Remembering Colin, our honorary Elska Amsterdam boy
In the close of the Elska Amsterdam issue, I wrote a dedication to a guy named Colin, someone who had been in touch previously to say he'd love to take part in an Elska issue if we ever came to the Netherlands. His accompanying letter was so passionate that he stuck in my mind, so when he didn't reply to my email inviting him for a photoshoot in Amsterdam, I knew he was worth chasing up.
Along with the email address he'd given us, he had also left a website address, so I headed there to see if he had some social media links where I could send a DM. On that website I saw he had a blog, with its most recent post from a few months prior, its subject about feeling low and lost. I then noticed a Facebook link, clicked it, and was shocked to see the word "Remembering" preceding his name. Colin had passed away just days after that last blog post, and only months before my invitation to take part in the Elska Amsterdam issue.
Although I never got to meet him in person, I felt very affected and devastated. It's hard to explain, but there was just a feeling of being connected. I know that it is unfathomable for most people to understand the acute pain one feels in order to end their life, not unless you actually know that pain. I have been fortunate enough to have only had one serious suicide attempt, the rest of the time staying too busy (and distracted) to fall too deeply into depression, or to rely on sleeping pills or mild self-harm when I got especially low. Of course some of these mechanisms are less than ideal, and I don't intend to promote them, but my point for mentioning them is to assert that depression is not akin to sadness, it's not like having a bad day. You can't just pour a glass of wine and put a rom-com on and expect to feel all tickety-boo again.
One of the things that kept me focused was Elska, a project that has led me to the longest (mostly) depression-free streak in my life. This work keeps me very busy and it also feels meaningful, making me feel proud. However, although compliments greatly outnumber complaints, the negative comments always hit hard and continue to bang inside my skull. Like when a photographer wrote in to praise my work, but addended his letter with the 'helpful advice' that the issue he bought was "ruined" by two "ugly men" that I should have removed from the edition. Or when somebody complained that some of the stories the men contributed in another issue were "boring" and that the men were "nothing special". The reality is that I didn't think those men were ugly, nor that their words were boring. I truly believe that anyone has worth and beauty and deserves to be seen and heard. That's why I do this, not to carefully curate a collection of sensational content that will sell mags to the masses; I do it to push forward my truth and values.
I wonder what Colin's story would have been about. Would it have been breezily mundane, like the guy from Elska Cardiff who wrote about a day at the park with friends? Would it have been naughty, like the lad from Elska Pittsburgh who described a night out clubbing that morphed into an orgy amongst friends? Would it have been sad like the boy from Elska Brussels who wrote with despair about how he'd made all the wrong choices in life and was now completely devoid of hope? This latter type of story might not be the most pleasant for some to read, but I imagine that writing it was therapeutic, and that perhaps the author had no one else to talk with about these feelings. Even if only the readership of a little publication like Elska could be his audience, I hope it brought him comfort to know that at least we were listening.
Wondering what Colin would have said and never being able to know is devastating. I also wonder where he might have taken me for our photoshoot, maybe his favourite neighbourhood in Amsterdam, somewhere that meant something to him. Would he have been shy in front of the camera? Or maybe he’d have been shy at first and then would have come into his own with a gradual eruption of confidence? That’s the way I imagine him anyway. A little fireball beneath a Fabergé shell.
In my dedication story I only mentioned his first name, wanting to respect the privacy of Colin’s family. Then earlier this week I got a DM on Insta from someone saying she saw the story and wondered if I was writing about “Colin Bretherton”. It was his sister, Jessica. She told me she was glad to see that Colin was still having an impact on people, and that his impact was great. It was indeed. I thought of him every day during my shoot trip in Amsterdam, and every time I pick up a copy of the finished book, I know that he is in there.
Jessica later sent me a video link to Colin's funeral. Even though the speeches were all in Dutch, I gave it all my attention and shed tears along with the attendees. I don't know Colin but I know he was a beautiful person and that he was loved. It's easy to say that he was gone too early from this world, that every life is precious, and that we should all pay more attention and respect to mental health. But we also have to act. The reality is that no matter how much support we give not everyone can be saved, but we have to keep trying. Let people know that you love them, be kind and considerate, be perceptive, and ask for help if you are struggling.
Colin's website is no longer online but Jessica reposted some of it in Dutch on her blog. You can read it here: https://jessicabretherton.com/2019/08/01/colins-blogberichten/
I also recommend you watch this video of Colin singing 'There for you'. Since he was not able to do a shoot and story for Elska Amsterdam, I like to think that this performance can serve in some way as the images and words of his lost chapter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBUJsq1z69Y
Liam Campbell is editor of Elska Magazine, a project dedicated to sharing the bodies and voices of LGBTQ men all over the world. The latest issue was made in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and is dedicated to Colin Bretherton.