” we lied and said “Yes.”
Lindsay and I spoke at the funeral to a packed house full of people weeping. David was a gay man from a conservative Christian family. His spiritual beliefs were nuanced and intelligent and beautiful, so when the pastor said a lot of generic bullshit about how David had repented and embraced christianity in the moments before his death, my friends and I were, how you say, annoyed. Lindsay even got up and walked out of the room in protest. The worst part was when they played the most god awful rendition of “Amazing Grace” the world has ever known. It was dumb and sad, but I had the feeling that David would have understood and pitied his family for clinging to superstition. I weirdly thought of the part in the bible when Jesus says, “Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do.”
If I had to choose, I’d say the most surreal thing about David’s death was when his mother handed me a felt pouch after the funeral service with a mini urn of David’s ashes inside. I said, “Oh. Thank you. I wasn’t expecting that.” Later I watched her give one to Lindsay, and she said the exact same thing. “Oh. Thank you. I wasn’t expecting that.”
I don’t mean for this to be a well thought out and beautiful essay about suicide, or an advocacy piece for people with mental illness or anything like that. Those are fine, I’m just not up for it. More than anything else, I am filled with an ordinary, overwhelming sadness. I miss hearing his voice and seeing his face. I miss his dry humor and cunning, compassionate intelligence. I inherited his army green satchel, a few books, his tarot cards and his crystal balls. We had this in common: our obsession with the divine tempered by a nagging skepticism. Since it happened I haven’t dreamed of him once or seen him as a floating aberration above my bed. It makes me sick in the stomach, this feeling that he’s lost. That I don’t know where he is.
I’m not angry at David for hurting us. Nobody has an obligation to stay alive in pain just because we don’t want to face the suffering of living without them. And I don’t subscribe to common ideas that suicide is selfish or cowardly. I don’t think it’s noble either, but don’t tell me that the scariest thing in the world doesn’t take courage.
When I got home to Seattle, it didn’t feel like home any more. David’s death turned Seattle into the loneliest place on earth. More than that, it forced me to take an objective look at my own depression, how I’ve been letting it run my life unfettered for more than three years. I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t making it. My friends and family kept saying, we miss you. Come back. So I said, fine. Thank you for still wanting me. And here I am.