My Friend

I've known my friend for about two and a half years. We met through a friend of a friend of a friend scenario. (Actually one of the friends is my wife.) I was told about this fella who was a Lutheran pastor (of all things) who had overcome depression and was interested in meeting me to discuss my situation. I was a little apprehensive at first because I had no interest in hearing any christian clergy getting preachy with me.

So it started with a phone call. I was quickly put at ease with his "down-to-earthiness" and genuine concern for a complete stranger. We mutually agreed to meet in person over coffee. He and his wife only lived 15 minutes away so we found a cafe conveniently in between.

He towered over me. He must have been 6 foot 5. I'm barely 5' 7". He was lanky, thin, early 60s, gray with a gray goatee and glasses. We exchanged the basic pleasantries and filled in all the blanks that two strangers are apt to do when first meeting. By the end of the meeting, we were no longer strangers. He had very interesting insights on life and oozed of wisdom and humor. He was anything but preachy. I immediately felt comfortable with him. Another meeting was set for the following week, and so began our weekly coffee meetings that eventually settled on Sunday evenings.

One of the reasons I was eager to spend time with him was to pick his brain about how he'd overcome depression. I wanted to know how it happened, how he knew it happened, what it felt like and how I could follow suit. Each time I asked him how he knew he was better or what he thought helped him, he would reply with a cryptic, difficult to understand explanation. I had to to ask again several times in future meetings so I could get some sort of clarity. I never did understand what he was telling me and I guess it doesn't really matter. 

My friend had it much worse than me. He was a recovering alcoholic. He attempted suicide on several occasions as had some of his family members. He was brutally honest about sharing some of those instances with me which I appreciated considering how painful it must be to recall such things.

As we got to know each other I was amused by this man of the cloth and his surprisingly foul mouth. I've never heard a pastor or minister or priest or whatever you want to call them curse like a drunken sailor. It actually added to the comfort level for some reason. I found I could confide in him without judgement. He was real. He was honest. He was my friend.

As time went on he would occasionally invite other friends to join us during our coffee meetings. A couple of these meetings were at his home. He was a master at bringing people together. My friend took in strays. I was one of his strays.

He spoke of his desire to establish a men's discussion group because he felt men had a lack of camaraderie. I wasn't warm to the idea at first because many of the people I was meeting through him were associated with his church or other church organizations. I didn't feel it would be practical to create meetings that were religiously based or more specifically christian based. I felt it important that men of all faiths should be welcome and comfortable with the format. I expressed my concerns early on. He was extremely open to that issue and took note promising the entire structure of the group would be at most, generically religious. He wanted to open and close the meetings with a general prayer which I thought was great. We brainstormed about names and locations. I came up with a list of possible names. One of them was MENALOGUE. A hybrid of the words men and dialogue which seemed very appropriate. My friend liked that one so it stuck. I created a logo design and some flyers. Another member created a website and a blog. Yet another offered to provide refreshments and snacks. With all his church contacts, my friend secured a space in the basement of a nearby church and Menalogue was up and running. He often said our mantra should be, "Men doing intentionally what women do naturally."

The weekly meetings averaged anywhere from 4 to 6 men. One evening I counted 11 and a half people (the half being someone on speaker phone who was out of town). My friend envisioned these meetings branching out nationally. With the Internet this was entirely possible. Men getting together talking about men's issues all over the country following our format. I was doing all I could to help, even running a couple of meetings while he was out of town.

Our Sunday coffee meetings included coming up with a Question of the Week for Menalogue. I would then send it in a mass email to the group members and that would be the crux of the discussion for the week. It was a great format and many of the members grew to not only enjoy them but to even rely on the meetings.

My friend and his wife were born in Minnesota and had many family members there. They would fly back for visits once or twice a year. They were building a cabin for their retirement years. My friend was extremely handy and did all sorts of repair and maintenance work on the side. He helped fix a sagging pantry cabinet in our kitchen. He also traveled to many disaster sites to help rebuild homes that were damaged or destroyed including New Orleans (Katrina), Hungary, Brazil, and Alabama. I wanted to go with him on one of his humanitarian missions but could never seem to get away. It was second nature for him to give and give and give.

A couple of summers ago he and his wife went to Minnesota to work on the cabin and visit family. He was on antidepressants but decided to go off them because he felt ok. It was a mistake that caused him to relapse into a deep funk that lasted for months. We talked about it a lot.

He went back on meds, sought help from doctors, and frequented a clinic on an outpatient basis. He would sometimes spend long days there participating in group therapy sessions. At times he seemed to be better, other times not so much. This went on for quite a while. He was very open to discuss it within the group meetings and during our Sunday get togethers. He would speak of a "loop" of suicidal thoughts that would relentlessly run through his mind; how the mornings were the worst time of the day; how much he enjoyed our meetings; how he had lost his faith.

He mentioned the suicidal mindset to his psych doctor which is always a red flag. The doctor urged him to try ECT treatments (shock therapy) right away. My friend complied and checked himself into the same facility that I attended for the TMS treatments. Since I had been entertaining the thought of pursuing this treatment for myself I was very concerned, curious and hopeful. I prayed this might be the turnaround he so desperately needed. I wasn't able to visit him during his stay there but I spoke to him several times by phone. He wasn't feeling any better but he also wasn't experiencing any detrimental side effects. Later on he did have some short-term memory issues but overall, the "therapy" did nothing for him even after 12 treatments. He was not happy with the facility or the program there. He had had enough and came home.

Since it was summer, the Menalogue meeting attendance had fizzled quite a bit. A couple of times nobody showed. We both agreed it should go on a summer hiatus until August. He then extended it into September. We were both going to be busy anyway so it was for the best. He and his wife were set to travel to Minnesota once again to work on the cabin. We had a final coffee meet the last Sunday of June. By then he wasn't the same anymore. Our meetings went from robust conversations about any given subject to basic venting about how miserable we both were. I could see the life in his face was gone. His eyes were vacant. He gazed into space. There was often awkward silence. He didn't laugh or smile much anymore. He was enduring excruciating pain but calmly kept it bottled inside. As we parted that evening I told him I would text him while he was away. A week or so later I sent him a text but didn't receive a reply for several days. When I did hear back, the reply was weird, garbled text that I couldn't make sense of. I wrote back asking what he meant but never got a response. A few days later my lower back flared up and I was in great pain again. I sent him a text informing him of it and asked that he say a prayer for me. A couple of days later a reply text arrived that said, "Sorry to hear. God bless." I replied asking him how he was, but again, no response.

Six days later I received a voicemail on my cell phone. It was his wife stating she had her husband's phone with her and could I please call. She sounded calm so I wasn't sure what to make of it. I also wasn't sure if they had gotten back in town yet. I was thinking maybe they had returned and he was back in the hospital again. That was the worst thing that ran through my mind as her reason for calling.

I called his number as she requested. We exchanged hellos and how are yous and then she proceded to tell me that my friend, her husband, had taken his own life the day before, Friday the 13th, there in Minnesota. "He just couldn't do it anymore."

It wasn't real. I felt light headed as my heart broke. I didn't ask how he did it and she didn't offer. It didn't matter. I was concerned for her. She assured me she had a strong support system there and she was alright. I didn't know her very well but she always seemed strong and solid. She even chuckled a bit as she told me I was the first call that she had received on his phone so she at least knew it worked. She told me how important I was to him. I asked her if it would be alright to notify the Menalogue group and she encouraged that. I told her to please call me if she needs anything, but really, what could I offer?

Since nobody was showing at the meetings and our leader was gone, I informed the Menalogue group of the news and told them the meetings cannot go on without him. That was probably premature and presumptive on my part but that was my mindset at the time. I had no strength to carry it on. A couple of members have since expressed interest in keeping it going in some fashion in his honor. I'm certainly not opposed to that. I just can't be the lead. I can't replace him. Really, nobody can.

The following Sunday after hearing the news would have been our next coffee meet if fate hadn't changed things. Little did I know that that final Sunday in June would be the last time I'd ever see him again. I toyed with the idea of going one last time to our spot in his honor to say goodbye. But then I thought of what a hokey Hollywood cliché that would be. There wouldn't be any sad music playing in the background or a wide shot of me sitting across from an empty chair as the screen fades to black. This is cold reality. It would have just been me sitting there alone feeling sorry for myself making a bad situation worse so I reconsidered the notion. But in life, ironic things can happen and in the following weeks one of the mutual friends/group member asked that we meet at that same coffee shop to discuss the future of Menalogue. As fate would have it, he was late—so I found myself sitting there inadvertently alone with my coffee contemplating life. Though I was fighting the urge, I raised my cup to my friend doing the very thing I swore I wouldn't do. It felt contrived.

I miss my friend. I'm experiencing profound hopelessness and I've been trying like hell not to make this about me. It's about him. It's about his wife, his two sons and the rest of his family. I'm so prone to self pity. I have since been very quick to tears and have had many bouts with anxiety. My emotions have been all over the place. Shock, grief, sorrow, anger, regret, guilt, and so on. I've been particularly angry with God because my friend deserved some sort of divine intervention. After all, he was a pastor. But apparently not even a pastor's prayers are necessarily answered. He deserved a specific help that never came. But who am I to question God? I can only hope that God showed him mercy despite the sin of death by his own hand and that he finally has the peace that eluded him in life. I realize nobody could have prevented this, but nagging thoughts of something I could have said or done keep surfacing. Though neither of us could truly know what the other was going through and neither of us could "cure" the other, there was at the very least, a thin veil of comfort in knowing we weren't alone in this. But now he's gone. This is truly something I did not need. But there I go making it about me.

I have a business card I keep in my wallet. Whose business card is not important. It's what my friend scrawled on the back of it:

"Don't quit 5 minutes before the miracle happens!!"

If only he'd have heeded his own words. Goodbye my friend.

Pity Party

There is probably not a soul on this earth that has mastered self pity to the degree I have. This is not a proud statement by any means. It sickens me to admit it.

Running parallel to this depression has been 30-plus years of low back pain. The lumbar discs in my spine are wearing out before their time for unknown reasons. Degenerative disc disease as it's called. My back is never 100 percent pain free. There's always a dull stiffness at the very least. Around 11 years ago I suffered a pinched nerve which resulted in 6 months of agonizing pain that ran down the right leg into the knee. The most excruciating pain I've ever experienced. I live in fear it will happen again. It goes without saying when my back decides to "go out," it deepens my despair beyond words.

I recently had a flare-up that took me by surprise. It's usually prompted by either bending, twisting, lifting wrong, or simply exerting myself more than I should. This time it just crept up on me in a few days time until I could barely walk. When this happens it literally floors me. The only thing I can do is rest flat on my back on a firm surface and hope that it will subside quickly. It's usually several days before any normalcy returns.

There is nothing worse than idle time for someone who's depressed. I'm not a motivated person. I have no hobbies. Few things interest me. When my back wreaks havoc, I'm more than likely relegated to the floor in front of a television or just stranded in bed staring at the ceiling. Woe is me. Why me? Blah, blah, blah. This is when I'm at my pathetic worst. I don't know how my family stands my presence.

During these pitiful times, I can't help but to ruminate on how miserable I am. I fear the future and what it holds. I question how things will ever get done if I'm incapacitated for long periods. I wonder how many more flare-ups I can endure and will they recur more often as I age? At times, irrational thoughts and worries consume me to the point of tears. Physical and mental pain — hand in hand.

As with depression, I've run the gamut on seeking help for my back. I've seen countless doctors, taken powerful pain killers, used heat and ice, tried various conventional and alternative therapies, even a new mattress — to no avail. Surgery may be in my future but I've tried to avoid it at all costs as there are very few back surgery success stories. I've reached the point where I just literally lie down, close my eyes, and ride it out.

I realize this isn't a back pain blog but the physical pain and mental anguish seem to feed on each other reducing me to a self-pitying, slobbering blob. Some "experts" would say one causes the other. They certainly exacerbate one and other.

At this writing the pain has subsided to the point where I can function again. I should be grateful but I'm just plain afraid of the next time. There are so many people who endure so much greater pain for much longer periods. I despise what I become when afflicted. I hate the powerlessness of being unable to prevent pain. All pain.