h2>Dating : If you love me start running (because I’m already gone)
“There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” the definitely Absurdist, but ‘not really’ Existential philosopher Albert Camus wrote “and that is suicide.” Is life, regardless of situation or circumstance, worth living? All other philosophical inquiries, according to Camus, are inconsequential. Holden had a mind for philosophy, for tackling big problems, for thinking critically. We talked often about the multiverse, the nature of time, how to be a “good person living a good life.” The puzzle of causality. The mind/body problem. Free will determinism vs compatibilism. What do we mean when we say “I am going to the store”, to have a “self” with agency and how do we differentiate our own thoughts from the objective reality of our surroundings. How do we follow the advice of the earliest philosopher’s to “Know Thyself?”
These are the problems we tackled weekly. Not, of course, in the pedantic language of philosophy but through the idiom of popular culture, endlessly dissecting movies or songs or art looking for frames of reference that we recognized, that made us feel (or not), that sparked a reaction, some small kernel of Truth, some moral dilemma we could explore to get closer to the heart of who we were. What did Jeff Tweedy mean when he sang, at the beginning of Wilco’s “Via Chicago,” “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me?” Was there a moral justification for the crimes of the bank-robbing brothers in Hell or High Water? What can be learned from artist Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living?
On back-to-back Sundays in mid to late December we watched the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon starring Jim Carrey and Jim and Andy, a Netflix documentary that told Carrey’s perspective on immersing himself in the role of Kaufman through behind the scenes footage recorded by an associate and present day “interviews” with Carrey. Though framed as interviews, they were little more than Carrey soliloquies on his life pretending to be someone else to avoid being himself, the sleight of hand involved in acting in a movie vs “acting” in real life, the differences between pretending to be a “real” person and pretending to be a fictional person, and, to add a last layer, pretending to be a real person who spent their life pretending to be various fictional people. We had enjoyed the documentary when we first watched it and spent some time unpacking the narrative layers a few weeks earlier. Our last Sunday Night together celebrating his impending 19th birthday, the subject of Jim and Andy came up again.
On most Sunday nights I cooked us a good, hearty dinner. The last few months of 2017 we both had made great strides in eating healthier, more intentionally. We had cut out Dr. Pepper, and sugary cereals, shunned fast food. In three months we lost over 100 pounds between us. I wanted to make a healthy but memorable dinner for his birthday before we went to see Three Billboards in Ebbings, Missouri, a movie we had been trying to see together since its release the past November. A friend of Kim’s had given us a few pounds of freshly caught Alaskan salmon and halibut earlier in the week. I baked blackened salmon with fresh asparagus, mushrooms, and yellow squash in a foil pouch, and pan-fried scallops with real, full fat butter and garlic. For a final flourish, I got a sushi sampler from Kroger (better than you may think) for an appetizer. It was the most decadent 500 calorie lower-middle class meal I could serve him. The salmon was in the oven and not long after we started in on the sushi and got the small-talk out of the way we were off to the races.
“So I watched Jim and Andy again. I’ve seen it three times now,” he said. I had watched it three times as well, in a little under a month. “I don’t know how real I think it is.”
“In what way?”
“It’s weird that no one else from the movie was interviewed for the documentary. Danny Devito has time to make a billion epodes of It’s Always Sunny, you telling me he can’t make time for this documentary?”
“Maybe Jim Carrey just wanted to control the whole thing, wanted his perspective to be the only perspective.”
“Well that’s what I mean.” He paused. Ate a couple of pieces of dragon roll. “But then how does he expect us to believe him?”
“Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he’s an unreliable narrator. I do tend to believe him when he’s talking about his life but maybe because he is so hard on himself, so negative. In general, we believe what someone says about themself if it makes them look bad.”
I got up from the table. Turned the scallops over in the skillet.
“In the documentary, when he is retelling the part about supposedly getting hurt while filming the wrestling scene and being taken to the hospital and showing up on set wearing a neck brace, I did not know if he was really hurt or if it was all part of the act.,” he said. “And he never says one way or the other but he was so excited that it made the news and people were buying it either way. So he’s playing a guy who pretended to get hurt for publicity and takes it so far to also pretend to get hurt for publicity. But none of that was for the actual movie he was making. All of it was “off camera.” It’s hard to wrap my head around. It’s like Inception but in each dream it’s a different version of Jim Carrey being a different version of Andy Kaufman — it’s Carrey being fake Kaufman being real Kaufman who was also being a fake version of Kaufman. I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Maybe I need to watch it again. I want to know what’s real.”
“Like that line from ‘Penny Lane,’ “She feels as if she’s in a play/she is anyway.” “Or what’s that thing you always say about the turtles?”
“Turtles all the way down?”
“Yes. Turtles all the Way Down starring Jim Carrey as all the turtles.”
I laughed at the visual. Impressed with the reference.
“But what about towards the end,” he continued “when he talked about having everything he could ever want and still being unhappy. Do you think that’s true?’
“For him? Or in general?”
“I dunno, maybe. But maybe what he thought he wanted is not what he needed? He even talks about it in the movie. He wanted to be recognized walking down the street, to be on TV, to be famous. Who’s to say he would not have been more content just being Jim from accounting?”
I rewatched the documentary recently, trying to see it from his point of view. Though there are undercurrents throughout, towards the end Carrey talks at some length about his unhappiness, about longing for death.
“All we really yearn for is our own absence. After all, you know, we yearn for what happens at death [exhales} I really don’t have to worry about that anymore. I truly feel like if you ask me where I live right now, where the real me is I would say there is a quiet gentle seat in the universe that seems to contain everything and that’s where I am. I don’t want anything. Thats the craziest thing and its the weirdest thing to say in a place like America where I have no ambition. I really truly don’t.”
“Where do you think that will take you?” the interviewer asks.
“Nowhere. I don’t have anywhere to go. That’s fascinating to me now. The disappearing.”
“ — because the younger you, starting out and trying to make it had a different thing, so where did that transformation take place?”
“Somewhere in the middle of absolute confusion, absolute disappointment. The fruition of all of my dreams, standing there with everything anyone else had ever dreamed of having, and being unhappy.”
A clip of Carrey (as Andy Kaufman) singing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” inserted in the middle of the conversation brings more existential gravity to his words and when Carrey stops talking and the actual song plays, up front in the mix, I was struck by a profound loneliness, imagining Holden as Major Tom, floating off into space, rather than returning home. I turned Holden on to Bowie after his death from cancer in 2016 and we spent hours going through his catalog. Holden learned to play a few of his songs, “Space Oddity” included, and recently listening to the recording he sent me January 20, 2017, almost a year to the day before his suicide, I broke down and wept.
When I reflect on that conversation, I try to remember his demeanor, his facial expressions. Was there a lilt in his voice, a slight waver I missed? I can smell the salmon and hear the Youtube video Beckett is playing in the living room (“Welcome to Ryan’s Toy Review”), remember the griminess of the kitchen floor on my bare feet, making a mental note to sweep. I was up and down, tending the cooking food, setting the table, not looking for eye contact nor noticing its absence. I had never pan-fried scallops and was afraid I would overcook them. Kim wore her green Wilco concert T-shirt we got at a show at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Delaware, Beckett a long sleeve black t-shirt and dark pants, like a pint sized Existentialist. I can see that all, but not his face, not in any detail.
The salmon was ready. Kim and Beckett joined us at the table for dinner and and the conversation moved onto other things. Real world things.
After dinner we had 30 minutes before we needed to leave to see Three Billboards. I asked him, as I did every time we were together, and I mean every time, “how you been feeling?”
“I’m a little nervous about this semester of classes.”
“What are you taking? The second half of American History and English 1302 I know, what else?”
“Actually I am taking technical writing instead of 1302, also Physics and Psychology. I’m nervous about the Physics. I know I have to have it for my degree, but I am nervous about the math.”
Not until months after he died did I realize he had not asked for textbook money.
We had reason to believe that Holden was in a good place right up until his death, that through a combination of medicine, therapy, and self awareness about waning signs of danger, he had reached something close to equilibrium, that the treatment was working. About a month into his first semester of college he had decided to major in electrical engineering. On that particular Sunday night I had asked him that same question, “how you been feeling” and he told me that he had had a breakthrough. He said that being in college and actually putting in the work to make good grades taught him that there really was no easy way to success. He now knew that whatever he was going to have in life he was going to have to work to get. He had done research on high paying jobs with a guaranteed future and settled on electrical engineer. He went to his car and grabbed his school planner and showed me how he had filled it out for the whole semester using his class syllabuses. He talked about each of his professors, read me a speech he had to give the next day, and asked me some questions about King Lear, his reading for that week. I hate to admit, but I was stunned. To those who did not know about his depression, he appeared to coast through his last couple of years in high school, drag his feet for months finding a job, and lack motivation to improve his situation. But, finally, something had clicked. That same night we agreed to hold each other accountable for our eating habits. Every time we talked for those last few months he had the same energy. He finished the semester with a 4.0 gpa and made the Dean’s list and was planning a backpacking trip to Europe with Megan for the following summer.
“The math is the math. Apply yourself the way you did this past semester, ask for help when you need it, take any tutoring that is available and you will be fine. Nobody starts an engineering degree knowing all the math and science. That’s why you take the classes. So besides worrying about the math, you been doing ok mentally?”
“Yeah. It’s been a long time since I have struggled with it. I know I am sick. I know I will have to take medication the rest of my life, but I’m okay with that.”
“You’ve said before that you made your peace with it. You still at peace?”
“When was the last time you went to counseling?”
“I went to the psychiatrist last week. Everything is good.”
We talked for a few more minutes. I rarely play the Powerball but that week it was up into the hundreds of millions. We rehashed one of our favorite topics, what would we do if we won. When people buy a lottery ticket they aren’t expecting to win, they know they aren’t going to but there is magic in having that ticket in your pocket. For only $2 you have license to daydream about what you would do with the money. Our answers were usually the same: take care of family, travel, and start our charity that provides instruments, lessons, recording time, and music therapy for kids struggling with mental illness. We were going to call it Every Sound There Is, a snippet of lyric from the Beatles power pop anthem “And your Bird Can Sing.” Good idea, right? In fact the acronym for the charity, ESTI works perfectly if we ever put on a fESTIval. This particular night he had a new answer though.
“I would make my Paris movie.”
He had told me about his Paris movie when he was still in high school. A coming of age movie told through vignettes following a teenage couple as they discover true love while on a school trip together in Paris. At the end of the movie they would drive away into the sunrise and past a Paris, TX city limit sign and, using expanded flashbacks to previous scenes, show that they were in the small, East Texas town all along but the power of their love and imaginations transcended their mundane surroundings. “Kind of like Fight Club mixed with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
“What was it called again?”
“Lever du soleil janvier.” He said in fairly decent french. “January Sunrise. I’ve actually made a few changes. Made it a little darker, a little less romantic.”
“It’s still the basic premise though, the juxtaposition of the two Paris’s?”
“For sure. I have even picked out some music, decided on shoot locations, started writing some of the scenes. I will email you what I have so far.”
“You know, you don’t have to win the lottery to make a movie.”
“You don’t have to win the lottery to start a non profit either.” Touche.
He never sent me that email with the new details for his movie. Eight days later he hung himself, ironically enough, around the time of sunrise on a mild January morning. I suppose it’s ironic. It’s hard to know, looking back, what he did intentionally and what is just happenstance. What I do know is that if he would have sent me his movie plans, or, rather, if I would have reminded him the next day to send them to me, I would have thought that something was wrong.
A few months after he died I was going back through his laptop looking for songs he had recorded, art he had done, notes or letters he had written — looking for him — when I came across his notes for the movie. In the opening scene the girl shoots and kills the boy. She “raises a shotgun, the shot switches to her face and she begins to pull the trigger, the muzzle flash lighting up her face as blood splatters on it, more blood accumulating from each bloodshot.” What began as a cliched teenage love story had morphed into a Gone Girl style murder mystery. Instead of the young lovers driving past the city limit sign for the big reveal, now “the girl is driving after the murder, covered in blood” and each of the flashbacks show a continuation of the romantic scenes than now end with the woman being abused in different ways. “A little darker, a little less romantic” indeed. Holden was 14 when he first started experiencing, and acting on, suicidal thoughts. One of the many counselor’s he saw, a middle aged California transplant who kept at least one too many buttons on his Tommy Bahama shirt undone revealing a shark tooth necklace — the same necklace he was wearing on the album cover on the CD’s of his music he was flogging in the waiting room — told him to keep a journal of any abnormal thoughts he had for a week and bring them in next visit. The notes would be private, kept between the two of them. Ten minutes into the next session the counselor called me into the office to talk to me about what Holden had written.
“Do you want to read them?” the counselor asked.
“I thought it was supposed to be privileged between you and Holden.”
“Normally yes, but he made very specific, detailed, and gruesome statements about harming himself and others. It is my duty to inform you.”
It was the only time in his life up until that point, and after, that I am aware of, that he spoke or wrote about turning his depression, his anger outward rather than inward. I did not read what he wrote there and then, I wanted to give Holden the chance to tell me and talk to me about it. The counselor told us he was not equipped to deal with a patient like Holden, that his practice was more focused on kids with discipline issues. That was a common refrain through the years, from counselors and doctor’s, including a Pediatric Neurologist at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth, that we’d be better off going somewhere else.
During the drive home I broached the subject with Holden. What exactly had he written? Was it his true thoughts or just shock-value? Do I need to be concerned for mine and Kim and Beckett’s safety? He said nothing, becoming enraged. At one point, while we were going 80 down the George Bush Tollway, tired of my continual pestering for answers, he took off his seatbelt and opened the door of the minivan and said he was going to jump out if I said another word. I shut the fuck up. We made it home. He shot out of the car, said he was going to take a nap, and retreated to his room.
About 30 minutes later I checked on him and he was asleep. I got on the computer and found where he had been making his thoughts journal entries. It was worse than I could have imagined. While I still have the file saved I can not bring myself to read it again. One part that has stuck with me though was him writing that he kept a baseball bat under his bed and would often stand over me at night when I had fallen asleep on the couch wanting to bash my head in. While he napped I called Trish and my parents and Kim and we all agreed that he needed to go back into the hospital. As soon as he woke up he took a shower and I went to his room to check for the baseball bat under the mattress. It was there. I hid the baseball bat and the kitchen knives and anything else I thought he could use to harm me or himself. When he got out of the shower I told him that I read what he had written and that we needed to go do a psychiatric trauma intake.
He locked himself in his room and would not come out and threatened to kill me or himself if I opened the door. Not knowing what to do I called everyone again. We decided I should call the police. I met the police outside, explained the situation. One of the cops drew his gun.
“Please don’t shoot him. He is sick, he is on medication, we don’t have weapons in the house. Please.”
“That will be up to him won’t it?”
I will never forget the look of betrayal on his face when he realized I had called the police on him. His eyes swelled with tears, his bottom lip quivered. Despite knowing then, as I do now, that I did the best thing for him, for our family, I still tear up thinking about it. He willingly got into the cruiser and I followed them to the hospital where we waited for a couple of hours for the Denton County MHMR trauma team to come and do the assessment. We did so many assessments at so many facilities that they all have become a blur. I remember his initial defiance answering the questions, his unwillingness to even look at me. I honestly did not know if the trauma team would recommend hospitalization but I did not know what we would do if they didn’t.
Being in four different hospitals in a few months time he had learned how to game the system, how to give the answers the interviewer wanted, to avoid further hospitalization or to get clearance to be released ahead of schedule. He said all the right things. He did not understand why such a big deal was being made out of words. “Their only words, they don’t hurt” he said and cut a glance my way. He knew I would recognize that as a lyric from one of our favorite songs, Ben Kweller’s “Make It Up.” The interviewer agreed with him but explained that because of his history we had to take explicit threats seriously. Eventually, they asked about opening the car door on the highway and threatening to jump and he snapped.
“I was trying to teach him a lesson” he said, gesturing at me.
“By threatening to kill yourself? What lesson were you hoping to teach?”
“To not ask so many god damn questions.”
“And you think that is something a person in possession of all their faculties would do? Come on. You are smarter than that. In the few minutes we have been talking it’s clear you are intelligent. Let’s get you to a hospital and reevaluate your medication. It’s probably as simple as that.”
As simple as that.
He spent two weeks at University Behavioral Health in Denton, where he was diagnosed as bi-polar. While he was in the hospital, I found deleted text messages on his phone where he talked about having a violent alter-ego he named Tyler. “I can feel Tyler stirring in my stomach this morning” and “I have to do what he says.” I also found a short story about a kid with split personality, the antagonist half, again, named Tyler. The twist at the end was that where was only a Tyler, the good side was the figment of his imagination. Clearly he was influenced by Fight Club and Primal Fear, two of his favorite movies and on a visit at the hospital I asked him about the texts and the story, which he dismissed as “just writing stories” and tried to assure me that he did not feel like he had a split personality. The doctor at the hospital concurred. The medication Holden had been on “did have tendency to increase suicidal thoughts and violent ideation in adolescents.” They put Holden on Lithium and a different antidepressant.
Two weeks later he came home, calmer and more subdued, thanks in no small part to the Lithium and we never saw or noticed any outward manifestations of violence or violent thoughts again. We were able then, to rationalize what he had written and thought as just an allergic reaction to that particular drug. He wrote many stories and songs in the intervening years, but never with a component of evil again that we saw. Reading the treatment for his Paris movie, months after he died, I recognized immediately the similarities in language and imagery of those diary entries from that dark period. Did it every go away or did he just make sure he did not show it? Did something happen to trigger those thought processes in the months and days leading up to his death? According to the “Paris Movie” document metadata, the last edits were a full eleven months before he brought it up that Sunday night. The movie was a violent story from the beginning but he never shared that part with me until the end, and then only in passing. Always afraid of another hospitalization he became more careful about what he said out loud. If his visions of orgiastic violence ever truly left him, they had returned months before he died.