I knew Adrian Howells the same way many people did, peripherally and yet intimately at the same time. We met three years ago in Toronto. We were both working in “one on one performance,” and we’d been asked to give an artist talk together at the Rhubarb Festival.
At the time, I was one of the only artists in the city doing this work (there are many more now). I felt like an outsider in the performance scene. I questioned the validity of what I was doing constantly. But meeting Adrian gave me a certain kind of hope. He took the time to show me that what I was doing was not only worthwhile, but that I could make a career of it. Maybe he recognized we were both oddballs and had to stick together. Or maybe he just cared a lot about people.
These kinds of chance meetings happen all the time in the art world; working with someone briefly, knowing you might never see them again. But with Adrian, somehow, I always felt he was “there.” We kept in contact, usually with me emailing him every few months to ask about whether I should apply for a certain residency or the best way to get in touch with a particular programmer. More than anything else, he inspired me to press forward on this strange path I’d laid out for myself. We never found occasion to meet face to face again. I just assumed one day we’d end up programmed at the same festival or speaking at the same conference. That’s how these things tend to go.
I knew something was wrong the morning his name started popping up in my Facebook feed. Immediately, I began scanning posts, trying to figure out what had happened. Adrian’s wasn’t the first death I learned of through Facebook, but it was the first time I hadn’t known the cause in advance of getting the news. Scenarios started to flash through my mind. It had been close to a year since we last spoke. Maybe he’d been fighting a battle with cancer I didn’t know about? Maybe it was a heart attack? Aneurism?
Scrolling through hundreds of messages posted on his wall, the awful truth gradually fell into place. Adrian had taken his life with a massive overdose of alcohol and painkillers. Suicide is never easy to process, but in Adrian’s case there was the extra sting of feeling like somehow, this one really should have been prevented, maybe because it wasn’t the first time he had tried.
Adrian had never been shy about talking about his depression; he addressed it head on in his work. He discussed his previous suicide attempt and his time in therapy publicly. I never heard him say so, but I think part of his motivation was to help people realize they weren’t alone if they were feeling this way and that help was available if you looked for it. I’ve had terribly dark moments in own life and periods of feeling like offing myself. But one thing Adrian’s death clarified for me is that it’s impossible to make a silent exit from life. No matter how quietly you try to slip out that door, you end up knocking down the house in the process, throwing the lives of anyone remotely close to you into turmoil. We really didn’t know each other that well, but somehow Adrian was always there for me when I needed something, just as he was for so many others. The fact that we couldn’t be there for him is still hard to digest.