[TRIGGER WARNING: Content is about suicide]
As I was getting into bed late last night and putting my cell phone on my nightstand, a Gmail message popped up. What followed shook me utterly. It was an email from a gentleman who said that he’d read the piece I wrote for The Washington Post this summer and it left an impression on him. He wanted to reach out to me to share his writing.
He was doing this, he said, because he was planning to kill himself, imminently.
The email was not the stuff of a ranting madman. There were no references to aliens or avenging gods or government mind control. It was well written. It was at turns heartbreaking and maddening in its self-absorption. He lamented that his writings over a lifetime — a few philosophy books, a play — achieved little notice.
“I am taking my life not out of despair but simply because I’ve said everything I wanted to say and consider my work finished. Since no one at present (nor in the past half-century) is interested, I have no platform upon which to stand and talk about my work. In this regard, I believe I have an immense amount to give, not only from my mind but from my heart, and there are just no takers. I’m [redacted] years old now. Yes, I’m disappointed that the books go unnoticed. But I also know that such a thing isn’t that unusual in the world of ideas.”
In my 15 years as a reporter and writer, I’ve gotten a fair number of messages from people apparently suffering from mental illness. I have never once received a call or an email threatening suicide, nor have I heard of this happening to any of my colleagues and friends who are reporters.
I wanted to believe it was a scam. I needed it to be a hoax. A quick Google search certainly would reveal the holes in the story and I’d roll my eyes, delete the email and go to sleep. After a career in journalism, I have a hair-trigger b.s. detector. People lie. Constantly and badly.
But each step through his life online muted my skepticism, while ratcheting my anxiety. He was in fact a regular guy, suffering from a terminal illness, living in the country where he alleged to be living. He was on Facebook, posting pictures of himself at spots in the foreign city he calls home, sharing observations that ranged from the interesting to the mundane. Under the posts, friends clicked ‘Like.’ In the email, he mentioned an ex-wife who he said is still his closest friend. He provided an email address he alleged to be hers.
For the first time in my life, last night, I had no clue what to do in a volatile situation. No gut instinct. No path that I knew would be tough but was clearly the right one. Nothing. It was a type of paralysis and silent panic I’ve never known.
I once had to put my then-baby daughter’s fate into the hands of doctors at Children’s Hospital for over a week, not knowing what was happening to her. Even then, I had some measure of faith that they knew what they were doing, and that ultimately, they would bring the problem under control. This thing was entirely unlike that thing. I was being approached as the one to bring control, or not, and I had no idea what to do.
Do nothing. It might be a cry for attention from someone with nothing more than a warped, perverse sense of humor — its own sickness to be sure, but not a fatal one that requires my involvement. Calling the police wasn’t even an option because of a language barrier. Emailing an address I couldn’t verify seemed to risk further engagement with him, which presented a host of potential problems. Any interaction might somehow open up my family to risk. Do nothing.
In his email, the gentleman referenced an article written about himself in the Post in the 1970s. As with everything else in the email, I wanted it to be a lie. It wasn’t. A quick archive search and a $3.95 fee later, it was on my laptop screen.
The black-and-white picture that accompanied the feature was of the very same man, then in his early 20s, smiling broadly, hands confidently resting on his hips, standing in front of the White House gates. He’d come to deliver a message to the president and caught the attention of one of the Post‘s features writers, who described him as tanned and lean. His words were earnest and endearing. ”This is something I have to express,” he told the reporter. “It may be no one takes an interest. But I have faith in people.”
Forty some years later, the earnestness had given way to resignation. He concluded his message to me with this line:
“I’m not asking anything of you, but just hoping that by reaching out like this, the ideas will somehow survive. I believe in ideas, and that they really can change human destiny.”
The faith, at least, remained.
For a time overnight I was incredibly angry. The selfishness of someone to dump this psychic shitpile on a complete stranger was too much. And for what? Because his writing, his ideas, hadn’t gotten the attention he felt they deserved? “Who does this?” I asked myself, before finally falling asleep.
When I woke, the question remained but this time an answer followed. “Someone who needs help.”
Do something. If this man was standing in the street in front of my house threatening to take his own life, I would call the police without hesitation. If it was a member of my family or a friend who’d reached out to a stranger in the middle of the night, I’d want someone to help them. Did the threat coming from a four-inch iPhone screen somehow afford me the luxury of total removal? Do something.
Through Facebook, I privately messaged a woman who shared his last name and who interacts with him on his posts. She seemed kind in her comments, cheerily responding to his updates from her home in the Midwest. I hoped for the best and as briefly and as calmly as possible explained the situation. I indicated that I needed and wanted no further involvement, but that I would carry deep regret if I did nothing — notified nobody — who could potentially check on him. I apologized.
I went outside with my daughter, into the grey and snowy morning that had shut down the city a few hours earlier. We fell back into what had accumulated, making snow angels. I looked up from the ground at the falling flakes. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.