Last Saturday I woke up ready to tell you all about the latest in our moving adventures. Then the phone rang and our world suddenly shifted. A dear friend of ours was gone, had taken his own life. Details were sketchy at first, but soon we all understood that something had gone horribly wrong. Jake had struggled his entire life with depression. Mostly, he had it under control. He took his medication and enjoyed his family, using jokes and laughter to power through his days. One of our friends had dinner with him last Friday night and said he seemed fine. Saturday morning, while his wife had the kids on an outing, he shot himself. Just like that.
I’ve been thinking almost non-stop about Jake this past week. We met almost twenty years ago. We worked together on a couple of squads before I made sergeant and he came to my squad three of the last four years of my career. He was a great cop. He had that unique ability to relate to almost every person he encountered. I think that his illness gave him an uncommon empathy for his fellow man. Truly. Even in some of the worst, crime-ridden neighborhoods, on a violent arrest, Jake would be able to talk to the person he’d just arrested. It wasn’t personal, just his job. He would follow up with people from previous calls, just to check in to see how they were doing. Looking back, I believe it’s because he knew a little about what they might feel. His illness made him a better cop.
As for me, Jake and I shared a love of Pittsburgh sports teams and the singer, Pink. His friendship made me a better person because he made me lighten up and not take myself too seriously. Everybody needs a friend like that. Like so many other faces of depression we’ve lost over the years, his outsized humor masked his own pain. That’s a heartbreaking truth. It’s also true that far too often the stigma of their illness makes people living with depression or other disorders reluctant to talk about it or seek help. That is something we have to change. All of us know someone struggling in silence, whether they’ve shared it with us or not. Why they choose not to talk about it is what we have to figure out.
In the police/military/firefighting world that Jake and I shared, the “toughguy” culture is the problem. Guys especially, who show emotion are ridiculed as weak or worse. “Suck it up” “Get another job” or any other number of disparaging remarks will fly if one is perceived to be “soft”. I’m with the late General Schwartzkopf on this one: “I don’t trust a man who won’t cry.” We irrationally expect those who protect us to be stronger than us, but soldiers and cops have emotions and flaws, too. We all know that for many reasons, depression is a huge problem in the LGBT community as well. Our emotions and flaws make us human, nothing more, nothing less. Facing our fears defines strength, not weakness, no matter who we are.
Cheri (The Rev) courageously wrote about her struggle with depression. Cheri is a mom and a wife with a career and a side-gig as the host of The Cocktail Hour podcast show. Many of us call her friend. I read her blog the day after Jake’s suicide, struck by her courage. How many of us could write so eloquently about our deepest emotional battles? Not many. But if our loved ones can summon the courage to fight, then the least we can do is listen and try to understand.
Today, if we were in Tampa, we would be among the many who loved Jake attending his memorial service right now. I know there will be many stories about the guy who always made us laugh. He was one of those larger than life people. His sense of humor was the only thing bigger than his 6’8” frame. We mourn our friend, wondering what any of us could have done or what we missed. That’s a normal reaction, I guess, and I don’t have any answers. I only know that we have to keep having the conversation, stop saying it’s not our problem, stop blaming people for their illness, and start helping.