I woke up one morning last week thinking about Paul.
It had been two years since my friend Cole had killed herself. When Paul heard the news he followed suit and took his own life. Paul had been struggling with a major depressive period and losing someone he loved was just too much for him.
I lost two of my closest friends in the span of six days, but there was no time to grieve. There were others whom these tragedies affected more and I had to be there for them. There were funerals to attend and arrangements to be made. Everything became a blur and soon two weeks had passed and I still hadn’t grieved.
Well to be fair, I actually did have a few hours of mental breakdown, but it wasn’t until months later that I realized that my collapse was related to my friend’s deaths.
The day Paul died I didn’t cry.
I was numb.
I was debating people in a political forum and several people were attacking my character instead of my arguments, as often happens in these situations. Suddenly, I got really upset and put my phone down. I went upstairs and just laid there feeling dead inside. My girlfriend was scared, as she had never seen me just lay down in the middle of the day like that. When she tried to reach me all I said is
“I don’t get why people have to be so fucking mean.”
After she left I laid there and cried and what’s funny is, the entire time I cried I felt like I was crying about the people who were calling me names on the political forum. I kept thinking about the words they used and they stung me in ways that I could not comprehend. I had been in thousands of political discussions and been insulted by strangers ten thousand times. Never did I cry about it.
It’s strange to me that I didn’t understand that I was really crying about Paul and Cole.
Cole was a really good friend.
I loved her deeply.
Once when I was staring into the abyss, she came to my house and dragged me out. She took me to strip clubs and bought me drinks that I didn’t drink. She paid girls to dance for me and I ignored them. She did everything she could to make me smile, yet I didn’t smile.
But I felt loved.
And that love helped me to crawl out of my hole and see light again.
Cole was a kind and gentle, yet disturbed soul and I related to her on nearly every level.
But the darkness took her and the black hole created by that consumed Paul.
Paul was one of my best friends in this life and his loss is something that I feel every single day. He would be shocked to hear me say that. He was convinced that his life had no value.
Last week the weather had something in it that felt familiar. As Carrie and I were drinking our morning coffee, I said to her
“This feels exactly like the day when Paul killed himself.”
I logged into social media to see what stupid-ass thing Donald Trump had been doing, only to see that Chris Cornell had committed suicide.
I would be lying to say that I was moved by this.
Celebrity deaths wash over me, with some occasional exceptions.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams devastated me, because both of them reminded me of myself.
I could always see them struggling with their demons.
When Spalding Gray and David Foster Wallace decided life was too much to bear, I felt a tremendous sense of dread in the pit of my stomach, for I knew these men saw behind the curtain much in the same way that I do.
But I was not moved by Chris Cornell’s death. At least not immediately I wasn’t. Instead I made a comment about how “the Mount Rushmore of grunge singers was now complete.” Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Andrew Wood and now Chris Cornell, four of the five most influential singers of their era were all gone by their own hands.
Meanwhile Eddie Vedder was still pushing words through closed teeth somewhere.
And I was still sitting here, trying to make sense of it all.
Chris Cornell’s suicide had me thinking about Paul even more than usual.
Paul and I used to be in a band that covered Show Me How to Live by Audioslave. I would always make sure it was last on the set list, because after I replicated Cornell’s razor-blade gargling screams, I could barely speak, let alone sing.
Paul was also on my mind because my guitars kept breaking lately.
In addition to being my friend and mentor, Paul was also my guitar tech. I am an ignorant musician who spent his life mastering words and melody, but I know nothing of wood-crafting.
Over the years, I would play the hell out of my instruments and eventually damage them. I would take them to Paul and he would give me a lecture about caring for them better and then he would repair them and then whatever he tried to charge me, I would pay him double.
He would always fight with me about it, but I would insist that he take the money.
Even at double-pay, he was still cheating himself.
Paul wasn’t very good about taking care of his needs and would go long periods of time without eating, because he didn’t have money for food. I finally figured out how to solve this problem. I would go to pawn shops and buy broken instruments and take them to Paul so he could fix them.
He would get very upset when he saw the damaged guitars and say something like
“This crack in the neck. How did that happen?!”
I would assure him that it was the previous owner who had been so cruel, but this did little to calm him. Paul took the mistreatment of musical instruments very personally. He was always so dire. He would shake his head and say
“I don’t know if I can save this, Michael, but I’ll do my best.”
Then he would email me constant guilt-laden updates on the status of the instrument.
“It’s in the wood press and I’m bending the wood back to normal, but it could crack at any moment. I’m really sorry, Michael. I’m doing all I can…”
“It’s fine, Paul. I appreciate your efforts. Thank you so much for trying.”
Paul saved every single instrument I ever gave to him.
But he couldn’t save himself.
Paul and Cole weren’t the first friends of mine to end their own lives.
My best friend Danny killed himself when he got back from fighting in Iraq and a few years after that I put Billy in the ground.
Billy was supposed to have a closed casket, but we told the minister that we needed to give some things to him, so he stepped aside and we put Billy’s Magic the Gathering cards inside with him.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I’m not sure I ever really processed any of these deaths.
I’m not even sure how we go about processing such things.
Paul and Cole died right after my mother died. My response to this was to hit the road to canvass for Bernie Sanders. It was so exciting to be part of something so beautiful, that I really didn’t think too much about those whom I had recently lost.
Then suddenly a rock singer kills himself and it all comes flooding back.
I’m standing next to my child in a pawn shop, playing a guitar that was probably a beautiful instrument once upon a time.
I hold it up and show them how the wood is bent. Our eyes meet underneath the strings and I say out loud
“Man, fuck Paul.”
“Yeah” they said.
In the middle of this swirling mess, I am fighting with one of my best friends.
She, a brilliant and reasonable person, is telling me why I need to believe in a conspiracy theory regarding a man supposedly murdered by the government. Politics is a big part of my life, but this simply was not a good time. She kept sending me articles and I kept reading them. It was all stuff I had read before, but I care about her so I read it all again and tried to see it all through her eyes.
I couldn’t get there from here.
It just made me sad and angry.
As I read through page after page, as I watched video after video, all I could think about was how terrible it must be for this man’s parents and siblings. I read about how his mother, father and brother were asking people to stop politicizing his death and I began to get angrier and angrier about it, while at the same time knowing that I was projecting a lot of other things onto the situation and that this was fueling the arguments between my friend and myself.
I know what it’s like to bury a child.
I buried one of my own.
But I cannot compare my tragedy to theirs. My child was a newborn baby. Their little boy was 27 years old, in the prime of his life. Their loss was much greater than mine. I began to feel very protective of the murdered man’s parents. I kept imagining myself in their crestfallen shoes.
It’s actually not fair of me to say that.
I can’t even imagine the hell they must be in.
Alas there was an oasis in the middle of my emotional desert.
Carrie and I had planned a party for Saturday night.
Normally these parties are fun, but this one felt like much more than that. I could feel that I needed the affirmation of living people.
A man I had never met before came to the party in a Feel the Bern shirt. The man kept telling me that I was “the reason why he calls his senators” and to be honest I really needed to hear something like that, because I was feeling pretty down about all the work we had put in and how things had been going lately.
I used to log onto social media and feel renewed by seeing so many activists, but lately everyone seemed to be talking about the murdered man and I found myself getting in fights with people and wondering what the point of everything had been.
Even during the party, Paul was there.
I had intentionally been avoiding reading about Chris Cornell, but everyone at the party was talking about it. Someone told me that Chris took an extra Ativan and then hung himself with the rubber cable from his exercise machine.
That is exactly how Paul killed himself.
Paul took a bunch of pills and then hung himself with the cable of his weight-lifting machine.
The similarities chilled me.
So I just drank more and smoked more pot.
This was my fucking party.
I did not want to be sad at my own fucking party.
A good friend came to our gathering that night and while he was drunk he told me that he had been planning to kill himself a few weeks earlier, but that my visits had stopped him from doing so. He said
“Your friendship was a literal lifesaver for me. I know that you will be surprised to hear this, but when you came by that Friday I had accepted the fact that no one was going to miss me and had made up my mind to kill myself.”
I was not at all surprised to hear it.
I had been stopping by so much because I have now developed a feel for these things.
Once you have four of your closest friends kill themselves, you start looking for signs.
Can I tell you something that I never told anyone?
Paul killed himself six days after Cole killed herself and during those six days I thought about reaching out to Paul many times, but I didn’t. I didn’t reach out to him because I was in pain and I didn’t want to listen to anyone else’s pain. I just couldn’t subject myself to Paul’s depression, which often triggered my own darkness.
I know intellectually that I can’t blame myself for Paul’s death, but I also know on some level that I may have been able to prevent it. I doubt it. I don’t think my light was very bright during those three days and Paul’s darkness may have been too much for me.
But I wish that I would have tried.
Oh how I wish I had tried.
And now my child has razor blade marks all up and down their arm and they tell me how they feel disconnected and how they “want to disappear” because they feel like they are living in someone else’s body and this chills me to the bone.
Every day I call therapists and try to find one that we can afford and one that also specializes in gender dysphoria, but this is Indiana and there aren’t many resources for transgender children.
But don’t worry.
I won’t give up until we find someone.
The one thing I refuse to do is to give up.
But I don’t begrudge Paul or Cole or Billy or Danny for their choices.
They just went to that extremely dark place I know so well, the place where your mind lies to you and tells you that no one will miss you.
But I do miss them.
I miss them all so much.
I will never stop missing them.
Don’t listen to the darkness.
We all fall on black days.
Things DO get better.
I’m living proof.