Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Josh, Grown Up and Ambushed by Depression

There's a strip of green running east-west near the southern border of the campus of The University of Chicago, between East 59th and East 60th Streets, called the Midway Plaisance.  That's where I first saw Josh as a college student, frolicking in the grass with a group of his friends, playing pick-up soccer.

I didn't get to go to his college orientation.  He and his brother started college on the same day in late September,  and I was teaching, so his dad took him to Chicago,  and I made the much shorter one-day trip to Columbus.  As soon as I had some time off (Jewish school -- long Sukkot break in October), I drove to Chicago, and went looking for Josh where he had said he'd probably be on a late Friday afternoon.

They looked like puppies, those kids.  They were freshmen at one of the finest universities in the world and had emerged victorious after many years of arduous academics to get there, but they looked like a big pack of relaxed and adorable puppies as they played soccer in the waning light.


I knew, actually, quite a bit about depression and other forms of mental illness.  I knew, for instance, that many of the more serious forms of mental illness manifest themselves in a person's young adulthood, when he or she is between the ages of 18-24.  I also knew that one of the most insidious aspects of depression lies in the tendency of those who suffer its hardships to deny that they are facing serious affective problems -- or even to know that they have begun to observe and experience the world differently than they did before, or than their friends do.

What I did not know was that sometime during his college years, Josh began to suffer from serious bouts of clinical depression, an illness that would kill him less than two years after he graduated.  He was radiant that graduation day -- a degree with honors, an excellent job in the wings, a beautiful girl in his life.  But he was already struggling, and he had never breathed a word of it to us.  

I know it now only because of old journals he left behind, because of conversations with his girlfriend after he died, and because of many other clues that I have been able to put together only in painful retrospect.  Josh and his lovely girlfriend had both achieved many successes, and had managed to overcome all the challenges life had tossed their way.  They were both bright and resourceful and determined young people.  Neither of them had the slightest idea that they were up against an illness that, when untreated, is every bit as deadly as cancer.  

Some of the horrific statistics:
In 2007, the year before Josh died, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24.

Ninety percent of people who die of suicide have treatable depression and/or substance abuse problems.

Suicidal people often leave clues which become apparent in retrospect, but many people who die by suicide do not communicate their thoughts to anyone else. 

Depression and suicide have a face for me now, a face of someone I love with a fierceness that is reserved for the love of mothers for their children.   


I wonder, often, whether I would have known how serious things had become even if he had laid them out for me in minute detail.  I wonder whether I would have known to look if my family had been forthcoming about my great-grandmother's bipolar disorder ~ was there a gene silently making its way through four generations, only to emerge in full and explosive expression in my son?  I wonder whether we would have been able to find effective help ~ God knows I have met many people in the last two years whose beloved family members were in therapy . . . had been hospitalized . . .  are nevertheless dead.

Death from suicide leaves behind a host of unanswered questions, a trail of guilt and regret so wide and deep that you think that you will never find its limits, and the destruction of relationships that once seemed designed to last into eternity. Depression is surely one of the most effective tools of evil I have ever encountered.


When he was a college freshman, Josh lived in a dorm of alternating male and female suites.  One day he and his friends returned from Chinatown with a large, whole, entire, fish ~ a fish large enough, for instance, to fill a porcelain bowl.  They deposited said fish in the toilet in one of the girls' suites and settled down in the hallway to await its discovery.  It still makes me smile to think about the shrieks coming from the bathroom, and the low-pitched male laughter beyond the door.


  1. Oh, Robin. Thank you for sharing this. My husband was on staff and then faculty at U of Chicago from 1990-2001. I can picture it so vividly, the Midway, the soccer game, even the fish! I ache for you. No words suffice.

  2. As painful as these memories and this knowledge is, you are transforming your pain into gifts for others. I know that you would prefer to have Josh here, alive, and how I wish that were possible. Still, I want to say, "Thank you" for being brave enough to write about a painful subject that so few of us know - a subject that needs to be discussed and looked at in the light, so that we can begin to understand, and so that those in need can get help.
    And thank you for sharing more about Josh's life; I love hearing about him.

  3. I am in awe, Robin, of the way you are able to weave together the pain and the beauty of your memories.

    I know the pain is still horrific. But I also see you working with God/ God working with you to make something of it that will be useful to the world. Again, as Karen said-- not what you want, not acceptable in any way. But thank you for relentlessly going forward, and for keeping us in the circle of your trust.

  4. With a mother who suffered from chronic depression and MI and a son who has manifested depressive symptoms - and who is sometimes compliant with his meds and sometimes not - I often walk a fine line between being over protective of this child and letting him go so can learn from his choices. Many sleepless nights for the last six years. Now, he is relatively stable - but I sit on pins and needles wondering how long it will last.

    Even though I know about my son (because his symptoms showed up at a younger age and interferred with school) there is only so much I can do, only so much he will share with me, only so much he will let me do.

    Love to you Robin, and your family too.

  5. Terri, I didn't know those details.

    Some weeks ago, someone with two deaths from suicide in his immediate family asked how he would know to distinguish, when his little one grows us, between normal late adolescent angst and moroseness and deadly depression.

    There is so little we can do, either to figure it out or to help once we know.

  6. Thanks for writing again about beautiful Josh. I really love getting to know about him and his life. Such a bright and engaging young man--so like his mama. Such a sorrowful loss for you all and for the world. One part of suicide's devastation is that it's so hard to see it coming. How different would be those tragic statistics if depression caused a person to stand up, wave a red flag and ask for help. Instead it drives them into their own dark corner of hopelessness. Having raised a son, I would guess it's even more difficult in a young male who has left home. They don't ask for help.
    What you are sharing through your suffering is so important to families...to look for those little signs of ambush even where we don't suspect it.
    Thank you dear friend.

  7. Lots I want to say, but for now, (((Robin))). Thanks for sharing this, for all kinds of reasons.

  8. As always, thank you for being willing to put this much into words to share; I am sure there is much, much more, but what you do choose to share finds ears that need to hear it. My teen son is in the midst of being evaluated for depression (i.e., the intake process for the insurance system), and one of the reasons I was compelled to respond without hesitation when I began to see signs (and thank goodness that with him, there are some clues) is because of your experience. No guarantees about what the future holds for him, but at least we are trying to take steps in the right direction.

  9. Betsy, I'm glad this awfulness has been put to some use. Thank you so much for telling me.