Updated: Monday, 19th August 2019 @ 10:17am

'His smile hid so much pain': The tragic story of how depression claimed the life of a charismatic young veteran

'His smile hid so much pain': The tragic story of how depression claimed the life of a charismatic young veteran

| By Marthe De Ferrer

“This is the face of depression.”

Depression means sadness, right? It means wearing sweatpants, being reluctant to leave the house, eating a lot of junk food, or not eating at all. Depression is something we see on television: a miserable visage in a sea of happy faces. We know what the warning signs are in a friend or loved one - perhaps they are withdrawn, ignore your calls, or simply seem overwhelmingly pessimistic.

But this is not depression, not really. It’s far more deceptive, far more insidious, and far more terrifying.

Scroll through Instagram on any given day and you will inevitably be met by a barrage of smiling selfies and enviable travel snaps. Flick to Facebook and look down your timeline to take stock of countless grinning group shots and outright braggadocio. Turn on Twitter and there will be many more #newprofilepic posts of yet more beaming faces.

I guarantee that many of those faces will be battling depression. Not just at some point in their life, but right now. Behind those smiles is absolute desperation and hopelessness. When we live in an Insta-ready world, how on earth can we see the pain hidden beneath the filters?

I know this personally. There’s a great photo of me fooling around in New York with friends at the end of a working trip in the States. I look carefree and utterly delighted with everything around me. That was one of the lowest points in my life. When I got back to the UK a week later, I was formally diagnosed with clinical depression. I am grateful I made it back home at all, some don’t have that chance.

After the unrelated suicides of multiple friends, I poured through their social media accounts looking for clues. There weren’t any. They had posted the same happy pictures on Instagram, shared amusing anecdotes on Twitter, and reminded us all of hilarious throwbacks on Facebook.

Levi Crabtree was no different. His mother, Margi, posted a charming photo of the two of them - both smiling - just days before Levi took his own life. The last photo she has with him, Margi shared it again on Facebook after her son’s death imploring people to realise that this is the face of depression. It can be a sweet smile in a selfie with your mother.

Levi was 29 when he died on November 1, 2018. He had left the US Army five months prior, where he had worked as a Military Police Officer for six years. The end of his military career was a challenge for Levi, who struggled to adapt to civilian life as he moved back to his hometown, outside Columbus, Ohio.

“Levi loved everyone, there was never a person who came across Levi’s path that he didn’t make smile and bring happiness into their lives," Margi recalls. “But I noticed when he was starting the process of getting out [of the army] that he was kind of not himself, he wasn’t as bubbly. He wasn’t spending a lot of time at home and he would continually apologise for it.

“I told him, ‘You need to reach out to us if you are struggling. We are the ones who are here for you, reach out to your family, reach out to your friends, reach out to these people - they know your heart.’ But at the end, he felt so alone, and it was just so crushing to my spirit, because he was not alone he had so many people. But the pain of his mind was just too much for him to bear.”

For Levi, life began with difficulty. Born three and a half months premature at just 1lb 15oz, Margi explains that “he fought hard and he came home four months later.” In spite of this challenge, Levi grew to be a naturally positive and warm person, a disposition Margi credits with this early strife: “he had to fight to live, to stay alive.”

This innate strength is why his death came as such a surprise to everyone who knew him. Levi spent his time in the military facing some of the world’s biggest crises. He worked in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, where he helped develop an educational facility. Following that he spent a year in Korea on a hardship tour. This was a man who had seen the very worst, yet still managed to make meaningful connections with people: “he has friends literally all over the world,” says Margi.

These friends came out in overwhelming support for Margi after her son’s death, each explaining the ways in which Levi supported and loved them.

“I learned more and more about my son’s character from all of his army friends who sent me messages when they found out about his passing. Several of the people who reached out to me told me that when they were going through the darkest parts of their lives, Levi brought a smile to their life.”

One friend explained to Margi how Levi had supported him throughout his own depression, where he told him that “there was nothing better than life.” This infectious enthusiasm for life is why his death came as such a surprise to not just his friends, but his own family too.

For his two younger brothers, Caleb and Seth, Levi was their idol. Caleb joined the army at the same time as Levi, aged 22. The siblings looked up to their eldest brother, as, in Margi’s words: “he was their rock and their strength. His passing was really a shock to all of us."

A few times during my call with Margi she describes her son as: “a light.” She explains that he was someone who could lift people out of darkness, who carried energy and enthusiasm to everything he did, who drew people in with his charming warmth.

“He just brought such happiness to everybody, because his smile was so contagious and his personality was just so charismatic. He brought laughter. He loved everyone.” Margi pauses, and adds: “but he also had so much pain.”

Initially, Levi’s relative lack of vivacity after leaving the army seemed a natural response to a major period of transition in his life. The warmth was still there, just slightly dimmed. Margi talked with him a week and a half before he died, offering support and comfort in any way she could.

“He was really struggling with the weight of everything. I told him that I thought his struggle was really within himself, because he was not being himself. He was trying to be what he thought everyone else wanted him to be, and not being Levi. He said that he felt that he wasn’t good enough now. We were talking and I told him that first he had to find peace inside of his heart because everybody loved him and loved who he was just the way he was.”

In an effort to lift him up, Margi decided to organise a fun day together. She wanted to take him somewhere they had not been before, so drove to the Ohio Caverns nearby. It was there that she snapped their final photo together, a smiling mother-and-son selfie.

“His smile hid so much pain. So much pain.”

Less than a week later, Levi left home as usual for his job installing air conditioners, while Margi went to her work as a legal assistant. When she returned later that day, she discovered Levi’s body.

“He left for work that morning and he told me goodbye and that he loved me, which was completely normal. And then I found him when I got home from work.”

I ask Margi how she thinks cases like Levi’s can be prevented, how we can really know when someone is suffering.

“I feel that if your heart tells you something is off, about their smile, about their eyes, about their character then reach out to them, hug them. Talk about it. There’s nothing that you’re holding inside that can’t be made better if you share it with someone. And don’t take no for an answer, hold them, and hug them, and love them, and let them know that they’re perfect. We’re human, we’re all human.

“There’s nothing that someone else has not been through. We all make mistakes and we all fail. But we have each other to pick each other up. I wish I had just stayed with him, and held him, and told him how much I loved him.”

At the end of our chat, Margi sent me a message to add something to the story. She wanted to let me know that she feels that Levi’s death is part of a wider epidemic of veteran suicide in the US. The family have chosen to support Save22, an Ohio charity which specialises in supporting veterans’ mental health.

An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day in the US, according to Save22, a figure founder Tom Indorf is trying to tackle.

Indorf, a former US marine, explains how Levi’s story affected him.

“It hits home with me. I started Save 22 because I struggled with my own demons. I was close [to suicide] and I looked and I saw that I wasn’t alone, so I decided to do something to help other people who were feeling like I did. Talking to another veteran helps, because there is a brotherhood there. All veterans are intertwined in some way.”

He closes our chat with an interesting thought, something which resonates beyond military suicides alone.

“Even if your friend seems okay, sometimes they are not. And that phone call can make the difference of them committing suicide or not. Don’t wait for them to say ‘hey I’m not okay’, see if they are okay.”

I wonder if this could be the key. In a world where everything is lived through a filter, our default reaction is often “I’m good” when asked how we are. Perhaps being pushier, trusting your gut, really checking what is lurking beneath the smile, could be enough to make a difference.