This may be the most difficult thing I ever write. I will cry while writing it so be warned: the page is wet and may warp while you're reading.
I recently lost a friend. Not recently in the past month or so, but recently in, like, the last two weeks. He was one of the greatest people I've ever had the pleasure to know. He was one of the greatest people anyone had the pleasure to know. And he knew a LOT of people. He LOVED a lot of people. And a LOT of people loved him. I don't know how someone who was so loving and so loved could ever have lost the will to live.
But he did. And he took his own life.
He left behind a loving, adoring wife. He left behind a myriad of loving, adoring friends and athletes in the local running and triathlon community, all of whom would have been much less inspired had they not crossed paths with him.
But I can't speak for them. I can only speak for myself. And in speaking, I will say that my life will never be the same without my friend Bob. And his death will haunt me until the end of my days.
Bob was more than just an accomplished athlete. I met him when I started triathlon in 2001, but it seemed like I had known him forever. In him, I found a kindred spirit. He was one of the few amateur athletes, besides myself, willing to embrace his competitive nature. We trained together in those early days - my hard days with him were probably his easy days. We raced together too. My early success in triathlon had a lot to do with Bob's influence. I would not have qualified for Kona in my first Ironman had it not been for him - in fact, I thought we would be racing in Kona together, but, sadly, he failed to qualify. We always said we would go to Ironman Kona together someday, and my heart breaks because I know now that will never happen.
We fell out of touch after my bike accident in 2003 when I lost my motivation to do anything athletic for several years.
But when I came back to competitive racing in 2008, Bob also came back into my life. At that point, he was mostly just running - and was busy blowing people minds with times in his 40s that most runners can't even dream about in their 20s and 30s. He kept telling me he wanted to pass on to me what he had learned about training. Because he KNEW me. He KNEW I tended to run myself into the ground (pun intended) and beat myself up. He KNEW I needed to stay healthy. And he knew he could help - with knowledge that kept him running fast when most people were on the downslope. I never asked, he just offered. We WERE kindred spirits still.
He also always knew when I raced - and when I raced poorly - and knew when I would judge myself harshly. Before I could even check Facebook, he would have offered up pearls of wisdom behind the scenes in the message console. He was always looking out for me. But why?
I found out at his funeral that it wasn't just me. He looked out for myriads of other athletic friends. Bob had a way of making you feel like the most important person. Where did he have time to work, train, race, AND be a best friend to hundreds of athletes? He was truly special.
Many people would compare us, but seriously, I didn't have his unwavering drive, enthusiasm, and energy. I broke down. I had bad races. Did Bob even have bad races? If he did, no one knew. Did he come out of every race situation unscathed? Was he even more like me than I thought? Did I fail to see the signs? When he was offering up all his knowledge to help others, was he really on top of his own game? This is what I will be asking myself always. Were there signs?
And back to that question: were we as much alike as I think we were? Because that's what scares me.
I recently caught a TV interview with Michael Phelps in which he discussed how he's changed since the 2012 Olympics, i.e., the things going through his mind in 2012 compared to how he deals with swimming and competition now. His answer also scared me. He had dark moments. Moments of feeling inadequate and worthless. If amazing athletes like Michael Phelps and my friend Bob can get to the point of questioning their worth, what chance do I have? I hate myself. I've hated myself since I was 13. I hate myself after I race poorly. And I hate myself even after I race well - when I look to the future and see huge failures on the horizon.
What makes an athlete think like this? Why have I put so much importance on performance?
Again, all I can do is speak for myself. It goes back to my youth, to my family, to the way my parents reacted to my athleticism. I'm sure it wasn't intentional. No parent wants to give their child a lack of self-worth. But my athletic (and scholastic) performances had become my way of proving I'm worthwhile. Especially when I feel useless at my job and at other tasks of everyday life. When I fail at racing - the one thing that's completely within my control, I just want to throw up my arms and say "what's the point?" I can't do anything right. Why even exist?
I fear I continue to fight the fight because I'm a coward. But then, I find small values here and there, and I lose myself in swimming, running, and making art. I think about my husband and my cat and realize I'm being stupid. I convince myself that they need me. Although I have no idea why. But I work hard to not take that thought path. I spend a lot of time crying. Especially since Bob left us. Sometimes, I spend the whole day crying.
Here's where I say it's really difficult to explain depression and lack of self-worth to people who haven't been there. And I will always wonder if Bob went to that deep dark place and could not return. Was it sudden? Was it something he thought about for a long time? It's happened to me spontaneously and inexplicably - at the slightest provocation. Sometimes it comes as a panic attack - which is preferable because I can't think, I can only gasp for air. When it's not a panic attack, it has come as an outward attack on myself. And I have spent time in the hospital for it. It isn't a rational thought process. In fact, it all happens so fast that I'm only here today because someone was looking out for me.
I remember one of the eulogies at Bob's service. One of his best friends reiterated (with pregnant pauses) the fact that there would have been help had he asked.. if only he had reached out - or given someone a chance to help. But I also know this is very difficult to do and not everyone wants to deal with a depressed person (no matter how much people say you can count on them). How do I know who will understand? Whose love is truly unconditional? Especially when I ask questions they can't answer - it's usually: "suck it up" or "think positive." And, is it fair for me to expect someone to feel empathy for feelings they don't have the capacity to feel? Especially when everyone thinks it's curable with some kind of medication. It isn't. It will never be. It's hard work to keep my head above water and not drown.
I don't want Bob's death to be in vain. I want it to mean something. And writing all of this is my way of making it worth something. Even if just opens up channels of communication between people. Or gives others the impetus to ask their friends how they are and open up their hearts to listen to the real answer. We're all in this together.