Coworking and Suicide: What the Spirograph Can Teach Us About Community

There are a thousand resources to learn how to be a community manager in a coworking space. But in all my six years of learning I never came across the chapter entitled, “How to handle the suicide of a member.” So I’ll write that chapter now and tell you how I was only able to put words to my feelings by using a Spirograph.

The Spirograph can teach us a lot about coworking, community, interaction and how we all weave an invisible net under people.

But first, let me tell you about Bill.

For the purposes of family privacy, I’ll name our member Bill. Bill came to Cohere in early 2014 to work on his freelance software project while attending school. He was always smiling, quick to chat and super excited about Cohere’s Pinball party. We all shared tacos at La Luz with Bill last May 24th. It was a really good night.

Bill stopped coming to Cohere and then in October emailed me to let me know he’d be cancelling b/c he had another office in town that required his presence more often. That’s a pretty typical scenario and set off exactly ZERO red flags for me. He told me he’d like to return in the spring. That would be now if he were still here.

My last email to him read, “Thanks for the note! It was good to see you the other night at ***. That’s neat that you have an office at ***! Congrats. I hope to see you in the summer.”

Earlier this week Bill’s wife messaged me to tell me that he had ended his long battle with depression in late January. I told her that he must have been in so much pain and was surprised that I didn’t notice. She told me that only two people in the world knew he was struggling. TWO people of the hundreds he interacted with over the past several years. Two. How could we not notice? How could we, as a community, have failed to spot the warning signs?

All I can say is that people with depression develop a helluva toolkit of coping mechanisms and mannerisms that defy their truth. It’s necessary. Society gets squeamish at the first hint of mental illness and it’s typically not a topic that will come up at the coffee pot, least of all at work.

So let’s remember Bill while we talk about the Spirograph. The Spirograph can teach us a lot about people, safety and coworking.

I borrowed this vintage set from Bryan and Maggie. Thanks, you two!

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To use the Spirograph, you have to pin down the primary ring onto a piece of cardboard using 4 pushpins. In the world of coworking, this ring is your coworking space. It’s the physical space, the container that holds all the neat things that happen every day. We can put your communication software in this container too. Your slack channel, your Facebook group, your Cobot, your Group Buzzio. The four pins become the holy quadrangle of coworking space amenities: wifi, coffee, electricity and redundant wifi. Those four things anchor a community to one physical space.

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Next come the plethora of little gear doodads. Those are your members. Each gear is a type of member and each gear has between 5 and 33 holes. Each hole makes the gear do something different and each hole is an emotion or behavior.

Next you need some pens. Not only does each member become a gear but they also each get their own unique color. Cohere would need 55 colors today. One for each member.

As you begin to rotate the pen in a gear, you’ll find that it’s actually quite hard. There’s a fair amount of concentration required. Here’s my first attempt. Yikes. That’s a little like being a new community manager. You try really hard but still fuck up at first. It’s normal.

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In my second attempt, everything becomes clear. With every color change, I change gears and holes and a unique pattern emerges. Each color and rotation of the gear makes loops that intersect with every other color that’s already there. Those intersections are the interactions between your members. See how many there are? Thousands, maybe even millions.

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At each intersection, we would hope our members are truly seeing one another, listening and helping each other. After only 3 colors, you’ll see how utterly complex the design is. That’s the web of safety that communities are striving to weave under one another. That web is made up of high fives, hugs, sharing, listening and laughter.

Who knows if Cohere could have held him if he’d stayed at Cohere for an extra 2.5 months. We’ll never get the chance to find out. So my fervent plea to you, out there in the world today tackling your to-do list and worrying about what’s for dinner is to SEE your fellow members. Ask and listen and hug and laugh and BE THERE. Weave a tight web among yourselves that is unbreakable even by the worst depression. If you have depression, fucking SHARE that with your community no matter how terrible it seems and hopeless you feel. Find 3 people to put on speed dial for the darkest of times.

Since announcing the death of Bill, we’ve had members come forward to share their own struggles with depression. That shit matters because we can tighten the net for them. We’ve opened the door to this oh-so-hard conversation and now we can build interactions around that.

Coworking, like the Spirograph is complicated, “It is possible to move several pieces in relation to each other…, but this requires concentration or even additional assistance from other artists.” -Wikipedia

Even the Spirograph, a child’s toy, admits you might need help from a friend to do the hard stuff.

Today we remember Bill. Today we have a Spirograph out for anyone to try but it’s okay to ask for help. We’re here for you. And here’s the National Number to call if you’re in crisis right now. 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

  • This is heartbreaking, thoughtful, and the definition of compassion.

    Thinking of you, your community, Bill, and his family. <3 <3 <3

    • Thanks, Alex. It’s extra surreal and I have all the emotions.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think you meant to, but this line:
    “In Bill’s case, he didn’t have a strong enough web under him.”
    Implies blame for his wife and family for not being “strong enough.” It’s nice to imagine if you just got closer to him that he would have been saved, but that’s not a foregone conclusion, especially considering he seemed so happy and you didn’t know.

    • You’re right. That seems insensitive and is not my intention to place blame. I’ll reword that part.

  • A coworking site is microcism of what a community or town should be. Informally or defined, it should be the support group, the safety net that often those closest aren’t able or willing to be. It’s kind of like the bartender everyone tells their problems to. I doubt many operators or coworking sites view their role as this though; but it wouldn’t surprise me if you did Angel.

    We all need support, to some extent. And this post has furthered my opinion that coworking sites are for a lot more than just working. We need all the community we can get.

    • Clay, so true. Cohere feels like home, in person, online or out to lunch. More articles are published each day on the importance of community. They’ve linked addiction to lack of social connection, they’re finding RNA blood markers to ID depression and they’ve just marked friendship as the most important key in midlife satisfaction. Without emotions between people, we’re just machines completing tasks.

  • Maggie Dennis

    I wondered what you planned to do with the Spirograph. Needless to say, I didn’t imagine this. I think you could add to the Spirograph metaphor by drawing a design around the outside of the primary ring, representing the aspects of Bill’s life that were outside the Cohere community that you wouldn’t have any way of knowing about or helping with. I guess the community could (by analogy) expand the size of the primary ring, in hopes of casting a wider safety net. But there will always be that outside (off limits) part of each person’s life – maybe the gear doodad to draw it is just smaller . . .

    • Totally. Ideally, many patterns would overlap and connect. I think a person runs into trouble when they keep their nets separate from the others. It destroys the ability for common members to cross pollinate and double check assumptions about the person we’re concerned about.

  • Margi Finch

    I’m so sorry – for everyone who loves Bill, and for Bill.

  • Ryan W

    Sad to hear this. Many people do suffer silently and mask incredibly with depression. The stigma of ‘mental illness’ is all too real. When it should be approached like a broken arm that just needs mending. Not a broken person. My heart goes out to Bill, his family and everyone touched by this tragedy.

    • I wish we could change the language around mental illness to something super concrete like “my synapses are broken, I need to get those fixed.” or I injured my brain. I’m going to the Dr. to get that checked out.

  • Christopher Baron

    Sorry to hear this story about Bill. Please note that the following is not at all meant to be insensitive – just to comment based upon what are becoming my all to frequent receipt of these types of posts and notices. I would say I receive items like this at least every month or two. In at least two cases from very high profile entrepreneurs. A co-worker, friend, friend of a friend, etc. kills themselves and people then are motivated to consider the reasons and go through a whole variety of emotions. Depression is often listed as the “cause” and invariably there is a link to the National Number listed above. I’ve worked on a Suicide Prevention line and the reality is, the only goal they have is to keep someone from killing themselves by rolling the police and an ambulance or to provide “resources.” They cannot address the root causes, which are often due to things like financial issues, relationship issues, etc. These resources are often very limited and/or phantom resources – they’re just a line and a number on a piece of paper. My own take on this is that while yes, depression a very real, I often wonder how often it is a secondary result of a person being overwhelmed by life issues that in fact are not treatable by an anti-depressant. Oddly, I just received an email from a friend who is suicidal. They will not seek treatment. They will not take meds. I have offered to take them into a hospital and to along with other friends be with them through the process. They cannot go there. Medication efficacy is often very limited and can take months to find the “right” one. In my experience, the real truth is that there are very few safety nets in contemporary America – especially for specific problems. The stressors that many American’s face may not be fixable via “resources.” I also sincerely believe, and I have no data or experiences to back this up, that many people who commit suicide would not if they simply had an actionable way to see the pain in their lives stopping. I would like to see an improvement in medical and mental healthcare along with the implementation of safety nets to replace the historical ones that have eroded or disappeared over the past 20 or 30 years. Short of that, sadly many people who decide to kill themselves are probably doing so for what are in reality, very rational reasons. There are simply not answers for the problems they have. I do hope this post is insightful, helpful, etc. and I thought your comments about community were very good. I can only say love and cherish those around you – life can be hard – and if a person is asking for help – do everything you can to provide it. Again sorry to hear about Bill’s death.

    • Yep, so many of us have been touched by that friend who is in a dark place but won’t grab the rope we’re throwing. Doesn’t mean we stop trying though!

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