LANDSBERG: HIS DEPRESSION AND HIS FRIEND, WADE BELAK
E-mail, texting and instant messaging all have places in our lives. But I believe I have relied too much on them, often replacing personal contact with letters and words and symbols that are like the Buckingham Palace Grenadier Guards – conveying no emotion, revealing no subtlety. They are zombies devoid of anything meaningful outside of the obvious.
How many times have you wondered while reading a text whether someone was serious or joking, sarcastic or straight? Have you ever wondered when you ask someone how they are, whether fine really means fine?
Fine written in text always looks the same, but in person, on the phone, fine can reveal so much more. I am having a tough time forgiving myself for texting Wade Belak seven days before he died and accepting his fine.
Wade was my buddy. That didn’t make me unique. Wade was everyone’s buddy. Even guys he fought with on the ice liked him. Even guys he scored on liked him, even if that list is pretty short. He was the definition of the big fat jolly guy without the fat. Honestly, I don’t know a soul who met Wade who didn’t immediately like him. He made friends the way most people pick up germs — gathering more every time he touched someone.
I knew Wade walked with a limp. I knew it because he spoke to me about it. I have the same limp. It’s how I refer to depression that doesn’t disable us – even though we feel it every step of our lives.
Wade’s limp, however, was worse than I knew. Seven days before he died, we chatted on e-mail. He had heard an interview I did for TSN Radio about my own depression and he had written, It was good.
I wrote back jokingly, Did you feel sorry for me, that’s what I was looking for.
He responded, I thought you were a big pussy. Ha ha. Who am I to say? I’ve been on happy pills for 4-5 years now.
I wrote back, And how are you?
And Wade wrote back, Fine.
Fine. It’s four letters, one word. One simple word. No means no we’re told, but fine doesn’t always mean fine. He wasn’t fine. Seven days later he was gone.
I’m looking at my hands. I don’t see any blood, but it’s there. Luminol won’t show it, but my conscience does.
Out, damned spot; Out I say. It’s not that easy.
A Common Bond
Wade came into my life eight years ago when he first appeared on Off the Record. He and I together looked like a photo from World War II. Wade, with his huge size, chiseled features, pale skin and blond hair. And me – eight inches shorter, a million shades darker and with a large, slightly hooked nose. Well, you get the picture.
Despite our many differences, we bonded right away, a friendship based on a mutual ability to make the other laugh. Men show contempt with insults and affection with harsher insults. Wade and I had a no limit, no safe area, no boundaries and never hurt feelings. I loved him for that. And I know he felt the same way.
I’m not sure why Wade confided in me about his depression. I assume it was because I have spoken publicly about mine. Or perhaps, in the code of us depression sufferers, I was a veteran depressive and he was a rookie.
Whatever the reason or reasons, I felt blessed that he shared with me. Sharing something personal with another person is one of the greatest compliments you can give them. It says, I trust you and I feel safe with you. It also says, I know you won’t judge me. Can you truly call someone a friend if you’re afraid they may see you as weak?
This all made me like Wade so much more. I think we end up liking people because of their good traits. Sometimes we end up loving them because of their flaws.
I felt that I knew Wade in a different way than almost anyone else. I knew that his perma-smile was at least partially manufactured. I knew that his constant cheeriness was at least partially faked. It felt good to know this because I too, have done the same things. In that way Wade was the guy I related to perhaps better than anyone in my life. We were both good at fooling people. Like most depression sufferers we are counterfeiters in human emotion. We create fake happiness and for that reason sometimes people can’t spot what’s truly happening inside.
When I close my eyes and think of Wade the only memories I have are of him smiling. I can’t remember anything else. Even knowing that he wasn’t always smiling inwardly, doesn’t change how I see him.
I see him now smiling in my hallway with his daughter Andie on his shoulders. Together they seemed to be 15 feet tall. Wade was one of those dads who couldn’t put his kids down. He was always embracing them as if telling them he loved them wasn’t enough.
I see him smiling and crying having eaten Armageddon chicken wings. I think I called him a big suck.
I see him smiling after my son had whipped him in NHL ‘11 (Not even Wade picked Wade).
I see his huge smile after we won a summer roller hockey championship with him in goal. He took it incredibly seriously. Who takes a pre-game nap for roller hockey?
And I see him smiling — the last time I saw him at our kitchen table eating more pancakes than all of us combined.
When Wade and I were texting on August 24th, he inquired about the documentary I am working on, which is about celebrities with depression. He said, Are you gonna put me on?
I asked, Would you consider sharing your illness with the public. His exact words were, I don’t think I would have a problem going public with it.
He added, I don’t even think my parents really know.
Wade had no idea just how public he would go with his depression.
Trying to Understand
We don’t know what happened to Wade a week later that saw his flame go from brilliant to extinguished in just a few hours, but we know why people usually take their own lives. People kill themselves when the fear of living another moment outweighs the fear of dying at that moment. With Wade, I believe he was struck by a tsunami of depression. In an instant he somehow went from calm to calamitous. Love for family and for life no longer made sense. Instantly one and one was no longer two.
I know what you’ve wondered. And don’t feel bad, we’ve all asked the question. You’re thinking it right now. Well, I will ask it for you; how does any parent choose to leave his kids? How does a guy share with me the joy of hearing his five-year old at violin lessons, and then eight days later plug his ears forever?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know this; I pray that you and I won’t ever figure it out. Some things you don’t want to know. And some things you can’t ever judge.
You don’t think you know what Sept. 11 felt like on American Airlines flight 175 as it roared towards the World Trade Center, do you? So can you really say what you would have done?
You don’t know what it was like to be marched to your death in Auschwitz, so can you really say what you would have done?
And you don’t know what my buddy Wade Belak was thinking when it made sense to him to leave all that he loved. So can you really say what you would have done?
I sure as hell don’t know, but I know this; when you’re severely depressed, logic can become fallacy and fallacy can become reality.
If you know me, you know that I am a confident person. I can hear you thinking, No, he’s arrogant. Fine, think what you want, but when I’ve been depressed that confidence is replaced by insecurity. When I’ve been depressed, ‘me’ no longer exists. I am replaced by my own Slim Shady, and he’s a guy I don’t know or particularly like. He hosted 60 shows in 2008. He sucked.
So if as you read this, you’re thinking, I have no idea what any of that feels like, then you’re blessed. Have you ever thought, man, am I lucky not to be mentally ill? Likely not, because we seldom celebrate our normality. I’m the same. I don’t celebrate having two arms and two legs but an amputee would suggest I should.
But in your mental health arrogance do not ever think for a second you can understand why Wade made the choice he did. I can’t understand it, but I know this; Wade loved life as much as anyone I have ever met. His love for his wife Jen and their girls, Andie and Alex, was every bit as strong as anything any of us have ever felt. So, if depression could make him give that up – how bad must it be? And would you or I be any different?
The damn tsunami washed away all the joy and replaced it with something else. The devoted father and husband and friend who had everything to live for drowned in a sea of sadness.
Vincent Van Gogh, the genius Dutch painter whose sophisticated works changed art forever, had these simple last words explaining why he took his own life; the sadness will last forever. In general, Wade didn’t believe that. But somehow, for some reason, for one moment he did.
At that horrible moment Wade, we can assume, had two rival instincts battling inside him. On one side was the survival instinct. On the other was the instinct to end his suffering. We’ve all felt the first; many fewer have felt the second. In Wade’s case its clear which side won. Think of it this way. Suicide is what happens when the angel of death and the angel of mercy start working together.
Has Wade gone to a better place? Who knows? You may believe in the afterlife, but you don’t know it exists. No one knows. But my guess is that Wade wasn’t betting on heading to a better place. He just knew at that one moment there is no worse place than where he was.
Depression is not a Demon
I don’t expect you to understand why Wade made the choice he made. It’s tough for me to understand. But I do expect you to accept the seriousness of his disease. If you were saddened by Wade’s death then here’s what you owe him; you owe him the belief in his pain.
We can’t see depression. We can’t biopsy it. Blood tests don’t show it. Neither do x-rays. Believing in depression takes faith, and surveys show that more than half of us are depressive atheists still believing somehow that depression is not a disease, but a sign of weakness. Wade wasn’t weak. Neither was Churchill or Lincoln or Hemingway or your cousin or your neighbor or your son.
Depression is a disease. It’s not an issue or a demon, although it may act like one. And if you want to honor Wade’s memory, do it this way; never ever tell someone to snap out of it. And never ask anyone, what do you have to be depressed about? Start accepting depression as a serious and sometimes fatal illness.
Waiting for the R
My last message still sits on his smart phone and mine. After hearing a crazy rumor that my boy Wade had died, I called his cell immediately, assuming I would hear his voice and I would greet him with, So I guess this means you’re not dead!
But I got no answer. My heart fell as I heard his voice mail, This is Wade — leave a message. I didn’t. What would I say? Please don’t be dead? Please call me and I will come there and help you through anything.
One more hope – I texted him these words and waited.
Are you OK?
The D appeared right away. My heart began to race waiting for the R. If you don’t speak the language of messenger, the D appears when the message is delivered. The R appears when the person has read it or seen it. Most of us use that to decide whether we are being ignored. But, on this day the stakes were far different. I knew that D meant death and R meant life.
Please change. Please change, I prayed. I waited. And I’m still waiting in disbelief. It never changed. The D sits there for eternity, ironically speaking volumes to me. Ironic because I began by saying text usually fails to communicate true meaning. In this case it says everything I feel.
The D sits there, a solitary symbol to me of one of the great tragedies I have felt.
D for depression.
D for the death it brought.
And D for Dear Wade, I hope now you really are fine.
Out damn spot, out I say. Not yet I fear. Maybe not ever.