A few years ago I attended the funeral of a man whom I have known since he was ten years old. I knew him and his family, parents, and siblings.  He had a rich life until about 4 years ago when he was in his mid-fifties. He was gainfully employed and enjoyed his profession, the fruits of which were recognized by his students and co-workers.  He did everything a normal human does, had a family, friends and hobbies, was very intellectual, athletic, very talented linguistically, and above all smart.  Four years ago he developed severe depression.  He tried everything to get help, doctors, psychotherapy, medications, even electro-shock treatments.  Nothing helped! He sank deeper and deeper.  He self-medicated with alcohol and drugs to beat his profound sadness.  His first attempt to end it all was with that.  He almost succeeded, but with heroic medical intervention, he survived.  A new treatment for the dying brain was utilized by cooling his brain, and him down to a temperature of around 33̊ C, and then slowly bringing it up to normal, near 37˚ C, over a couple of days.  I have been impressed by how well this works under the right circumstances and saw another dramatic success of this in one of my employees who had a cardiac arrest for over an hour caused by a heart attack.  With CPR he got to the emergency room with a still viable brain. He too survived and is back to work with all his marbles.

My friend resolved to beat this horrible illness but alas nothing worked. He decided since he suffered terrible pain and had no help, he could not live like this, especially since his previous life, prior to the dark curtain of depression descended on him, was so rich and enjoyable.  On New Year’s Eve 2019, he laid down on the railroad tracks of Amtrack near La Conchita and ended it. 

At first, I was devastated.   What a waste I thought.  At the service, multiple speakers came up to tell us what a wonderful person he was.  So many people were influenced in a positive way by him.  He was truly outstanding and a good human being. 

How can a wonderful person do such a horrible and hostile thing?  Suicide is a gruesome final act from which there is no recovery.  It is definitely definite! One thing his brother said at his memorial service struck a chord with me.  “I am not mad at you! You did a good job all your life and you deserve to be remembered as that person who brought enlightenment, joy, and laughter to so many.”

Depression is a dreadful illness, for which we still do not have all the answers. “Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive.” (as quoted from Sally Brampton in Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression.) When a person dies who has endured cancer and finally is relieved of his suffering, we praise him for his prolonged torture and say he fought so hard and he is finally released.  Suicide is often not judged along those lines.  “He just gave up!”  We did not recognize nor appreciate the long-suffering that was relentless and not seen by us.  People who end it all do not make that decision lightly.  It is a conclusion they come to after much desperate thought, as there is no other answer to their pain and distress, and there are no other choices that they have not already tried and failed.

Ultimately it is our failure.  The failure to recognize the agony and pain of the depressed person, the failure of trying all the remedies we have at our disposal, the failure of the medications that just don’t live up to the promises they hand out in the television ads.  The failure of the society to understand the depressed person, the failure of medical science to recognize and treat this cancer of the mind, this illness without a proper diagnosis, without a precise explanation, and above all too often without effective treatment.

Painting by Marianne Stokes “Death and the Maiden” (Maiden photoshopped out) d’Orsay, Paris