Prologue To “The Healthy Years”
PLEASE NOTE: As I have mentioned from the outset, I was not given permission by Caroline’s family to share her story. However, what I failed to mention was that I was given permission by Caroline herself. In her final journal entry (and apparent draft of her suicide note), Caroline asked that her journals be given to me because, “he’s the only one who might actually understand what I’ve been going through and the only one who might be able to put any of this insanity to use to keep others from the same harm.” This is why her father brought them to my home, me being the last person he’d want to see on earth at the time.
Sharing the story from a chronological perspective, I never really thought of divulging that particular detail until it came about in the journals themselves. So, in short, yes, I have her “permission” to share her thoughts, but none of that changes the fact that I’ve been conflicted to hell and back about what I’m about to share over the next three installments.
There are some things I wish I’d never read. Yet, it isn’t often that we catch a glimpse into someone’s mind as it appears to be trapped in a slowly descending spiral of darkness. An intrusion of privacy that gives us the rare opportunity to gain wisdom from the untimely death of a perfect stranger; how their struggles might reflect our own and serve to caution others destined for a similar fate.
Before we get started, I’d like to state for the record that I’ve struggled deeply for more than a year now, deciding on how I could possibly justify sharing the private thoughts of a troubled friend, ethically, morally. The latest crisis of conscience came just as I was getting ready to post this latest chapter. Instead, fight or flight, I headed out the door to meditate on the issue while backpacking an area of the Eastern Sierra that Caroline and I always wanted to explore together but never found the time.
Whether pounding out the miles, perched on a cliff, or curled up in my sleeping bag, I found my thoughts returning to, if not consumed by this nagging question and uneasiness regarding how to share Caroline’s deepest thoughts without overstepping the trust she placed in me to “put any of this insanity to use to keep others from the same harm.” I should say that by being so conflicted, the fear-based answer seemed obvious – I should avoid it entirely. But then, I met a great couple from Idaho and we spent the last few days on the trail together. Only a couple of years older than myself, they both emitted a sense of wisdom and relaxed self-assuredness that, was calming and intoxicating in my moments of self doubt.
One night while huddled around our JetBoils, I shared broad strokes of this story and my ongoing hesitation to divulge too many personal details found in the journals, searching for some unbiased opinions.
“What’s the big deal?,” asked Jeff, an ex homicide detective, slurping his ramen from a titanium pot. “ Just share ‘em. It’s not like her corpse is going to do anyone any good, maybe her words can. It’s a little late to protect her now, she’s already gone.”
Gretchen, an oncologist poised with a much softer bedside manner raised her eyebrows at her husband’s bluntness, sharing her own thoughts, “Well, obviously don’t share any personal items regarding others who are still alive and might be hurt by it, but you had a relationship with her too and have a right to talk about it. What are you most afraid of?”
Jeff interrupted before I had a chance to answer, “He’s more afraid of Caroline’s family outing him as an atheist than he is about accidentally outing her for committing suicide.” Once a detective, always a detective, Jeff wasn’t asking a question and he wasn’t wrong. He turned his eyes back to me and laid it out, “I say you’d be honoring her wishes more by exposing the reasons for her death than letting others cover it all up and silencing you.”
“Yeah, he’s not wrong,” Gretchen chimed in. “If you agree with her that sharing her trials might actually be able to help others avoid the same road, I don’t really see how you have a choice. We learn from the dead’s bodies all the time, their organs going to help others. Why not their thoughts and minds? She basically gave you a directive to do just that. Just protect her anonymity and you have nothing to lose any sleep over.”
I’m still not sure it’s that simple and I do continue to lose sleep over it, but, I’ve come to appreciate their insights and agree, at least theoretically, that by faithfully maintaining Caroline’s anonymity, I won’t break the trust of our relationship. As such, her identity will be another secret that I’ll happily take to the grave. (If one of her family members happens to read this and one day chooses to “out” me in some sort of retribution for one anonymous person discussing the troubled thoughts of another anonymous person, well… so be it.)
Still, aside from a few fairly frivolous entries that merely illustrate the depth of our own relationship, I’ll do my best to avoid unrelated juicy personal gossip and use the journals to paint a general picture of the changing trajectories throughout the course of Caroline’s life using broad strokes to illustrate important overarching themes. Due to the length (don’t worry, I won’t be sharing 20+ years of entries) and subject matter, I’ve decided to split the relevant journal entries into three parts; The Early Years, An Aspiring Christian, and, A Christian In Crisis. In addition to giving a little more back story, perspective, and context to Caroline’s life, I hope that this series will also serve to challenge simplistic stereotypes of suicide, mental illness, and the sometimes overwhelming struggles one faces when “losing” their faith.
After posting the first few parts of this story online, I’ve received primarily two types of responses (beyond the extremely gracious platitudes and heart-felt condolences). Among atheists, the trending theme appears to be along the well-meaning lines of, “Oh, please – don’t be so hard on yourself. You can’t possibly be held responsible for the decision someone else makes to take their own life. It’s their decision, not yours!” This type of washing of hands and shirking personal responsibility rings a little too closely to blaming Satan for the bad things in life and praising God for the good while absolving ourselves of the profound influence we may have on the daily lives of others. From Christians, on the other hand, there seems to be more of a head-in-the-sand type of response, equal but different in it’s hope to deny any culpability, “Oh, please – she clearly suffered from mental illness, plain and simple. Stop blaming God for your friend’s rejection of His grace.” Regardless of which conditioned response you lean toward, I’d suggest that, in the case of Caroline, they are equally flawed in logic and rooted in self preservation, as I hope to help her illustrate shortly.
I must admit that I expected this first section to be little more than a bittersweet stroll down memory lane. Yet, as I presume is often the result of wandering into someone’s innermost private thoughts and feelings, I simply wasn’t prepared for a secret Caroline had kept from me for decades.
Part 5: The Journals – The Early Years
Caroline wasn’t a prolific journaller by any means, sometimes years would go by between entries, perhaps some of the physical books had gone missing. The earliest of the journals her father brought to my home began midway through Caroline’s undergraduate studies at a university in the Pacific Northwest. It was filled mostly with the sort of light and gossipy topics you’d expect of a young adult in the 90’s – a bad professor here, a good boyfriend there, her thoughts on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, her excitement to spend time with her family for the holidays, and her growing distaste for Top Ramen. Caroline also journaled anytime she went backpacking, usually alone, along the ridges, peaks, and valleys of the Cascade and Sierra mountains ranges. This is where we’ll begin.
Sept 9: “It’s so cold and clear up here tonight! Pretty humbling to look up and realize that we’ve probably already lost sight of an unimaginable infiniteness beyond the scope of our understanding, lost forever.” she wrote while camped near the summit of Mt. Shuksan of northern Washington state. My guess is that she was likely relating back to earlier notes regarding recent discoveries about the speed of the expansion of the universe – new and exciting stuff at the time, cutting edge science. “You’d think that the risk of losing sight of entire galaxies might give a sense of immediate urgency to speed up funding for research and discovery. To crave more knowledge before it’s too late. Noooooooope! They just defunded the Desertron [Superconducting Super Collider] in Texas because some whackos convinced them it would open a black hole to the fires of hell or some other nonsense. Why is discovery so terrifying to some people? Fucking idiots rule the world.”
This was the Caroline I knew. Intellectual, independent, and incorrigible. [Although, even there were some “whackos” fighting the patricle accelerator in Texas, the project was mostly shut down because of insane budget overrun projections.]
During graduate school much of her writing became focused on her own studies, thinking out loud about the chemical composition of certain meteorites, the depth of the KT boundary in certain parts of the world, and, of course, her crushes on various “grungy baristas” among Seattle’s countless coffee shops. In addition to coffee, she became addicted to rock climbing and paragliding, two activities that tested her skills, stamina, and courage. She wrote of being glad to be single in her 20’s so she could focus on her education and work. She wrote about applying to various doctoral programs around the country, some schools more appealing than others. She wrote of the pressures of balancing family expectations with the possibility of moving across the country. She never seemed to be annoyed by all of the hoops she was required to jump though; the countless applications, interviews, and essays. She had all but given up on a PhD when she received an acceptance letter from her top school of choice.
The first call Caroline made was to her father who “openly wept with pride” over her being first person in his family to ever go to college, much less earn a series of fancy degrees on both academic and sports scholarships. The only problem was, her doctorate wasn’t going to be “free” and she knew that her family was essentially broke. Her father offered to get a second mortgage or even sell the family ranch in order to provide for his girl. Of course, Caroline wouldn’t even allow this option to be thought of, she’d already negotiated a delay on grad school in order to take a well-paying contract with the Forest Service in a small town nearby. “So, I’ll live off beans and rice for a couple of years to save up,” she wrote. “Big deal,
millions BILLIONS do it every day.”
Resourcefulness, patience, and perseverance – again, this was the Caroline I knew. In fact, we’d finally meet just a few weeks later.
May 18: “Weird night – almost killed a hot guy on a bike. Then we hitchhiked to the hospital and I held his hand. Then I saw his giant *swollen balls* and threw up all over the ER. He couldn’t stop laughing at me and I’m pretty sure the nurses thought we were on drugs. Friends forever me thinks?”
Since this is the second time this scene involving testicle and vomit has been mentioned, I feel I should explain…
July 16: “Took off early so we could see Dave Matthews last night, still can’t understand a single lyric but Ditto is in love with the band. This skanky little thing kept hitting on him all night but he was completely oblivious. Still not sure if he’s a total gentlemen or just totally gay? But, we had to drive back all night so he could play at his church this morning. I guess I just don’t get the whole Jesus thing. Maybe I should learn an instrument. Kazoo? I need to get laid.”
- I can rarely understand Dave’s words either, but it’s irrelevant – the band is tight!
- Not gay, just not a fan of chlamydia. (And, yes – I’ve always been the shy one in the room.)
- Truth be told, we never got hotels because; 1) I was usually broke, and 2) Things happened between men and women in hotels, things that I never wanted to jeopardize our relationship. Surely she knew this. Didn’t she?
- Between being tone deaf and having no rhythm, I for one am glad that she never took up an instrument. Though, I did find a kazoo in her glovebox once.
Aug 27: “It’s been so much fun having Jess here this week. We went biking in the morning and met Ditto to go kayaking. When we were packing up, this drunk redneck asshole kept totally harassing her. It started to get a little scary and Ditto saw what was going on. He distracted the guy by sneakily pushing his boat down river and throwing his paddle into the bushes. I wish he had punched the prick but I think Jess has a crush on him now, her hero. Back off, sister.”
Heh, I remember this slightly differently. From my perspective I was worried that Jess was going to take the guy’s head off with the blade of her paddle, so I tried to diffuse the situation before it escalated and the idiot did something he’d really regret. However, that first weekend with Jess set the tone for my role as the protective big-brother she never had. Not that she couldn’t have taken care of herself. Heck, I still wouldn’t mess with her.
Sept 18: “My sublease was up last week so I moved in with Ditto. He put flowers in my room to welcome me home. I put a dead garter snake in his bed. He screams like a little bitch.”
If you’ve never slipped into bed to feel a cold rubbery snake between your toes, well… be glad. That bitch!
Oct 3: “I went to Planned Parenthood today and found that I have a couple cysts on uterus that have probably been the cause of my pain. I have an appointment to see a specialist next week to talk about having them removed. When I left there was a group of anti-abortionists holding signs and screaming at me for killing my baby. What the fuck is wrong with those people? Like people already going through their own version of hell need to be accosted like that? Fuck that noise. Gross.”
She had the cysts removed within a few weeks and made a full recovery, her debilitating endometriosis was gone. But, the incident with the protesters angered her deeply. She was fairly pro-life for purely moral reasons, but she was disgusted that people would force their religion on others in such hateful ways. I remember her once getting into a nearly violent argument with a man who was marching with an “Abortion Is Murder” She asked if he supported capitol punishment, which he did. Her response was to walk across the street to a UPS Store and buy a huge sheet of cardboard, a marker, and broke a piece of wood off one of their shipping pallets. For the next two hours she silently followed the man everywhere holding a sign over his head that simply read, “HYPOCRITE LOVES DEATH PENALTY” with an large arrow pointing right at him. That was Caroline.
Nov 28: “Went furniture shopping and I convinced Ditto to buy a ridiculously enormous leather chair that barely fits in the living room. But it’s sure comfy and maybe some day I’ll let him sit in it when I’m not studying. Then we went out to mom and dad’s and had a great Thanksgiving. Dad taught us how to butcher a lamb. Mom kept telling Ditto to ‘get it over with and marry her already.’ He thought she was kidding. Oh, Ditto.”
Caroline’s mom was the best – an equally jovial prankster, herself. The next summer she made fresh ice-cold lemonade for everyone when we got back from a trail ride. I downed two or three giant gulps before my stomach told my brain that she made mine with salt instead of sugar. Like mother, like daughter – evil bitches. I still regret not making it to her funeral, though at the time it was just… awkward. (Oh, and I still have the chair – the most comfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever owned.)
April 17: “Had my first near-death experience today. I felt sort of all crooked just as I took off and then I pumped the brakes to try to stabilize. Turns out my left brake line wore through so I ended up spinning hard-right and slammed back into the cliff. Luckily my wing totally collapsed around a couple of bushes so I didn’t get sucked into the ocean. Ditto was there taking pictures and slid down to me in a screaming panic and helped me get untangled. When he realized I was okay he kissed me on the forehead and we just sat quietly for an hour. I should have kissed him back, really kissed him, but I still didn’t know which way was up. Some day, maybe? No hurries, no worries.”
It’s funny, I don’t really remember being that panicked, but I do remember kissing her forehead and the smell of her vanilla shampoo in the wispy curls at her temples. I also remember being quite happy that she was still alive. Then we got back to the top of the hill to find that my camera had been stolen from the grass. Jerks. Wait – what’s this kissing nonsense all about? Just nervous energy from the fall?
May 25: “Ditto and I celebrated our friendaversary by both getting food poisoning. I blame the hot dog he made me eat at the game, he blames the sushi we had later with Marc and Angie. Agree to disagree. Long night of holding each other’s hair back and sleeping together on the bathroom floor. So gross, but pretty sure this means we’re finally a real couple now. (Don’t tell him, he might get cold feet.)”
It was definitely the sushi, dammit! I still remember tobiko coming out of my nose and couldn’t get near wasabi for years. On the other hand, it was an evening of odd “intimacy” that few have likely had the (dis)pleasure of sharing with a loved one. People joked about us being the “odd” couple throughout that summer – connected at the hip, until…
July 27: “I feel like a 6th grader trying to figure out what to wear for the first day of school. I’m nervous to meet my advisor next week and still not sure about the whole Pennsylvania thing. Feels like I’m never going to see my family again. Ditto just got a second interview with some tech company. I hope he gets it, but… fuck! Why can’t he just come with me? Who’s gonna make my coffee every morning? Shit this sucks.”
From my perspective all was right with the world, or at least that’s the spin I was putting on it. I did get the job I wanted. My lease was up in a few weeks. Shit-Shit was leaving anyway, her contract was up and she was heading to PA to really begin her new life. We often talked about how this whole “grown-up thing” was going to get tricky, so we decided to go on one final adventure before adulthood – a weeklong backpacking trip along the John Muir trail.
Aug 13: “I’m so going to miss these vistas and wide open spaces and wildness of it all. But, mostly the stars – I wonder how far I’ll have to get out of the city just to see some damn stars? This trek has been amazing! Just what I needed! Well, almost.”
Aug 14: “I really thought it was finally going to happen tonight. Ditto had secretly planned to make this amazing meal and even hauled a bottle of wine and candles all the way up here. He said it was a “going away party” but it felt like more than that. I tried to take matters into my own hands by going skinny dipping. He came in with his shorts on and ignored my over-the-top flirting. Seriously?”
Truth be told, I was embarrassed. We had been naked around each other many times by then, but always the innocent “roommates changing” or “backpacking baths” type of stuff that happens when you live so closely with someone you were 100% “safe” with. I was embarrassed because I thought she was just being herself – innocent, platonic, silly Shit-Shit, while I was the creepy perv trying to hide his arousal.
Aug 17: “I’m apparently a Christian now. I’m really not sure why I’ve been so against the idea of going to church, but maybe Ditto is right, maybe you don’t need to go into a building to find God. Maybe sitting next to the love of your life on a cliff is even better? I’ve always liked the idea of prayer, anything to remind us to ask for help when we need it. Lord, I do need your help. I am nothing without you. Help me become the woman you want me to be. Maybe one day I’ll even be enough for Ditto? Now, if only Jesus could help me pack!”
Ugh… I think that must have been where I got it; the seeming inability to end anything on too serious of a note, an insatiable need to lighten the mood, even my own thoughts with a joke. She did it all the time, usually in a self deprecating way. I still do the same. Hell, maybe we all do it to change the subject and avoid potential conflict?
But… Enough for me? Reading that line killed me. Caroline was always more than enough for me. A sliver of her was enough for me – more than I could handle, and certainly more than I ever deserved. She knew that. How could she not know that? Yes, I had been perviously engaged, and yes, I’m happily married. But, given half of a lifetime to ponder it, Caroline was always my first true love, a love kept pure by its awkward unrequitedness. This, of course, would never take anything away from the deep adoration I have for my incomparable wife of so many years. Life goes on, we move on, we grow, and… we change.
Hell, I changed so much during my pompous rise to Christian leadership that I shudder to think of what would have become of our relationship if Caroline and I had married at that time. To all external indications, we’d have been that amazing couple that inspired jealousy of others. But in truth, behind closed doors, it would have been just awful, watching each other whittle and mold themselves to play the parts of the happy, healthy, Christian couple that was to be expected by colleagues and new friends, mere shadows of our once vibrant selves, striving to keep up with the Joneses while pleasing Jesus instead of each other – along with all of the underlying patriarchal imbalances that helped lead to my first divorce. Yuck. I’d rather we’d never met at all than do that to someone I truly loved.
I can only guess that the main reason neither of us ever confessed our love for one another was out of mutual fear of rejection, loving what we had too much to ever risk damaging it. The truth is, if I had kept a journal at the time, it would have read nearly identical to Caroline’s. Her posthumous declarations of affection haunted me, the absurdity of having a twenty year old one-sided conversation with someone who can no longer hear your replies or respond to your questions suddenly felt grossly voyeuristic and became a bit maddening. It always feels good to know that you are loved. Yet, it was heartwrenching to have never been able to share my own secret in return. But, as Caroline said, “No hurries, no worries.” A sliver was what we gave each other at the time, and a sliver will have always been enough.
Speaking of fear of rejection, this is what makes this last journal entry all the more difficult to read. I don’t share these entries out of some self-indulgent need for personal affirmation, but of perspective – to help you understand the depth of our relationship and the complexity of someone changing themselves in order to please another, in this case, by becoming a Christian. Much like my own born-again experience began with the subtle-yet-unrelenting pressure of the well-meaning friends surrounding me, I can’t help but wonder if Caroline became a Christian that night on that cliff just out of not wanting to disappoint or offend me? Or, even worse – out of hopes of changing herself to fill a void she thought I perceived in our relationship? “Maybe one day I’ll even be enough…” What was at one time my proudest moments (my first “conversion”) has evolved to become one of my darkest hours.
Three days after this entry was written, I waved as Caroline backed out of the driveway and headed east. I went inside, sat down, and made it three full minutes before I allowed myself to realize how much I’d just lost and broke down, curled up in the damn leather chair she made me buy. A few days later she got pulled over for speeding and found the dead squirrel I had left on top of her registration in her glovebox. Checkmate.
I’m certainly not a psychologist, but at this point in her life, I’d be willing to wager the majority opinion would agree that Caroline hardly seemed to be at any risk of mental illness or suicide. She had everything going for her, a wonderful family, a close knit group of friends, good health, and a future filled with nothing but hope, prosperity and a new relationship with her personal Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. What could possibly go wrong? Well… if you can’t possibly imagine how this story ends, the next chapter will be written with you in mind.
The next chapter of journal entries will likely cause much debate, and I’m okay with that. In one camp, many Christian readers will be cheering Caroline on as she “dies to self” as part of her new journey to walk more closely with Jesus. In the other camp, those no longer indoctrinated in church culture will likely recognize many of the troubling signs of systematic selficide as Caroline becomes a completely “new creature in Christ.”
NEXT UP: The Journals of An Aspiring Christian