Lifesaver, August 14, 2014


[Please note that this post deals with serious subject matter.]

In 2004 Philip Bern saved my life. When I met him I was six months away from committing suicide. I was so emotionally detached, I had a scientific approach to it. The details of my plan I checked off like boxes on a grocery list. In retrospect, this makes my stomach turn.

But Philip was the person to get me out, to get me smiling, to create the diversion that I needed. Back then I was in a hole that would later be diagnosed as “severe depression” with “prolonged PTSD”. The depression was from my life of total isolation paired with the issues from my childhood that decided to rear their heads that year. I was debilitated; sunk by the past.

So I navigated that stormy sea, and decided that I was tired of the journey. I didn’t see much in my life that felt like momentum. “So just six months” I used to say to myself over my solitary meals, and drives, and sick, disgusting conversations with myself. As sad as it is, the idea of not being on earth, used to make me smile.

Philip messaged me on Myspace (back then it was the only platform, as Facebook hadn’t hit our university yet).  He, like me, didn’t have many friends. I would learn later that he liked to write, had had the same childhood issues that I had (almost identical in their timing, effect, and the way we were coping as adults). We were even more surprised to find that we lived only a block from each other.

“So many coincidences,” he wrote.

He invited me to coffee at Barnes and Noble. I met him there and we got to talking. He seemed endearing, quiet, nice. I learned on our second coffee non-date he’d just been released from the hospital. He’d tried to kill himself in a motel room, but right before dying he called the ambulance. He never told me what made him change his mind. But now he was back in the world. The irony.

I didn’t tell him that I was planning on “leaving.” I was afraid it would trigger him in some way, and knowing nothing about him, didn’t want to make him sad or worried about me. Seeing his recovery shocked me back to my senses.  It was enough to make me march myself to the campus counselor without appointment. I was introduced to a round woman sitting in a rolling chair. She had on purple, my least favorite color.

“Well honey,” she said, nervously reaching around herself for some paperwork, “do you have a plan?”

“No,” I lied. I knew enough about counselors to know that having a plan was the end of the line, and I didn’t want her to know that I was already there.

Her stomach dropped as she exhaled. “That’s very, very good,” she said. “I would be so worried if you had a plan.”

I snickered.

“So, you should join some clubs…” she said, “do you exersize?” I felt like my very presence -- my ugly, puffy face still pink from crying, my dirty university sweatshirt – was unnerving to her. She couldn’t look me in the eyes.

“No, I don’t exercise. I don’t have any friends,” I said.  Then I corrected myself, and told her briefly about my only new friend, Philip. She didn’t think it was a good idea for me to hang out with him. I disagreed.

The next week, Philip and I went to see a movie about a Greek war. The week after that, he invited me by his house and we watched the first episode of his favorite show. He was extra happy that particular day, his doctor had just given him clearance to lift weights, now that the scars from his wrists were nearly healed. He just removed the white gauze that had been around each arm for the first time. Seeing him smile over the small triumph made me smile. My life was suddenly given a purpose – to help him heal. In turn, this would help me heal.

The next week, we watched another episode of his favorite show and he took my hand. I turned over his wrist and noticed the scar where he’d cut himself. They were black and obviously had been deep.

“Is that…?” I asked.

“Yeah its…” he replied.

I was so concerned with how he was feeling, I’d forgotten to notice the milestone: a male was holding my hand for the first time. This launched us into a series of romantic conversations. We never had them in person, always on instant messenger. Eventually, we were led to arguments and eventually we stopped talking. I would see him occasionally on the college campus, but I avoided him.

10 years passed. Radio silence between us both.

After Philip and I’s friendship ended, I dipped in and out of depression for a two year period. Then I wrote about the depression. Then I was awarded a prize from the university for writing about the depression. A year after that, in 2008, I moved to New York City.

In the summertime, on a Saturday, I was doing my usual weekend things. I frequent Time Warner Center on a bi-weekly basis, and making the rounds, I saw Philip walking by. He’s nearly 6’6”, too tall to even see me passing beneath him in a swath of New Yorkers. I was both amazed at the coincidence, and shocked. The last I’d heard, he was still in Mobile.

The look of his face, his height, remembering the strange and illusive green blue color of his eyes set me back into my old frame of mind. After thinking in solitude for three days, I found him on Facebook and decided to message him. It was time to tell him almost everything.

“Meeting you saved my life,” I wrote.

“I’d gladly accept that big hug,” he replied.

We decided to meet for lunch uptown. I got off the train and walked in the direction of the Thai spot he’d picked. When I walked in the door I surveyed the room, he was hunched in a corner, drinking a beer. He hadn’t changed an inch. He ordered a sticky rice and mango dish for dessert. In our silence, he carefully cut each mango, then separated the rice. He was thinking.

“One day you’ll tell me why you were going to do it, right?” he said. He must have forgotten some of our talks, some of our secrets. 

“Yeah, not today,” I said. At the time, I was on the maximum dosage of Prozac, still fighting depression that he had managed to wave off. But no matter how many years had passed, I’d always see Philip as fragile. I would (and still) always worry about making him sad with my own sadness. He would always get the “light and optimistic” version of me.

We went and bought beers at a grocery and he invited me by to watch a few episodes of “Dr. Who.” On the walk back, we waited on the corner of an uptown street for cars to pass. The summer sun bore down on us without shade. The heat of the sun – remembering that in the world there are so many exterior threats to our lives on a daily basis that we protect ourselves against – reminded me of my mortality. We waited for a light to change and when we crossed I realized that we were two people who almost…weren’t. We both thought things couldn’t get better and then they did. Somewhere we made choices. I’m usually a quitter. This was an exception.