The Simon Poultney Foundation

The Simon Poultney Foundation

By Carson Mills

Published February 10th, 2005 in Mars’ Hill, the official student newspaper of Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia

My mother was screaming in the background. I knew I was about to be told something awful.

My father, steady, but shaken, spoke to me in a tone of voice that was more careful and confused than normal.
“I have some bad news, Carson,” he said. “This morning, your friend Simon killed himself.”
It was a Sunday morning in early September (2004). Simon and his family were getting ready for church. Simon went into the bathroom to shower. He never came out.

I would later find out that Simon had bipolar disorder. He was on medication and was being closely tended to by his family in the last month of his life. He had attempted suicide earlier in the week. Simon’s last months were dark. It seemed very peculiar for a generally upbeat person like Simon to turn such an ugly corner. What causes this kind of radical, but ultimately horrible, transformation? Why didn’t anyone see this in him for so long? How does this happen? Simon was my best friend; I need to understand how and why this happened. After talking with many counselors who deal with bipolar and schizophrenic patients every day, I slowly began to understand what occurs at the focal point of a person’s emotional deterioration.

“Jesus.” My voice was neutral. I didn’t yell. I didn’t sob. I was quiet, but not hushed.

“I don’t know what happened,” my mom screamed. “Why did he do it?” She was more hysterical than I ever thought a person could be. I quickly hung up the phone. There’s an odd feeling that comes over you when your entire life’s course is drastically altered in a matter of seconds: a brutal convergence of the surreal and the hyper-real. My life suddenly felt very grounded and heavy; any lightness or frivolity I felt was vanquished. But such overwhelming information cannot help but put you into a dreamlike state. Those brief moments after I hung up the phone were a bizarre Purgatory between lucidity and unconsciousness.

I was sitting in the basement of the house where Simon had lived two months prior. When our junior year of university ended, we both decided to stay in BC and try to make a go of it on our own instead of moving back home to our families in Alberta. Simon only made it to July. That house was where I had heard the news about Simon. That house was the last place I talked to him on the phone. That house was the last place I saw him.

Understandably, I was shocked. But it wasn’t a blindsided shock. It was the shock of the moment where you realize that one of the most important and integral people in your life has vanished completely. Had this happened eight months earlier I would have been stunned and inconsolable, but in reality, the true essence of Simon had been vanishing for some time. Simon’s behavior had become erratic and abrasive. He was irrational. This wasn’t the Simon we knew. Many of those closest to him had been mourning the loss of Simon for over half a year. Despite his recent troubles, his friends brushed it off as a mere phase – something that a little honest self-reflection could take care of. We knew he was in a slump, but we were all unaware of the severity. The problem was that all of Simon’s friends had a hope for a better future. Simon did not.

At first I was confused by Simon’s diagnoses. Why bipolar? I pictured someone laughing one minute and sobbing the next. Why not schizophrenia? I always hear bipolar and schizophrenia used in the same sentence. What’s the difference? After talking to some experts on the topic I discovered that the primary difference between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is that schizophrenia is a thought disorder and bipolar is a mood disorder. They can have similarities in symptoms, but the root causes and treatments are different. The most common treatment for both is medication and therapy. Therapy is necessary to confront the distorted thought patterns that arise from both the manic and depressive phases of the illness.

Schizophrenia has either positive or negative symptoms — the positive symptoms are those that add to the person’s experience, such as hallucinations. The negative symptoms are deficits in functioning, such as lack of emotional expression or problems with social skills. Schizophrenia is treatable and manageable, if the client stays on their medication. Problems arise due to delusions, which are often paranoid in nature, that force patients to go off their medication because they are afraid of being poisoned or any other thoughts stemming from anxiety.

The biggest challenge in bipolar treatment is for the client to stay on his or her medication. While most clients want relief from the depressive swings that come with bipolar, they often want to hold onto the manic phases, in which moments of euphoria can be very productive. There are two kinds of bipolar: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. The criteria for Bipolar I is that the person experiences at least one manic or mixed episode at some time, along with one or more major depressive episodes. Bipolar II occurs when a person has had one or more major depressive episodes and at least one hypomanic episode (which is less severe than a full-blown manic phase).

I met Simon Poultney when we were both pudgy nine year-olds. He was the new boy in my church from Zimbabwe with funny sounding parents. He quickly joined my circle of church friends, but that one day a week was essentially the basis of our friendship. It wasn’t until about five years later when Simon began attending the Junior High of the school I had attended all my life that our friendship deepened. It was the first time a “church friend” had crossed the imaginary friendship line to become my “school friend.” Never before had any of my peers become such a constant fixture in my life: School – Monday through Friday. Youth Group – Friday. Small Group – Thursday. Church – Sunday. Basking in the Greatness of Old Saturday Night Live Tapes – All Day Saturday.

Simon and I became extremely drawn to each other. We were both adolescent punks, so we shared an aesthetic, but there was also a common desire to become thoughtful and upright men of God, striving to be more than a product of our upbringing in the often stifling and dim-witted evangelical subculture. Simon and I joined a Bible study that year. Our group consisted of a few of our peers and a twenty-something leader named Curt. Generally, there was enough male bonding to last a hundred “discover your inner-boy” retreats, but there was also a form of brutal, unsolicited honesty and trust that I had never experienced before and have hardly experienced since. Simon and I shared the deepest, darkest and most alienating secrets with each other, only to discover complete and utter acceptance. The honesty and depth that Simon showed on a day-to-day basis was awe-inspiring. He seemed wise beyond his years. It was a quality of Simon’s that I wanted to attach myself to. For years the two of us became inseparable. We shared a similar taste in the arts; we dressed the same; we were attracted to the same women; we had a plethora of shared experiences and, most importantly, each of us genuinely admired and respected the other.

I talked to a counselor named Beth Murray. Both Simon and I knew Beth from our hometown in Alberta when after a string of suicides in our high school, Beth came and talked to our youth group about depression and suicide. She listed the many possible ways you may be able to detect if someone you know is suicidal or suffering from a depression. I remember sitting by Simon while she spoke. Despite whatever sadness was in our lives, Simon and I always saw ourselves as “above suicide” – at least that was what we told ourselves.

After Simon’s death I talked to Beth about what, exactly, depression was and how it came about. I knew that I had experienced it for a couple of years in my late teens, but, being on the other side of it now, I have been able to realize that it’s a disease that can be overcome. But I still struggle to understand what causes it.

“Depression is a mood disorder that has two forms,” Beth told me. “One is situational depression, which is brought on by life circumstances such as a grief, transition or loss. The other is clinical depression, which has a chemical imbalance component. Clinical depression is caused by imbalance in the brain chemistry of the neurotransmitters. Clinical depression is more likely to occur in persons with a genetic history of mental illness or depression.”

Situational depression does not require medication, but is often addressed more effectively by engaging in therapy. If left unprocessed, situational depression can lead to clinical depression. After speaking with Beth, I remembered that Simon once told me that his grandfather had committed suicide. Perhaps this disease seeped into his bloodline. Like any disease, depression has a cause and effect. When someone gets cancer, generally, they eventually die. It’s hereditary. Perhaps depression was Simon’s cancer.

Simon was always a pretty good-looking kid. He had a bit of a baby face – soft features that hid the fact that he actually had a very angular, European-looking face. He was impeccably groomed. People who didn’t know him would always refer to him as “that guy with the cool hair” or “that really well-dressed guy” or “that gorgeous guy.” As he got older, Simon was able to pull off the brooding James Dean look to perfect effect. The ladies were suckers for it. Simon had girls consistently vying for his attention. He was polite, but he kept his distance from entertaining the girls’ fantasies. For most of his life, Simon never really embraced the dating scene. He was confident that when something was supposed to happen it would happen. He didn’t feel the need to try very hard for women like the rest of us did.

Simon dreamed big. He carried lofty aspirations. He had a passion for film and music that he planned on integrating with his faith. He wanted to spread truth in a way that was neither hostile nor aesthetically deficient. He loved to sing despite the fact that he was unbelievably tone deaf and rhythmically challenged. It was endearing to watch Simon ineptly air-drum to his favorite songs.

It’s hard to determine when Simon’s sickness began to take a hold. Was he showing symptoms of bipolar disorder or was he merely thinking and acting less rationally because of a bad mood? I remember the first time we had a confrontation. During our freshman year of university, we worked on a class project where we had to make a short film. Simon had an interest in filmmaking and he saw this as an opportunity to show his chops. Everyone was excited for Simon to get some experiences behind the camera, but what we witnessed was a short-tempered, insulting and insecure version of Simon that we had never been exposed to before. It was an ugly side of a person who no one suspected had an ugly side. Over the course of the next few years, this side of Simon’s personality would occasionally appear only to be concealed by his usual grace and generosity.

Less than a month into Simon’s last semester of university, the ugly side began to take over the majority of his life. Always the sensitive caretaker, Simon began insulting people in ways that dug deeper than surface judgments. When he played his guitar he would drone through the same note for hours at a time, the sonic equivalent of despair. The notes were ugly and unchanging, despondent, searching desperately for the kind of creative discovery that would alleviate the sad and violent dirge he was producing. His passion for music and film had turned into an unhealthy obsession. Simon would spend entire summer days in the dark watching noir-ish and nihilistic films. They only fed his despair.

Simon was a relatively soft-spoken, but extremely thoughtful person. He was typically the one who initiated intelligent conversations with his friends. Simon was able to course through the inanity of adolescent male conversations and cut straight to the heart of what was vital to dialogue about. He was the first to suggest that God may be involved in the inner-workings of our lives. Although surrounded by cynics like myself, Simon was able to “ground a conversation in the heavens” without alienating anybody or sounding contrived. Simon was devout in his faith – steadfast. Even in the end. He loved God, but often dwelled, perhaps too heavily, on matters of struggle in the spiritual realm. It was the one topic of conversation that I had difficulty engaging Simon on.
Despite his desire for serious and challenging interaction, Simon had a reliable and warped sense of humor that allowed him to fit in with those of us who had a propensity for levity. I remember, once in high school, coming up to Simon with a silly grin on my face and an absolutely lame non-joke clogging my brain; it was something only he could appreciate.

“Simon, do you know what you would get if Eddie Murphy married Murphy Brown?” It was a joke ripped from the pages of Rip Taylor’s Lame Puns and Embarrassing One-Liners. Assuming that Simon would indulge me and allow me to divulge a piece of my idiotic brain (the answer is “Murphy Murphy,” by the way), I gave him the opportunity to play my straight man. But instead of saying, “What?” Simon got a goofy grin on his face, too.
“An Oreo baby,” he said. He smiled proudly, knowing that he had trumped me with a joke that was witty, obscure and downright offensive. Simon was good at things like that.

Simon was also extremely generous. He gave without expecting anything in return. He was always willing to leap over the “guy comfort” barrier with a gift in hand. This last Christmas, after returning from a semester in Lithuania, Simon called me and invited me out for a day on the town scouring CD shops like vultures. When I arrived at his house to pick him up, he ran to me and threw a shirt into my arms. “I got you this in Lithuania. I figured that looked like something you’d wear.” I held the shirt in front of me to look at the design. Blue roses and green revolvers adorned the shirt and at the top were the words “FCUK and ROSES.” I wear that shirt with pride.

The Christmas before was even more special. Simon came over to me at church, pulled me aside and placed a black book in my hands. He said Merry Christmas and walked away. It looked like a journal. On the first page was a large mass of Simon’s graffiti-like writing. He decided to make my first journal entry:

1st entry: Sometime around Christmas 2002.
Carson, This is a book for you to write stuff down in. No, it’s not a ‘journal’, nor is it a ‘diary.’ I am not asking you to start giving into the ‘emo’ trend of getting in touch with your sensitive side for the sake of being hip. I just thought, well, I read somewhere once ‘that great men write down what they’re thinking.’ Okay, that does sound an awful lot like keeping a journal, but the important thing is that I believe you are a ‘great’ man and, well, you think a lot, so you should maybe think about writing a lot of that stuff down. You don’t have to play by the ‘rules’ and write in it every day or some shit like that, but I guess you could. Just use this book for writing stuff down: thoughts and memories that you’d like to keep and remember. And if you think you’re a little ‘lame’ in doing so, or buying into some sort of trend, maybe you are, but I’m going to do it too.
Merry Christmas

The day I found out about Simon’s death, I took the journal and tore out every entry I ever made.

In a matter of two months, Simon had endured two failed attempts at dating relationships. Since he was typically adverse to the dating scene, it was a shock to his friends and family to see him invest so deeply and quickly into these women he barely knew. Even more alarming was the fact that he would spiritualize his feelings, saying, “God had told him” that either of these girls was “the one.” When these relationships quickly fizzled, it became unbearable for Simon to face his already non-receptive friends. I’m not sure of what happened in these relationships, but it was painfully obvious that Simon was humiliated by their failure.
Even more disheartening was Simon’s spiritual life. Simon had an interest in the spiritual realm and was extremely observant of his faith, but in his later months it had presented itself as a form of hyper-spirituality. Unlike before, Simon was no longer able to engage people on discussions of faith. His presentation was pushy and overbearing, his thought process scattered and alienating. Although it is fortunate that Simon held on to his relationship with God to the very end, many of those close to him observed that his intense longing to please God could only set him up for failure.
“Simon was sun-blind,” said Leighton Sawatzky, Simon’s oldest friend. “He stared at the one brightest spot for so long that everything else around him became darkness.”

“When people are on the verge of suicide, they are not thinking clearly,” Beth Murray told me. “They are in an irrational place of thinking, where their view of things is skewed. They are despairing and hopeless, essentially experiencing “tunnel vision” with regard to their emotional and mental pain. They see no way out of their circumstance, and only know that they want the pain to stop. They are not able to see and grasp the impact of their actions on others, and actually convince themselves that they are doing everyone in their lives ‘a favor.’”

When I returned home to Alberta for the funeral, Simon’s mom, Jenny, came running to me and gave me a hug. “Simon felt like he really let you guys down,” she said. It was a crippling blow.

The last few months of Simon’s life were a mess. Wherever there was turmoil, Simon seemed to be in the middle of it. A blood-inducing fistfight between friends; a betrayal that left a few of Simon’s friends nearly homeless; hurtful words; resentment; anger; confusion. For the most part, Simon and I never had any grievances with each other. We always thought we were kindred spirits. I couldn’t stand to watch him deteriorate. I didn’t know how to confront him on his problems. I didn’t know if I should – if it would cause more problems. Simon and I proceeded to grow apart in those last few months. We still hung out with each other, but there was a detachment that festered, even when we lived together. I regret those last few months.

I had heard differing reactions to Simon’s death. Many were angry with him. Many were angry with themselves. Reactions to suicide and suicide attempts are so varied. “Some people understand, and are very supportive,” said Beth Murray, “especially if they have experienced their own emotional pain or depression. Other people cannot comprehend how someone could ‘do that to their family’ and are very judgmental of the individual — they have no concept of how someone could end up in a place of thinking where suicide would be an option. Many people view suicide as a purely selfish act. Suicide is an act of desperation — a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

The day before Simon’s suicide I got a message from a friend that Simon had decided, less than a week before school, to withdraw from classes and stay in Alberta. My friends and I wondered why he would make such a rash decision. Seeing that Simon had decided not to work all summer, we all agreed that it was most likely that he simply couldn’t afford it. No matter the reason, we all felt uneasy about his decision.

“Something’s going on,” I kept saying. “There’s something wrong.” I repeated this for the rest of the night like a mantra. The people in our circle of friends had been anticipating a good senior year of school. Simon dropping out was a tremendous blow to our anticipation. We wanted him in our lives. We were looking forward to mending some of the tension that had developed the year prior. We wanted things to be right again. Our excitement had turned to uneasiness.
That night, my roommates — all close friends and former roommates of Simon — and I got into a conversation about suicide. The tone was graphic and deadly serious. Each person discussed the topic with fear and gravity in his voice. We were scared of suicide. In hindsight, it seems like, unbeknownst to us, we were almost anticipating something drastic. None of us really suspected anything; it was an example of morbid serendipity. We had opened up to the violence and ugliness of suicide in order to be prepared when our personal lives were confronted with it. In a weird way, I believe we were being eased into the shock. Someone was looking out for us in this.

The Simon I had known before was a beautiful human being. I think he knew that too and wasn’t able to see a way out of his darkness. Simon spent New Year’s Eve with my family in Alberta. We drank, smoked, played poker, laughed and talked about what we wanted to do to improve the church (big and small C). This topic excited Simon. He had big plans and loved to share them and learn from the philosophies of those he looked up to. His enthusiasm was infectious. Simon wanted to start his own church, he wanted to be a one-man spiritual wrecking crew paving a new path for the disenfranchised and cynical. That night, I counted myself as Simon’s first follower. We both saw something special in the other. That night I saw a vigor and passion in Simon that I had never seen before. We stayed up until the early hours of the morning talking to each other. Everyone else had retired to bed to prepare for the next day’s hangover. We felt that we were on the verge of something powerful.

“This next year is going to be awesome, man.” Simon cocked a half grin and looked down at his glass of water. “You and I really need to do something big this next year.” I agreed. I was genuinely excited. We shook hands and he started to pack up to go back to his house. Before he walked into the bitter and white Alberta morning, Simon turned around and looked at me. “It’s good to be friends with you,” he said. “It’s good being friends with you, too.”

That was the last time I saw Simon.

“Sometimes,” Beth said, “before committing suicide, they state their intentions to others. Sometimes they do not. Often they predetermine to kill themselves, and then put their affairs in order, or even say ‘good byes’ which are often not realized until the person commits suicide.”

The night before he hung himself, Simon e-mailed his closest friend Leighton Sawatzky. Contained within the e-mail was a link to a song that Simon felt represented his feelings at the time. The song is by one of his and his friends’ favorite artists, The Flaming Lips. It is called “Do You Realize?”

Do you realize
That you have the most beautiful face?
Do you realize
We’re floating in space?
Do you realize
That happiness makes you cry?
Do you realize
That everyone you know someday will die?

And instead of saying all of your good-byes
Let them know you realize that life goes fast
It’s hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round
Do you realize?