by Liam Kuhn | 10/20/98 5:00am

I was up late last night. I was trying to write a paper on Joyce's "Dubliners" and I needed just the right synonym for "desolation." Unfortunately, I found it.

I had Instant Messenger running on my computer at the time and the little computer noise it makes when someone sends you a message drew my attention from my thesaurus (yes, I actually still use a real thesaurus and not the electronic kind). An old high school ex-girlfriend of mine, Siobhan, had sent me a message, "hi Liam, how are you?"

Now mind you it was 3 a.m., and I still had about four pages left to write in the essay, so I was leery of getting into a long conversation with this girl with whom I hadn't spoke in a year or two. So I replied with a noncommittal, "I'm pretty busy; how 'bout yourself?" Hoping that she would catch the hint (but tone and subtlety are so often lost through Instant Messages), I resumed my word search.

In a mere second or two, her response traveled through all the wires and fiber optics linking her computer in New York City to mine in sleepy Hanover. "Liam, do you know Brian Shaugnassy?" Maybe I did know the kid vaguely; I've met a lot of people in my life and forgotten even more. But it sounded to me like the conversation was getting chatty and, after Homecoming Weekend, I was in dire need of some sleep.

So I typed, "No, I don't think so. But it's kind of late, so maybe I can call you sometime ..." But before I hit the "send" button, I froze (yes, I froze, not the computer, for a change). Siobhan had sent another message.

"Well, I think I introduced you to him. Anyway, he's a friend of mine and he's here now. His best friend just committed suicide and he's freaking out, and I don't know what to say or do."

Neither did I. Here I was, about to blow this girl off completely and get back to my essay so I could go to bed finally after a long alcohol-soaked weekend; and there she was, with some guy crying in her room because his best friend just decided life wasn't worth living. I felt nauseous, and this time it had nothing to do with huge quantities of grain alcohol.

"Wow ... I'm sorry," is all I could write at first. Then I started asking Siobhan some questions to try to assess how bad the situation really was. She said that Brian was asleep but that he had taken caffeine pills, and he was "twitching and moaning." I asked about the kid that committed suicide -- had there been any warning signs? Probably, but no one picked up on them until it was too late, I learned. I didn't ask how he killed himself -- I didn't want to hear that he slit his wrists, because I would always have that image in my mind every time I touched a knife; I didn't want to hear that he took too many pain killers, because I would feel horrible every time I popped an Advil to cure a hangover. I didn't ask what his name was either. He could have been anyone.

I "talked" to Siobhan for a good hour. For the first time, I was glad that I was electronically conversing with someone rather than on the phone with her. I've never been as comfortable talking as I have been writing, and while it was tough at times to gauge Siobhan's emotions, the Instant Message medium gave us both enough time to really think about what it was that we felt and what we wanted to say.

My first instinct was to recommend that Brian seek professional help, that he sit down and talk out his feelings with someone. But I'm not sure that I would be able to heed that advice if I were in his shoes. I think the last thing I would want to do is talk to some complete stranger about the kind of thoughts that must be racing through his head right now.

Like everyone, I've been depressed before. Sometimes depressed about serious things like losing loved ones and sometimes depressed about slightly less important things, like the Red Sox losing in the playoffs. But I've always been fortunate enough to have hope. And that hope has always been strong enough to pull me through whatever negative things are around me. I don't know whether Brian believes in a God, or whether he has a supportive family, or if he knows anyone with whom he feels comfortable enough to ever open up to and express his feelings. But I know that the most important thing for him now is to find something to believe in, something that will be there for him always, something that can give him hope.

[Names have been changed]