Tell Me What You See

[Trigger warning: Reference to suicide]

This morning I read that Brandon Truaxe, founder of skincare brand Deciem, had died.  For those of you who don’t follow fashion and cosmetics news like I do, Truaxe was removed as Deciem’s CEO last fall following weeks of erratic behavior, much of which was expressed on the company’s social medial platforms.  While the first article gave no indication as to cause of death, another article reported the details of his suicide.

So with those sparse details and your life experience, what assumptions do you make, what narrative do you impose upon the story?  Is it one of addiction or substance use?  Is it one of an act of despair in response to a professional blow?  Or is it an example of a fellow human exhibiting signs that they needed help but for some reason didn’t get it?

The latter, clearly, is mine, and I want to explain why.  I want to use this piece of news and this essay today to implore you to say something when people in your life exhibit behavior that confuses or concerns you.

Two and a half years ago (jezuss, was it that long?), I was sick.  What I now somewhat sardonically refer to as my “nervous breakdown” took me six months to recognize (and much, much longer to recover from).  Some scary things had to happen before I realized on my own that something was very wrong and that I needed help.  Also, I wasn’t able to work, which was creating problems of its own.  I was suffering.  So why didn’t anyone say something?

Enter: Mental Health Stigma.  If I was throwing up after every meal or unable to breathe climbing the stairs, I think friends would have suggested I go to the doctor.  But when I told my friend that when I got off the subway and emerged from the station near her house, but couldn’t figure out how to get there, couldn’t tell which direction to walk despite that fact that I’d made the trip countless times before, she laughed.  People don’t talk about brain health.  As a culture we don’t really understand brain health.  And I think these things scare the shit out of us.  So we laugh because we don’t know what else to do.

I also think people are afraid they’ll upset or anger the person they’re concerned about.  Most of us are conflict avoidant to some extent, and god forbid we’re “wrong” and offend someone.  When I did finally go to the doctor and told a friend about it the next day, she responded, “Good, I’ve been worried.”  Another friend finally brought up that she was concerned about my mental health…about two weeks after I started treatment, which I hadn’t yet told her about.  If my friends had told me they were concerned, it wouldn’t have just been helpful information.  It also would have made me feel less on my own in this scary thing called being sick.  Being sick sucks.  Being sick and feeling like no one even sees it, feeling invisible, is worse.

Ironically if my friends had chosen not to say anything to avoid upsetting me, the choices they made upset me a great deal.  I’m (still) angry with my friends for not saying anything.  I love them, I forgive them, but I’m pissed.  I needed help, some of them saw it, but no one said anything.  What might have been different if I had gotten help even a few months sooner?

And I wonder if Justin* would still be alive if I had said something to him years ago.

Justin was a gifted bodyworker whom I was seeing weekly in 2015 to help resolve a lingering back injury.  I’d been seeing him for months, and we had that sweet connection that many bodyworkers and clients have.  We weren’t friends, but we saw each other weekly, had learned much about each other’s lives, and cared about each other.  Then one week during my appointment, Justin asked me why Titanic was my favorite movie.  Titanic is, for the record, not my favorite movie, and I was confused, which I expressed to him.  He began to insist that it was my favorite movie, I had told him all about it, and he listed multiple details from a conversation that I had no recollection of having had with him.  It was uncomfortable.  And I anxiously began to doubt myself: had we had that conversation?  What would it mean for my health if we had but I had no memory of it?

Somehow I steered us away from this conversation and we got through the rest of the appointment.  But I was really uncomfortable.  Was Justin ok?  Was he ill?  Was he using?  I considered calling him a few days later to reflect what had happened, to tell him I was concerned as well as uncomfortable.  I considered calling his receptionist, asking her if she had noticed any bizarre behavior, letting her know that I was concerned.  In the end, I did neither of those things.  I just never made another appointment.

A couple of months later I checked my voicemail to find a message from one of Justin’s friends.  She was calling all of his clients to let them know that Justin had passed away.  I was stunned.  Even as I write this now, years later, tears come to my eyes and my throat tightens.  Something had been wrong, I had known something was wrong.  But I told myself that I wasn’t his friend, just his client.  Surely it wasn’t my place to say something.  It wouldn’t be appropriate to meddle in his affairs.

And now he was dead.

I don’t know the details of Justin’s death.  But whether he died of illness or ended his own life, his behavior in those months before he died indicated that something was wrong.  That he needed help.

See, here’s the thing if something is mis-firing in your brain.  You very likely can’t see it on your own because it’s your brain.  The thing that helps you figure out when something is wrong isn’t working.  So reflecting to the people in your life—whether friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, or your massage therapist—that you’re seeing things that worry you is not just the kind, decent, human, loving thing to do.  It might be the only way we can see that something is awry.

So how do you do this?  How do you tell someone that their behavior is raising red flags for you?  Just reflect what you see.  Ask if they’ve noticed it as well.  And tell them you’re concerned.  Here’s an example.  Over Christmas my mom expressed concern about her friend who had recently been asking the same question repeatedly as if she had forgotten the answer.  You would be correct in assuming that my mom got the verbal, impromptu version of this article in response.  And because, as I’m fond of saying, “my love is bossy,” I also told her word for word what to say to her friend. “I’ve noticed you’ve asked me that question a few times over the past few weeks.  Have you noticed that as well?”

In response you might get information that puts your mind at ease.  You might get no information.  But you’ve provided invaluable information to your friend.  This isn’t about making people get help or telling people that something is “wrong” with them; it’s about helping people see themselves and making sure they know you see them, too.  With a simple act of reflection, you’re giving an implicit message that they’re not alone and that you care about them and their wellbeing.

I don’t know if anyone asked Brandon Truaxe if he needed help.  If he wanted to see a medical provider.  If he needed someone to talk to.  But I do know that I’ll never again make the mistake that I made with Justin.  That the next time I notice that feeling of concern or confusion in my body, I’ll share my experience with the person I’m worried about.

Please, please do the same.  It matters.

*Names have been changed.