A few months back I received a call from a contact in Zimbabwe. In itself this was not unusual. I have spent the greater part of my life there (until the age of 30). The lady who was contacting me, Adele, was the mother of an old high school mate, although I hadn’t seen him for many years and we had only corresponded sporadically via Facebook. As it happened I had had more contact with his mum through a society I was a member of in Harare. Adele was an active member of the Prehistory Society. As a graduate geologist she had asked me to speak on one occasion regarding gold mineralisation in tandem with another speaker who was engaged in artisanal mining, much like the ‘ancients’ had been doing for many hundreds of years before written records. Maybe I had first gone along to a society meeting because of Rob, my old geography teacher and close friend of my mum’s who now worked as a consultant archaeologist and historian. I can’t really recall the exact reason, besides which this is all peripheral to my story.
I corresponded with Adele every so often via email when she was keen to pick my brain on one matter or another. I gathered that she had enrolled in a Masters or PhD by correspondence, quite an undertaking for anyone in troubled Zimbabwe. If I were to describe her I would recall her as an unassuming, middle-aged, plainly dressed lady who spoke slowly and deliberately, who exuded an aura of patience and whose smile was genuine and reassuring but she had never had reason to phone outright so I was attentive from the outset.
“Have you heard anything from Paul? I haven’t heard anything from him since he left for Thailand in October (2012).” I hadn’t.
Subsequent to that phone call a community Facebook page, Help Find Paul, was set-up. I kept in contact with Adele and tried to do my part in the search by alerting mutual friends from Zimbabwe. I soon realised how much time had elapsed since those distant high school days. What I knew of Paul’s life since then was mostly second-hand or through the medium of social networking. He had lived in several countries, notably the UK, Spain, Uraguay and Switzerland and apparently spoke four languages: English, German, French and Spanish. He liked snowboarding it seemed and he had worked between Barcelona and Zürich before making an abrupt change and joining the French Foreign Legion earlier last year or the year before. I probably wouldn’t have been alone in thinking this an odd thing to do at this stage of his life, but a few FB friends expressed their admiration and support.
It now seems almost certain that Paul is no longer with us. A mutual friend forwarded me a link to a short article a couple of days ago published in the Bangkok Post which referred to the discovery of human remains on the island of Koh Chang off southern Thailand nearby a nylon rope with a noose slung from the branch of a tree and Paul’s passport in an abandoned bag. Indications were that the body had been there for at least seven months. So what are we to make of this? The obvious conclusion is that Paul took his own life. We cannot be entirely sure of this without any witnesses to his death but I will tell you why I strongly believe that he did. Firstly, Paul’s pattern of behaviour is one with which I can identify: a certain restlessness and inability to stay anywhere for any length of time; drifting between different groups of friends and acquaintances; and most notably a marked discrepancy between what he posted on the internet regarding his experiences in the notoriously harsh conditions in the Legion and what he related to his mother (she was kind enough to share with me the last email he sent her after he abandoned the Legion). The sort of things he posted on FB conveyed a kind of ‘guts-and-glory’ embrace of the training and soldierly camaraderie, whilst in the email to his mum he spoke of his true reasons for deserting:
It was prison, basically – a bunch of guys who don’t want to be there, squabbling, bullying and complaining, in lockdown conditions with an opaque system of rights and rules, and an arbitrary system of punishments. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t fun, but in the end the cons far outweighed the pros…
Taken on its own it doesn’t mean that his was a suicide related to bullying and psychological abuse. In fact it seemed as though he made a fairly clear and definite decision to ‘desert’ as he put it at the beginning but it suggests to me that he was looking desperately for something there, a sense of belonging perhaps, that remained unrequited. It is more telling that he set up an email account with an automated response to the effect that he would get in contact again at the end of his Thailand trip in a year’s time (November this year). I don’t want to speculate endlessly. I don’t know what particular unhappiness Paul was suffering from. I suspect that there are infinite number of possibilities.
I dreamt of Paul a few weeks ago much as I remember him from school: oversized horn-rimmed glasses on his angular-set face; intelligent, sparkling blue-eyes; and most memorably his broad grin which revealed a prominent set of neat white teeth. Like all dreams there was something other-worldly about it and there may have been another long-lost friend present as well. I asked this dream-apparition of Paul where he was and that his mother was concerned as to his whereabouts and well-being. Perhaps he spoke it, perhaps he just conveyed it to me in thought form but he most definitely said that he couldn’t tell me that. I woke up confused. I only ever told two friends of that dream and then with the news of his probable death on the weekend it took on a new significance to me.
First and foremost I am sad that Paul is quite apparently no longer with us, but reflecting on my dream I am also reassured that he is not suffering any physical pain in whatever place he chose to contact me from in my dream. I said that I didn’t wish to speculate and I’m pretty certain that dream revelations have never been taken as prima facie evidence in a modern court of law, but the issue of suicide comes to the fore and is something that I wish to elaborate on. Maybe I could do so ‘in defence of Paul’ or any of the several other friends and family members who have succumbed to this course of action, but that would be presumptuous. What I really do believe is that there are many forms of unhappiness and that some will lead to the ultimate form of self-harm can only be seen as tragic in the context of our human lives. None of us were born wanting to die and the vast majority of us have, whether now or in the past, rejoiced in some of what this life has to offer. What I can only really speak of with any certainty is my own existence and how very unhappy I have been at times as well. I can empathise with Paul but honestly never understand why he may have wanted to discontinue living.
With other cases it’s easier I think: my friend Konrad was a Polish immigrant in South Africa who lost his domineering father, his only family member in the vicinity. After I left the Rhodes University residence and campus we shared reports started to filter back about erratic behaviour, a heavy drinking problem, lewd behaviour and sexual advances towards various women and a spell of internment after an apparent suicide attempt in his car. This was all out of character with the mild-mannered, shy student I had known during my tenure there. But even before I left I could see the cracks opening: the feeling of being beholden to his deceased father who it seemed demanded that he study only mathematics (he was a professor at another university further east) regardless of his feelings on the subject; and feelings of isolation from his Polish homeland and family. Poor Konrad failed more than one course whilst there and I could tell that he was caught between wanting to appease the memory of his father and abandoning mathematics for another subject. He talked of his love for history. Shortly after his release from a sanatorium he hanged himself by his belt on the campus grounds. I was gutted. I had tried to email him and reassure him but I was ensconced further north at the University of Pretoria under uncannily similar conditions. By the time I emailed after God-knows how long it seems as though he had done the deed.
I think we all feel beholden to those we love and care about. When they die we are left with those expectations and if we fail to achieve them – or more likely, fail in our perception of achievement – then we can feel very down indeed. If that is compounded by estrangement, in my case from my father, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, frustration and insecurity can batter the psyche. It may even culminate in a threshold being reached from which it feels as if a return to any form of happiness is impossible. These are the demons that I have dealt with, still deal with and which I imagine poor Konrad and countless others have had to cope with as well. Therefore I will not condemn him in my own subjective way because I have an insight into how difficult life probably was for him. He isn’t languishing in a pit of fire unless our creator is a complete sadist (I don’t think he/she/it is).
I know far less about Paul’s state of mind and why he may have done what he did but I don’t see reason for condemnation either. We were good friends once even if we later drifted apart at school and after. He wrote well, had a good appetite for books and reading and was sensitive to what others thought of him and in his actions towards others. He smiled and laughed often. How can such a spirit be condemned in the afterlife? It is impossible I tell you. Furthermore, it seems to me that if he did take his life in that remote forest off the Thai mainland, he did it to avoid causing immediate grief to those he cared about. Perhaps a little part of him wanted to be discovered, otherwise why leave his passport in the bag at the scene? What measure of will power it took to plan and execute such a plan I can only imagine. Others may fall into addiction and self-pity or go out on a bottle of pills or a drug-fuelled binge but he chose another path for which only he would be accountable. Many speak of the guilt that remains after a suicide, in feeling as though they should have done more. I think Paul wanted to minimise such ‘collateral damage’.
Every death of a friend is a tragedy to those who knew them because to be a friend we knew and cared for those things that made them human. In death we lost that which we cared for, however lost that soul may have seemed in life. If only because we are loved must we continue to live as long and lovingly as we possibly can. If in the end some fail in this ambition then we must see it as a failing somewhere, somehow, but that life continues. The world is imperfect; there is much work to be done.