The yard at our elementary school had a lot of stories embedded on the grass and concrete. We were brothers and sisters, navigating our childhoods with each other and creating the memories we would have as middle aged grownups. It was, for some of us, the golden age of our lives.
There is an automatic familiarity between people who grew up together. If you spend a decade in the same classrooms, and then spend 20 years apart, you can easily pick up where you left off, the veneer of childhood providing a dynamic that eases communication. Every adult seems to develop the core of their identities as children, and time does nothing to erase the people we once knew from our hardwiring. They imprint, for better or worse, and help us retrieve pieces of ourselves. Some of us try to put distance between ourselves and our childhoods, and some of us endlessly try to relive those moments as a way of keeping a piece of ourselves from slipping away.
I met Eric on that schoolyard.
Eric was always a bit different. He was funny as a child. He would make the rest of us laugh through his bizarre humour and willingness to do things the rest of us would never think of doing, such as removing the erasers from all of our pencils during recess, or breeding hamsters in his locker, or distracting us during a game of pick-up basketball by singing the theme song to The Transformers.
One day he told a bunch of us how he learned to make his eyes vibrate. He squinted, and sure enough both his eyes shook rapidly, making him look both hilarious and quite frightening. A few of us tried to copy Eric but it was no use. Only Eric could do it, and that was one of many things only he could, or would, do.
Years later he would tell me that the reason he could do it is because he was on medication for anxiety and depression.
In high school Eric maintained his bizarre behaviours, only now he was 6 foot 3, 220 pounds. He was also getting into fights fairly regularly. Some fights he started, some he didn’t, but afterwards he always expressed his fondness for fighting. We hung out with a bunch of guys who were considered tough, and so it was not unusual that one of us glorified physical violence.
Once, while fighting a guy who played for a junior hockey team who put Eric in a seemingly inescapable headlock, Eric did what he thought made sense; he bit a chunk of skin off the guy’s mid section. The person Eric bit screamed like he had been shot, and Eric smiled with that person’s blood staining his teeth.
Eric was diagnosed with severe depression, but he fit all the hallmarks of an actual psychopath. I can’t count the times he punched someone randomly, or challenged more than one person to fight, or even got beaten up himself after picking a fight with the wrong guy. But more times than not, Eric was the wrong guy.
Part of the challenge associated with the negative stigma of people struggling with mental health issues is trying to find that fine line between symptoms of being mentally ill and just behaving badly. That line is often blurred to the point where people have no choice but to disassociate themselves from friends who are too unpredictable, too brazen, or too violent. Eric knew right from wrong, but that never seemed to stop him from doing something that ruined everyone’s night, or worse…something that put some stranger in the hospital.
One day Eric was riding his bicycle and was hit by a bus. Onlookers crowded around him as he lay bleeding with a shattered jaw and several broken bones. What shocked those people weren’t his injuries, it was that Eric was laughing and repeating the following mantra: “This feels so much better than depression.”We never found out if it was an accident, or if Eric was trying to kill himself.
A few days ago, Eric died from an overdose. We do not know if it was intentional.
Since then, a few friends have asked me if I remember Eric’s positive traits. I struggle to answer that question because often Eric would use goodness to mask some other devious activity. On the surface, Eric could be generous. He often wanted to spend time with those of us who knew him as a child or teenager, and he constantly would remind us of the stories many of us had long forgotten. He had an itch to be propelled back in time, often to that schoolyard, maybe because even though he was always sort of troubled, he knew that his mental issues did not manifest so ferociously back then. Maybe, in his own way, he was transporting us back to a milder, less aggressive Eric. Maybe that was his way of being good to us.
Unfortunately, those snippets of goodness were eclipsed by his bad behaviour. Once, when he and a mutual friend were driving to Florida, Eric secretly put GHB in our friend’s orange juice. A short time later my friend had to pull off the road because he felt strange. Eric confessed immediately, but even the confession seemed to be just another method of evoking a response. That mutual friend never forgave him.
Eric stalked another friend’s sister for years. They had a brief relationship that ended, and Eric could not accept it. For a long time she felt as though her life was in danger.
He once fed me 60MG of Valium when I was drunk. I blacked out and could have easily died if it were not for the care-giving of my girlfriend at the time.
There is an endless list of reasons why, as awful as it sounds, the world became a safer place when Eric died. There is a very short list of possibilities that would have made Eric’s life a more positive one. But one thing I keep thinking about is Eric’s father.
His dad loved Eric, and did everything in his power to help him with his struggles. He set him up with doctors and therapy; made sure he could secure him employment and was probably the only person who did not cut him off entirely. I can only imagine what it would be like to have a child with as many issues as Eric, and I do not envy him, even though he has my upmost respect and admiration.
I am unable to grasp whether or not writing this is honest or just cheap. I want to focus on Eric’s good qualities. I want to retrieve that young boy from the schoolyard and wrap him up in something that could protect him and others from his broken mind. I wish I was qualified to help him, but I just wasn’t, and I don’t know if he wanted to be helped.
Mental health and the stigma attached to it can be confusing. You want to understand and be there for those who are troubled, but that line between mental illness and bad behaviour becomes so blurry that it can be impossible to decipher the best way forward. When trust is broken, when you know your friend is a danger to society, death comes with a strange feeling of relief.
The schoolyard is long gone. The concrete and grass tell the stories of countless other kids since we were there. I think that’s also the place where Eric last knew who he was, and the best I can do is try to recall glimpses of the person he left behind.
Eric was 43 years old.