Against loss: A pledge to honor Doug Demarest with action

I won't ever understand the catalyst that led to Doug's death. The details are sensational. He stole a plane and flew into a building, leaving a wife, two kids and countless friends. But how he died is a distraction from the bigger issue: that he didn't ask for help.

I sought Doug's friendship as a way to learn from him -- in awe of his kayak/packraft control, photography and frugality. Doug is one of the only rivals I've met in terms of frugality. But where my frugality stands on the tape pyramid (duct, Tyvek, Leukotape), his approach involved meticulous research, patience and do-it-yourself projects. Doug was generous with his expertise, and he was one of those guys who did everything well. Add his equally capable wife and two kids, and the picture seemed complete.

For me, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that physical activity and adventuring go hand-in-hand with mental health. This has been my personal experience. Learning to ski pulled me out of a serious depression, not suicidal, but morbid. I spent months imagining the different ways I could die. I never got serious about following through, but I enjoyed the fantasy. As I started learning to ski, something about the physical challenge and developing friendships pulled me out of that dark head space.

For many of us, recreation is part of a healing path, or part of how we maintain our sanity, our mix of energy, humor, empathy, rationale and patience. But I've been focusing on the solution, the recreation, and missing the problem -- that something needs healing. I don't question that recreation is part of the solution, but I think it can also be a distraction from the problem.

I think of my recreation partners as ideal candidates for good mental health. We are generally middle class, educated, fit and have a group of friends to join for evenings or weekends. But it isn't that simple. After Doug's death, a few friends pointed out that being perceived as having everything together might actually make it harder to reach out when we need help. Doug was cool as ice, on and off the water. None of us saw it coming, not even a hint. When Doug paddled, it was with extreme confidence, second nature, pure control. That's what drew me to him; I wanted that mastery. The Doug that he presented was: "all good, everything under control." He probably knew that was how we thought of him, and if people place you on a pedestal, it must take more strength to step down, to reveal your vulnerability and to ask for help. Doug didn't.

This is the first part of my lesson from Doug: recognition that no one is immune to depression (or mental health issues), even if what they project is infallibility.

The second part of the lesson is how hard it is to reach out, especially when people admire you. If someone like Doug couldn't reach out, how can the rest of us? All I can think to do is commit to reaching out, now, and ask my friends to make the same commitment. If things get that bad again, or even anywhere close to that bad, I promise to reach out, to sacrifice the competent/confident persona that I project. I'll take this pledge vocally and with integrity, because clients tell the mental health pros that when you are there, it's impossible to grasp that the situation can change. That must have been the case for Doug.

There are pledge-to-reach-out programs online; the one I like best is from a suicide prevention effort in the UK. I think a vocal pledge between friends is best, and will help promote conversation and accountability. Here is the UK pledge:

I pledge that I will:

• Tell someone if I need help;
• Be aware of the suicide warning signs in others;
• Ask directly about suicide if I’m worried about someone;
• Listen without judgment and do what I can to keep them safe;

In Doug's memory I make this pledge to my friends and family. Please join me.

Luc Mehl grew up in McGrath and lives in Anchorage. He plays outside whenever he can and was a paddling partner of Doug Demarest.

This commentary was first published at Mehl's blog, "things to luc at" and is republished here with permission. In the original post, he also directs readers to various resources: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255); Alaska's Careline 877-266-HELP (4357); to Doug's obituary and Kate, Simon and Silvia's GoFundMe.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the first paragraph present in the original was mistakenly not included in this repost. It has been restored.

Luc Mehl

Anchorage freelance writer Luc Mehl is a two-time winner of the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic.