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.