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Surviving Depression While Counting Casualties


San Francisco Leathermen's Discussion Group

Surviving Depression While Counting Casualties

Eric Burkett

By Eric Burkett

For months after buying my motorcycle, I had thought about calling T. and asking if he wanted to get together for a ride. We had been out of touch for a while, other than a few quick messages on Facebook or cruise sites, and he'd alluded to spending a lot of time by himself without going into much detail. I'll get in touch with him soon, I frequently told myself.

Months passed, of course, but it wasn't until I got a message from Marc, a mutual friend, asking if I had heard from T. at all, that I became truly concerned. He'd stopped by T.'s place and found an eviction notice posted on the front door of his Miraloma house. It had, apparently, been there for a while.

I tried messaging and calling T. myself but without any success. I decided, finally, to ride up to his place to see if I couldn't talk to him in person. When I arrived there, I knocked on the door but no one answered. I continued knocking, calling out his name. When there was still no response, I opened the mail slot which emptied into the garage. I could see that no one had bothered to check the mail in a long while but I thought I could make out the sounds of a television. And footsteps. I called out to T. again, pleading with him to come to the door.

All in all, I spent nearly half an hour there, knocking, calling, waiting. The eviction date on the notice, taped to the front door, was for the next day. The sheriff would be by in the morning to carry out the order.

I thought about coming by again in the morning during the eviction but gradually decided against it. T. would be mortified to find people waiting outside as he was going through what would, no doubt, be a terribly humiliating experience. The next morning, though, I changed my mind again and made the trip back up the mountain to his house. Marc and T.'s mother were there, along with T.'s landlords, awaiting the sheriff.

I'm not giving T.'s name although plenty of you reading this will probably recognize him. He was a sexy, handsome bear of a man, a little shy, incredibly geeky (many of us owe our fondness for Dr. Who to him although, admittedly, I lost interest after Christopher Eccleston left the show), and kinky as hell. He was also struggling with profound depression.

Depression hits the gay community hard. While nothing appears to be conclusive about why this is so, the culprit suggested most often is simply the sheer amount of stress to which gay men are subjected (this includes lesbians, and – certainly – transgendered persons but I'm writing this to gay men as a gay man). Despite the incredible advances we've made socially – legal protections, marriage, and in many cases, the simple recognition of our right to live with dignity – many gay men still face discrimination and violence throughout the country, to say nothing of family pressures from relatives who have taken it upon themselves to make their gay sons' lives are as miserable as possible. Too, despite the number of churches that welcome and even embrace their gay congregants, organized religion is more often than not a minefield of hatred and ostracism for gay men. Little wonder, after a steady diet of being told one is worthless to society, that many gay men turn to other, more immediate and seemingly less demanding sources of solace such as drugs, alcohol, and sex.

That drug connection has been well noted. “Alcohol and other substance abuse or dependence may also co-exist with depression,” according to the National Institute for Mental Health. “Research shows that mood disorders and substance abuse commonly occur together.”

I get the drug connection. I've been there. For several years I was a regular user of methamphetamine or just plain old meth. Why? To be honest, it was fun. I had great sex on the stuff. Really great sex. While I never got into steady use, I probably used it more than a dozen times each year over a period of about four years.

It's easy to be dismissive of guys who use meth but that ignores the real draw of the drug.

I liked the easy sociability that came with it. There were numerous weekends spent with several guys – often guys I'd just met – hanging out, fucking, talking, and fucking even more. There was a surprising intimacy that came with the experience. The guy I'd just spent hours in a fisting scene with would open up about his life, his problems, his dreams. And I made friends while using the stuff. Friendships with men I really liked and with whom I developed ongoing relationships.

That may have been what made it so difficult to see where meth was taking me. I didn't meet the strung out addicts we hear so much about. The guys I met and played with weren't covered in scabs or depleted looking. They were in good shape, gregarious, and sexy as hell. Like my friend, T.

T. and I met online, and when we finally hooked up, he proved to be a helluva lot of fun. Meth lubricated the sex and the social encounter, taking us farther than we might have gone without it. On top of it all, he was smart, and eager to share his other passions with anyone who showed even the slightest interest. Most of all, he was just a charming, sexy man.

It's that easy sociability which, no doubt, pulls men in. (It's not for nothing that, a support organization for gay men struggling with meth use or addiction, uses a very sexy demon as its mascot.) Looking for ways to connect with others in a city that can be difficult to settle into, hoping to stave off loneliness, many guys find access to human connections in those little white crystals. Meth offers companionship and, surprisingly, the reassurance of ritual. The drug has to be ground up, loaded into pipes or prepared for injection requiring concentration but, too, opening up conversation and the brotherhood of a shared, taboo experience.

But that only lasts so long.

Flash forward a few years: meth had finally begun to take its toll on me. As I began a new stage in my life, returning to school, I found myself under intense pressure and I didn't handle it well. I withdrew. I spent long hours in bed waiting for the day to be done. I would burst into tears for no reason, unable to explain or describe the incredible pain I felt pulsing through my heart and brain. I thought a lot about killing myself. After struggling for months, I finally snapped.

Without going into a lot of detail, suffice to say I was taken off the Golden Gate Bridge by cops and placed into San Francisco General Hospital for observation. Looking back, it's unlikely I would have jumped; it was a classic cry for help. Professional counseling helped me realize I needed to cut meth out of my life and to make that possible, it meant cutting out the people with whom I'd been using the drug and T., as much as I liked him, was one of those people. The very drug which I felt had helped me connect with all those guys, including those who became friends, now cut me off from them.

When Marc contacted me to ask if I had heard from T., I was alarmed but not terribly surprised. T. had been out of work for months and had struggled to find a new job. He had become reclusive. I had wanted to get back in touch, largely out of concern but, also, just because I missed him.

When the sheriff's deputies finally arrived at T.'s home that spring morning, no one answered the door. Eventually, they forced their way into the house only to find that T. had killed himself sometime in the hours before. I still believe he was alive when I had been there the previous evening.

In the years since I had begun to leave crystal behind, my family – the wonderful men who had become my dads – helped me stay on track. I got through school and began working. I began writing again, publishing regularly. I began building a life I wanted. I survived. T. did not.

“Memory is the sense of loss,” wrote novelist Marilynne Robinson, “and loss pulls us after it.”

It's been more than three years since T. took his life and, still, I think about him nearly every day. I wonder what might have happened if I had reached out to him earlier. I wonder what might have happened if I had been more persistent in getting through to him that last night outside his door. I wonder, too, if that had even been possible.

That's probably the most insidious aspect of depression. The one thing someone suffering from depression needs most is contact with others. Depression convinces the sufferer otherwise, leaving him to navigate its dark channels alone with no ability to see beyond what lies before him, unable to see the dangerous steps ahead. When I was taken off the bridge into SF General for observation, I told the counselor I didn't want to kill myself; I just didn't want to be alive anymore.

She understood. I'm still alive.


Join Leathermen's Discussion Group on Nov. 5 for our special presentation "Killer Among Us: Depression in the Men's Community."