The dark shadow of happiness
The death by suicide of Stephen “tWitch” Boss has been one of the most difficult celebrity deaths for me to process. Having encountered his work and his spirit on his first season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” he seemed a beacon of talent, humility, positivity, and honor.
One encounter he had with a young dancer backstage on a subsequent season of the dance show inspired a song called, “Best Days of My Life,” and I loved telling his story anytime we performed the song in concert. I fantasized about one day being able to share that story and song with him.
But it will never be. He is gone.
In the wake of his death, people have wondered what deep, dark, painful place he must have entered to have ended his life in spite of what appeared to be everything in the world at his feet. The world who mourns talked about his joy, his smile, his ability to make everyone around him feel comfortable. They wonder what warning signs were missed.
And I say, it is all those qualities that were so admired that perhaps were the warning signs.
In my family, I was the one who answered the phone call at 2 am from the hospital where they took my dad after he was hit head on by a drunk driver. When they called to inform us of his death an hour or so later, my mom took my brother and I to her bed and we listened as she wept aloud and cried over and over, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?” My mother, the German immigrant who had not shown much emotion my whole life, who always had an answer, was at sea.
The next morning, when sitting at the table bleary eyed and shocked as a family, I remember seeing the Sunday comics and aching for the laughter that always accompanied their reading. I decided at that point that no matter how I felt, it was my job now to keep others from their tears.
Shoving my own depression under the surface of a dark sea, I honed the skill of keeping things light and fun. Over the years, especially in professional settings, whenever I tried to expose tiny pieces of depression, I was usually met with comments that denied how anyone like me could ever be depressed.
So I mastered the art of keeping my own underground river at bay so that someone else could feel more comfortable, or laugh, or feel free of some burden. I fooled pretty much everyone except my own husband Tim, who himself came from a family who probably suffered from clinical depression. Only in his presence could I be my real self, it seemed. And in the therapist’s office, which I frequented for over a decade.
You see, in our culture, depression has been confined to stereotypes. The suffering artist…the kid dressed all in black…the one on medication …the person with the long, sad face.
But I say from my own experience that the ones we need to check in on are probably precisely the ones we go to for their optimism, their caring hearts, their listening ears, and their joyful smiles. I would say that perhaps those who seem to give and give are actually signaling the depth of their own need for support.
And I would say that perhaps, some of us have clung to optimism as a life raft as we are tossed in our own internal sea.
This season, and for all the days that follow, perhaps we need to look beyond the surface of those who seem to “have it all”…whose hearts seem the most open…whose spirits seem the most joyful.
Not because those emotions are false, but because sometimes there is a deeper, darker journey there that births the qualities that are admired. And because sometimes, we need to turn our attention in their direction and simply say,
I see you. Tell me your story. All of it. Especially the dark places.
Who knows what that story for tWitch might have been. I only know mine. And that story contains chapters when the razor was at my wrist, and the tears were so overwhelming and the pain so jagged that in moments I, too, would have given up.
I weep for him today, and my heart breaks. I could have been him.
So when you hear the admonitions on social media to check in on your friends, go to the ones you are least worried about and ask the hard questions.
Because they just might be the very ones sitting by the sea trying to find reason to take another breath.