My son Alex did not live a tragic life. Neither did he live an easy one. From his early years, Alex struggled. For three decades an invisible and progressive illness as deadly as cancer remained undiagnosed.
In many ways Alex excelled. He had the physical presence of an athlete. His energy and interests and strength enabled him to pursue a seemingly unlimited range of physical activities. He loved skateboarding and dancing.
Alex also excelled verbally. With an incredible vocabulary and a fantastic ability to mimic voices of cartoon celebrities, Alex was funny — and he was a fun guy to know.
Naturally gregarious and humorous, Alex could be the life of a party. His sense of humor made him very popular. He could get people to laugh. His social ease and natural good looks opened doors to many new circles. But the circles rarely allowed Alex to easily fit in, so he bounced from circle to circle becoming well known but rarely known well.
He couldn’t keep pace with folks around him as they glided into their futures. He felt himself continually slipping behind. He felt he was missing his path into a happy future.
Alex’s apparent social ease and openness was indeed misleading. Inside, he was a deeply private person struggling to conceal his anxiety. Alex would confess of himself that he really was a good person but he did make some really bad choices. And at the same time, the anxiety grating within him could erupt into verbal outbursts. He knew his ability to entertain others was also an ability to create distance and cause hurt.
As Alex struggled, he hoped to find a fast path into his happy future somehow. But that path wasn’t there. Alex worried that there may be more behind his struggles. He worried that he might be bipolar. Only in his late-20s was Alex diagnosed with the now too familiar and largely unmanaged condition known as general anxiety disorder.
No clinical help had prepared him for his early adult years. As his world spun faster and faster, Alex’s anxiety found release in angry words and broken things, and increasingly hazardous self-medication.
Alex found his most compassionate place among others who struggled as he did. Together this group experimented and watched from a distance as their friends overdosed and died. It was a known risk. The only safe bet was to never take the risk alone, where you would not be able to get help.
Life got more complicated when economic pressures rose. Alex saw no path other than to become part of the network pushing risky substances. We did help him out of that world and helped him explore some alternatives. However, performance requirements of work rapidly pulled him into the present and away from the urgent minutiae of his cell phone. This irritated Alex. His phone was his lifeline. His irritability was certainly a contributing factor to Alex’s inability to hold onto serious “on-the-job learning” opportunities.
So, with years of counseling, Alex came to understand his situation better. He learned what was needed to shed substance dependence. Eventually he did actually get off the riskiest substances.
His last demon was his earliest friend, alcohol. This final passage took years of recovery and relapse, yet eventually it seemed to lead Alex to a new hopefulness about his future. Alex happily announced just recently that he went bar hopping in Providence with friends and “didn’t touch a drop.”
And this brings me to the point where I am so sorrowfully angry. Sometime in the early morning of Feb. 20, Alex reconnected with an old friend from his risky drug days and took a lethal dose of fentanyl. Alex and I had so much work left to do, so much living left to do. And I had so much learning to do.
You see, Alex was sharing with me life stories that I could never have lived, nor even imagined. His energy poured through me like a river carving riverbeds in my mind. For 10 years I had given my life’s energy to helping Alex find a way toward the promising future that he so wanted to reach.
Alex had just recently joined us in yoga training. He felt it was something that he could master and share with others. He felt its spiritual connection with martial arts. We made plans to have him with us on all of our future training sessions. And then, after yoga and a most happy dinner, we all went to the Newport Car Museum, where Alex beamed as he named so many of the cars with such detail that the docent took notice of his skills.
Back at home, Alex confirmed his flight to Florida to work with a food truck team contracted to serve a motorcycle rally. He would be able to save the money that he needed to buy a motorcycle. He had so many hopes as to where this food service job could lead.
He rolled with the dogs for a while and then said, “Good night, I love ya,” as he headed out to care for his soulmate cat. It was a perfect day. And it was also to be his last.
Tom Flanagan is a UMass alum providing large group design consulting throughout the South Coast and currently residing in Rhode Island.
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