This is going to be long. I don’t want it to be long. Most of the things I say start to form an indefinite shape the longer I go about describing them, and that leaves me restless. I don’t like that, so I stop.
On Wednesday, May 23 excellent human being and basketball writer Bo Churney took his own life. Way back in the past when I found out that there are people on the internet who wrote and talked about basketball, “Bo Churney” was one of the first names I learned. My first impression of him was one of admiration, and that impression only grew over time. And then that time was over. That Wednesday was one of the longest days of my life.
I knew the day was stretching nearly to the point of snapping as I was experiencing it. It’s really hard to talk about for reasons that make sense on some baseline level, and reasons that don’t on any level, and reasons that have a lot to do with weird shame and guilt that only make sense if you tie your mind around itself so many times that every point touches every other. Where these reasons fall in my personal scatter plot is probably different than where they would for you.
I’ll show you what I mean:
At around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 22 I realized I was sick. My head was throbbing, my skin was tingly, and coughing felt like my throat was trying to tear itself out of my neck. I told my coworkers I was not well and spent the rest of the day breathing in safe directions and coating my hands in hand sanitizer. I spent that night in a haze of illness and off-brand Robitussin, awaking late the next morning, to watch YouTube videos with my also-home-sick fiancee and discuss our weird cat.
It took me awhile to check Tweetdeck. This is weird for me because it usually takes about three seconds. Maybe it was the sickness, or maybe it was the medication, but I was dragging my feet. It was about 9:30 when I saw the tweet that revealed to the world that Bo had passed:
It’s still surreal to read it now. Every one word question strobed through my head: What? How? Why? When? What? How? Why?
That was everything for the next hour. I am in an apartment in southeastern Michigan. This happened in Georgia. The people who I know knew him well were in places like Florida, Phoenix, New Jersey. They all knew as much as I knew, and they all found out the same way I did. There was no more information to ask for, no way to ask for it without being heartless, and no information I could receive that would make anything better. No one was going to tell me “Actually, no it’s not true. This didn’t happen. Everything is fine.”
So, I did what had become my habit when I became overwhelmed. I did nothing.
I wasn’t alone. My fiancee was right there. I told her the news. When I looked over at her, she would smile. But I was alone with the churning, red spirograph in my own head. My thoughts bounced and twisted back over themselves. I didn’t know how to express them.
How was I supposed to feel about this? What is the normal feeling a normal person would have when someone they knew sorta well and very much liked on the internet who had similar interests and did similar things to what I did in my free time and with whom I’d had several short but enjoyable Twitter conversations with and had a Simba avatar was now gone forever? What social precedent should I be following here?
There isn’t one. Okay. Let’s do the sadness math:
- Bo was awesome. Bo is gone. On a scale of 1-10, that’s a 10.
- Suicide is tragic. That’s a 10.
- I knew him kinda well, but short of really well, so that’s a 4. Other people are allowed to be more sad than me because they knew him better. So I’m not allowed more than a 4.
- How close am I to him physically? Let’s say a 3. Same country, but different states. People close to him who had met him are going to be affected more.
Through addition I decided I was allowed to be 27 units of Sad. That didn’t make sense to me then, and it doesn’t make sense to me now, but that’s what I decided, and I was going to stick to it until I changed my mind again in five minutes. And then I would do it again. When your experience has no rational source, there’s no rational way to come to its end.
But nevermind that. All I had to do was wrestle with it on my own all by myself with no one else’s help for a while, and I’d figure it out. Just like I’ve always (never) been able to.
This was a regression, and things got worse from here.
At the end of 2015 I was first hospitalized in an inpatient mental health facility. It was a long time coming. I felt broken. I drank too much. I was ashamed of myself, and my emotions were either muted or completely impossible to rein in. I didn’t feel suicidal at the time, but I knew from past experience that was where my thoughts were going next.
I felt all these things. I felt them every second. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to tell anyone. I figured if I voluntarily shut myself in a place where I had no choice but to confront these things and only work on fixing them that I could get my head on straight.
I was put on medication for the first time in years. I learned some new coping skills through dialectical behavior therapy, and I had appointments in outpatient that were going to keep me on the right track. Finally, I had things going right, and it stayed that way.
For about two weeks.
Back at 11:32 a.m. on Wednesday, May 23 I took a video on my phone of Toilet Cat trying to figure out the deep rooted secrets of humidifier mist.
I wanted to put it on Twitter, but it needed something to accompany it. I needed to express that I was a part of the communal mourning of one of the smartest, nicest dudes in online NBA basketball circles, and simply putting up a video of a cat might seem like I wasn’t personally affected or that I wasn’t bothered.
I was bothered. You’ll remember from earlier that I was a 27. What I wanted to do was mention how my silly cat being silly made me somewhat happy for the first time in the five days that were actually two hours. However, I also needed to declare I was at a 27, and offer condolences that were personal and heartfelt, while also not trying to blow out of proportion my connection to Bo that was not quite as strong as other people’s as to make it look like I was trying to make anything about myself, but also hopefully be somewhat silly myself because it’s my defense mechanism, and I had 280 characters to do it.
I began to become delusional at this point. While wrestling with this tweet, I became convinced that if I managed to phrase it just right — if I got the correct order of thoughts, sentiments, and expressions that I could make things better. There was, in some paper in some folder in some cabinet in some room of my head, the perfect thing to say in this moment that would help people raise the floor of their grief or perhaps better frame their own life in a world that no longer had Bo in it. I just wasn’t finding it, I was looking hard enough. I wasn’t digging deep enough.
But I would, though. I would fix this. I needed to just stay in my own mind long enough to let it come.
Around 4 p.m., I decided maybe I could use a hand. I told my fiancee what was going through my head. I had showed her the video, and she thought it was cute, so clearly it had a place on the internet, except I couldn’t figure out what to say with it.
After a small back and forth she asked me the question: “Did you consider him a friend?”
I thought about this for a bit. I thought about it a bit more. Then I started sobbing.
A lot of the things that I’m talking about I don’t know if I should because I don’t know if they’re more or less boring than sharing a dream. Some people find that tedious. I also still have a pretty hazy conception of my experience and what parts of that experience were shared at the time and can be shared now without losing the bulk of the substance.
Depression takes place in two worlds: the real world of reality and real things and the world that a depressive person designs in their own head. The designer world looks a lot like the real one; people have the same names, Google Maps is about identical, and the number of physical dimensions are the same. In fact, the two are so similar that one will be living in the latter while thinking they’re still in the first.
The difference comes in how all the different objects, people, and experiences are connected. There is very little coincidence and far more conspiracy. If someone says something hurtful, it’s not because their tongue slipped and they misspoke. It’s because that person has loathed me since I’ve known them, and only now has their mask fallen far enough to reveal it. If they take it back, it’s for them to save face not because they’re genuinely sorry. After all, sorry is just a word people say to make problems go away. And I’m the problem because I’m awful.
When people commit tragedies to themselves, a common public response is to encourage people to reach out. It’s well-intentioned and reasonable. It’s an attempt to take something horrible and try to squeeze the very, very minuscule opportunity for positivity out of it. So it takes the shape of a reminder that “help is only a request away.” I’ve found the real world to be much kinder than it’s given credit for. There are dozens, upon hundreds, upon thousands of people and places and resources at one’s disposal to help with depressive and suicidal thoughts.
Unfortunately, none of those places exist in my fictional world. Far more often, those in places of depression have had their potential outlets shrink to a handful. These are loved ones they don’t want to burden, or those who may not have the resources to help at their disposal despite the greatest of intentions. Or at least that’s been my experience.
My fiancée has schizophrenia (and she said it’s okay if I tell you that). She’s worked her ass off for years going to therapy, cycling through different antipsychotics to find her right combination, and developing coping skills to overcome her diagnosis. We’ve spoken about our mental health in depth for years. She’s a peer support counselor. She’s started a website with the sole intention of reaching people with similar conditions, putting herself out into the world to make it a better place.
If there was anyone in the world I could talk to about what was going through my mind at this time, it was my fiancee, who has more than enough experience and training with overwhelming, inaccurate thoughts and happened to be sitting a few feet away from me. I needed someone to talk to that day on a deep, scary level. She was right there. All I had to do was ask.
At about 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23 I went outside to sit on the patio to continue crying by myself. I took a selfie to make sure that I was, in fact, crying. I was. I still have the picture. I accidentally scrolled through it at dinner with my sister the other day, and quickly flipped past it. With the short glance she had, apparently it looked more like I had just finished a workout than it looked like I’d been weeping. Maybe mourning is a new way to burn fat. I’ll have to give that more thought.
The delusions hadn’t stopped growing. At this point they’d developed to the point of my being convinced I had greater control of the world than I originally realized. Not only was the fact I could craft the perfect tweet to relieve everyone’s pain in an instant a given, but I could foresee every individual response from every person I knew with each draft. I could stare at the wall and watch the chain of events twirl out from the source point like those tubes of water from Donnie Darko. They formed braided roller coasters that I could direct different directions every time a new synapse fired.
“Chris would do this. Crystal would think this. Rick would say this. Oh, that’s not the reaction I want. Back to the drawing board. Just give it time, keep sinking, Matt. You’ll find it.”
This was extremely cool until it wasn’t. One short hop from recognizing my superpower was realizing I’d recognized it too late. I needed to have realized it 24 hours ago. 24 hours ago, Bo was still alive. Directing my superpowers backward showed me that there were countless opportunities for me to intercept Bo, to prevent him following the path he did. I had a godlike capability to stop it, and I didn’t know it soon enough.
I hesitated writing this for so many reasons. The greatest of them was that I was not special in Bo’s life, although I did consider him pretty special in mine. My experience with Bo was not unique. The only difference for me that day and everyone else at The Step Back was that on that day, I firmly believed that absolutely everything bad was my fault because absolutely everything was within my control.
At 5:37 PM on Wednesday, May 23, I decided that six hours of work was all I could bear. I sent this
“I’ve felt every second of today,” was a quote to my fiancee from earlier. Other thoughts I expressed included “I feel like I’m moving mountains in my mind,” and “I think this is the most meaningful day of my life.” I think what I was trying to express was “I have no idea what’s happening, and it won’t stop.”
From that point until the end of the day, I just tried to exist. My legs weren’t working great. I drink a lot of soda, so about every half hour I had to scurry out to the bathroom from my computer chair sideways (like a crab) because walking was probably going to make me fall over. Basketball happened. The game ended, and I went to bed. My fiancee tucked me in, because we do that kind of thing, and we told each other we loved her. I decided tomorrow would be better because it wouldn’t be today.
Then the hallucinations happened. They weren’t scary, but they were vivid. They were what I imagine an 8K display demonstration would look like. A black gym mat rolled itself out in three dimensions to form a cavernous warehouse. I realized I could form whatever image I wanted within it. It was like lucid dreaming, except I had no interest in being in charge of it.
So I just let images form. Lights swayed from the ceiling. Looking to the right wasn’t allowed. Paint droplets began to pull themselves off the walls and stick in the air. To help picture it, it was like this except in rainbows:
I got tired of it. I wanted it to stop. It wouldn’t stop. Actually, it would never stop. Actually, this was how it always was. This was normal. Actually, the 31 years of life I thought I had experienced before this point was the hallucination. Today was how every day had always been, and how every day was going to be from that day forward.
I took a minutes/years to come to terms with how my entire existence had been altered.
My mind then stopped turning. Things were back to normal. I think my brain was trying to tell itself a joke. It wasn’t funny.
I went to sleep.
I woke up.
In May of 2016, all control was gone. Medication doesn’t work super good when you’re drinking too much. Therapy doesn’t help when you don’t go to it. Reality is impossible to deal with when you convince yourself it’s something that it isn’t.
In 2015, I went into the hospital because I was afraid I’d become suicidal. In 2016, I was going back because I absolutely was.
I had a plan. I played the picture in my head over and over again. I didn’t know which freeway overpass it was going to be, but I knew at some point the emotions were going to become too much, and I would decide on a whim to swerve into the concrete pillars with the hope of dying on impact.
This was going to happen at some point. I had accepted my eventual death at my own hand as fact. I was just waiting for the right moment.
In a small gasp of sanity, I instead went to my girlfriend’s house. I stayed with her and we decided, after a day, that if I didn’t feel any better that she would take me to the ER. From the ER I’d go to the hospital. From the hospital… I dunno. I couldn’t bear to think that far ahead.
When I got out of the hospital in June of 2016, I felt different. I had vomited out to therapists and family every individual thing I could think of that had, to that point, made me feel guilty and ashamed. The barriers I had set up between reality and my makeshift, imaginary hellscape were no longer insurmountable.
I was no longer suicidal. I had hope. I had plans to tackle my problems, and I stuck with them. I stopped drinking, and I started working out. I used my coping skills. I started writing about basketball regularly.
About a year later, I proposed to my girlfriend. People were happy for us instead of worried about me.
It’s been a year since that day. I’ve stuck with things. We’re making wedding plans. I have a job I love and a family I love that keeps getting bigger. I don’t have the same shames. In fact, in the last two years I think I remember being genuinely embarrassed exactly once.
When I woke up on Thursday, May 24 I was embarrassed. I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d said or done the day before, whether I had made a fool out of myself in various places or not. I had a vivid recollection of the things that happened inside my head but not much of what happened outside of it. I remembered speaking with my sister in Shanghai, but wasn’t certain of the words I spoke. I remember crab walking from my computer chair to the bathroom because my legs weren’t working the way legs were supposed to. I had bought 10 french bread pizzas from Kroger.
$20,000 had been raised in Bo’s honor for Lost N Found Youth in Atlanta. You can still donate. I recommend it.
I went back to work. When I finally got a chance to talk to my fiancee on Discord she told me she was worried about me, but I seemed better now. I was still feeling physically rough, but I wasn’t going to touch any more cold medicine because I think that may have played a part in all the fucked up gyrations my mind decided to do the day before.
I spent the majority of Thursday, May 24 trying to come to grips with Wednesday’s experience in a more sober state of mind. I didn’t. This was not surprising. Suicide is not something you can wrap your mind around in 24 hours, possibly ever. Thursday too ended. Friday followed. Then some more days happened. I wrote these words. On some days I felt better.
In the time between then and now, I’ve shifted to trying to figure out exactly what it was that knocked down so hard, why it is I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve come up with about five things that I can put into words:
1. My sadness was real, and I wasn’t the only person who felt it.
I’m not sure there is anything worse that can happen. I miss Bo. There is a wound in the NBA community that might heal but will leave a scar. That is felt manifold by those who knew him better, but down the line from his close friends to the people who read one of his articles and enjoyed it, one person feeling something on one level does not invalidate someone else feeling it at a different level.
That’s a conclusion brought to me by years of therapy and perspective from people who know better. It was something that had to be coached into my skull, and something I still find difficult to truly believe, but it’s something I’ll profess to be true from now until forever.
2. I looked up to Bo
When I first thought about trying to write about basketball regularly, Bo was the guy I picked as the person I wanted to be. I saw him as the reporter in Daily Dime Live who was always at the Hawks games. I saw his name on the list of Hardwood Paroxysm regulars, saw the way he wrote, and thought “I want to be like him. If I can get to where he is, I will have made it.”
And he was funny. And he was himself. When he replied to or liked one of my tweets, I felt like I succeeded. I was waiting for the day I would get the news he was hired by a popular national platform of some sort. It seemed inevitable.
3. I still feel guilty about not helping even if I don’t have a shred of a clue how I would have
From my episode-of-whatever on Wednesday, May 23 there is one feeling I can’t shake. “If only I had known earlier, I could have helped.” I don’t have absolute control over everything and everything around me, and I can’t make things better single-handedly just by willing it to be. The absolute feeling of “you could and should have stopped this” has passed. Pretty sure I wouldn’t be capable of writing this if it hadn’t.
But the grief of not knowing there was anything going on and not knowing to offer myself as a person to come to still lingers. I have depression. Maybe I would have been someone he could have related to had I been more public with my own recovery.
And maybe that wouldn’t have happened. Maybe talking about my depression and public offer to discuss it would have just been another tweet falling down the timeline while “The Warriors ruined the NBA” takes flooded in to take its place. Regardless, I didn’t even let this aspect of myself be known. I didn’t do all I could have, and now there’s a feeling I’ve failed. That’s not going to pass easily.
If I had to guess, it’s probably that residual guilt that has kept pushing me to want this piece published. It’s not healthy, but it’s true. Let’s hope the half-life of guilt is less than a lifetime.
4. Suicide attempts are five times more likely for young LGBTQ+
Before this story goes out there will be maybe 10 people I’ve told I was bisexual. I realized in high school I was into dudes as well, but was so confused about how sex and relationships worked that I figured it was just another symptom of my ignorance of self. Everyone in my extended family was straight, and everyone in 1200 person all-boy Catholic high school was straight, and all but two people in my college fraternity was straight. Why bother mentioning anything? I figured either things wouldn’t change or would change for the worse.
That was essentially my approach until my mid-20’s when I could hint at it to some people and straight-up admit to a few others. It felt more important then, but still nothing I considered a defining trait. And in more recent Mattlife, I’ve been in a committed heterosexual relationship for nearly four years. She’s aware, and she isn’t bothered. What difference did it make if anyone else knew? If I went along as I had, I probably wouldn’t have to confront this aspect of my person in any material way.
I’m realizing now I was kidding myself. If it mattered so little, then why would it make a difference to mention? If I was just confused, then why did this part of me not fall away when I began to figure out the rest of myself?
It was real, and still is. It’s part of who I am. It’s a disservice to anyone like me to pretend that it isn’t.
5. I don’t want happened to Bo to happen again, and if I can do anything to help prevent it even a tiny bit, I need to.
I don’t know if any of this is going to be of any use to anyone, but I wanted it to be said. Talking about things is hard, especially for those who feel like the people they can speak to won’t be people who will be able or willing to truly listen.
If anyone out there is like me, a lot of that hesitance to reach out is an exaggerated personal fear of humiliation. Your shadow copy of the real world tags you as the broken one, the one beyond help. Your relationships with the dwindling few people you think could care about you will be damaged. Things will get worse. You don’t know how they will get worse, but they will.
My only thing I felt reasonably confident I could do in writing this was be honest. I wanted to reveal everything I could think to reveal about that Wednesday and the my circumstances that surrounded it. I wanted to tell people the personal, the strange, and the illogical. And I wanted to prove to myself that having all those things in public is not as bad as I previously thought it was. Maybe if I can admit to thinking myself The Shaper of All Things Via Twitter, someone else can admit to someone else that they’re having a rough time.
And I wanted to do this on The Step Back and to the NBA community because as much as I love cool dunks and neat passes, I’ve found I’ve become much more attached to the people with whom I talk about these things than I have the shared, root interest. There is one fewer of those people now, and it hurts.
I’ve heard a lot of noise about how the online NBA community is vicious, or worse than it was, or a regret to be a part of. I’ve never had that experience. If anything, these last two weeks have further cemented my positive thoughts. I’ve seen the good, and I want to be a bigger part of it. This column was the best and only way I could think of to get there.
Mental health concerns are universal, and the NBA world is not exempt. In just the last year we’ve had powerful affirmations from Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, and Tyronn Lue in regards to their own struggles. Depression, anxiety, and the entire DSM-V catalog affects our acquaintances, friends, and heroes, whether they be basketball players or the people who write about them.
On Friday, May 23 I told my fiancee what I planned to write about. It felt like I had relived the entirety of my mental health battle all over again in the course of a single day. It was intense, and it was sensitive. I wasn’t exactly excited to put everything out into the world, and I wasn’t exactly convinced that I should.
Regardless, I had made a decision. I did my best to explain:
“Because I figure I can either ignore everything from these last few days or learn from it, and I don’t want to ignore it.”
“You just quoted the Lion King there?”
“Not verbatim, but what you just said was basically from the Lion King.”
I miss you, Bo. Thank you.