Introducing the key individuals in this story of love, loss, and survival
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
(Part 2 of an ongoing series. Read Part 1)
Three weeks after Josh’s suicide, his sister Liz and I assembled a pair of photo boards for his memorial. From a couple hundred on hand, we selected 52 photos we hoped would encapsulate his life, his passions, his personality. Though I sobbed afterward at the cruelly reductionistic nature of our endeavor, and we cried together as we reminisced, I’m grateful for the boards’ continued presence in my living room.
Looking at those pictures now, here are a few windows into the splendid human who was Josh:
- The kid was obsessed with hot chocolate. I count four liquid chocolate photos among the 200. For the memory board, Liz and I opted for an image of him strategically attacking the stuff obliquely from above, the better to slurp the whipped cream without burning his tongue. (Practice made perfect.)
- Music was Josh’s oxygen. In elementary school, he took electric guitar lessons. Later, he was a trombonist (or “boner,” as he liked to say), proudly participating in one of the nation’s finest high school marching bands. He, his older brother Paul, and I shared a mutual obsession with the symphonic metal band Nightwish. I frequently revisit the memory of him joyously belting out the chorus to Élan at a concert we attended together.
- Josh’s silliness and sense of humor were charming and contagious. Our board has pictures of him hamming it up with outdoor statuary: picking the nose of a giant head in San Francisco, hugging Bigfoot near Mount Rainier, getting his leg stuck in the mouth of a plaster shark on the Outer Banks. My coworkers hooted whenever I shared his latest outrageous utterance with them. A favorite was his observation that Snickers bars possess a penis vein (take a look: he wasn’t wrong!).
- He adored all animals. On the board are photos of him grinning with a box turtle, sharing an iPad with our television-fixated Jack Russell Terrier, getting crowded out of an armchair by our obnoxious Husky mix. Whenever I asked him his plans for the day, he invariably replied, “Love on the babies,” his phrase for snuggling with our dogs and his black cat Martha.
- He was fiercely concerned with justice and fairness. Contrary to his usual social avoidance, Josh chose to join Liz, my wife Jessica, and me at the Women’s March in DC on the day after Trump’s inauguration. In 2020, he and I participated together in a Black Lives Matter protest. Two weeks before he died, he told me of his desire to return to college and study political science. In his inimitable manner of expression, he said he was tired of other adults fucking up the world, and wanted a crack at fucking it up himself.
Like most suicide completers, Josh battled mental illness. Starting in elementary school, he was in and out of therapy. He returned to treatment for good in high school, finding a drug regimen that seemed to manage his depression effectively, while telling us that social support groups did more good for him than one-on-one therapy. He also suffered from social anxiety, but readily named three peers he counted as friends. Like many suicide completers, Josh always, always denied having suicidal ideation—to me, to his doctors, to his therapists.
His senior year in high school, Josh’s psychiatrist referred him for psychological testing, where he was additionally diagnosed with Schizoid Personality Disorder and Social Pragmatic Communication Disorder. In layperson’s terms, this meant he had little need or desire for social connection, while struggling to express himself verbally, especially on emotionally fraught topics.
How did these things play out? As Josh passed through middle adolescence and beyond, he increasingly found the demands of daily existence overwhelming. Recognized as one of the top two academic achievers at his junior high, he barely graduated from high school. When he insisted on attending college, he stopped going to classes after a month. At his subsequent fast-food jobs, he required prompts to wake up in time and attend to basic hygiene.
Conversations with Josh were substantially unilateral. More often than not, texts and calls from family and friends went unanswered. During his college semester, he was completely off the grid for two months. I agonized through October and November at his radio silence, but beyond a wellness check by his dormitory RA, his therapist recommended we give him his space.
Young adult Josh was uncomfortable with demonstrations of affection, whether verbal or physical. When Jessica, Liz, or I told him we loved him, his usual response was a brisk “OK,” which let us know he heard us, even if he couldn’t utter the same words back to us. My last hug with him was in December 2019, when we shared our grief over the sudden death of our geriatric dog Bandit. (Happily, I still feel the muscle memory of that contact.) During our final conversation three hours before he died, I rested my hand on his shoulder, in what I hope he perceived as a gesture of concern and affection.
Jessica, his siblings, and I agree that with Josh—even if he lacked the words—you just knew you were loved and appreciated. I often compare Josh to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. Both Josh and the Little Prince were disarming, unforgettable mixes of frankness, tenderness, innocence, and vulnerability. There simply wasn’t a mean or malicious molecule in the marvelous human who was Josh.
How I wish he’d known and believed this about himself.