Here there be triggers…

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain set off klaxons across all media. People—friends, family, and experts— shared memories, formulated reasons, and dispensed advice. And in my little corner of the world, I quietly melted down as I revisited the suicide that upended my life.

I drove my friend, Jennifer, home on the night she committed suicide. She was more than my friend, she was also my supervisor, colleague, and minister at the church where I work. After her death, I went into crisis mode, helping my congregation as best I could through what was, for some, a challenging year. Because of the timing, no minister could serve our congregation for the year (a neighboring congregation lent us their minister on a once a week basis, and she checked in on us). I talked with a counselor about the events. Friends checked in to make sure I was in reasonable shape. I was.

In a moment of anger, one of my friends suggested that she must must have known it would have been him or me who would have discovered her. I knew then, as I know now, that such calculations or considerations are never present in any meaningful way in the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness strong enough to cause death. However, that never stopped me from playing and replaying the conversation we had on the night I picked her up from dinner (her car was in the shop) and drove her home.

My rational mind has assured me, and continues to assure me, that nothing I said could have caused her to do anything—or for that matter caused her not to do what she did. I was in the company of a person whose decision—insofar as any decision was actually possible—was already made. And yet over the past few days expert after expert says, “Reach out. Talk. You could save a life.” So my imaginative mind scurries relentlessly into every corner of possibility. “What ifs” pile up like bread crumbs in a tower to rival Babel. And while my rational mind wins the day, I realize this conflict has been with me for years.

The hardest thing I grapple with is the knowledge—certain and horrible—that either there was nothing I could do for my friend, or that I missed an opportunity to do something. The second choice leads to a horror show of self-recrimination. On most days I avoid that. The first choice leads to other struggles, primarily, what difference can I ever make with anyone?

Surely, this is not true. I am reassured repeatedly by the evidence of my experience that I do make differences. Routinely, daily, in the lives of those I teach, of those with whom I work, and of those I love. And yet I daily face unilateral behaviors and actions from people surrounding my life about which I can do nothing. And every time, there is a little (or not so little) twinge. Driver heading two blocks the wrong way down a one way street? Twinge. Student refusing to do work? Twinge. Congregant refusing to meet volunteer obligations? Twinge. I am leaving out the big ones. They are there too.

This happened during the summer after my family had traveled to China to bring home our second daughter. My friend had been at her birthday party in May, and had joined us at my birthday party in June. Jennifer died in July. By November my wife and I began separating. I moved into my own place in April. It was a full year. I am aware now how tangled each and every interaction I had that year, and in the years since, have been with those feelings of guilt and powerlessness–a raw and indefatigable impotence and ineffectiveness.

One of the members of my congregation recently asked how my move was going. I am leaving the congregation I have served for eleven years, and the school where I have taught for nine, and heading to a new school, and no new church, at least not right away. We conferred briefly on the feeling of being in control of the process, and how that was appealing to me. He said that he understood. I too knew it was important, and knew I had felt out of control for some time. My church, by the way, has had six ministerial teams over the eleven years I have served them, with the immediate prospect of two more in the next three years. And we are moving to a new building—a good thing. Still, that twinge, what some might call a trigger, is so wrapped in my in church life, and my life here in Norfolk, that is is nearly impossible to continue.

I know people will tell me, in the most anodyne fashion, that control is an illusion, and that I need to let it go, practice a little Buddhist non-attachment, and set myself free. Or that I need to get tough and face my feelings with Spartan fortitude. And for god’s sake don’t talk about them. But I do not seek detachment, even when the consequence is suffering. Suffering is fine. And I can try not to feel too attached to my feelings, but really, who thinks saltpeter in the milk is a solution? I would rather deal with the struggle. Even four years later. Even forty. In the end, the struggle makes me stronger.

As for sharing? What the hell. I write. This isn’t a cry for help. And it is no “J’accuse!” unless I am accusing myself. I usually wait to write until I have teased out the germs of an idea or feeling until it has grown into words. I admit that here on the blog, I let some unpercolated thoughts trickle in. This one has been in my head for days. Or years. With any luck, the words will be a bridge between us, and not a wall. And with even more luck, perhaps these words will help someone build a bridge in themselves to something they haven’t imagined yet.