By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States.
A few years ago someone from the U.S. State Department asked me to send a copy of my book to a recently-discharged combat Marine who had attempted suicide. My marine’s way out was to take pills, which he couldn’t hold down and he barfed them up. I decided to hand-deliver the book, way back in the wilds of southern Ohio.
Young, handsome, intelligent and virile, with a pleasant, respectful personality—anybody would find him engaging. He built a nice campfire in a fire ring, and we sat around it for hours, talking about everything under the sun except for the Marine Corps. And as a Marine, I knew that he would appreciate the same kind of directness we all used as jarheads on active duty.
“Why did you try to off yourself?” I asked him. “Off” was a euphemism meaning “kill” in my day. I wondered if the terminology was still current.
“Women,” he explained. He married one, but she turned out to be crazy and he had to divorce her. Then he fell in love again and married another woman, and she turned out to be crazy, too. He was nursing a broken heart, and that’s why he wanted to die. So I had to ask the question.
“Rumor has it that sex with crazy women is better than sex with sane women. Is it true?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never made love to a sane woman.”
A chief ingredient of despair is isolation and loneliness. One of my favorite clients of all time was an enormous black guy diagnosed with schizophrenia. The medications he was on made him stuporous, which he preferred to his usual frame of mind when he didn’t take them. I asked him what kind of schizophrenia he had? “Homicidal and suicidal,” he said with great deliberation.
Talk about a bromance! Many Thursday afternoons were spent in this guy’s apartment watching DVDs of westerns—The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and The Long Riders were our fare. I loved to make him laugh. His had a slow, rhythmic “heh heh heh” emanating from deep in his chest.
And then he found a girlfriend and he didn’t need me anymore to punctuate his isolation. That was the plan all along. I made dear friends with most of the clients I worked with, generally at a time when they needed a friend in the worst way. But I helped hundreds of clients and I couldn’t make long term commitments to most of them.
Once at the English language school I taught at in Foshan, China.
The boss (a lovely Chinese woman from Toronto) decided that we were going to have a St. Patrick’s Day open house for our parents. My assignment was to make four gallons of mashed potatoes for our “bangers and mash” buffet. If there was a Colonel Sanders’ around I’d have bought their mashed potatoes, but there wasn’t. There were just ethnic Chinese joints and a McDonalds.
One problem: there wasn’t a potato masher to be found in all of southeastern China.
Once I peeled and boiled and diced a few gallons of spuds, I searched my apartment for something to squish them with. A wine bottle didn’t work. Neither did a beer can, or a water bottle. They just weren’t going to squish. This is the predicament one finds oneself when your boss is pretty and treacherous, born in the Year of the Dragon.
So finally I washed my hands and Purelled them, and mashed them literally by hand. I did a very thorough job, and though the potatoes weren’t exactly mashed, they were pureed into uniform tiny lumps the size of barley. Salt, pepper, garlic, reheated with some kind of Chinese sausages that passed for bangers, and the Chinese people there loved my potatoes.
Once I got to know my boss a little she let me know that her life was a train wreck, and that she was seeing a married man. She said they knew they had to put an end to it, so they spent one more sad, desperately passionate weekend in Hong Kong, and that was it.
Suu Yin and I lived in the twin towers of apartments near Snoopy Snoopy Fun Fun Land. My place was on the 17th floor of one tower, and her apartment was on the 21st floor of the other. I kind of helped her plot the last lost weekend she had with her boyfriend. She was very sad. I went to her place not long afterward to check on her, and I found her in her bed in flannel pajamas, the covers pulled up to her chin, weeping despondently.
Everybody had a balcony, because there are very few clothes dryers in China. “I’m going to jump off the balcony right now,” she declared.
Usually when my mouth runs ahead of my brain, it’s a disaster. But not this time. “You don’t want to do that,” I returned. “Halfway down you’ll change your mind.” So instead of jumping to her death, she snorted with laughter.
Just like parenting, 95 percent of compassion lies in just showing up.
One of my closest friends, Lester Sego, finished mowing his lawn one summer Sunday afternoon, went into his garage, and hanged himself. Before he died, he’d been a cantankerous, foul-mouthed old coot, as was I, and a few other guys of Lester Sego’s inner circle, who met every Friday at Lester’s place to smoke weed and shoot the bull, because he was the only bachelor among us.
I did his eulogy. I did my mom’s eulogy, too, but if I stand up in front of a lot of people to give a talk or speech, I feel I’ve failed if I don’t get laughs. For my mom, I told an audacious lie about her being a teenage spy in Italy during World War II, seducing Nazi officers and then slitting their throats while they slept. For Lester, I made light of his tendency to never utter a whole sentence without cussing up a blue streak. After the service, the funeral director approached me and told me that I did a good job talking about poor Lester.
He beamed. “It’s the first time I ever heard the F-word used in a funeral before.”
Lester was a very tough guy—a karate master and a construction laborer all his life. When his dalmatian Sally died, he was beside himself with sadness. So I showed up, and I just sat there across from him at his kitchen table, and he just cried and cried and cried, and every time he looked up, I was there.
Our conversation that afternoon and evening barely rose above the level of “Need another beer?” But we were together. Tough guys cry too. Just not very often.
And the next day, we played golf. My relationship with Lester had a lot to do with golf. We were a regular foursome: a construction worker, a steelworker, a nut case former Special Forces goon who never shuts up, and me. We always got carts because we always played public courses. I got stuck riding with the talker because we were both veterans, and I was the only one who could tolerate riding with him.
Then one day Lester almost cut off his thumb on a saw at work, and though he went straight to Kleinhart and Kutz, the world’s best hand surgeons, his golf game went to hell, and Lester grew more and more morose. We expected he had health problems. He was still fun to be around, especially when the other two guys were there, but Lester, well…
I saw him the Thursday before the Sunday he died, and he seemed depressed. During our conversation he said something startling.
“I guess there’s nothing to do, Strib, but get a gun and start shooting people.”
And I blew it off.
“You’re not going to do that,” I said. Three days later and we found him.
Could I have saved Lester’s life?
Based on what he said, I had the power to involuntarily commit him on a 72-hour hold. I could have recommended to him that he see someone about his depression. We could have gone fishing. But none of that happened. I drank another beer and went home.
Do I have guilt over my non-intervention? I blew the call, and now Lester’s dead, but nobody bats a thousand. He was miserable at the end, and I was sure he’d bounce back, you know, like we almost always do. I don’t have guilt over Lester’s demise like I don’t feel survivor’s guilt for living through a war that killed so many Marines.
Then again, maybe I should feel guilt over a lot of things I’ve done in my life, but guilt is a waste of time.
My father once pointed out to me that if I was a woman, I’d be pregnant all the time, because I can’t say no to anybody. I prefer to think of my agree-ability in terms of compassion. I have let Marines (when I was a Marine) bum my last cigarette, even though bumming a guy’s last cigarette was against the moral code of lance corporals. But when people are in need, I’ve endeavored to meet those needs. And in a 20 year career in social work (I was psychiatric case manager), I rarely encountered brick walls because I was full of ideas of how to fix things, or help people fix things, because the people I worked with were frequently despondent. And when people are despondent, failure has never been an option.
95 percent of compassion is just showing up.
Editor: Dana Gornall