I found my best friend dead.
It was March 22nd, 2010. I knew something was wrong. You could set your watch to Dan’s routine. His truck wasn’t at the bar that night. He was there every night. He didn’t drink. He needed the wi-fi. I walked in to several concerned faces. Nobody had heard from Dan all day. That was uncommon. Dan would send you ten text messages in reply to one. Like I said, Dan was predictable. Everyone wanted to know what we should do. The answer was clear. I sped across town to his apartment with two other friends in tow.
Dan’s truck was in his building’s parking lot when we arrived. I could see the glow of his t.v. coming out of his third floor window. My heart started beating harder in my chest. I didn’t know what we would find, but I knew it was going to be bad. He just didn’t ever stay home at night. He would have told me if he was sick. I only hoped we weren’t too late.
Dan was a Type 1 Diabetic. He was categorized as brittle. Emotional swings made his blood sugar nose dive. His skin would turn grey, and his attitude got real shitty. He would seize when it got real bad. I’ve lost count how many times I witnessed him have seizures. I never got used to them. It was always a little scary.
Dan was also broke. It’s hard to find reliable income in small communities when you become known as Diabetic Dan. His seizures were seen by so many people that I believe many employers considered him a liability. This meant he was always running out of insulin or testing strips. I would stand in front of him when he did give himself shots so nobody would see. He didn’t eat as well as he should’ve. His self confidence was dim. Depression was always near. Martial arts,Monty Python and Family Guy would keep it at bay. He had a quick witty sarcastic sense of humor. It was funny among friends, but it also served as a shield against the world. Sarcasm can be a safe way to deliver hostility, and Dan had enough to share.
Dan didn’t like to take handouts despite all of his challenges. He didn’t like being defined by his diabetes. He wasn’t comfortable being a charity case. We would find ways to sneak cash into his supply bag. We would find ways for him to help us with any task so he would feel justified taking money. He didn’t even like taking the money when he earned it and clearly needed it. He just wanted to help. He never hesitated to be there for a friend, and in turn I couldn’t give up on him like other people chose to do. I always saw his potential. I saw behind the insecure mask.
The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is one of my heavily referenced and beloved books. I have taken it to every dojo I ever attended. I compare notes from the class with notes from Bruce Lee’s book. My original copy was beaten, stained, dog eared and highlighted. It was an ugly book but it was my treasure. One day it disappeared. It became a myth according to the stories Dan and I shared. We were good at creating epic tales of pure bullshit. I eventually let it go and laughed about it. Then about a month later Dan shows up on his usual visit. I was bartending. He says, “Here’s your tip.” He slid a new copy of The Tao of JKD into the well. He found a used copy in good condition for a couple dollars somewhere online. I couldn’t believe he did it. He’s broke! He didn’t need to spend money on me. But he was always a friend first.
Dan and I talked to each other every night about anything under the sun or between our ears. He had a quality that’s rare. You could tell him anything regardless of how bad it may seem or who it concerned, and he would listen with sincerity and keep it private. You would have to endure his sarcastic humor, but he knew when he needed to just listen. In time, he came to honor me with the same vaulted thoughts. I got to know him in ways I’m sure few others could.
In the end, I got to find him dead. He lost his battle with Juvenile Diabetes.
We got the building manager to let us in his apartment. He wasn’t answering the phone or knocks at the door. The manager opened the door, and Jen was through first. She ran immediately yelling his name. I got through the door and saw him lying face down with his body slightly twisted. Jen was kneeling beside him checking for vitals. She kept saying he’s cold. I went straight into shock. I’ve never been so calm in my life. I whispered a silent prayer next to his body. I called 911. I notified friends and family. Time just slowed down.
We eventually got back to the bar and let everyone know what happened. The bartender on duty had a total breakdown. I ended up finishing her shift in a strange mix of calm with subtly brewing anger. I went home after work without speaking to anyone else. I didn’t know what to do, say or feel. I was numb.
Then my phone rang.
A dear friend was on the other end. “Let’s go to steak and shake.” She has an early morning day job. It was 2:00 A.M. She knew I needed somebody. She was also Dan’s friend. She needed somebody too. It was talking to her that unloaded my emotions. I finally cried. I finally realized Dan was gone. I told her the events of the night step by step. I watched tears start flowing down her cheeks, and I felt awful for each one. A voice in my head said stop, but I couldn’t. I just kept talking. It poured out of me.
I didn’t know how deep grief could be until it continued to unfold over the following days. It only grew deeper at the funeral and the weeks afterwards. I have lost friends and family before. This wasn’t new. However, this was the first time I lost someone that I called a best friend. A brother. This was a loss in the inner circle. This was my trusted confidant. This was Dan.
The months after his passing brought new challenges in my emotions. I was a rock for so many while I grieved in silence. It took all of my skills in meditation, self hypnosis, and flat out going crazy to get through. I had the help of a couple incredible people. I wouldn’t have survived the depression without one in particular.
I took away a lot of lessons from this experience. It’s an ongoing challenge that raises it’s ugly head from time to time, but I know it doesn’t have to be hard anymore. I learned how to kick grief’s ass and get back to awesome.
Control The Past
This doesn’t mean the whole past. This is about the painful bits.
I saw the scene where we found Dan every time I closed my eyes for months. I would have a conversation with someone about Dan, and all I could see in my mind was his dead body. It was always the first thought. My second thought would be guilt. Could I have done more? Was this my fault? Why didn’t I check on him sooner? Could I have saved him? Why? Why? WHY? I made myself crazy. It was too easy to feel lost and allow tears to fill my eyes.
I dug my way out by remembering the past as it should be remembered. I calm myself with deep breathing. Then I remember his voice with one key phrase: “as far as you know”. If you knew Dan, you wouldn’t have to ask. That brings an immediate image of him grinning. I can see him making several gestures, throwing kicks, and a stupid face or two. Now I have a concrete image of a living Dan in my mind. I work through other key phrases he was fond of until I have a good hold on his living voice. Only then can I properly remember Dan as he deserves to be remembered. The memories bring smiles instead of pain.
No Sulking In The Present
You are responsible for your own emotions. We all are. It’s a difficult lesson to learn.Nobody can be faulted for the cocktail of pain and loss that comes from losing someone to death, but at some point we have to take the reins back.
I had days that a simple concerned friend asking me how I was doing would send me into a downward spiral. It was awful. I couldn’t sleep consistently. I couldn’t eat consistently. My mind was too busy racing with questions of guilt and anger. I was mired with loss every day that went by without Dan around. At some point I decided I was just being selfish. This had to stop.
There is no time like now. I know that from my meditation practice. There is no danger in this moment. There is no pain. There is no loss. There is only this breath. There is only the sensations I allow in to my awareness. This moment holds only what I choose to hold within my attention. Nothing more and nothing less.
When the loss creeps up into my world again, I notice my breathing getting shallow. I can feel my heart start beating harder. So I take control of my breath just by paying attention to how it feels coming in through my nose. I exhale longer than I inhale. This engages the release of dopamine in the brain. My heart rate slows back down. My breathing becomes deeper and more rhythmic just by focusing my attention. It’s the easiest way I know to anchor myself to this moment.
Start Again Right Now
It’s o.k. to get down. You’re going to fall. You’re going to fail. I’ve lost my positive spirit many times when discussing or remembering Dan. It just sweeps up on me. It’s what happens next that matters. I don’t judge myself. I don’t allow it to swallow me. I get back up.
You can too. Tell yourself you will start again right now. You’re alive. You have this moment. You have a reason to smile. There is probably someone missing you right now. Call them. Reconnect with the world around you. Every time you do this you will decrease the slips and falls. The dark emotions will lose their intensity. It takes intention.
Waking Up To Life After Loss
My problem was obvious. I slipped from grief into a depression that kept cropping up with certain triggers. It took some courage to accept this. I initially felt embarrassed about my own emotions once I realized what I was doing to myself. That wasn’t a fair assessment of my behavior.You shouldn’t be embarrassed about your own feelings.
I was caught on a broken script. It became hard to see how the future would improve. I thought replacing that kind of friend would be impossible. That kind of thinking slowly tarnishes current relationships. It creates loops with other friends caught in the same kind of mental traps. I was doing the same things in the same places and it all just made me sad. Doing sad things only creates sadness. I started spending more time alone. That only resulted in more sadness and sulking.
I had to break the script. I had to get out of my comfort zone. That meant doing different things in different places with different people. I soon discovered amazing friendships right under my nose. I started having fun. I wasn’t being bogged down with endless conversations about losing a friend. It allowed me to regain my positivity and optimism so I finally began healing.
I’ve reframed my experience. There were blessings and new awakenings through this loss. I became more aware of my own health and found real reasons to quit smoking. I started cultivating gratitude for every person and gift in my life. I developed an awareness of my own mortality that lit a fire under my ass to start doing many of the things I always just talked about. This blog is just one of those goals. I cherish laughter more than ever, connecting with people everywhere I go, and holding love in higher regard.
More than anything else, I no longer leave words unsaid. The biggest lie we tell ourselves is that tomorrow will be there. You don’t know that. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed to anyone. Don’t allow words to weigh you down. Let them out. Now.
For The Diabetics Out There
It’s easy to lay down and give up. It’s even easier when you live with this terrible disease. I watched Dan give up over and over again. He didn’t have to. He was lucky to have good friends around him that constantly rode his ass to do something with his life. We tried.
You don’t have to allow Diabetes to stop you from achieving your dreams. Are you aware of Diabetics out there kicking ass? Ron Santo was a diabetic. Halle Berry, B.B. King, Mary Tyler Moore, Crystal Bowersox, Bret Michaels, Nick Jonas, Anne Rice, Sonia Sotomayor and countless others have faced this disease head on and succeeded in their goals.
Your attitude is everything. Stay positive. There’s no excuse. Maintaining an optimistic attitude will improve your life dramatically. It will help you move forward in the face of adversity. You deserve a good life. You can have it.
Please seek help from a Mental Health Professional if you find yourself suffering the symptoms of depression.
How We Honor Dan’s Memory
You might be curious about the Samurai images. Dan was a martial artist. He identified strongly with the concept of a Ronin – a Samurai without a master. We honored his Ronin spirit by burying him with two katanas donated by friends.
The next step was unclear. Many of us wanted to do something in his memory, but it wasn’t until John Novotny brought up the bigger picture that a real plan was formed. John suggested we do something in Dan’s memory that would benefit all diabetics. It was a great idea! A small group of friends met at John’s house and we hashed out the details of what we would do. That’s how Dan Rothrock’s Walk To Cure Diabetes was born. We partnered with the Illinois Chapter of The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to funnel every dollar we raise into research for a cure.
It’s been a rewarding and fun experience. We work to raise money and bring awareness to Diabetes. There is a strong chance that you know someone that is affected by Diabetes. Find a walk near you and help find a cure.
How has Diabetes affected you? Are you participating in any research? Share your stories in the comments below.