Nothing prepares you for the shock of learning that the person you thought had all the answers in life didn't really have them at all. My therapist committed suicide, checking out of a life that many perceived as an almost perfect one. Bob Bergeron was the golden boy of the Chelsea gay community. A handsome and charismatic motivational speaker. A budding author. A good friend. At just 49 he was on the cusp of what could have been his greatest success: an inspirational book for gay men. Its title: The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond. Bob had it all -- until he decided to end it all.
The last time I saw Bob, he was brimming with enthusiasm. I had come to see him for my regular, twice-monthly appointment at his posh Chelsea apartment in New York City. He was an excellent therapist and had helped me grapple with a variety of issues, chief among them a troubling and toxic relationship. He was goal-oriented and would give me tasks to accomplish before each session. It was homework as therapy, and it worked. I also told him I had started a book but was having trouble moving beyond the first chapter. "Chuck, just like you set aside two hours for the gym , set aside two hours and sit in front of a typewriter and write without distraction," he said. I then asked him about his upcoming book, and his eyes widened. "It's coming out in February. I can hardly wait."
As a gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I was so proud that Bob had written a guide that would teach us how to live a healthy lifestyle without shame and with hope for the future. The book's time had come. For too many years gay men had succumbed to anonymous and potentially dangerous sexual "hookups." Unprotected "bareback" sex with multiple partners had become almost commonplace. Monogamous relationships now seemed like a quaint, anachronistic memory. Drugs like crystal meth and GHB had become a scourge on the gay community. Many had overdosed, including prominent nightclub managers, well-known gym trainers, and even doctors. No one seemed to want to speak out against this alarming trend. Now Bob was teaching gay men a new way to live a positive life into middle age. I was immensely proud of his achievement. When the session ended I gave Bob a hug and made an appointment for the second week in January.
When I arrived at Bob's building that sun-drenched January afternoon , the doorman gave me a troubled look. A burly security guard whom I had never seen before stood like a menacing sentinel. I was handed a piece of paper that read, "For inquiries regarding Bob Bergeron, please call Stanley Siegel." A number was listed. The second I saw the note my heart sank. Something was terribly wrong. Had he been assaulted? I called and left a message for Siegel, who turned out to be a psychologist and Bob's mentor. I got the call at the gym two hours later: "Chuck, I have bad news for you. Bob has passed away." A drum seemed to pound in my head. I didn't know how to answer. "I can't believe it. He was so excited about his book. It doesn't make any sense." Then Dr. Siegel said, "And there's something else I must tell you. Bob took his life. If you need to talk, I am available." I hung up and left the gym in tears. How could a man who seemed to have everything going for him end his life? I felt a tremendous sadness. I wished I could have been there for him and talked him out of it.
I told a small group of friends. Their reactions astonished me. "This completely invalidates his therapy," one said. "How can you possibly believe a single word he ever told you?" Some friends actually chuckled: "I don't mean to laugh, Chuck, but there's something funny about it." Gallows humor? I didn't see anything funny about it at all. In the ensuing weeks I tried to come to terms with the loss. If I was feeling this way, how were Bob's other patients handling his death? Not long afterwards, I received an email inviting me to a grief counseling session for Bob's patients. About nine of us gathered for the evening session in the private party room of a Chelsea restaurant. Without going into too many specifics, to protect confidentiality, I can report that there was a variety of reactions. Some seemed angry. Others were unconsolable. Bob had helped one deal with the death of a partner, and now he was gone. Why would he do it? How could he do it?
In her 1969 book Death and Dying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross talked about the feelings people go through when dealing with a major loss, especially a terminal illness or the death of a loved one. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She explained that not everyone feels all the stages. They are not necessarily chronological. Here during this session, it was apparent that Bob's patients were experiencing exactly what Ms. Kubler-Ross had talked about.
Inevitably, some of the details of his suicide emerged. New York Times reporter Jacob Bernstein wrote in an April 1 article that Bob had been found "in the bedroom, dead, with a plastic bag over his head," adding, "The medical examiner's office ruled it a suicide due to asphyxiation." As we sat in the grief counseling session, many focused on the suicide note. What did it say? Did it offer any clues? We were told at that time that the suicide note had inexplicably been "lost." "I don't believe it. It can't be true," said one patient. We wanted to believe that Bob's suicide note would offer all the answers. It would be a salve for our psychological wounds. It would "explain" why someone would want to end his life. It would make us feel better. But is it ever that easy? Can all the complex reasons behind a tragic suicide be "answered" by a note?
In the New York Times article Mr. Bernstein wrote:
[H]e placed the title page of his book, on which he also wrote his suicide note. In it he told Mr. Sackheim and Mr. Rappaport that he loved them and his family, but that he was "done."
As his father remembered it, Mr. Bergeron also wrote, "It's a lie based on bad information."
An arrow pointed up to the name of the book.
The inference was clear. As Mr. Bergeron saw it at the end of his life, the only right side of 40 was the side that came before it.
Really? Was the answer that easy? Just recently a dear, lifetime friend of mine confided that 10 years ago she attempted suicide by swallowing 20 sedatives. "I was angry," she told me. "I was lashing out. I wanted to make someone know that I had been hurt." Another close friend, a longtime AIDS survivor, was on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. He kept hoping for a new kidney even after years had passed. Finally, right before Gay Pride Day last year, he committed suicide, allegedly by overdosing on Xanax.
We will never know all the answers to the question of why a brillant therapist like Bob Bergeron ended his life. Was it simply that he didn't believe his book, or were there other factors at play? Was he angry at an ex-boyfriend? Did he suffer from mental illness himself? If so, why didn't any of his mentors or closest friends see the dark clouds that were brewing? Did Bob feel he was living a lie? So many questions left unanswered.
All of us, gay or straight, encounter shattering ordeals that test the limits of our strength. All of us at one time or another might contemplate ending it all. But I choose to believe that Bob's death only makes the message of his book all the more relevant. Gay men can live a positive life. We don't need to succumb to our demons. Those who kill themselves leave those they leave behind questioning their own reasons for wanting to live. But suicide cannot be an answer. It's a delusion, an act of desperation. Some might even call it a selfish act. Can it possibly be justified in a rationale way? Is a terminal illness a reason to commit suicide?
Ultimately we must choose to live not for the big things in life but for the little things. It can be lunch with an old friend on a sunny spring afternoon. It can be seeing a favorite godson grow up and graduate from high school. In the gay world, where narcissism can often reign supreme, it's time to grow up. Life doesn't end at 40. A wonderful new chapter begins. Our deaths affect so many people who have been touched by our kindness, our actions, and, in Bob's case, his therapy. The sense of loss, the pain of grief, can be devastating, the search for reasons and answers interminable.
Bob Bergeron's suicide does not invalidate his therapy and the valuable lessons he imparted, but it makes his passing even sadder for those who believe an overriding truth: that if Bob Bergeron had lived (and his book had been published), many would have benefited. They would have gained knowledge on how to live a positive gay life beyond 40. Unfortunately, that appears to have been an insight that Bob might have allowed himself to doubt in his darkest moment.