Thursday, August 30, 2012

800 Words: Dear Sage - An FLC Letter

Dear Sage,

One of your murderers must now say goodbye to you having only heard of your murder two years after it happened.  Roughly six months after I broke off contact with you, you jumped in front of a train just like Anna Karenina. I hope it was as quick as you  clearly meant for it to be, but however quick it was, and whatever better place you may be in right now, I can’t help it if I feel responsible. I failed you, just as so many others did.

By your own telling, your parents were as ill-equipped to understand the nature of your illness as any parents could be.  You were left alone, utterly unattended, kicked out of community college and living by yourself on a miniscule stipend with barely a friend for comfort. It was then that you reached out to me. I cannot lie, I dreaded your phone calls – knowing that my nights would be over the moment you called because I first had to talk you up from your horrendous depression, and then listen to your rambling conspiracy theories about the resurrection of international communism or some class of illuminati you planned to join by enlisting in the CIA (never mind how contradictory your theories were). To hear this once-great mind which could write a Dante parody that would impress the original and expound on the greatness of Moby Dick or mathematics with an eloquence that could astound the world was too tragic to bear. Every time I hung up the phone, I could only think to myself ‘there but by the grace of the flying spaghetti monster go I.’

Your calls became more frequent, your obsessions still odder, and then you left a message on my facebook wall and my voicemail so creepily bizarre, and spoken in such an inhuman monotone…. I seized the opportunity and did the ultimate immature signoff – the facebook de-friend – and never returned your next hysterically emotional voicemail, the tone of which will now haunt me forever.  After that, I half expected you to show up on my doorstep unannounced for a year afterward. When that never happened, I figured that you did what we all had to do at Hyde – you found a way to keep going. Against odds that seemed overwhelming, I and so many others we knew found ways to keep clawing at life even after the thousand times when we thought it might as well be over. Perhaps I’ve become too accustomed to the thought that life, as difficult as it is, can be endured.

Yours is the tenth death of a student I’ve heard of from my time at Hyde (that I can remember): Ian Worth, Maggie Miller, Al Vico, Jeff Boiselle, Scott Thomas, Drew Llewellyn, Jon Ogan, Meg Lavin, and Rob Ebling (the last one I now realize I forget where I heard it, …though I eventually told you, another terrible mistake I made since he was a good friend of yours…). One mutual friend of ours tells me he’s heard of at least five more deaths. Of the people I just named, the only people I was particularly friendly with were Al Vico and Scott Thomas – and neither were particularly close. The rest of them I felt somewhere between a vague liking and vague contempt. Nevertheless, every one of those deaths made me sad. At a New England prep school whose enrollment was rarely ever over two-hundred, ten by age 30 is a terrifying figure. Perhaps it’s acceptable when you think of the high-risk behavior involved in arriving at Hyde in the first place, but it’s still far too many. I used to think I’d hear of another death every year. But I heard about you and Meg Lavin on the same day. As we reach our thirties, will the death tolls now increase to two from year to year? And which of my old friends is next? Is it me?

Even had you not reached out to me, and even had I not spurned you, I believe your death might have hit me harder than any other person’s death from those years could have. From the moment you arrived on campus, people commented on our similarities – in appearance, in demeanor, in the way we talked, in our interests. We were far more alike than I am to my own brothers, and to then see someone so close to a mirror image of myself reduced to such a state as yours… how could I bare to hear from it?

How the hell did kids like us fall through the cracks so far as to end up at Hyde? We didn’t need 2-4, we needed valets. I grieve for all those kids we’ve lost, but I grieve for you more – because you were smarter, because you could have contributed more, because the world will never know how many dark places such a brilliant mind could illuminate. Of all those cruelties Hyde perpetrated, was there anything so cruel as to tell smart kids whose problems originated in part from encountering bullies that our problems were no different from theirs’? The bullies at Hyde always flourished, because they found new ways to bully everybody else. But the smart, introverted kids who just needed a little patience, we were more bullied than ever – with even the moral high ground stolen from us and given to them.  

The true believers at Hyde were not evil, they were just idiots – dangerous idiots, but idiots nevertheless. They weren’t interested in money, they were interested in converts, and they believed every word they told us. They were weak people who needed a system to fall back on as badly as you did at the end. Had their lives taken different paths, they would have fallen back on Opus Dei Catholicism, or radical Islam, or fascism, or scientology, or any other system which tells them that they could destroy a person’s sense of self and build a new, greater one in its place. And if the process of making that greater self entails monstrous cruelty in the service of a greater good, they administer it happily. If ideals are turned into crimes, the crimes are always justified. Those Neanderthals truly believed that they would make their students’ lives better, and another cruel irony is that in the cases of some particularly dumb students, they probably did. But for others, they made lives so much worse. The true believers lied to us by saying that they were doing good, and the smarter people at Hyde lied to the true believers by telling them we believed their idiocies. I was too depressed, crazy, delusional even, at that point in my life to keep up the wall of doubt to everything I was told – sometimes I even believed their lies. But you, far more self-confident at that point in your life, were never taken in by those morons, and oh how I envy you now.

Yes, Sage, I envy you. I don’t envy your end, but I envy your mind. The average Hyde kid was not exactly a genius, and any conversation with someone of above-average intelligence in those years was worth its weight in gold to a kid so starved for real education as I was. But to this day, I maintain that your mind at its best could have held its own with the highest of Harvard and MIT. I was a mere LD kid who could (and can) only operate the right-side-of-my-brain, but your mind was a pristine engine. You could have succeeded in anything – as a scientist, mathematician, writer, businessman, lawyer, whatever you decided to do. But like so many brilliant lights in this world, it came in fragile casing – and by the time you returned to my life, the bulb was broken.

Would you have gone off the deep end without Hyde? Almost certainly. Hyde already has enough to answer for without being called to answer for the things it didn’t do. But I can’t help it if the thought occurs to me that you might not have gone that far… Hyde is the last organization that should be consulted in how to deal with mental illness. And I’m absolutely convinced that anyone already nursing such an illness is that much more likely to contract a worse one by being there. All those years, you were clearly nursing the potential for an illness far greater than we even knew. Some people with great minds have all the luck; their brilliance is born to the right circumstances, nurtured correctly by family, noticed by the right friends, and they end up getting honorary degrees at Yale. Others end up ramming themselves into a train, forgotten by the world even before they had a chance to be remembered.

Would anyone who knew us then have thought that you’d be dead and I’d be the one … at least remotely approaching a success? Like you, I live alone. Unlike you, I have a family that is reasonably understanding of our condition. I don’t know how much help I am, but I’m a partner in the family business, I have more friends than I ever know what to do with, I have creative outlets, I have a second job as a choral conductor and also free-lance as a violinist. I write every day, and I have never known a better remedy for keeping the dogs at bay. For the moment, I can honestly say that life has blessed me rather well, and now more than ever I can only wish that it did the same for you.

Six-and-a-half years ago, I watched a friend and neighbor sink further and further into depression – every day withdrawing a little more into his private world until he finally no longer responded to people’s queries. I recognized the symptoms, but I did nothing – thinking that as it does for me, the black dog would somehow let up before it became too serious to return from.  One day, I was stunned to find him coming into my room, he was even talking, telling us ‘I’m going away for a while, you won’t see me for a long time…’, I was too stunned to say anything back, and yet I still did not put two and two together. An hour-and-a-half later, Alex had jumped to his death from his fifth-floor apartment in Southern Israel. How could I be so blind, yet again, to the symptoms? I cannot fool myself any longer, it is all too possible that one day the person with these symptoms will be me, and other people will be just as blind. I have no way of knowing if or when, and it certainly won’t be any time soon. But even in my most joyful moments (and I’ve known enough), I can no longer forget that that agony may lurk round the corner. Nevertheless, to this moment, I can still say to the Black Dog and all its bites, ‘Not Yet!’

Depression is the cruelest of all possible illnesses; I truly believe that and probably always will. It is the only illness in the world that renders it impossible to recognize any way in which we are still blessed. It cuts through all rationality and all reality, causing us to see the world only through its prism – and like barbed wire, the harder we try to free ourselves of its tangle, the more it entangles us. There is no thinking oneself out of depression; there are only small preventative steps which we can take that can hopefully appease it. Because for all our developments in science, we still know barely more about the human brain than we did in the Middle Ages.

I have to be realistic, one day, this illness may claim me just as it did you and Alex. If this illness were ever to return with a virulence I’ve still never known, I can only hope that we meet in a better world – a world we can both embrace with nothing but joy. Wherever it will be, if it’s not a world without depression then I don’t want to go. There, flying spaghetti monster be praised, our minds can no longer torment us. Goodbye Sage and I hope you’re happier now. We all do.



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