Two pieces of writing I’ve come across as I continue to wonder what happened to my friend and, at times, still not believing it.
First, NBA player Kevin Love, a forward with the Cleveland Caveliers. He wrote a very personal piece for The Players Tribune about experiencing a panic attack earlier this season, and more importantly, on how it’s tough for men to talk about mental health issues because of the ways masculinity is imposed on boys while growing up:
“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act. You learn what it takes to ‘be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook. And look, I’m probably not telling you anything new here. These values about men and toughness are so ordinary that they’re everywhere … and invisible at the same time, surrounding us like air or water. They’re a lot like depression or anxiety in that way.
“So for 29 years, I thought about mental health as someone else’s problem. Sure, I knew on some level that some people benefited from asking for help or opening up. I just never thought it was for me. To me, it was form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”
This part, in which Love talks about getting a therapist and digging deep into his past, uncovering a trauma he never properly processed, reminded me of my friend Tomas, who witnessed the heart attack of his grandfather as a young teen. I remember Tomas tearing up telling me about it. I got the sense he never properly grieved or understood why he had to witness that event that led to the death of his absolute favorite relative.
“Telling a stranger about my grandma made me see how much pain it was still causing me. Digging into it, I realized that what hurt most was not being able to say a proper goodbye. I’d never had a chance to really grieve, and I felt terrible that I hadn’t been in better touch with her in her last years. But I had buried those emotions since her passing and said to myself, I have to focus on basketball. I’ll deal with it later. Be a man.
“The reason I’m telling you about my grandma isn’t really even about her. I still miss her a ton and I’m probably still grieving in a way, but I wanted to share that story because of how eye-opening it was to talk about it.”
Love ends with an important point:
“Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing. No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside. Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need. So if you’re reading this and you’re having a hard time, no matter how big or small it seems to you, I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through.”
Read his whole piece here.
Was Writing About Suicide Cathartic?
So, I’ve been given a lot of feedback about my tribute (?) piece/obit for Tomas, as well as questions on how I’m doing. How am I doing? Not entirely sure. I get the concern, but I also want to scream: “This isn’t about me!” This shouldn’t have happened. Can we go back in time, please?
It’s still so unbelievable. I’m unable to sleep well wondering if there’s any way I could’ve known he was headed down this route.
Yet, for me, the writing made me feel like I’d done something for him, in letting folks know about what a great person he was. But I hate that this is what it is: I hate that he is no longer. It’s unfair. And I recently talked to one of his best friends in the world and that person also feels robbed. It’s just so tragic.
So I googled “Best writings on suicide” and found a great piece in The New Yorker by writer Philip Connors, author of a book about his younger brother, who took his life more than 20 years ago.
He says he’s often asked if writing the book was cathartic for him. As a published author, he said he gets annoyed at the question because “… it annexes the territory of literature under the flag of therapy. As anyone who has written a book knows, there are a thousand other, easier ways to make oneself feel better: alcohol, masturbation, adopting a dog. For ‘survivors of suicide,’ as we’re known—a phrase that I’ve always found most peculiar, as if we’d tried it ourselves but the noose slipped, the cartridge jammed—closure is little more than a neat idea.
“This is not to deny that there are private reasons, in addition to public ones, to write such a book. The private reasons involve an impulse to describe a portion of one’s experience in language that has a ring of truth, to see one’s actions given meaning and form. They involve an impulse to transfigure the horrific, the chaotic, and the merely dismal aspects of one’s experience into a compelling story with a pleasing symmetry and shapely beauty—in other words, a work of art.”
But what most touched me is this kicker on the topic in itself. I will be getting his book, All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found (W.W. Norton, 2015):
“… let’s face it: that’s why people shrink from the topic of suicide. It bespeaks a misery beyond words. We don’t have the capacity to imagine our way into it. We don’t want to hear how the suicide of a loved one elicits suicidal thoughts in those left behind, either from despair or from a desire to achieve a perverse intimacy with the dead. But most of all we’re baffled by an act that scrambles our categories of justice. It offends our sensibilities in a way that almost nothing does anymore. A crime has been committed, but the victim and the perpetrator are one and the same. That is the essential conundrum of suicide, and a good part of what makes it so hard to discuss.”