How to kill a dragon

Last month my friend Brian hung himself from a tree on a beach in Hawaii. His best friend called to relay the news and suddenly I felt empty. Not a Nirvana kind of emptiness. Not at all. The news simply gave my emotions the excuse they needed to flee into whatever compartment they keep ready for times like this.

Brian and I met in grad school so I passed the news along to our program and to many of the alumni who knew him. I was surprised by some of the responses. Some broke down into tears, some denied that this could be true and questioned my source, some were enraged because Brian hadn’t reached out to them for support. Everyone reacts in their own way.

Those in denial had reason to be. Brian excelled. He was an academic star, travelled the world, had a packed social life, and was doing exciting research on the impact of technology on women in the developing world. We spent many happy days hiking and rock climbing together. To all appearances, he was healthy, hearty, and happy. Who would believe he could kill himself?

Those that were angry had reason to be. His suicide didn’t just leave behind distraught friends. He was a father figure to his two younger siblings (18 and 20 years old) and now they are essentially left to fend for themselves. Even if he was unhappy, how could he leave them on their own?

Those that broke down had reason to as well. Brian survived a difficult childhood and raised his siblings. Their mom died a few years ago from an aggressive form of blood cancer. His dad was never in the picture. The detectives in Hawaii turned over his journals after his death. They reveal that although Brian was outwardly happy, inside he was tormented beyond belief with paranoia, fear, and self-doubt.

The first half of 2014 has been a whirlwind. We heard about Brian the day after returning from a wonderful wedding of two close friends in Mexico. Drea ramped into her new job in San Francisco. We bought, renovated, and moved into a house in Oakland. I released my first novel. Our dear friend’s visa was revoked because of a careless mistake by her employer, risking the loss of years of advanced genetics research. Her friend’s toddler developed blood cancer. One of the companies I advise raised a successful Series B financing round. The tragic shooting at UCSB (my alma mater) shocked the world. I discovered the joy of roasting my own coffee. A close friend and mentor was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to get surgery immediately. I married the love of my life, Drea, last weekend in a redwood grove.

We’ve heard similar stories from many others. Hell, our friend who’s an accomplished therapist said that for the first time in her life she’s been talking to yoga teachers whose students blow up and throw chairs at them!

I’m not sure what’s in the air but I do know what it means: this is the season of being there for each other. Drea and I recently went hiking on one of the trails we had conquered with Brian months before. More than anything else, his suicide was confusing. Why would he have gone to such an extreme? What could be done to help prevent future tragedies? We discussed the dire state of our nation’s mental health system and any other take-aways we could work out.

The stigma around depression is insidious. Depression is so difficult to wrestle with because it blurs the lines between temporary mood and chronic illness, it makes friends uncomfortable and frustrates confidantes, it makes those who suffer self-conscious about telling others about it. I told Drea about how I had been moved by Brad Feld’s candid writing on his own struggles with depression. By sharing the struggle with family, friends, and the public, this kind of transparency empowers others to open up about their own issues. Honesty takes serious guts. Overcoming the emotional barriers to admit and explore something that’s taboo is inspiring.

Our close friend Derek told us a story last week. His six year old grandson was visiting and they were exploring the basement together. He pointed to the door on the left, “What’s in there grandpa?”

“Lot’s of canned foods and supplies for the kitchen,” said Derek.

The grandson pointed to the door ahead of them, “What’s in there grandpa?”

“Oh, those are all your grandmothers files, nothing too exciting,” said Derek.

The grandson pointed to the door on the right, “What’s in there grandpa?”

“I don’t know,” responded Derek, entirely truthfully. “I have no idea. Maybe dragons?”

“Dragons!” said the grandson, eyes lighting up. “Get me a broomstick!”


“A broomstick!”

After a quick search, Derek returned with a broomstick and handed it to the grandson.

“What are you going to do?” asked Derek.

“You’re going to open the door,” said the grandson. “And then I’ll run in there and see what happens. Okay, go!”

Derek complied and the grandson rushed headlong into the dark room, smashing everything right and left. After a few seconds of commotion, grandpa hit the light switch, hoping that nothing too valuable or dangerous had been shattered. The light revealed the grandson stomping his foot into the floor with enthusiasm.

“What are you doing?” asked Derek.

“I’m killing the dragon, grandpa!” he said.

“But I don’t see it,” said Derek.

“You’re silly, grandpa,” said the grandson. “Don’t you know how to kill dragons? If you run away from them they get bigger and bigger and you’ll never escape. But if you charge them right away and face them down they get smaller and smaller until they disappear. I just squished it.”

Brian’s suicide shook us to our core. The Great Whirlwind of 2014 swept us off our feet. But everything that’s happened this year, good and bad, has highlighted one thing: the most important thing is to be there for our loved ones. In the wake of Brian’s death, an incredible community has emerged sharing stories, pictures, and help. With honesty in our hearts and friends at our sides, we are all equipped to face down the dragon.

Complement with what my secret agent grandmother taught me about stories worth dying for.

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