The email was waiting for me in the morning. I knew by the subject line, “Richard,” (not his real name) what had happened so I pretended not to see it. Made myself some breakfast: tea, (organic) blueberry poptart, some strawberries. Read the newspaper. Three of them actually. Did what I could to delay the inevitable.
The news of Rich’s suicide came as no great surprise. Several months earlier, I received a suicide note, also by email. I called the police in Colorado and asked them to check on him and to call me from his house. Rich had no memory of sending the email or what he wrote in it. He was high on meth.
I tried to get him help. He wanted help. At least that’s what he told me. As I found out, he’d been using for almost ten years and until recently hadn’t experienced the worst of the drugs’ side effects. But he’d grown increasingly depressed, began craving more drugs, and appeared on the edge of descending into an uncontrollable spiral of dependency and depression. He said his meth use was “kicking his ass.” He needed help. Fast.
The woman I talked to at the military health center said that there were no free substance abuse counseling services for veterans, even though the VA website seemed to suggest otherwise. I asked her to repeat that a couple of times because I thought I didn’t hear her correctly. She said that Rich could come in for a free consultation, though. I told her I received a suicide note by email so we were beyond the point of needing professional affirmation of the obvious. I asked if there was someone I could talk to who might be able to tell me what substance abuse services were available where he lived, but again the answer was no. I was on my own on the internet. I did the best Google search I could.
Apparently, this is how we treat a twenty-year army veteran. Thanks for your service, we appreciate it, but we can’t help you with a habit you developed in uniform. Good luck. Maybe there’s a Narconon in your area.
Admittedly, Rich wasn’t optimistic about his chances of kicking his meth habit. It’s a highly addictive drug and the recovery rate is bleak. He was even less optimistic about the chances counseling could help him. But there was a window in which he acknowledged that there were people with more information on how to kick a meth habit than us and it might do him some good to talk to them. I will forever regret allowing Rich to talk me out of coming to Colorado and sorting this out in person. I’ve since heard that there are low cost counseling services available through the military but I don’t know for sure. All I can say is that I asked and wasn’t told about them. Subsequent efforts by other friends to get him help fell on deaf ears. The drugs had taken over. The window had closed.
You must be thinking that Rich was some kind of loser. He wasn’t. He dreamed of getting a Ph.D. in chemistry like his father and putting it to good use cleaning up the environment. He had a strong work ethic and the intelligence to accomplish many things, but the drug use distorted his thinking and ruined his life. He was a good friend, a Special Forces medic and demolitions specialist. He loved animals.
The choice to hang himself was Rich’s alone, even if he was in the midst of a drug-induced depression. I’m not trying to absolve him of responsibility for the choices he made. But surely, we can agree that no one who serves our country and asks for help should die hanged from a tree because he couldn’t figure out how and where to get help when he wanted it. Surely, we owe the men and women in uniform better than this.
Today is/would’ve been Rich’s birthday. As I re-read our emails and look at the pictures, I can’t help wondering what might have been. I don’t blame myself. I don’t blame anybody, really. It’s been more than a year now, but I still wonder who’s supposed to blow out the candles on the cake now that he’s gone.
Happy Birthday, dear Richard. Happy Birthday to you.
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