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Defence of Life

Bipolar disorder was Paul Fairchild’s mortal enemy, a chemical imbalance of the brain waging war within itself.
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PHOTO: Paul Fairchild (left) and James Coburn enjoy the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts in 2015.

 

I jot down words, delete them and feel powerless when trying to make sense of my best friend’s suicide. I loved Paul Fairchild.

Even when the risk for suicide is dangerously clear, it remains impossible to predict the decisive moment of a friend taking his or her life. You may have spent years propping him up from the fall.

Bipolar disorder was Paul Fairchild’s mortal enemy, a chemical imbalance of the brain waging war within himself.

Compulsive thoughts of suicide haunted him. Hope fades when solutions never come and the emotional reservoir remains dry from relentless panic.

Fairchild ended his life in September of 2017 at age 46. Paul was divorced and had a younger daughter and son. He became my second best friend to complete suicide within 10 years.

Paul was not weak. His suicide was not selfish. Paul never wanted to die. He wanted his pain to go away, and he fought a long, fierce battle against it.

I met Paul when he called me one day at the The Edmond Sun newspaper, located just outside Oklahoma City in south/central United States.

Paul was a talented freelance writer and wanted my opinion of an article he prepared for publication, wondering if his lead was “over the top.” He invited me to lunch and we became close friends. He was always supportive and encouraging.

He soon confided in that he lived with bipolar disorder. I said to him that I did not think of him as a diagnosis, but simply as Paul, my friend. He seemed to like that. And he had the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.

At the time leading up to his first suicide attempt, I did not realize the extent of pain he was in. He made his suicide attempt by swallowing pills a few weeks after his wife said she was divorcing him. Mental illness is hard on families, and I am not one to judge.

From there Paul was hospitalized for almost a year, first at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, and then for a few months in Seattle. I never heard from him during the few weeks before his first suicide attempt. Finally, he called me from Seattle.

He moved to Oakland where he lived with another former patient who was an emergency room physician. Paul knew the relationship was not working. He broke up with her and returned to Oklahoma City where we went from close friends to best of friends.

I jot down words, delete them and feel powerless when trying to make sense of my best friend’s suicide. I loved Paul Fairchild.

Even when the risk for suicide is dangerously clear, it remains impossible to predict the decisive moment of a friend taking his or her life. You may have spent years propping him up from the fall.

Bipolar disorder was Paul Fairchild’s mortal enemy, a chemical imbalance of the brain waging war within itself.

Compulsive thoughts of suicide haunted him. Hope fades when solutions never come and the emotional reservoir remains dry from relentless panic.

Fairchild ended his life in September of 2017 at age 46. Paul was divorced and had a younger daughter and son. He became my second best friend to complete suicide within 10 years.

Paul was not weak. His suicide was not selfish. Paul never wanted to die. He wanted his pain to go away, and he fought a long, fierce battle against it.

I met Paul when he called me one day at the The Edmond Sun newspaper, located just outside Oklahoma City in south/central United States.

Paul was a talented freelance writer and wanted my opinion of an article he prepared for publication, wondering if his lead was “over the top.” He invited me to lunch and we became close friends. He was always supportive and encouraging.

He soon confided in that he lived with bipolar disorder. I said to him that I did not think of him as a diagnosis, but simply as Paul, my friend. He seemed to like that. And he had the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.

At the time leading up to his first suicide attempt, I did not realize the extent of pain he was in. He made his suicide attempt by swallowing pills a few weeks after his wife said she was divorcing him. Mental illness is hard on families, and I am not one to judge.

From there Paul was hospitalized for almost a year, first at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, and then for a few months in Seattle. I never heard from him during the few weeks before his first suicide attempt. Finally, he called me from Seattle.

He moved to Oakland where he lived with another former patient who was an emergency room physician. Paul knew the relationship was not working. He broke up with her and returned to Oklahoma City where we went from close friends to best of friends.

Now all the cards had been played and misfortune left its mark on Paul. I have not escaped depressing memories myself after finding his body face down on the floor of his apartment. He had given me a key.

Also, Paul had been drinking heavily for weeks. He would sometimes go to AA two or three times a day to keep his sobriety. He was tired, exhausted. Hopeless.

The last time I spoke with him was after spending the night at his place two weeks before he died. He said to me, “It would mean a lot.”

After waking up at his place that Saturday morning, he wanted to go to the store with me. He bought more beer and wanted to be alone.

I said to him gently, “Do you think you should drink all of those when they will interfere with your medication. Paul said he was just trying to be honest and seemed to be pushing people away.

That was a warning sign. Paul had been pacing back and forth the night before. I had a rough week, plagued by personal issues.

I would not hear from Paul until the Monday before his death. Paul had thrown me off guard six days before his death when texting that he would go with me to a Sunday poetry reading at the Full Circle Bookstore. Paul wanted to make me feel better, he said. I had been sick.

I did not hear from him that Sunday. My phone calls went unanswered that week. I left work early that rainy Monday in September, fearing the worst because I had not heard from him. Silence.

I had called the police but they could not enter his apartment for legal reasons, they said.

So I made the 30-minute drive to his apartment. I knocked on the door, ignoring the smell of death permeating the stairs. I walked up the steps in denial. He didn’t answer the door, so I called his name, “Paul”. Silence.

I knocked and called his name as I opened the door. Immediately I saw him. His bare foot discolored. I understood this intellectually, but not emotionally as I was in denial. I yelled out his name and turned his face from the floor it was pressed down on.

Immediately I knew.

I left the room and called his sister from out of town as well as his other best friend who lived in California. We cried. I called the police. As rescue workers came I walked down the steps to wait for the police to give evidence of my horrible discovery.

I sat on his apartment steps in the rain, and the rain followed me home.

Somehow, I made it home. Slowly, but I don’t know.

I began feeling guilt. But one of Paul’s friends from California helped me realize that regret is a more appropriate term than guilt. I regret not being there. I could have prevented it. Why didn’t I drop by that Sunday? I had done my best to help him, but I am not a super hero. Perhaps a few of his friends thought so.

I worried about acquiring PTSD. I saw a therapist a couple of times. I already knew to let the depression fill me to let it pass through me, rather than to ignore it.

I remain in grief after crying every day for three months. Now it has been eight months since Paul was alive.

I had learned the importance of debriefing after I was a photojournalist at the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. I’ve always refused to become callused. I chose to remain sensitive and open to the world.

For weeks I wrote poetry about losing Paul. Poetry goes deep inside and can be a friend.

So many people in the world are lonely. Some tend to be tribal, and lead lives caught in a circumscribed world, afraid to step beyond self-imposed assumptions and historical mindsets to understand humanity and those appear different.

The world needs empathy and a listening ear. We no longer live in caves. We stepped outside. Hear us.

Recently I found a third-grade yearbook from grade school. As an 8-year-old I had marked on the faces of black classmates who appeared different from myself. I was not born with that attitude. Somewhere I had learned it.

I have learned otherwise through my 63 years of maturation with an open mind challenging man’s inhumanity to man.

Persons living with mental illness need our understanding. Indifference produces ignorance. Ignorance brings fear and prejudice about people different from ourselves. Some experiences in life lead us to distance ourselves from others.

When we do not question bigotry, we are bound to one day accept the lie. Let love guide us. This is who I am. This is how I fight my own demons.

Shouldn’t we listen to one another and understand?

If not, there will be more silence. More tears. More heartache, and more suffering in what could be a peaceful world.

James Coburn is a journalist at The Edmond Sun in Oklahoma, USA. He is also an inductee of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame

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