He called himself a “kindhearted troublemaker.”

Meaning, whether touching down in his hometown of Eastport or working with children trapped in the world’s darkest corners, Dave Bakis liked to push people, expand their thinking, challenge their assumptions – but always with a smile on his face.

Yet behind what he called “my mask,” his own demons lurked. Try as he might to tame them through an array of mental health treatments, this young man with the penetrating eyes could not shake the deep depression that dogged him constantly and, over time, left him convinced that he would not live a long life that when death came, it would be by his own hand.

Two days before Christmas, Dave’s premonition came true. At the age of 42, he took his own life.

“He said sometimes he’d look in the mirror and not even recognize who was there,” said Matthew Bakis, Dave’s younger brother, in an interview at his home in Cape Elizabeth. “He could go through the day and live a normal life, but behind that there was a lot of suffering.”

What drove a man with so much to give, so much compassion for children far less fortunate than himself in hellholes like the Gaza Strip and Kabul, so much love for family and friends, to end his life while seemingly in his prime?

“He felt isolated,” Matthew recalled, his voice strained by days of grief. “He didn’t have any type of faith, really. He didn’t believe in an afterlife. He just thought that the world is chaos and then we die and that’s it.”

David Bakis (Photo courtesy of Matthew Bakis)

Suicide is never simple. While it happens in an instant, it’s often preceded by years of struggle – some of it painfully obvious, some of it hidden. Often it catches people by surprise, a bolt out of nowhere that no one saw coming.

Not so with Dave Bakis.

“He sat us down and told us he was going to do this,” said Matthew’s wife, Julie. “That he was going to kill himself.”

In fact, he talked about it often in his final months. With his brother and sister-in-law. With a small circle of close friends. With Meaghan Bloom Fluitt, his partner for the last five years, who now struggles to find a path forward in the quiet of the apartment they shared in New York City.

“He would say to me it felt like his brain was on fire,” Meaghan said through her tears during a telephone interview. “When we first met, he said he wouldn’t make it to 40. He actually said, ‘I’ve known since I was a kid that I wouldn’t make it to 40.’”

And when he did?

“He told me thank you. And he said that he was in overtime.”

Dave Bakis in 2012 at a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he led mindfulness meditation workshops for girls whose lives had been negatively affected by the Taliban. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bakis

David Andrew Bakis was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on May 10, 1977, and spent his early years growing up in nearby Holden. His parents divorced when he was 6. After traveling to Maine several times to visit with friends, his mother and stepfather moved to Eastport in the early 1990s along with Dave and his two siblings – older sister Michele and younger brother Matthew.

Dave’s adolescent years were not easy, his brother recalled. After spending his freshman year of high school in Massachusetts, he attended Shead High School in Eastport for his sophomore year, transferred as a junior to a high school in California, where his father lived, and then returned to Eastport for his senior year.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this handsome, athletic teenager’s horizons became clouded by a depression that would eventually envelop his very being. But by the time Dave enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1999, and then at the University of Massachusetts Boston for his master’s in counseling psychology in 2001, his life’s mission was already clear: He wanted to help children, especially those who felt lost or abandoned, in some of the world’s harshest locales.

“He had a lot of patience with kids and not always as much patience with adults,” Matthew said. “The kids had an innocence to them, and so he just really connected with them.”

The day he received his master’s degree, Dave took off for Spain for a crash course in Spanish. From there, he plugged into a sprawling network of international schools, working two-year stints as a school counselor in Istanbul and Denmark before landing in 2007 at the American Community School of Beirut.

It would become a dual existence – working with the children of diplomats at the school, while at the same time traveling deep into Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. At one, the Mar Elias camp in southwestern Beirut, he founded a program through which Lebanese volunteers took Palestinian children out of the camp twice a month for mentorship and exposure to life beyond the squalor of their everyday existence.

His work earned him a spot in the United Nations Development Program’s publication “101 Stories: People Making a Difference.” But at the same time, as Dave hopscotched from one refugee camp to another, he saw things that would haunt him the rest of his life.

One day in the Gaza Strip, where he spent a month as a trainer for Save the Children, he was escorting a group of children to school when a sanitation truck came along. Dave watched helplessly as the truck’s crew, for no apparent reason, sprayed the children with raw sewage.

“For him, seeing these adults do that to children, that really hurt,” Matthew said.

It also motivated Dave to do more. He helped found the United Lebanon Youth Project, which brought Lebanese, Iraqi and Palestinian youths together for eight days of peace and character building.

Dave Bakis in Bogota, Colombia, in 2011. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bakis

Moving to Bogota, Colombia, in 2011, he worked at the Colegio Anglo Colombiano (Anglo Colombian School), where he established a book club for parents, an empowerment program for sixth-grade girls and a “Gentlemen’s Club” for eight-grade boys aimed at turning them into responsible, well-mannered young men.

At the same time, he founded Lazos Estrechos (Tight Bonds), which connected children between 6 and 9 from the city’s impoverished Cuidad Bolivar neighborhood with trained, high school-age mentors. Together, they’d embark on weekly outings aimed at cultivating lasting, meaningful relationships.

The program’s goal, as Dave later wrote, was “to combat the ever prevalent ‘one-off’ phenomenon that is so often detrimental to children living with a history of abandonment.”

But such work takes its toll. And over time, it began to show.

While preparing to serve as best man at Matthew and Julie’s wedding in 2013, Dave released upward of 100 helium balloons into the sky – each containing his Bogota address along with the simple question in Spanish, “What does love mean to you?” His plan was to gather the responses and weave them into his wedding-day toast.

“He didn’t get one back,” Julie recalled. “He went to all this effort and to get nothing back. He had this very childlike hope for people and had these great ideas, but then he would be disappointed with the outcome.”

Dave Bakis in Afghanistan in 2012. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bakis

 

A short time after the wedding, burned out by 12 years traveling through 40 different countries, Dave returned home to Eastport. He would not stay there long – years in major cities around the world made Eastport feel all the smaller, and soon he gravitated to New York City and another school counseling position in Manhattan.

He also went looking for companionship on the dating app Tinder. There he found Meaghan, an actress who lived in the Queens neighborhood of Astoria.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but as they bade each other farewell after their first date and then simultaneously turned around moments later – she from the stairs leading down to the subway, he from the bustling sidewalk above – for a parting look at the other, they knew.

“He was a singular human being, probably not like most people you’ve ever met,” Meaghan said. “He looked for kindness and compassion in people and just wanted there to be more of that in the world. And he was very funny.”

Dave’s job at the school in Manhattan didn’t work out and, as he ratcheted down on his finances and searched for work, Meaghan invited him to move in with her for a couple of months while he got situated.

“Of course, a couple of months became five years,” she said.

It was during that time that Dave, inspired by his own immersions in various forms of meditation that included a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat in India, developed what he called Constructive Nonconformity Education, or NOCOFO. The program’s motto: Leave the herd. Be authentic.

“At NOCOFO we embrace weirdness, abnormality and authenticity in the face of what we feel are humanity’s two most major dysfunctions: conformity and blind obedience,” he wrote in a proposal to slowly integrate the program into New York City’s school curriculum.

Well aware that many “old-school” educators would look askance at NOCOFO’s emphasis on speaking out against injustice and “staying true to one’s own moral compass” even when that runs counter to conventional behavior and thinking, Dave predicted, “We will run into roadblocks, I’m sure!”

He was right. Despite a hopeful start at Columbia University’s Double Discovery Center, the NOCOFO model eventually lost traction and stalled. Around the same time, Dave first began sharing his thoughts of suicide.

He knew, according to those close to him, that he was not well. As he bounced from one form of treatment to another, he lamented to Meaghan: “I’m broken. I have PTSD, I have trauma, I have major depressive disorder, and I’m suicidal. And I’m never going to get better.”

“And there were times when he’d say: ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. This is how I am, and I need to find a way to make it work for me in my life,’” Meaghan said.

The idea of inpatient treatment frightened him to the point where he promised he’d become violent if ever institutionalized. Still, as he underwent treatments ranging from one-on-one counseling all the way to electroconvulsive therapy, his mental state grew continually worse.

In the summer of 2018, Dave sat down with Matthew and Julie at the family’s camp in Perry and told them what he saw coming: His life would end in suicide.

Matthew tried to get him to move to Maine, where he might find more personalized treatment. But that would mean leaving Meaghan behind in Queens.

Meaghan did her best to help him find the right medication, the right therapist, whatever might help lift him from his emotional abyss.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, she said, was Dave’s tendency as a mental health professional to diagnose himself.

“One psychiatrist or psychologist would say: ‘Yes, your self-diagnosis was correct. You probably have this disorder,’” she said. “Then he’d see someone else who would say: ‘No, no, no. That doesn’t fit. I don’t think you have that at all.’”

Through it all, Dave and Meaghan kept a small blackboard in their apartment on which they’d write daily quotes and inspirational phrases.

One day, an adaptation of a line from an Oscar Wilde play appeared on the board. “Don’t take life too seriously,” it said.

As the holidays approached last fall, Meaghan planned to go to Florida to spend Christmas with her mother. She tried to coax Dave into coming along, but he resisted. He had too much to do, he said. He’d be fine.

While she was gone, sometime in the dark hours between Dec. 22 and 23, Dave took his own life.

Just before he died, Dave sent a video to Matthew and Julie’s three children. In it, he sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and, when he got to the part that introduces Rudolph, feigned forgetting his name and asked the kids for help. They obliged with a video of their own from the “Gardens Aglow” light exhibit at the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Boothbay, where they sang “Rudolph” and exuberantly wished Uncle Dave a Merry Christmas.

“I wondered, when did he pass exactly? Did he see that?” Matthew said.

Dave Bakis’ younger brother, at his home in Cape Elizabeth. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, white males accounted for just under 70 percent of all suicides in this country in 2017. Within that cohort, those in middle age exhibit the highest suicide rate.

Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in an interview that it’s not uncommon for people experiencing suicidal ideations to confide in loved ones – in fact, they do it almost twice as often as they do with mental health clinicians.

The important thing, Mehnert said, is to never lose hope, to keep looking – with the help of organizations like NAMI – for a treatment plan that might work even when all others have failed.

As for Dave, she said she’s not surprised he spent all those years helping children in need.

“When you hurt so bad, helping other people to feel better can be a way to lessen your own pain,” Mehnert said. “Because you see good happening, and while you can’t fix whatever’s not working in you, you can try to save the world.”

Since Dave’s death, Meaghan has received a steady stream of condolences from all over the globe.

One woman, who had Dave as an eighth-grade teacher in Istanbul all those years ago, recalled how he introduced her to “random acts of kindness” and the Black Eyed Peas song “Where Is the Love?”

“I realize now that Dave was teaching us the importance of love, generosity and embracing our common humanity in everyday lives, in a way eighth graders could appreciate,” she wrote. “I remember that he was never afraid to laugh or be silly with us. We were lucky to have him as our teacher.”

Still, while the testimonials may help ease Meaghan’s pain, they cannot erase it.

“I just feel sad,” Meaghan said, sobbing now. “I feel angry at the world and at myself because I wish I had … I don’t know … just all the little things like he didn’t want to come to Florida for Christmas and I just should have found a way to make him come.”

Last weekend, Dave’s family gathered, along with Meaghan and her mother, at Matthew and Julie’s home in Cape Elizabeth. There was no formal service – instead, they simply shared stories of the guy who, despite the emptiness he felt inside, could fill up a room, put smiles on everyone’s faces, bring out the best in people.

In his obituary, composed by Matthew and Meaghan, the family asked that people wishing to memorialize Dave do so not with words but with action.

“Do a deliberate act to help or protect someone in need of help,” they wrote. “Do so without hesitation. Do so in memory of Dave. Do so to keep his passion alive.”

Where to get help if you or anyone you know is battling depression or has had suicidal thoughts:

Maine Crisis Hotline: 888-568-1112

NAMI Maine: 1-800-950-6264

Other state resources in Maine: 211

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255


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