Joshua Keel

An End and a Beginning

April 15, 2019

It’s been over eight months since I’ve written anything here. Two days after my last post was written, back in July of 2018, Jeff, one of my closest friends, took his own life. I was shocked. I knew he had been struggling with intense anxiety, but I didn’t know how bad it had gotten. He was having daily chats with his psychiatrist, and they were adjusting his meds. After years of struggling with depression, he was trying to get back to normal again. And now he was gone.

It’s kind of a cliche, but I felt guilty and responsible for Jeff’s death, in some way. I had been in contact with him in the days before his suicide. I had been trying to encourage him, to offer the comfort and advice of a friend. In retrospect, I’m sure I sounded tone-deaf and insensitive. I talked from my headspace, one in which I was not struggling with anxiety, and I presumed to tell my friend how he could handle his problems. I was naive, and I had no clue how dangerous this situation was. He never mentioned to me that he was thinking of ending his life. I never thought he would do something like that.

And yet I also knew how much he was suffering, and how much that must hurt. I’m not angry with him. I don’t blame him. I’m just sad: that it happened, that I didn’t see it was happening, that I left him in DC and moved to North Carolina, hours away, a few months before his death. I wondered if I had abandoned him, or at least if he had felt abandoned, and whether he had people to support him when I was gone.

My fiancé (now wife) and best friend happened to be at home with me when I got the email. Jeff’s dad contacted me saying only to give him a call. Fear rose in my chest, and I immediately told my coworkers online that I needed to step away, quickly walked to the front door and outside for some space and privacy, and called him. After the call, I came back inside to face Kelley and Phil and tell them the news. I was sobbing. I could barely get it out. They started crying as well. It was a dark day.

Eight months later, it still feels a bit raw, just there beneath the surface. That day, something opened inside me, an existential question, a gulf. I can feel it now. Life became both more precious, more meaningful, and more unsettling. What does all this living and dying mean? Death is so close at hand, and even the young and good pass away. I thought I had made peace with death. In my evangelical Christian days, I imagined death was only the next step, that I would be raised bodily from the dead when Jesus returned. When I became an atheist, I realized I had no evidence for that, and I took on the full weight of what it means to be mortal.

Now that mortal wound was reopening, and I was considering life anew. Grief did unexpected things to me. I stopped writing, for one thing. I stopped and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to pick it up again. I went deeper into meditation and spirituality. My soul was grieving, and I wanted to find a deeper peace, the peace that passes understanding, that knows pain, but does not shrink from it.

I believe I’ve found that peace, or at least enough of it to quench my thirst for a while. Just a week before I got that email from Jeff’s dad, I sent an email of my own telling my friend Prasad of a wonderful spiritual discovery I had made, and how changed I felt. That feeling has not left me. Before, I was in resistance to life. Now, largely, I’m not. The peace that surrender to life brought is something I was trying to communicate to Jeff in those last few days, when he was hurting so much. I’m not sure what capacity he had to hear it, but I know he too is at peace now, at last.

But I miss him, and I’m so sad for what might have been, and for those he left behind. How heartbreaking it was to watch his parents at the funeral, and to hear from those his beautiful life had affected in so many positive ways, and to know he would never be coming back, and we had all lost something so unimaginably important we could never even know it.

I miss him. And I’m writing again. I’m not exactly sure why or how, but I’m here again. I have learned so much, and been so changed by this experience. I’ve been depressed before. I’ve been hopeless. I’ve done years of therapy. I’ve been on antidepressants. But I had never realized how truly ferocious mental illness can be, how it can tear someone from your life so pitilessly. I will never take it for granted again that someone is OK. I will check and re-check and call and make sure everyone in my life knows that I’m here for them, and there’s a reason for living. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave us. We love you. We’re here for you. We want you, and this is survivable. There is something beautiful on the other side of all of this pain, even though that’s almost impossible to believe when you’re in the thick of it.

Part of why I’m writing this is to remember my friend. A beautiful and true and noble human being that I love very much. Part of it is to say here’s where I’ve been, folks. I’ve been trying to figure shit out, and grieving, and living my life. I’ve gotten married to an amazing woman. I got a 10-year service award at work. I’ve made new friends, and have been living a full and mostly joyful life. And trying to understand myself, and others, and what the heck is happening in this world, to see it all and know it, to know what it means. To know my place.

There’s so much beauty in all of it, and so much pain. Bittersweet is a word I’ve used to describe the human experience many times over the last few years. Happiness, like a good man, is hard to find. Yet it’s so worth doing. Living is worthwhile, with all of its insanity and unpredictability. Savoring this moment brings out the fullness and richness of its flavor, its juiciness. It’s all so wonderfully full. Alive.

Life is so worth doing. I only hope to do it well.