I lost a college classmate this week.
We weren’t close, so I didn’t take it as hard as some of our newsroom-mates undoubtedly did. But at the very least, as a human being with a soul and with two kids, I feel bad for the wife and two kids he left behind. It shook me up enough that a couple of my coworkers asked me Wednesday morning what was going on. I told them.
“Don’t try to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense,” the smartest guy in the room said.
He’s right. It doesn’t make sense. On Monday he changed his profile picture on Facebook to a picture of himself with his young daughter, who looks like she’s probably somewhere between my two sons in age. They were all smiles. His timeline picture was a field of purple flowers. Then he posted an ominous final message Tuesday morning, saying many people won’t understand, but this is the culmination of something that’s been going on for 30 years, and he apologized for everyone he’s hurt.
Any time you see a message like that, there’s no question it’s time to drop everything and try to intervene. I’ve seen these kinds of messages before, and most of the time, someone reached the person in crisis before something irreversible happened. Sadly, this time wasn’t one of those times.
Brian was a nice guy. He had a contagious sense of humor and was always smiling when I saw him. More often than not, that smile meant he was up to something. In the newsroom, he liked being at the center, wherever things were happening, while I liked to hang out at the fringes, avoiding attention as much as possible. Outwardly, there may not have been two people in the newsroom who were more different. But I guess deep down, he and I had more in common than I ever knew.
Like I said, Brian and I weren’t close. It wasn’t anything personal. In those days, I didn’t let anyone get close anyway. I hid behind the paper and ink, and fought my demons in print. Literally, at one point. One day in Journalism 200, two of my classmates, Joel and Christian, asked if I was OK. I wasn’t. I blew them off, but I think they knew what I wasn’t willing to admit. Once I was ready to admit to myself that I was depressed and needed help, I wrote about it. The topic was a bit taboo, but for the rest of my academic career, people would regularly stop me on campus, verify who I was, and thank me for writing those pieces.
I had no idea Brian might have been struggling with the same thing. But I guess it takes different forms. Looking back now, it seems he dealt with whatever was troubling him inside by making other people laugh. I tried just about everything else, because I wasn’t as good at making people laugh as Brian was. Not many are.
It’s a long road. Outwardly I’ve done fine–I graduated right at four years, kept my GPA over 3.0, found a job, published a book, and attained the most respected certification in my field. By almost any definition I’m successful, so I can tell you success doesn’t cure it. I had a series of religious experiences right after college, which pulled me out of it for a time, but then plunged me deeper into it than I’d ever been before pulling me out again. Anyone who says religion cures it has a simplistic, unrealistic view of both religion and depression.
I’ve had to go back for tuneups two more times since. I was stable enough that the government was willing to issue me a security clearance, so I worked in the Department of Defense, where any sign of mental issues is as taboo as it is anywhere, for seven years. Still, when I needed a tuneup, I went and got the tuneup.
This last time, I received treatment from a wise Jewish rabbi who really zeroed in on cognitive behavior. He wanted to know what kinds of things I said to myself as I was thinking. He gave me a list of 10 common cognitive errors–identified in the popular book Feeling Good by David Burns, M.D.–and identified a trio that I was especially prone to doing. My issues were mind reading, fortune telling, and should statements. Other people probably battle different ones, but that trio was fitting. It matched my creative streak.
In my case, I found that when I can avoid trying to guess what might happen, or what someone else was thinking, and be satisfied with just not knowing, it helps a lot. What we don’t know is usually much better than we think. Doing my best to eliminate the word “should” helped even more. We beat ourselves up with that word way too much, and saying, “I wish I’d taken the highway” is a lot easier on our minds than saying, “I should have taken the highway.” Why should you have taken the highway? You didn’t know the other road was closed, and besides, that road has worked out better at times in the past, right?
See? “Should” can lead you right into fortune telling, can’t it? I don’t even like saying “should” in regards to machines anymore. I’d much rather say, “That usually works” than “That should work.”
In a song I wrote in 1997, I said there’s no such thing as an easy cure. And maybe that’s true, but getting rid of “should” is the closest I ever found.
I don’t know what troubled Brian, and to speculate would be fortune telling–if I’m not already guilty of that. But clearly something troubled him, and from what he wrote, he struggled even longer than I did.
I’m not here to tell you it’s easy, because it isn’t. Getting overwhelmed is a big part of my job description these days, for better and for worse. My job is to get less overwhelmed than the other guy and fix it before he would. And I won’t lie to you: Sometimes it wears on me.
But help is out there. It’s not a sign of weakness to use it. Used copies of Feeling Good sell for four bucks on Amazon, shipped. Therapy is expensive but worth it if books aren’t enough.
I’ve also feared at different times in life that I would lose that creative streak and imagination if I ever beat those demons back. That’s a lie. It’s not about losing your creative streak. It’s about not turning it against yourself. If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing, that would be it. It would be nice if I could add, “And tell Brian too.”
Just reach for it. It’s much better than the alternative.