Someone I Used to Know

This person left a hole in my life.

The Riverwalk in San Antonio, watercolor art
The Riverwalk in San Antonio | Image created via Midjourney

I spend a lot of time at the end of the year reflecting. Mostly, I think about what happened over the past year. I'm not a huge fan of New Year's resolutions because I think it's too hard to maintain a single, big goal over an entire year.

Since I'm now self-employed, I set some targets for 2023 (as a business owner should). But that's not what I've spent my time thinking about over the past week or so. I've been thinking about Tom, an employee that I had a few years ago.

A few days after Christmas, I got an email from Tom's sister, telling me that he died at the end of 2020. I was at the local children's museum, waiting for Autumn to use the bathroom, when the email arrived. I stared at the message, unable to believe what I was reading.

Ger searched the internet and found that Tom had died on December 30th. With that knowledge, the timing of his sister's email made sense: she was coming up on the two-year anniversary of his death. Her email asked if I'd be willing to speak with her on the phone about what it was like to work with Tom. She said that he was a very private person and she wanted to learn everything she could.

I agreed to call her, but knew that the conversation would be very triggering for me. The last time I saw Tom, he had a mental health crisis in front of me, while on a work trip. I wrote about it at the time, but left out many of the details to protect his privacy.

When I called his sister and she told me that Tom had committed suicide. She wanted to know what happened on that day, back in May of 2019. She never had a clear understanding of the events. Tom either didn't remember or didn't want to talk about it. So I told her.

I hired Tom (still not his real name) in the Fall of 2018 to be a data analyst. He was brilliant, funny, and a little quirky. Great to work with and eager to learn. The company hosted an annual user's conference and decided to send Tom, as a new employee, to the event. That year, it was in San Antonio.

A few days before the event, Tom started sending me some odd text messages. But he was always kind of playful, so I didn't think much of it. He asked if he could speak to me privately once we arrived in San Antonio — said that he had something to discuss with me — and I agreed.

Tom and I met at a coffee shop on the afternoon of our arrival. He told me that he had been taking medication for depression, but had recently stopped because he felt like he didn't need it anymore. He asked if I had noticed a difference in his performance at work over the past few weeks. I told him, truthfully, that I had not seen a change. I also shared that I have been on depression medication at one point in my life, related to grief. And that I, too, had stopped the medication when I felt that I no longer needed it. Tom told me that he had some "concerned family members" but thought they were overreacting.

A few hours later, Tom was supposed to meet with me and the other employees (three of them) to prepare for the start of the conference the next day. He never showed. He also didn't appear in the hotel lobby for dinner with customers like we had planned. I sent him texts, telling him that the group was headed to a restaurant on the Riverwalk.  I was irritated, but figured that he had fallen asleep after the day of travel and simply missed the meeting time.  

He finally replied with a very strange text, written like it was in a computer programming language, telling me that he was on his way. He arrived at the restaurant, wide-eyed and with his glasses missing. But he talked with the customers, showing genuine curiosity in what they had to say about the company and its software product.

After dinner, we headed to a nearby bar on the Riverwalk. Tom came up to me and said, "We've been infiltrated. A Girl Scout told me on the Riverwalk. I have to go protect the company." And then he took off.

At this point, I was very alarmed. I excused myself from the group and walked back to the hotel. By the time I arrived in my room, I had received dozens of nonsensical emails from Tom. He had copied other people in the company as well. It was close to 11:00 pm and I kept hoping — praying — that he would fall asleep. But he didn't. The emails came with increasing frequency and bizarre sentiments.

I was certain that he was having a mental health crisis of some kind. I called my husband, repeatedly, telling him that I didn't know what to do. He stayed awake with me until I finally decided that I needed to do something. I was the manager -— Tom was my responsibility. Yet I was afraid. All I wanted was to go home and be with my family. I didn't want to be the person in charge. But I was.

I called a mental health hotline in San Antonio and explained the situation. I was told that I had two options: to convince Tom to voluntarily go to the hospital, or to call the police. And if I called the police, I would likely need to "prove" that he was acting substantially different than his normal self.

I went to the hotel's front desk, letting the employee know that I was hosting an event at their hotel the next day and that I was certain one of my employees was having a mental health episode. The employee told me that the hotel had been keeping an eye on Tom, because he had been acting strangely in the lobby. There was no hotel manager on duty (it was 2:00 a.m.) but a security guard went with me to Tom's room.

I knocked on Tom's door. Terrified, but forcing myself to remain calm. Tom flung open the door, proudly telling me that he had "cracked the code" and was ready to present at the conference the next day. He handed me a folded dollar bill on which he'd drawn some shapes as "proof" of his accomplishment. I told him that we already had the agenda set for the conference and there wasn't room for him to present.

I then said that I thought maybe he needed to go to the hospital. He had only started learning computer programming a few weeks prior, and it didn't make sense that he had cracked any "code." He refused. Somehow, I managed to tell him that I couldn't have him talking to any customers, and asked if he would leave San Antonio. I offered to fly him anywhere he wanted to go. At that point, I was concerned for the other employees on-site, and the 60 customers attending the conference. Who knew what could happen; what if Tom became violent?

He asked for a flight to North Carolina and I told him that I would take care of that. Tom then said that he needed to resign his position with the company, since his work was too important and he needed to share it with the world. He shook my hand, thanking me for working with him.

I found a 6:00 a.m. flight out of San Antonio and also arranged for a Lyft to pick up Tom at 4:00 a.m. I continued to text him, wanting to be certain that he had left the building. I also called his emergency contact — who happened to live in North Caroline — and asked him to meet Tom at the airport upon his arrival. I didn't breathe until Tom told me that he was boarding the plane.

I hadn't slept the entire night and I needed to present at the conference the next day. I gave my opening remarks and then went back to my room, though sleep was incredibly difficult. The rest of the 2-day conference was a daze.

I was at the airport, waiting for my flight home when my phone rang. It was Tom's dad. He told me that Tom had been checked into a hospital, but Tom wasn't able to articulate what had happened. I recounted all of the events for him.

Tom's dad then said, "Are you a parent?" I replied that I am.

He said, "As a parent, I can't thank you enough for getting my son out of there safely. If he'd been alone... I don't know what would have happened."

And I've never forgotten those words.

The next few weeks were difficult for me. Tom never came back to work for the company, but I was plagued with nightmares. I had thoughts, perhaps unreasonable, that Tom would try to find me and come to my home. I hadn't seen a therapist in awhile, but restarted sessions to work through the trauma of watching such a mental health crisis unfold, right in front of me. I found out later that Tom was diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder and he'd been experiencing a full-blown manic episode.

I replayed the details of that day for Tom's sister last week. She told me that he remained hospitalized for awhile, and started medication and therapy. He'd found other employment but then was laid off at the start of the pandemic. But she, and the rest of the family, thought he'd been doing well. He had just gotten a puppy, a dog they now cherish.

And then his suicide. She said, "He tried, so hard. He really did."

She also told me that they'd had "one last, really good" family Christmas in 2019 and that she's so grateful for that.

I don't know the impact that the pandemic had on him. I can only guess. The statistics around mental health and isolation are staggering.

As I became further removed from the events on that day in May of 2019, I thought about Tom less and less. It was a story that sometimes came up when I spoke other people, kind of in the "listen to this wild thing that happened on a work trip" vein. Talking, in such serious notes, with Tom's sister resurfaced some of the nightmares. And I haven't stopped thinking about him since.  

I shared with Tom's sister some of my fond memories. He always made me laugh and was truly a joy to work with. He left a hole on the team when he left, not just with his work, but with his never-ending energy.

I'll never forget him, and I'm glad I knew him.