I was moving mountains (literally) back stage at our local community theater’s tech rehearsal of Shrek the Musical when I received the text from my buddy Joe.
Joe: Hey there! Did you see? Robin Williams died.
Me: No – I’m on the Stage Crew here. Been radio silent since 6. How?
Joe: Don’t know. It’s just coming in now.
A half-hour went by when my phone buzzed again. It was Joe with some more intel.
Joe: It was a suicide. EW and TMZ are reporting it.
Me: Ughhh. Awful.
Joe: So sad.
In the short days that span between then and now – the world has learned so much about the extreme bouts of depression this funny man suffered. Of course, his dramatic range sort of tipped his hand a little bit. There was a weary melancholy that colored some of his quieter roles. Just look at that award-winning turn in Good Will Hunting. Sure, he was a great dramatic actor but I always felt he was tapping into a vein of real sadness and pain. I also bristled a bit at his “Always On” comedic persona in later years. It smacked of trying too hard. Now we know – this may have been his way of coping with that deafening silence that smothered him in his alone time. We’ll never know. The only man who did has tragically passed on.
At the end of the week, I received a call that hit much closer to home. My ex-wife Andi asked me if I could have the kids make cards for a mutual friend’s daughter who is going through her own battles with depression. I was surprised to say the least. Until that call – I had never suspected a thing. This young lady – so beautiful, talented, creative, funny, artistic AND VITAL – has fallen under that sickly spell that renders her unable to accept all of those adjectives others spy when they catch her eye. I talked at length about it (as the news of this teen’s issues hits pretty close to home which I’ll get to in a moment) and then without divulging too much info – I spoke to Colin and Aria about their friend who could use a lot of cheering up. They went to town making some cards and peppering them with authentic child-like enthusiasm – the kind that is never store-bought and usually means the world to the recipient.
Sadly, my week was bookended with tales of depression.
In pondering both situations – I visited the thought I’ve had since I first came face-to-face with this ailment back in my latter teen years. Simply put – the brain is an important body part no different than your arm, your leg or your toe. If you break your arm, gash your leg or stub your toe you are going to do something about it. And you’re not gonna’ keep quiet about it. Not in this day and age – where every malady is easily Instagrammed. Aside from a grimace at those who choose to farm their wounds to Facebook – nobody thinks ill at all.
Depression demands the same treatment. We need to talk about this. Openly. Often. No stigma.
The brain is no different. It’s biological. In some people, the body creates chemicals that don’t quite mix the way they should. Think of a diabetic whose body doesn’t create insulin. Same deal. This ailment may be a part of a person BUT it does not solely define him or her.
Bottom line – the conversation needs to begin. No shame. It’s as simple as that. No shame in how you are made.
I learned this lesson fairly early.
When I was a Junior in High School – back in the Spring of 1989 – I developed a crush on this girl who I had no business crushing on. She was pretty, intelligent, creative, funny and well-liked by all who had the pleasure of meeting her. She was active in a bunch of different school activities – both intellectual and athletic.
Our primary connection was made through simple logistics. Her locker and mine were both fairly close to our 5th Period Advanced Math Class. So, she and I were always the first two students in the classroom; beating everyone and the teacher by a good 5 minutes.
Put two people in a room all alone for 5 minutes and they are going to get talking.
And that’s exactly what we did – day-after-day from late Summer to mid-Spring; each day sharing a couple little stories or jokes – slowly but surely getting to know each other a little better – five minutes at a time.
Somewhere along the road, I fell hard for her – and by late-winter I was actually starting to entertain the concept of asking her to Prom. This coming from a guy who up to that point had not had a girlfriend at all. Oh sure – I’d been angling for one since I was 11 BUT my shyness (which has now largely been shed) was still in abundance and I just couldn’t quite find the way to seal the deal. I would get tongue-tied and trip all over myself. If I got to know someone better, I’d open up – but I was not the one to wade into a crowd and just let myself be me. Not in those scary days.
But I had enjoyed enough 5-minute conversations with her to feel like I had a real shot at this.
I confided in only one person; my newly minted BFF Jay. Jay was flush with confidence and made it his mission once the winter warmed to get me in front of T (all I’ll offer up is her first initial). Jay was determined that I would pop that question; meaning at all hours of the day or night he would arrive at my house determined to drive me over to her house. We made a couple dry-runs; stopping in front of her house – idling for a few moments before I saw movement beyond the windows and would panic – pleading with him (or more to the point – bribing him) to drive like Hell.
Finally – on our last “rehearsal” – I told him I would ask her over the phone “if only I had her phone number“. He dropped me back at my house. Ahhhh, safe at last. I figured it would be years before he could track down her private number.
5 minutes later he called with her digits. I don’t want to know how he got them. I presume “they fell off a truck” or “he knew a guy who knew a guy“.
Either way, I was on the clock. He threatened to make the call on my behalf if I didn’t do so “in the next 5 minutes“. (ALWAYS 5 MINUTES!!!) I couldn’t have this legendary Lothario making off with the future lady of this mack daddy. So, I made the call.
There’s a whole Blog post buried in that fateful phone call but needless to say – she said “Yes” – after making me wait for a verdict over the following two days.
We decided pretty quickly that while we had each had a nice peek behind the curtain in all those little 5-minute encounters – a very real date ahead of the big dance would do wonders to eradicate any pre-Prom jitters; so I ended up scoring two engagements for the price of one call. Dinner & a movie it was – or Chilis and ‘Say Anything‘, as it were.
‘Say Anything‘. Could we have picked a more perfect movie? It’s all about a guy from ‘no particular clique’ going against the grain and asking out a girl presumably way above his social station and then being surprised when she accepts. Needless to say, that movie hit us like a lightning and for a few short months – from that first date night through the Prom and into the midst of Summer – I felt like I had bottled that bolt.
But that Summer – as we grew ever closer and she let her guard down a little (the teensiest, tiniest amount) – I started to feel that there was something held back. A message whispered in secret so low I couldn’t quite make it out no matter how close I leaned in.
The night we broke up should have been puzzle piece that clicked things all into place – but I was newly minted 17 and at that age you don’t always see all the angles – not when your own hormones and emotions are swirling; conspiring to kick all rational thought to the curb.
T and I had gone out for Chinese with her bestie Jen after playing a little round of mini golf over at Starland – our local amusement area. This obviously wasn’t a date night – just three friends out for some fun and laughs. At one point – as we sat patiently awaiting our Pu-Pu Platter and double-checking the compatibility of my Rat with her Snake (or maybe she was a Monkey) – T excused herself to the Ladies Room. While she was gone, Jen looked across at me and said:
“When are you going to ask her out?”
That completely took me back. I thought that had sort of been implied. It had been months since ‘Say Anything‘ – from all appearances (public, private and on paper) we were boyfriend and girlfriend.
“I think I already did – SEVERAL TIMES!!!”; I replied.
“No, silly. When are you going to make it official and ask her to be your girlfriend? She’s waiting!!!”
Ah, the formalities and decorum of pre-Text Age teen dating. She was right. I had not popped that question – simply presuming we only had eyes for each other. So, right there and then – I made it my mission to ask her that very question before the night was over – at least, once we found a way to lose Jen. That ought to teach her for meddling.
By night’s end – T & I were Splitsville.
When we got back to my house, I found a way to get her to go for a little walk with me – a true midnight stroll; just around the neighborhood – under cover of ample streetlights. Along the route I hemmed and hawed. The nervousness that had marked our early beginning was long gone BUT this felt like an unnecessary question – just checking the box I guessed. Part of me feared the worst while another part of me chased that off as being the complete last possible answer I could get.
We stopped and I looked her square in the eye – mine filled with such hope and anticipation. Here it was. This was the real deal. Five simple words would hand deliver me my first official girlfriend – even if ‘Say Anything‘ technically took care of that months earlier, in my humble opinion.
“Will you be my girlfriend?”
At that, the smile in her eye mixed with confusion and then something else – a sadness. It flashed and then fled – leaving behind one tear as all the proof it had been there. Then a coldness settled in. She looked back at me and responded:
“I don’t know.”
But I knew the answer. Everything changed in an instant. “No“. So stupid. Why did I do that? I didn’t know why. What had changed in giving a simple name to what we were already doing in the first place. What had I said? What had Jen done to me?!?!?
From that warm July night on – the exact midpoint of our Summer (our last as High School students with Senior Year looming) – she and I ceased to be a couple. We never even officially broke up. How could we when I never got an official answer beyond “I don’t know.” All I know is by that point – I was in love and so full of hope for the future – and yet over the course of one fateful night – one so fun and frivolous early on and pregnant with possibility later – something broke and no matter what I did that Summer to pick up the pieces, I just couldn’t find them all or follow the directions to set things right that had suddenly gone so horribly wrong.
And me being a lovesick 17-year old boy – I exacerbated the situation by constantly reaching out. Stopping by. Sending flowers. Calling. And yet – she had retreated. I didn’t know why. The only solution my confused mind could come up with was that she finally woke to the frog prince standing before her. Or there was another!!!
When we were about halfway through August – I pushed her from my mind. I stopped calling and sending flowers (the meager pittance paid by my Peterson’s Card & Gift gig couldn’t keep up such hopeless indulgences). I started hanging out with my friends and just forgot all about her.
Until Senior Year rolled around a few weeks later. Even then, I only saw her in the hallways. Each time, I choked down the pain and used every ounce of strength to keep my tears at bay. Once or twice she tried to approach but I just kept on walking. I wasn’t about to give her the time of day.
It was the tail end of September – underneath the glow of Friday night lights – as my buddies and I cheered on our beloved Rockland Bulldogs – that I learned the truth about T – a very real part of her that she had somehow kept at bay all those days and nights we were together. While at the game, I found myself growing a little nostalgic and talked to one of my friends about that night in July. It was only then – as I began to pull my thoughts together and make some sort of cogent sense that I realized; I hadn’t seen her in weeks. And I don’t mean that I had willfully ignored her. I had not seen hide nor hair of her in our school. Not in the lunchroom. Nor our shared classrooms. Not anywhere near the locker that on the first day of school, I had deposited one single red rose and a heartfelt note of apology for whatever it was I had done.
I asked a few people if they had seen her lately and came up empty every time. We all came to the same consensus. We saw her the first two weeks of school and then she had vanished.
My buddy Mark lived down the street from her parents so after the game – as we retired to his house to play RBI Baseball late into the crisp, early Fall evening – I took my leave; saying I was going to pop down and just say Hello to her parents and hopefully find out where she had been. When I got down there – a short 5 minute jog down a fairly lengthy street – I felt a little silly knocking on their door after 10 pm. Still, I was now starting to get real nervous – fearing the worse even though I couldn’t quite find the words to capture my concern.
I knocked and her awesome Mom answered. No lie – she loved me. At one point, many years after this incident – I ran into T (as an adult) and she shared this. “You’re the one who got away. That’s what my Mom always says.”
Anyway – I knocked. Her Mom answered. At the sight of me, she just burst into tears. I entered the room and just wrapped her in a big hug as she let loose big heaving sobs – so much so, that I was soon crying; not knowing why but feeling that the sum of all my fears was about to be tallied.
And over the next 1/2 hour – she let me in on a secret that had been hiding in plain sight. T suffered crippling bouts of depression. It had been there all along – ever since adolescence. Over the years there had been suicide attempts. An eating disorder. Instances of hospitalization. That’s where she was that very night – secure in a lock-down facility for her own safety. She had been there for weeks while we were going about our normal business at school.
Her situation was incredibly complex and I got quite the education that evening – but it boiled down to her needing medication to regulate the essential chemical mix that her brain needed. When she was taking her meds – her life was well-adjusted. The thing is, the older she got and the more she understood her condition – the more T bristled at the notion that she needed “a pill to keep me happy“. So, she would wean herself off without anyone knowing – and could hold it together only so long; typically way past the breaking point. Then there would be an episode.
Sometime – earlier that Summer – she has stopped taking her medication.
She and I had a pretty good thing going at the time. I’ll never know if our happiness is what led to that decision but I will offer this – anytime my mind thinks upon her – I can’t help but find my mind racing there. We had a lot of good times. A lot of laughs. A lot of happiness. And somewhere in the middle of all of that; she stopped taking her medication. Sometime later – I popped that question. When her Mom shared all of this information with me – I suddenly knew what I had seen that night when I had asked her to be my girlfriend. Real genuine happiness mixed with fear, trepidation, anxiety and a loss of control – all of that ultimately defeated by crippling sadness.
I visited her – along with several mutual friends – and began the process of repairing our splintered friendship. The first time I went with another friend of hers, Yvonne – who helped me smuggle in a contraband pizza. I came back again and again and just talked. Openly. No filters. Not any more. For the first time in forever, I felt like she was free to express herself to me. Wholly. Without judgment.
Eventually she returned to school and completed the year – graduating alongside the rest of us. When college arrived – she headed off to her school and I went to mine. Over the next 4 years, we saw each other a couple of times for dinner and then just drifted away.
Until I ran into her at Best Buy – shortly after I got married – and introduced her to my wife. I may have been seeing things but I saw a flash in her eyes at that news flash. This time the signs were in reverse. There was a flash of sadness that was ultimately replaced by happiness. That’s when she let on that her Mom always said in the most loving manner “You’re the one who got away.”
I’ve seen her a few times in the decade since bumping into her at Best Buy. Sporadic run-ins – most recently at our 20-Year High School Reunion. I can tell; her struggles haunt her to this very day. It saddens me but I don’t let it color my limited interactions. Each time, we joke. We laugh. We share a hug. There’s little I or anyone else not in the right field can do to correct that medically BUT I feel there is one thing each and every one of us CAN do.
We can start talking about this. Even if it’s just 5 minutes at a time.
I hold hope that maybe that can make all the difference in a life.
This week began with me thinking upon Robin Williams’ struggles. It ended with news that depression was currently hitting someone pretty hard fairly close to home.
And all of that that got me thinking. For the first time in a long time…
…about a girl.