content warning: suicide, mental illness, and mention of incest, rape and domestic violence.
Mental illness is a bitch and it takes a heavy toll on all it touches. Some of us don’t make it to that place where survival alchemically transforms into some level of thriving. A weird set of circumstances led me to do a well check on a friend yesterday (he’s fine, was never in any danger of suicide) and it’s led to an avalanche of memories and feelings for a dear mentor and friend who took his own life 3 years ago. He had reached out to me the week before he took his life and I didn’t answer the phone or return his call. I don’t think it would have changed his decision to self-immolate. I know from the note he left behind that his intention wasn’t just to end his own suffering but to make a statement about the lack of appropriate mental health care. He was a practicing Buddhist in the local Shambhala community and his suicide was planned as a ritual that he believed was bigger than personal suicide.
I met Ian my first day of class at my small college. I was 24 years old and he was the professor for my foundation writing class. I had enrolled at the college to study Jungian psychology and was obsessed with symbolism and synchronicity. Ian was soft spoken and was strikingly present in all his interactions. One of the first concepts he introduced in our writing class was synchronicity. One of our first assigned exercises was to open books to ‘random’ pages and construct poems by stringing together bits of sentences. He encouraged personal narratives because he said we should write about what we know best, ourselves. I adored him and looking back, I realize he was the first grown man I’d ever met who was gentle, kind and safe. He gave me good constructive criticism on my writing and he told me I was a natural writer and should continue honing my skills. My writing was often about different traumas I had experienced and instead of avoiding the topics, he found ways to validate me and gently critique my work.
I saw him only in passing for the following two years but he would always stop and talk with me. I was assigned to his Culminating Project class my senior year. At the time, the structure of the class was unusual for a college course but it was typical for my college. We were told to pick a topic, anything, and find a way to explore it and present it in depth at the end of the year. It was a small class, maybe 15 students, and we spent our time doing mindfulness exercises and processing experiences. Ian held the space with grace and it seemed like all the students felt supported in their chosen topics. He invited us to his house for dinner and fostered loving and intimate connection between everyone in the class. It was a safe space and I thrived in it.
This was the first year the class was offered and it became a grounding point in my otherwise spinning life. The pressure of supporting myself through college was especially challenging that year. I was regularly having grand mal seizure, was taking Master’s level psychology classes and doing everything I could to supress my trauma symptoms. Ian’s class was a safe harbor and his mentorship fostered exploration that was insightful as well as healing. I focused on finding the essence of my connections with the people in my life, as well as specific things in nature. After collecting as much information as possible, I photographed each person and distilled the connection into a haiku.
As an incest, rape and domestic abuse survivor, my ability to experience safe connection was limited by my trauma. At the time I didn’t understand how my lack of safe connection with my parents as a child was impacting my current relationships. Ian created a space in which I could safely explore connection and he deftly steered me towards positive connection, away from the unhealthy and toxic ways in which I so often connected. It became a foundation for my journey towards feeling and appreciating connection, as well as a basis for learning about what healthy connection is.
I moved away for a couple of years after I graduated. I had my first child while going to grad school and then returned when I left their father. When I moved back I got back in touch with Ian and we became friends. Not the kind of friends who spend a lot of time together, rather the kind who connect deeply when they’re together even though they don’t see one another often. Over the years, our friendship deepened and we shared our most vulnerable fears and challenging experiences with our mental health and our inability to function in a society that frowned upon people openly discussing their mental illness and offered very little in the way of help for those who wanted it. We were both writing blogs and we frequently sent one another links to posts we wanted to share.
Ian came for dinner at our house in 2015 and we would run into one another in what we both felt were synchronistic events. In the summer of 2018 I was struggling with deteriorating mental health and a marked increase in trauma symptoms. I was struggling with suicidal ideation and was barely functioning. I was thinking about Ian one day and he called out of the blue. We had always communicated through texts and emails so I was surprised to see his number come up as the phone rang. I remember thinking it was meaningful that he was calling just as I was thinking about him and I knew from recent emails that he had been struggling with a diagnosis of bipolar. He had been hospitalized a couple of times but he felt the system was doing more harm than good. I didn’t answer the phone because all my energy was spent just trying to stay afloat in my own life taking care of my 3 kids while wanting to die most days.
A week or so later, I was sitting at the bus stop at 4 in the morning waiting for the bus to the airport where I was flying to visit my friend on her farm. I was still on social media at the time and I noticed a message from someone who’d been in that first class with Ian in our foundation year. We’d had a falling out so I thought it was probably important if she reaching out to me. Her message told me that Ian had taken his life the day before by soaking himself and his car in gasoline and setting it on fire. I was devastated and spent the entire trip there using all my skills to not fall apart.
I didn’t feel guilty about not answering the phone when Ian had called because I knew I was doing the best I possibly could. And I wasn’t angry with him for taking his own life. My eldest kiddo has lost a few friends and acquaintances to suicide and I’ve witnessed the rage that survivors often feel towards the person who took their life. I think that rage is valid. My take on suicide is a little different than the typical one in our culture. I know the depths of pain that too many of us live with. I witnessed Ian’s struggle and I accept that he decided the pain was too much for him to continue to live with. I think that’s valid too. When a person commits suicide, they’re a victim as much as those they leave behind. I don’t resent Ian for ending his life. But it does underline the extreme pain he was in and the fact that he was seeking help and not getting hurt instead of supported. When I think about how much he was suffering, I feel grief for this gentle soul who felt he could no longer go on. And I miss him. But I don’t blame him. I don’t think it’s anyone’s place to judge someone’s decision to give up and seek the release of death.
It’s been three years since Ian took his life and I think of him often and keep a photograph of him that was taken during our Culminating Project class. He wasn’t suffering then and his smile was without the sadness I saw in him during the last few years of his life.