To the outsider, Michael Berger had it all going for him.
The 2008 Palmerton High School graduate had a degree in electrical engineering from Lehigh University.
Working for FlexLink Systems Inc., he was developing what Proctor and Gamble brass referred to as “first-to-the-world technology.”
The head of FlexLink’s North American division labeled him a “diamond in the rough.”
Yet on the inside, Berger was struggling. The same 27-year-old who received that praise feared he was going to be fired.
He would tell his father, Roger, that companies were trying to make him look bad by changing the scope of jobs he was tackling.
On March 5, the symptoms of paranoia, schizophrenia and depression became too much.
After what his boss called Michael’s happiest day of work in years, he slammed his vehicle into a guide rail on Interstate 78. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was killed instantly.
For Michael, the pain and suffering was over.
For Roger, the journey to help others understand mental illness had just begun.
Who was Michael?
“He was the kind of person who walked into a room and lit it up,” Roger said.
On the day of his service, 300 people packed St. John’s Towamensing Lutheran Church in Palmerton.
Though he was born in Palmerton and graduated from its high school, Michael lived in North Carolina for nine years following Roger’s divorce with his wife. He returned to live with his dad in April 2007.
Michael and Roger had quite the father-son bond. The two went on fishing trips, outings to hockey games and to the movies. It would be hard, Michael’s friends said, to find someone who didn’t like him.
Privately, however, paranoia set in, especially in Michael’s work life. During a stint as a software engineer with John Bean Technologies just south of Quakertown, he once spent 48 out of 52 weeks on the road.
“He would call me and claim they were out to make him look bad by changing the scope of jobs,” Roger said. “I told him, Michael, they need to placate their customer. Maybe the customer changed their mind. It’s not necessarily to make you look bad. Employers typically want to profit off their employees, not make them look bad.”
After leaving JBT and taking the job with FlexLink, Michael was part of a group of employees who flew to Proctor and Gamble headquarters in Cincinnati for a project consultation. Proctor and Gamble was looking to develop a robot that would take items off a pallet, and its own engineering team had stalled.
“After the meeting, Michael flew back to Allentown, and by himself, found a program that would do exactly what Proctor and Gamble wanted him to do,” Roger said.
His quick success drew the attention of corporate headquarters in Sweden.
“They were discussing flying him to Sweden, because he was outprogramming all of their people in Sweden,” Roger said. “I didn’t know any of this until he died. This is a kid that was on academic probation twice at Lehigh. He was drawing international praise and these vast compliments from a Fortune 500 company, and yet, in his head, he was terrible at his job and he was going to get fired.”
The symptoms peaked during a work trip to San Diego for a trade show, the week before he took his own life. He had gone out to dinner with his colleagues. One gentleman ordered a glass of wine and Michael began freaking out, thinking it was a glass of blood. Another gentleman was tapping his butter knife on a saucer dish.
“Why do you want to kill me?” Michael asked his co-workers. “Why are you guys trying to hurt me?”
A waitress came out at the end of the meal and asked Michael if he wanted a box for his food.
“Why are you trying to box me up?” he asked. “Why is everyone trying to hurt me?”
Michael, at one point, had to be escorted back to his room, because he was melting down. All the while, he was carrying on a normal, everyday text message conversation with Roger.
“Here he was literally melting down and he won’t tell me,” Roger said.
Michael’s final 24 hours
Michael lived in his uncle’s basement in Emmaus, paying $600 a month rent. Roger bought a building in Palmerton with a three-bedroom apartment and offered it to his son for $500 a month. On March 4, Michael flew in from the trade show in San Diego to look at the place, but declined his dad’s offer.
He only ever lived by himself once and that was while he was working for JBT. The job was south of Quakertown and Michael lived in an apartment in Hatfield for three months before he broke the lease. He moved farther away from work, to Bethlehem, with three people he didn’t even know.
“Looking back and reading his journal that we received after he died, he didn’t want to live alone,” Roger said. “He had a level of fear. I didn’t see that and I didn’t catch on.”
Michael insisted his father got ripped off purchasing the building. Work issues had Roger already stressed that day and the apartment ordeal didn’t help.
“I’m not following you down your rabbit holes today,” Roger said to him. “The one regret I had is he bolted out that day. I yelled, hey, I love you, and he yelled back I love you, too, but in my opinion he had made up his mind. He didn’t want me to try and change his mind.”
Michael had been gone 15 minutes when Roger told his wife, “You do know he is going to try and kill himself one day.”
“That was literally 24 hours before he did it,” Roger said. “While I do believe he was going to do this one day, I also believe had I handled that situation better on Sunday, maybe I would have gotten one more day.”
The next morning, Michael’s direct supervisor called him into the office, advised him of FlexLink’s great team of doctors here and encouraged him to seek help.
“I think that at that point Michael knew he couldn’t pass this off anymore,” Roger said. “People were starting to catch on.”
At 6:04 p.m. on March 5, Michael texted Roger, “Love you so much. Keep God’s commandments.”
“By 6:30. my gut told me he was gone,” Roger said. “I just sat down and cried and picked up my Bible.”
Later that night, a state police cruiser pulled in Roger’s driveway, and troopers delivered the news he had feared.
Knowing the signs
The illnesses plaguing Michael didn’t hit overnight. He slept quite a bit. One of the signs of depression, is sleeping too much or too little.
“He would take a nap on my sectional at noon, and my wife would run the vacuum cleaner right next to him and not wake him up,” Roger said. “He would easily sleep 14 hours a day on certain days.”
While his father tried to surround him with positive figures in his life, Michael gravitated toward people he thought he could help.
“He wanted to help everyone he ever met and would take it personal if he couldn’t help them turn it around,” Roger said. “And then he would blame himself. There comes a time when you have to disassociate yourself, and he couldn’t do that.”
Michael often compared himself with other people he thought had a better life than he did. It is one of the pitfalls, Roger suggested, of social media.
“Nobody ever talks about their bad times on Facebook,” Roger said. “People post when they just did something great or they’re coming back from a trip somewhere really cool. So when you’re depressed and you see that, you can’t get out of a negative mindset.”
In the fall of 2007, Michael was trying to cut weight as a member of the Palmerton Area High School wrestling team. After practice one day, he texted Roger and said, “I just can’t do this anymore.”
Later that night, Michael played the comment off as being about wrestling.
“Looking back now,” Roger said, “I wonder what was going through his head that day. Was he really going to do this back when he was 17 years old? At that time of his life, I would almost allow other people to talk me out of what I was seeing. They saw a different side of him. They saw the kid who lit up a room.”
Trying to reach out
Knowing his son was headed down a dark path, Roger tried to help. He referred Michael to several professionals, but as far as he knows, none of those meetings took place.
“He would always try to take the other side of argument. He would get agitated,” Roger said. “It got contentious at points. Maybe a year or two ago, I kept asking my wife, at what point is he going to get it? I don’t know how I can help him. I could have dragged him to a doctor, but I can’t make him talk. Whatever demons he had, he was going to deal with them his way.”
Nonprofit organizations such as the Bo Tkach Foundation are doing their best to stop the stigmas associated with mental illness. Locally, many school districts have started Aevidum clubs to encourage students to openly talk about any struggles they face and to have each other’s backs.
“I think all too often when you think of someone with a mental illness, you associate that with the crazy family down the block,” Berger said. “It has nothing to do with being crazy. These people don’t go out and talk to trees or the birds. But that is the stigma, and that is what we have to get over as a society.”
Dealing with survivor’s guilt
The day after Michael’s death, Roger’s phone was ringing off the hook. To this day, he said, he still hasn’t returned every single voice mail or text message.
“Friends from high school had reached out, people from church, my ex-wife and her extended family,” Roger said. “Three of my former roommates from Millersville University showed up on the day of the service. It was a constant stream of deliveries of plates of food, fruit baskets and flowers. You have no idea how that makes you feel. It is one of the true blessings of living in a small town. You don’t always see it or know it’s there until crisis hits. I have some of the greatest friends you can ever ask for, I just didn’t know the extent.”
In the days and weeks that have followed, Roger made it his goal to help Michael’s friends, family and co-workers deal with the survivor’s guilt that normally follows suicide.
“I don’t believe anyone could have stopped him,” Roger said. “The end decision is on the individual, whether people like it or not. People need to not take the blame.”
Roger also still grieves. Last week, he went camping at Locust Lake with old high school friends in what started as a father and son trip. He took some of Michael’s ashes and spread them near the last place the two fished together.
“You can sit around feel sorry for yourself over the years you believe you would have had with Michael, or you can be appreciative of the 27 you had,” Roger said. “I chose to be appreciative of the 27.”
Michael chose not to seek help, at least openly, but Roger is hopeful others in his situation do turn to professionals if the need arises. He himself has been through counseling twice, once when he split with his ex-wife and another time when the divorce was official.
“I want people to say, well if Roger’s willing to go down that road, then maybe I can do that, too,” he said. “I was very honest, maybe too honest with Michael. When you go through counseling, it will hurt like hell, but you have to hurt before you heal.”
“There will be glory that comes from this,” Roger said of Michael’s death. “I don’t know when and I don’t know how, but there will be glory that comes from his death.”
Some of that glory may already be showing itself.
FlexLink has agreed to 12 robot development kits, known as Makeblock MBots, to the Palmerton Area School District to “hopefully allow the next Michael Berger to develop their passion and ability for robotics and programming,” said David Shaw, FlexLink project engineer.
“Michael was a hugely talented engineer who was unparalleled in his work and abilities. He was one of the first people to join the newly created robotics team here at FlexLink in Allentown, and his drive and natural capability helped shape the team into what it is today. He worked on some of the first to the world technology and his systems are now implemented globally by several blue chip companies. He was a great personal friend, too, who was a very humbling individual. He will be hugely missed by all here at FlexLink, and we will continue to carry on with his work in his honor.”
Article source: www.tnonline.com