They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

My Storybook Life (Free Fiction)

My Storybook Life

A.J. Brown

I had never seen the guy before. Not once on the streets or by chance at the mall or a fast food joint where he took my order, or maybe, placed an order beside me. For the life of me, I can’t even remember what he looked like. Was he young or old? Ugly or attractive? Did he have hair on his head (and if he didn’t, did he have hair on his face)? I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to.

What I can tell you about is what he did for me.  

Like I said, I’d never seen the guy, so when he walked up to me and held out the box I was caught off guard. Maybe I looked at him with an expression of shock or maybe I took a step back and regarded him with suspicion. Yeah, I think that’s how I looked at him, with slightly squinted eyes and lips stretched into a tight line.  The backward step was more revulsion than reaction—yeah, sad to say, but it’s true.  

As I sit here now, thinking about it, I believe the guy was homeless. I think he wore a tattered long coat and black shoes that probably had holes in the soles (and maybe he had a hole in his soul—or was it me?) and gloves missing the fingers. And if my mind keeps imagining things, then the guy had more hair on his face than on his head and that hair was dirty gray and black. His face was gaunt, as if he had lost a lot of weight too quick for his own good.

In those gloved hands he held a rectangular box, like something a shirt would come in at Christmas time or a birthday. He held it out to me, his ancient, colorless eyes begging me to take it.

“No, thank you,” I said and tried to go around him.

He sidestepped with me, the box still held out.  “Please,” he said. “You need this more than I do.”

I laughed. Do you understand that? I laughed at a homeless man. Listen to me.  My mind may have imagined his looks and probably the stench wafting off him or even what color he was, because in truth, like I said earlier, I can’t remember any of the finger details of his appearance. But I can tell you this for certain, I laughed at a homeless man, right in his ancient, dirty, face.

“I need something more than you do?” I asked, the laugh still in my voice. “I doubt it.”

I think he smiled beneath his beard (again, the old imagination told me that’s what he did). Still, he held the box out to me.  

“Take it,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

I don’t know why I reached out, but I did, and I took the box. I looked at it hard. It was, indeed, nothing more than a shirt box. YOUR LIFE was scrawled on it in black marker in a childish script that could have been drawn by a three-year-old.

“Your life?” I chuckled. “Why would I want a book about your life?” I looked up at him, but he was gone … just gone.

An eerie chill swept over me and my skin danced as if I had been jolted by a current of electricity. I scanned the street, the cars that lined it, the buildings, the benches near bus stops and street lamps that would soon shine yellow light down in cones along the sidewalk. I thought, maybe, I would see him hurrying away, cackling like one of the wicked witches. I didn’t see him. Just like he appeared in front of me, he vanished without me really noticing.

Slowly, I walked off, the box held out in front of me as if it were a snake and I was terrified it might strike me at any moment. I almost tossed the box in the trash but stopped short of doing that. I’ve never been all that superstitious, but I was scared to get rid of it. 

Back home, I set the box on the table—it was nothing more than a card table I had picked up off the side of the road one day—and went to the kitchen sink.  I filled a glass with water and drank it down, then I reached into the refrigerator where a case of beer sat on the bottom shelf with nothing else around it. The box had been torn open at the top and my hand slid into it, found a one of the cans and pulled it free of its prison. I popped the top and drank it down, stopping only to wipe my chin. I crumpled the can and tossed it at the trashcan near the stove, missing it altogether. It clattered on the floor and the sound felt too loud. I looked at the box, expecting it to scold me for making such a racket. 

I reached back into the refrigerator, grabbed a second beer. Another one followed it.  

Three. I stopped after the third beer and walked over to my fold up table. I sat in the lone chair. It groaned beneath my weight, and for a brief second, I thought it would give way and spill me to the floor.

With breath held, I touched the top of the box, traced my fingers along the words YOUR LIFE. I could almost feel the letters beneath my fingertips. I laughed nervously as I thought of the man who gave it to me. Was he dressed in a suit and tie? Maybe he was a skateboarder with tattoos and wearing Converse shoes and a shirt that said Dookie on it. Maybe he was a she? I can’t remember. I don’t think I really wanted to.

Open it, my mind whispered.

“No,” I whispered back.

It’s a gift, Stewart.

“Is it?” I wasn’t so certain it was. What if it was a trick, a joke? What if there was a snake in the box?

Just open it.

My hands shook as I flipped it over, expecting to see tape holding it closed, but there was none. I flipped the box back over and lifted the top off. Even with shaking hands it came off easier than I expected. There, in some old shirt box some bum found on the street, was a book. It wasn’t a fancy leather-bound thing, just a regular book, with a hard cover and no dust jacket. On the front of it, written in that same three-year-old’s script were the words: The Story of My Life.

book-657630_1920I shook my head. All my fears of what could be in the box and the strange person who gave it to me were suddenly unfounded. The man—if that is what he was—had given me a book about his life. I shook my head and pulled the book free. I tossed the box on the floor among beer cans and take out food wrappers and dirty clothes. Since he had me worked up, I figured I would, at least, look at the book and see what all the urgency was about. Then I would throw the book in the trash, or maybe burn it, and be done with it.

I almost screamed when I opened the book and the front page simply read: The Story of My Life, by Lawrence Stewart Anderson. My chest tightened. For a few long moments I lost the ability to breathe. My mouth became dry and my head was light.  

I closed my eyes, focused on breathing and regained my composure. When I opened them and looked down at the book, the page had been turned and I stared at a picture of me when I was a baby. I sat in a diaper, no shirt or shoes and probably no service either, a chocolate Easter bunny in one hand, its head shoved into my mouth.  

I can’t say I lingered on that photo for a long while or a short while, but it was a while before I turned the page to see a picture of me in first grade, a cow lick Alfalfa would have been proud of jutting from the top of my head. The next page was from third grade and I was missing a tooth on the bottom row. The page after was fourth grade and I wore the same shirt as the year before, but I was no longer missing a tooth. I flipped through the book, the years passing by. That was when I was eleven and playing for the rec league basketball team. There was one when I was fifteen and on crutches and another one that was taken on the day I graduated high school and that one was when I … when I got married and … and that one was the anniversary in the mountains and …

The pictures flipped by until there was one left. Me, my eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed, hair a mess, five day stubble on my chin, skin waxen and sweaty. It had been taken on the day I had been arrested for DUI, and no, the redness of the lids wasn’t because of the alcohol, but because of the accident I had caused and the injuries that resulted.

My head fell into my hands as tears flowed down my cheeks. Images of my wife in the car, her face bleeding, eyes closed; images of the police as they hauled me away and as I screamed for them to help her; images of my wife in the hospital bed, her face and body battered; images of lawyers—criminal and divorce—laying out my options; images of me leaving a home, a marriage, a job … a life I had made for myself … and ruined. 

I wiped the tears away and looked down at the book. There was one more page. I must have missed it. I frowned. There was no picture on it. I looked around my shabby apartment, the trash that littered the floor, the clothes all over the place, dirty dishes in the sink. Back down at the page and it looked the same except …

At the bottom of the page were these words, written in that childish script: turn the page. It reminded me of a book from my childhood, The Monster at the End of This Book, starring Grover from Sesame Street. I had loved that book as a kid, but right then, thinking on it, I found I couldn’t turn the page. As much as Grover tried to keep the reader from turning pages and reaching the end of the book, all while using ropes and bricks and nails, the reader always made it to the end and the monster at the end was always Grover, but he didn’t know that. No, Grover didn’t know that and his fear (in my childhood memory) was as palpable as mine was then.

My lips were dry and I that tightness was back in my chest. My hands trembled as I sat looking at the page in front of me, at the words that kept me from getting to the end. I laughed, this time out of nervousness. Then the irony hit me. The guy in the tuxedo and top hat had said I needed the book more than he did and I had thought him an idiot. Who was the real idiot? Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.

A deep breath later and I did as the words told me to, and what greeted me on the next page? A mostly blank page. At the top were the words THE PAST IS THE PAST, TIME FOR A NEW BEGINNING. It wasn’t written in that childish script, but in handwriting I knew all too well: my ex-wife’s beautiful looping cursive script.  

I stood from the chair. There was no chance my ex would want to see me. And for the first time in years, I was okay with that. But I still needed to see her. If anything, I wanted to apologize for screwing up, for hurting her so badly. I picked up the book, looked around my apartment. It was nasty. Disgusting. Not what I envisioned for myself. I left the apartment, not bothering to lock, or even close the door behind me. I wouldn’t be back. I knew that then as I know it now. I will go see my ex, and after that, I’ll check myself into a clinic. But along the way, I hope to find the angel who gave me the book.

__________

Occasionally, social media can provide the right inspiration at the right time. Back in 2014, Chuck Wendig posted to his Facebook page where he said: *Hands you a box* I GIVE YOU A GIFT. YOU TELL ME WHAT THE GIFT IS THAT I HAVE GIVEN YOU. That led to My Storybook Life. 

I hope you enjoyed this story. Please like, share and comment on the post. Thank you.

AJB