Friday, December 11, 2009

The Call

For some matters, only gallows humor will suffice. In our family we have long talked of waiting for "The Call" as our son and brother Luke lurched from one disaster to another in his 25-year descent into alcoholism. Somehow he would always recover in various intensive care units from suicide attempts as well as from seizures brought on by too little alcohol in his long-saturated system. He went from 28-day rehab to lock-down facilities, and often it seemed his only motive for drying out was to resume afresh his love affair with vodka and his abuse of anti-anxiety medication like Klonopin. Help was offered (he lived for years on disability funds in California and Massachusetts) and mostly refused. Last Monday The Call came. Luke's brother Chris didn't answer his cell phone from Luke's number in Boston, thinking it just more trouble, but he heard paramedics in the background. He phoned his half-sister Emma in Portland who called Luke's number and learned that the brother who had helped raise her with Chris had been found dead in bed at the age 0f 42. The Call came to me by email early Tuesday morning in Bangkok but I soon talked on the phone with my oldest son in Sonoma. For years, both of us have felt both helpless and angry at the waste of a life, but for now at least, our frustrated hopes and Luke's mysterious demons are silenced.

Luke was a lovely child. His freckle-faced smile could charm a room and he never lacked for friends. His mother and I separated when he was six and I'll never know what role any feelings of being abandoned would play in his development; he minimized it but I never escaped the guilt. I tried to stay close to him when he lived in Laurel Canyon and I in Venice by the beach, but when I moved to northern California and he to Durango, Colorado, it was more difficult. The boys stayed one summer with me in Connecticut and when I returned to live in Santa Cruz it was not far from Sonoma where both were going to high school. They would come down to visit our house in the mountains and made lasting friends among the kids their age in our community. Luke was always the center of his social circle, the confidant of all. Only when he got tired would I see his eyes dim and sense an inner darkness, whether illness or something deeper I could not tell.

The affluent suburb of Sonoma where Luke's successful step-father had his art studio was a hotbed of discontent and many of the youth and adults turned to alcohol and drugs to stifle their privileged angst. When I was a teenager in the similar community of La CaƱada, drinking was also de rigeur, but we lacked the uppers and downers and the stuff you smoked and snorted. Luke tried everything and for many years it only seemed to enhance his charm. He was the life of every party. He told me once that since he was 17 not a day had gone by that he did not have alcohol in his system. A feisty rebel, he fought with his step-father, who was sometimes physically abusive, until deciding to join him; they became drinking buddies. After high school, Luke got a job in the mail room at film producer George Lucas' ranch in Marin County and before long worked his way up and into Industrial Light and Magic, the prestigious special effects factory founded by Lucas in Santa Rosa where Luke became the location manager for the commercials division. The work was intense but it paid well. Luke and his girlfriend had an apartment in Larkspur filled with toys, an aquarium and a telescope, as well as a state of the art sound and TV systems, and a guitar to stimulate dreams of becoming a rock star. He loved the sea and took diving lessons, and he also took acting lessons in hopes perhaps of finding film work through ILM. Occasionally it was difficult to tell the difference between ambition and fantasy in his thoughts.

When my boys were young, I took them to Florida to spend time with their grandparents and we went with my father to Disney World. After my dad died, my mother came to Sonoma to visit and took great pride in her grandchildren. Slowly, however, Luke's addiction was taking its toll. It may have played a role in the breakup of his long-term relationship. Then he was arrested for drunk driving on Highway 1 in Big Sur and my brother the lawyer got his penalty minimized. Luke moved into a cozy house in Fairfax but Chris and his wife Sandy began to notice destructive behavior. He was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and the binges became more frequent. He told me that his work made him anxious and that he drank to calm his nerves. Unknown then to me, he was also cutting himself on his arms, because, as he explained later, the pain made the other pain go away (most cutters are young girls). There was an embarrassing episode involving missing expensive account funds and he was fired by ILM. He found work as a freelancer for production companies in San Francisco. But gradually the fantasies took over.

After being hospitalized for what might have been an accident with barbiturates, Luke decided to live out the plot of one of his favorite films, "Leaving Las Vegas," in which Nicolas Cage plays a man with personal problems who resolves to go to Vegas and drink himself to death. But Luke only got as far as Bakersfield where his car collided with a truck and he was arrested and then hospitalized. My son would stay in this gloomy city, whose motto for many is "come on vacation, leave on probation," for several years. He applied for and began receiving disability which solved the money problem, and he learned how to manipulate the medical and social welfare systems. When the DTs got too much, he would threaten suicide and be hospitalized on a 72-hour hold in order to dry out with medication before a new round of abuse. Once, he was in the locked ward of a hospital after cutting his wrists. I visited him several times in Bakersfield, the last time when he lay in a coma after seizures caused by the impact of alcohol on his pancreas.

One of Luke's favorite films was "The Virgin Suicides," the story of teenage boys who became infatuated with five sisters who killed themselves. Another was "Girl, Interrupted," in which Winona Ryder plays a girl diagnosed with borderline personality disorder who becomes hospitalized, after a half-hearted suicide attempt, at the renowned McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. What attracted Luke was the community formed by the mental patients in the hospital to help and protect each other. He was in fact diagnosed with BPD and I was encouraged when I found out that the treatment can involve meditation. I understand the condition to be kind of a chronic immaturity. But he never underwent the treatment. He became obsessed with McLean, an enormously expensive facility, and wrote away asking for a kind of scholarship. When he was turned down, he decided to move to Boston anyway to be near McLean.

I was against the idea of Luke relocating to another city when his problems were unresolved, but in October of 2006 I decided to fly to Boston to celebrate his 39th birthday with him. He was drunk when I arrived at his apartment in Waltham -- it was because of nerves about the visit, he said. I left to see friends in New Hampshire and Vermont and when I returned he was sober enough to take a day trip up through Gloucester to Maine. We had a good talk but he would not commit himself to the attempt to quit drinking. We went to dinner at different restaurants (Luke always fancied himself a gourmet and could cook well when he was sober) and for walks along the Charles River. I went with him to see his therapist who seemed genuinely concerned about Luke and potentially helpful. And he took me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at McLean, more I think to show me the hospital than to go along with AA's 12-step program. I never saw in him the desperation for recovery that I think plays a necessary part in overcoming addiction. He was more concerned with getting his cocktail of medications fine-tuned so he would not have to suffer any discomfort. I think it was his fear of what he might have to go through to get to the other side of recovery that prevented him from making any serious attempt to stop drinking.

In many ways, however, Boston was good for Luke. After my visit he told his sister that he had resolved to quite drinking if he hurt anyone, and he could see that he hurt me by being drunk when I arrived. He bought a camera and started taking photos, and he found volunteer work at the New England Aquarium where he got to feed the penguins. He went online to meet women and started dating again (for a long time he had been afraid that his scars would put them off). Most of the women, however, were in treatment for addiction problems so they were people who could understand his situation, but who also posed a risk. He wrote emails nearly once a week in 2007 and most of them were hopeful. I was under the impression that he didn't start drinking again until the following year.

The following year, 2008, Luke went to Florida to visit an old high school girlfriend and she came to Boston with her children to spend Christmas with him. She told me by email that he'd been drinking again for the past six months and I confronted him about it. I told him I could not watch him commit suicide in slow motion and if he wanted to drink I would have to say goodbye. He was furious that his cover had been blown and called my attitude "holier than thou." I called him "stupid" for continuing to drink, and I wrote about his "slip" in my blog, words I now regret. We exchanged more emails, progressively less angry, which I'll probably save forever. In January of this year he wrote:
You also asked me whether or not I was prepared to stop drinking recently. I don't think myself or you has figured out the answer to that. Maybe someone who has about 30 years of sobriety can answer that question. If quitting was something that wasn't so fucking hard, then yes I would be happy to give it up. But it's a damn monkey on my back and I'm not going to lie and say I don't like the physical sensation I get from it.
A few days later he wrote: "It seems to me that this conversation is going nowhere really fast. Perhaps we should put this on hold for some time. Maybe that would be the best thing." In the next email, written three months later, Luke said his therapist had delivered an ultimatum "that I simply couldn't see eye to eye with so now we've taken a break and I don't know how long it will last. A shame, but our sessions were at a point where all we talked about was alcohol, and it [was] getting to where I couldn't discuss anything else on my mind. So I'm searching for a new therapist." Throughout the years Luke maintained that he drank because of psychological problems, and that these problems were not the result of his drinking; I always disagreed. I received a few more emails from Luke, on Father's Day, my birthday in July, and a couple in September, but all contained mostly trivial information, and little news about his health, medical or mental. His last email in mid-October thanked me for a birthday e-card (his 42nd) I had sent him, spoke about a recent snow storm, and mentioned that he and a friend were trying to figure out how to get enough money together for a trip to Thailand.

Last night I spoke via Skype with Jenny, a young woman who met Luke on a web site around Halloween and in whose bed Luke was found dead on Monday morning. She was attracted to him because he needed help she said, but was put off by his constant drinking and intended to separate from him this week. They had gone to visit Luke's mother and step-father at their Connecticut farm for Thanksgiving and Luke spiked his cranberry juice with vodka. The parents, both also heavy drinkers, did not notice. He was happy last Friday, she said, when they went shopping for food and he cooked her chicken quesadillas. They watched movies on the weekend, among them "Mosquito Coast" and "Harold and Maude" which he told her was my favorite film. But he had trouble sleeping at night and on Sunday said he was not feeling well, though he slept most of the day. That night he snored loudly but was breathing softly when she left Monday morning. Returning at noon, she found him cold and called for an ambulance. It was no use.

I've told this extended story because I don't know what else to say. The news of my son's death has left me numb. I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop for so long that all I can think is: "There it is." Since I no longer believe that the dead go to some better place (or worse), the old platitudes do not work for me. Yes, I am glad that Luke is no longer tormented by the demons I could never see nor understand.Early on, I attended some Alanon meetings, but they only wanted to fix me, rather than help me to know what was best to do for him. Was I wrong to refuse to talk or correspond with him when he was drinking? Was that good for him, or only for me? Since we'd both made some significant mistakes in our lives which had hurt others, in many ways I felt closer to Luke than to my other children. On a certain deep level, we could understand each other. But I was never able to determine to my satisfaction whether for him drinking was a choice or a compulsion he could not possibly avoid. Are some addictions terminal?

A life to be tragic must involve choice. How should we treat people who persistently pursue bad behavior, who lie to, manipulate, and wreak havoc in the lives of those who follow the rules? If Luke was simply sick, can we forgive him more easily? His life then was simply and unavoidably cut short, a waste of a potential life rather than a tragedy. There is no god up in the sky that I can shake my fist at, or from whom I can seek an explanation. If anything has come from this sorry state of affairs, it is the warm wishes of my many friends, old and new, who reach me now via the internet, telling me how sorry they are "for your loss." But I lost Luke long ago. Neither of us seemed to benefit from the struggle to understand the perspective of the other. And yet Luke will remain in my heart for as long as I breathe. This week the events of his life have passed before my eyes. I recall his birth in the 7th Day Adventist hospital in Los Angeles where they wouldn't let us smoke (those were the days when you could take your kids for a drive in a smoked-filled car with no feeling of guilt). I remember how he followed my example and played the clarinet in the high school band. And I remember his freckle-filled smile and hear his voice, "yooooo, Pop!" I will never forget.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Will. I doubt there's anything harder than losing a child, unless it's watching a child go through that kind of hell for years on end. I don't know if it's any comfort, but my personal observation (based on years of experience) is that it's absolutely a mystery why some people get sober and others never manage it. Blame and talk about responsibility are simply pointless -- it happens, or it doesn't, and there's no knowing why.

--Jim Aikin

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your loss. Please don't blame yourself...his life was his own.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry to hear of your loss my thoughts are with your family and friends, was to young may he rest in peace.

Not everyone has an easy journey through life, destroying themselves and those around them. Doesn't diminish the fact he was loved and loved others, take solace in that he may now be at peace with those inner daemons.

Ferd said...

Will--
Having lost friends and acquaintances to suicide or crazy accidents involving vehicles and booze/drugs, I've come to realize that sometimes there is no solution, no answer to "why." Just as there are questions with no wrong answer, there are some with no right answer. The turmoil in our minds occurs because we want and expect resolution, an answer that wraps it all up. I guess the point is, we're only human. Be at peace.
--Ferd

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. I knew Luke briefly at ILM, he was always kind to me. I, too, wait for the call. It is my brother, in my case. As others have said, there is no rhyme or reason to this. I can only hope that Luke is at peace.

Jack said...

Hi Will, thanks for sharing this. I knew Luke well (he and I worked closely together for years at ILM) and was deeply saddened to hear of his death. Please let your family know that there are many, many people out there who loved Luke and wished/hoped, as you did, that he could find a way to stop destroying himself. He just couldn't do it. What a waste. Please accept my deepest sympathies for your unimaginable loss.

J. Kelly

Anonymous said...

I am sorry for your loss. I hope that writing this out has in some way been cathartic for you.

May the universe wrap your son it it's arms and protect him as he travels this next journey.

Anonymous said...

Will, your transparency is very moving. Having lived my 46 years in a family of alcoholics, I keep going back to the saying...you can't want it more for them than they want it for themselves. It's a tragic shame that Luke lived his life the way he did, and I say that with no judgment. Having done the best you could as his father is all that you could ask of yourself. At least Luke is no longer tormented by whatever mindset, demons or otherwise plagued him in this life.

Anonymous said...

Dear Will, Thank you so much for sharing this. We are heartbroken for your family. We had the pleasure of knowing Luke and remember he loved the outdoors and had a great sense of adventure, we always enjoyed his company.
As others have said, sometimes we never know the answer to "why". Psychological pain and its effects are sadly unpredictable, leaving everyone feeling helpless. While I hope it may be some small comfort to know that Luke is no longer suffering, please know that you are not alone in your sadness for the loss of such a dear and special man.

Anonymous said...

It was very sad to hear about Luke's passing. I feel honored to have gotten to work with Luke, to get to know him and to be one of many people that worked with him through tough times. I feel equally as honored to have gotten to see how he was able to help others through their difficult times.

Anonymous said...

Will ... I'm saddened to learn of Luke's death. Your recount of his life and his accomplishments is / was very informative. Hopefully, others will learn from all of that and gain great value as well. Perhaps there are a few other parents out there who will take your recount of events and use all of that to help themselves resolve similar difficulties with their sons or daughters. The future is our responsibility, and we must choose our steps wisely. ~ Dennis Fullerton

ellechan said...

Dear Will, I worked with Luke for years at ILM when he was in the mail room and then when he joined us in the Commercials division. I'm overwhelmed with sorrow at hearing of Luke and your family's struggles with his pain and his coping mechanisms. Thanks for sharing that very personal account. You should know that so many of us around you are all facing similar challenges with a loved one in our lives. I know I'm not alone in speaking for our ILM friends who knew Luke for years - WE LOVED HIM. He touched us and we enjoyed, and commiserated, and laughed, and worked hard side-by-side. The darker side of Luke's struggle never erases the good times that we shared with him, and only makes us sadder that we won't be able to enjoy Luke's friendship for the rest of our own lives.
Love to all those around you. We are only here for a short while.
affectionately - Elle Chan

janet brown said...

Will,it's a disease and far too many die from it. What is so clear from this is the love you two had for each other--hold on to that.

Ananda Perkins said...

Much of what you wrote resonated some truth within me. The hardest part of finding Luke again was finding a man who was almost unrecognizable to me, his life took a physical and mental toll. I remember, and now hold onto the Luke of my youth. He was loving and playful, compassionate, never judgemental, kind, always willing to listen and comfort, full of energy, and yes, even full of life. He loved the ocean, and animals, to paint, loved film. He was an amazing cook. He cooked for us in Boston and in Satellite Beach. I wrote a few of his recipes down and will cook them "for him." He wanted to get married, and wanted children. For all his troubles he loved often--falling in love many times over his lifetime. That is one thing he struggled with yet never stopped searching for. Yet it seemed rooted in fantasy--he was unable or unwilling to remain sober, a trait desperately needed to sustain a relationship. I found it impossible to deal with his alcoholism in my life and decided to not continue our reuniting. He decided to not continue nearly any communication. We last spoke in May. He refused to pick-up any of my phone calls over the last few months, and his email communication was short and few. I have been in a state of pain and anger since I received "The Call" from Jason on Monday, slowly reengaging in my normal life. I loved him at 15 when we met, he was my first love, and some would call puppy love. So be it. It felt real, and the love was always there, even now, 27 years later. I struggled with putting up boundaries with Luke. The last time we spoke he had just admitted himself into a psych ward. He called to tell me he was going and I called him there but let him know I wouldn't deal with the constant binge and rehab cycle. I don't know how he felt about me not being willing to see him through each hospital stay, each bottle of wine. I guess it is what it is. He made his choices and I made mine. Yet it doesn't change the pain that wells up in my gut and comes out in spasms and tears. So, I feel angry because I never got a chance to say goodbye--while he's been saying goodbye for years. A little unfair in my book. So, since this all isn't some nightmare, and Luke is really gone, I'd like to stand with all of you and say: Luke, I loved you, I wanted only that you had peace and happiness in your life. You are gone from my physical world, I will never be able to kiss you again, embrace you again. But you will never be gone from my memory and now it is time for the fantasy of your long and happy life to be present in my mind. Goodbye.

Anonymous said...

So sorry to hear of your loss. I cannot imagine the pain of a parent losing a child but that must be the most gut wrenching of all. Time will heal and for sure writing this and being able to know that sharing his story will help others through their own demon chasing. The folks who knew him personally, like myself will forever remember him on the good days and through the laughter not the pain.....may he rest in peace.

Pete said...

Will-
I met Luke at ILM on his first commercial shoot. He was brought on as a production assistant for a location job. He quickly worked his way up to production manager and would often hire me on his commercials. My best memories of the film business were working for Luke, it was always an adventure. He was a good friend. I started to loose contact, with him, around the time he left the Bay Area, but a mutual friend would give me updates time to time. Luke and I would, on ocation, email or talk on the phone- but communication became fewer and further over the years, and I hadn't spoken with him for some time. I wish there was something profound I could say, but for what it's worth- He spoke of you with respect. You were a better friend to him than most of the rest of us.
Pete L.

Anonymous said...

I have found in the last few months that life can end, very quickly in some cases.
Those we love who leave us leave a huge hole in our hearts and soul.
It will always be there, there's nothing we can do to completely mend this hole, are thoughts will come back ... memories of the life once lived...

Most I have known in recovery, do really want to end there drinking, they just need the right tools to help them do this.

You sound very hostel is this writing, drinking and mental heath issues are illnesses and the people that have them need help from people they love and trust, though many family members turn there backs and don't want to communicate with those that need the help.

Hopefully, In stead of the anger that you took out in this blog, you will be able to make your peace with whomever you believe in and soften your heart some. When your able to do that, you will find that those that have issues need the love and understanding of their family and friends too.

Anonymous said...

Will, thank you for your account of his life...

I knew Luke, way back in high school, in Sonoma... where it all started.

The partying... the drinking... the drugging... the pain...

He always seemed to be a tortured soul, but good at heart! He was a cross between James Dean in East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause: looks, angst, passion ~ and of course ~ the pain.

Ironically, we hadn't spoken in about twenty years and I only recently thought to look him up on Facebook, but hadn't made contact yet.

I'm sorry I didn't get to say hello again, or goodbye, but I'm happy to have known him and will always remember the "young punks" we all were, fondly, trying to find our way... into and through, this journey of life.

I know the pain must be great (as I've suffered my own personal losses recently) and I can only offer my sincerest condolences to you and Chris (& Sandy), as well as Emma (whom I only knew as a small child, back then) and to Judy & Dave.

Peace be with all of you, but especially with Luke... he will be missed by all who knew him.

Kari said...

i am devastated by the news of Luke's passing. I knew Luke through the work realm. He coordinated for me in commercials but we were also friends. I last worked with him in SF while he was living in Bakersfield. He called me and said he needed money. He struggled through the job with several panic attacks. He shared more about his pain that he had done previously. Having dealt with bipolar disorder and depression in my family told him he was bipolar and self-medicating with alcohol. He had a chemical imbalance and suffered greatly. The alcohol was just a way to mask the pain. He acknowledged it and agreed he would seek help. I wish I had done more. When I found him on facebook and saw he was in Boston, I was hoping he had found some peace. I am truly devastated and saddened to hear that he never did. We could never understand the excruciating pain Luke experienced each and everyday. I am so sorry to you and your family for how it has ravaged and torn you apart. Luke is finally at peace. I hope you will find peace for yourself. You are all in my prayers.

Pat Newsom said...

Dear Geoff and Bill, Thank you for sending me this account of the life of your son and nephew. I am so sorry for your loss and pain. We are family and I have wonderful childhood memories of you both and your family. Your cousin, Pat Newsom

Jack c. said...

Barb turned me onto your Blog. Bill, I feel the pain you and Luke have experienced. What others have said, and which I feel also, the LOVE you have for one another will live forever. Thank you for sharing......My thoughts are with you.....

Anonymous said...

Will - I am so sorry for your loss. When I heard about this today I was shocked. We had gone to high school together and the Luke I knew was so much fun to be around. He didn't need alcohol to be funny or outgoing.

Luke and I re-connected through Facebook a little over a year ago...a few exchanges but that was it.

I myself have gone through the intense pain of depression...I wish I could have been there for Luke.