Aug 16, 2018
This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
On May 12th, 2018 I lost a dear friend to my greatest enemy.
Everyone who knew Luke Sklar knew he was an amazing guy. Everyone. He and I bonded a few years ago over depression (his and mine). Bonds like that can instantly become deep and meaningful and precious. Luke had been suffering horribly and found comfort in me and #SickNotWeak (as I did in him).
I met him face to face for the first time a block from each of our homes. The Landsbergs and the Sklars live less than 100 meters apart, yet until that day we had never noticed each other. Well, to be honest, if I was saying that to Luke- I would point out to him that he likely would have noticed me because of my massive celebrity.
On that day about two years ago, I saw Luke from a block away.
Luke Sklar had a truthful walk.
You could be fooled by his words, by his handshake, by his mouth, even by his eyes, but his walk seldom lied.
You can’t get four people to carry a secret without exposing the truth and it’s the same thing with body parts. One of them will rat you out. Usually it’s the walk.
Lying becomes a way of life for those of us with depression. We learn to deceive the people around us the way a con-artist learns to spin a tale. For many of us the walk is the equivalent of the single strand of long blond hair on our jackets.
I noticed Luke’s honest walk the first time I met him. He walked like he didn’t care about getting where he was going or when he was going to get there. We get that way when we know ‘where we are’ doesn’t make a difference. Here or there- its all the same. Its not that you don’t want to get to where you’re going- its that you don’t care. I saw that walk many times. I assume I have walked it as well. With depression- you can often talk the talk but it’s tough to walk the walk at the same time.
Immediately I could tell that he felt at ease with me – because when you have a common enemy – you also have a common bond. I felt the same ease with him.
I knew how bad it was for him, but I could see his awesomeness- even through the dark clouds that hung over him.
E-mail was our chosen means of communication. We began e-mailing each other on a regular basis shortly after we met. I want to share a few of those messages with you because I think it’s the best way to learn about a side of Luke that you might not have seen.
Between September 2016 and May 2018 we exchanged more than 500 messages. Luke was my secret “text affair.” It was a totally mutual romance built on a shared need. This was a need we couldn’t have filled at home. This was the need to feel understood.
ME: Dude. How are you?
LUKE: Anxious. You?
ME: A bit of that for sure. But manageable.
LUKE: Manageable is good. Always appreciate your messages.
This was typical in both length and content. Hey, we’re guys. We don’t waste words. These were exchanges over a few days in October 2017:
ME: How’s today?
ME: Oh no. I’m so sorry buddy. so, so sorry.
LUKE: Thank you for reaching out
ME: How’s my boy?
LUKE: Lousy. Sorry
I tried my best to give him hope when he felt hopeless. That was much of the time. Depression does that to you. But I knew I was failing. My heart broke for Luke almost every time he responded to one of my messages. He never ignored me, he never complained, but he didn’t lie to me. I knew it was bad. Worse than bad. Terrible.
ME: Update me!
LUKE: Poor. Maybe a 3? Unable to focus on conversations
ME: Still feeling dread?
LUKE: No. Just an overall sadness and inability to focus.
ME: I hear you. It WILL pass. Remember- its raining. You can’t stop it from raining but you can put on a jacket and stop it from soaking you.
Its ON you. Not IN you.
And it did pass several times over the course of our friendship. It was beautiful when it happened. It was as if he had been given the greatest gift imaginable- one that most of us take for granted and that was the feeling of just being normal. For me, those times of remission for Luke were a respite as well. In our conversations I often felt guilt. In my mind it was as if we had both been soldiers fighting a war together. I had been removed from the front to work at a cushy desk job, while he remained fighting. Now, briefly, he was at the desk beside me.
ME: Hey Bud. Just checking in. How are you?
LUKE: I am doing quite well. On a different med that makes me dizzy (had a stumble Friday night) but I’ll surely take that over the agony.
Is that a red line on my arm? (red lines indicated having a good day, black lines indicated a bad day)
ME: Quite well? Sklar! Sklar! That’s amazing!
And so it went. I can’t call them ups and downs because that would imply an even split. This was downs, downs with brief ups. I can tell you as a person whose ridden that coaster- the brief ups can mess you up as much as the downs. When one feels relief and is reminded that just “feeling normal” is an exquisite joy- the fear of losing it becomes overwhelming. I hear the time between torture sessions can be almost as bad as the torture itself.
ME: How are you feeling?
LUKE: Very good. And you gave me good advice yesterday
ME: How is my buddy? I’m worried asking that. Because I so badly wanna hear “doing well!”
LUKE: Doing well. 6.5.
But, it didn’t last:
ME: How’s my boy?
LUKE: Some slippage. Anxiety
ME: How’s my boyfriend?
LUKE: I am at Sunnybrook inpatient care right now. Almost made a terrible mistake but have come through ok. Here at least until early Feb.
ME: Oh buddy. That just makes me so sad for you.
Can I come visit?
LUKE: Am reluctant right now. Maybe coordinate a future visit with my wife.
ME: Love ya.
LUKE: Deeply luvya back
And this, was life for Luke. He fought exhaustingly every day to find the elusive treatment that would help, but even more taxing was his fight to find the elusive hope that would help him persevere for the treatment that might return Luke to Luke.
Luke taught me so much about that. I have often spoken about how depression robs me of me. At a certain point all you want is the old “me” back. In fact- all the things you hated about yourself before- now don’t seem so bad. The feeling of “losing who you are” is one of depression’s most effective weapons.
Luke was able to put into words the devastation he felt from losing who he was and in his eyes what made him special. These are words that in every way represent my own feelings.
LUKE: Either the sickness itself and/ or the meds has made me slower, less sharp and more forgetful. When I try to force returning to “my old self” the rumination sets in.
I’ve spent 60 years defining myself by my brain and am finding it very difficult – but I have to- accept this current state. Clear?
ME: Very clear. Too clear. Too relatable. I find my biggest challenge when I’m struggling is my frustration over not being able to be me. And the person I am- I don’t know. So yes- I get it. Wish I could help.
LUKE: Thanks Michael
It was clear to me that the fear of living life as a changed person (in his mind inferior) was devastating to Luke.
Don’t think that Luke was devastated because he couldn’t do his job or anything else like that. Luke was devastated because he couldn’t do Luke. He had ceased to be the Luke that he wanted to be and while his family, friends, all of us would gladly have accepted the lesser Luke to keep him alive- he couldn’t accept it. And then there was the added torture of being in constant pain- something he seldom mentioned to me but I knew was there.
There were times when our talks were normal.
ME: Buddy. What’s up?
Who do you like today? (Super bowl day- Eagles and Patriots)
Next year you come to my house for the game!
LUKE: So nice. Calling for an Eagles upset.
Luke was correct about the Eagles. I was wrong about next year.
I hope you’re getting a better idea of what Luke’s struggle was like. Like I have said- his illness is impossible to understand if you haven’t felt it.
As to why I believe #SickNotWeak represented Luke’s feelings- there’s this:
ME: hey buddy. What’s up?
LUKE: Have been thinking of you. When I get out of here would you be open to my volunteer help for snw? Starting small; just an advisory role with limited expectations. Would really like to help.
ME: We are 2100% in for you helping. Big or small. Notice the 2100%. I thought it was more clever than 1000%. How are you feeling depression wise?
LUKE: Thank you. A little low (4) tracing primarily to fatigue. Hope you are good
Luke knew the power of sharing and he also knew the devastating effect of the stigma. He told me many times that he feared sharing his struggles with the marketing community that loved and respected him so much. He was afraid how he would be seen if he bared all. Because of that he wanted to use his own struggles and his fear of sharing to change how people view this awful illness.
One of the purposes of my letter to you is to give you a better idea why a person can become so hopeless, that they only see one way out. Suicide- yes I say the word frequently- is not about getting away from the people you love and who love you, but rather about getting away from yourself. When the fear of living with the pain for another day is greater than the fear of dying- suicide becomes an option.
ME: Dude! How are you? I’m gonna be at Sunnybrook Thursday for a speech to staff at noon. Looking for a date! Would you come hear me speak?
LUKE: Tell me where and I’ll see if I can go. Noon right?
ME: How are you, my friend?
LUKE: Pretty poor my friend. Today was my wife’s birthday – the whole family went out to dinner and now I am back in hospital
ME: Ugh. UGH! I’m so sorry. That’s so rough and so deflating I’m sure. Come Thursday! I’m a guaranteed serotonin booster!
LUKE: Will do my best. Have a good morning show tomorrow.
ME: thanks! I’m so, so hoping to see you!
LUKE: I have received permission to leave the unit for 2 hours to attend your presentation. Hope to make it.
ME: that’s great!
ME: How are you buddy?
LUKE: The same. Anxious and depressed.
Had a weekend pass. Nice but I am not ready to assume normal life.
Frustrated and discouraged but will soldier on.
ME: Hey buddy. How are you?
LUKE: Hey. Poor. Going to push myself to go to a class at Ryerson (roll over Beethoven: the history of rock & roll).
ME: Hey buddy. I’m off to Saskatchewan for 2 days of speeches.
LUKE: Walk when you are back from Saskatchewan? Would love that.
ME: Me too!
ME: Hey sunshine. Any sunshine?
LUKE: No. Didn’t sleep.
ME: Hey Bud.
LUKE: Hi dear friend. Tough day
ME: Hey buddy. Any progress?
LUKE: Not yet. Thanks for checking in.
ME: Hey Bud. How are you? Any progress?
LUKE: Back in Sunnybrook. Checked myself in.
ME: Oh damn. Oh darn. Oh shit. I’m sorry. Really sorry.
ME: Update me buddy. My mom’s in Sunnybrook- if you want a visitor – I’m your man.
LUKE: Thanks. Not now. Hope your mom is as ok as possible
This was April. A month before Luke died. This was roughly day 1,000 of his struggle. When the struggle begins we value extending our lives almost more than anything. After 1,000 days of fighting- our lives and the thought of living another 1,000 starts to mean less.
On May 10th I was scheduled to speak again at Sunnybrook.
On May 6th Luke had read it on a poster on the hospital wall:
LUKE: I saw that you are moderating the Out of Darkness showing at Sunnybrook.
ME: I would love it if you could make it.
On May 8th I was still hopeful:
ME: How are things, my buddy?
LUKE: Not good. Sorry
On May 10th I wrote:
ME: Bud! I know you can’t come and hear me speak- but I want to let you know I will be thinking of you tonight.
On May 11th Luke wrote:
LUKE: Hope all went well last night
ME: Missed you buddy.
The next day, on the morning of May 12th I woke up to this e mail:
LISE SKLAR: Hi Michael. This is Luke’s wife Lise with some really sad news. Luke took his life while at Sunnybrook last night.
Michael, he was so impressed with everything you were doing around mental illness and I would like to ask that donations in his memory be made to Sick Not Weak.
Was I shocked? Yes. Was it inexplicable? No. Not to me and I hope, at least in a small way, not to you. We lost Luke because no person can tolerate excruciating pain forever. We lost Luke on May 12th, but Luke lost Luke a long time before. In one way his death was just him giving us a chance to catch up to him.
We walked together six times. One of the last times we met by chance as he was coming back from his therapist. I said “Walk with me.” He said “I won’t be much fun since I can’t find much to say.” I told him I would do all the talking. I think about that a lot. Luke wanted to be the guy who talked and made life fun for others. To have to give that up was crushing to him.
So we walked. I talked and Luke listened. We walked at the same pace but with entirely different intent. I walked with purpose while he walked aimlessly, knowing the next step would be no better than the last. He smiled at my smartass commentary which I thought was bringing him some relief. But now, as I write to you, I realize I was being the person he wanted to be but couldn’t be. Was I being thoughtless waiving my Lukeness in his face? Was I the thoughtless woman waving my engagement ring in front of a friend who desperately wanted to get married? I think about that. A lot.
Luke loved his life, but he didn’t love the life he felt destined to live.
There is one more thing you need to know about Luke’s death. More than anything – depression is the loss of the ability to experience joy. So when you wonder – how could a person – who had so much joy to live for – end his life? The answer is this: When you can’t ever experience joy – then you can’t see all the things you have to live for.
Luke adored his family and at the end of his life his love for them was used by his illness against him. Depression shows up as a voice in our heads that constantly lies to us. It is our own voice. It knows our vulnerabilities and tells us all the things that can destroy us. It told Luke that he was a burden and that somehow the people he loved the most would be better off without him. The absurd becomes believable when you hear it in your own voice. That is depression in its most raw, cruelest form.
Luke loved life. But he didn’t love the life he had been forced to live. Luke loved his life, but he didn’t love the life he felt destined to live.
If I could have one more conversation with Luke I bet it might go like this:
ME: Dude. How are you?
LUKE: Better than before.
ME: What does that mean?
LUKE: I’m pain free.
ME: Love ya.
LUKE: love ya too. And the Eagles won’t repeat.