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Growing up with a suicidal brother

This page posted 28th April, 2014

By Anon.

When I think of my brother, I picture a gently spoken young man sitting in a room reading a book, awake in thought, always thinking. I remember his sensitive eyes and sheepish smile, hesitant but youthful. When I was 14 and he was 18, he made his very first suicide attempt. He disappeared without warning and returned during the night. I will never forget his strange behavior that night; almost as if his actions were a hoax. But of course, it certainly wasn’t a hoax. I didn’t know how to understand it. I feel terrible regret and frustration for the way his first suicide attempt was handled; I am haunted by this thought “by not taking his first attempt seriously, did we set up the damaging pattern for it to never be taken seriously?”

In many ways my brother was always an idol in my eyes, so intelligent and ambitious. Because I didn’t grow up with my father, he was very much a father figure, bought me things, helped me with school work and had high expectations of my progress in life. We had a close bond and shared a difficult childhood together. He was a best friend and at other times quite the intimidator, but he was always so special to me.

As a boy, he was terribly anxious which left untreated grew more intense over time. The onset of depression developed during adolescence but he wasn’t pushed to seek help and neither was he open to receiving it. My  family was not educated about mental health; in fact they were quite guarded.  There was a stigma about it and lack of compassion. Home life was always unpredictable but I was used to it. As siblings we’d move between being best friends to being enemies. Sometimes he’d be cold and critical and then truly apologetic soon thereafter. He would sit in my room for hours listening to all my gossip and secrets, then the next morning we’d be strangers.  His interests were always changing and obsessive; he would go from devoting weeks to a project and then lose complete interest on a whim. Some days he would be full of enjoyment and laughter and the next he would be teary, anxious and miserable. In between were bouts of depression that could last for months at a time. He dealt with much confusion and self-conflicts because of his unstable moods. Sadly, it wasn’t really spoken about outside the home. Little did we know he had untreated Bipolar Disorder.

At the age of 25, his personality rapidly changed. Suddenly he talked faster, became fixated on his body and clothing, was barely sleeping, became extraverted and proud. Everything changed. He would be wired, quick- tempered and often drunk, say rude and vulgar things, make unrealistic and grandiose plans, chase girls and spend lots of money. I didn’t understand the change. He began to lash out at me. In his eyes, I now appeared dull and boring. His mind was racing, he was writing and reading nonstop, his mind was flooded with ideas and he was full of excitement. He became out of control and aggressive, putting himself in dangerous situations, stirring trouble  in public, roaming the streets at night. I was worried, afraid and unaware of what to do. When I questioned his actions and told him to get help, it only made him angry. The mania lasted four months straight. Finally, at the peak of his high, he ended our relationship by sending a horribly cruel letter on New Year’s Eve. I was heartbroken.

My family didn’t want to listen to my concerns and assumed it was a phase that would pass - they didn’t understand what was happening and they didn’t take mental illness seriously. People were quick to judge my brother and make their own assumptions that he was just “weird”, “crazy”, or “having some fun”. A lot of people backed away and turned on him. The judgment only made me feel ashamed, embarrassed and ignored. The experience was isolating and our lives became more inward and withdrawn.

When he finally came down from the high he had a nervous breakdown. It was then at last he saw a doctor, psychologist and psychiatrist and was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and severe anxiety. He sunk into the deepest, most crippling depression he had ever had. He didn’t want to believe his diagnosis and neither did my parents. He felt embarrassed by his diagnosis. For me, the diagnosis meant I was able to understand his previous mania and place all the hurtful things he had done into context. Due to his refusal to commit to medication, his symptoms were amplified by the constant negative effects of withdrawal and he stopped seeing his psychologist. Things were declining rapidly; he quit his job, quit studying and secluded himself at home. There was nothing more painful than watching my only sibling become more withdrawn and numb. He lost interest in everything. Nothing mattered to him anymore.

Suicide was never far from his thoughts. Mum tried to get him into hospital; finally he was accepted after several refusals. Regrettably, he wouldn’t hand himself over as a voluntary patient; I believe that this was reflective, even at that point, of his lack of acceptance of his diagnosis. He just wouldn’t let go of the ingrained stigma. After another failed suicide attempt, he swore it would be the last. Two weeks later, he went for a walk and never came back. He was missing for 23 days before his body was found and that was truly the most numbing experience I have ever endured. Waiting to hear news of his impending suicide was debilitating. I never got to say goodbye.  He left nothing, not even a note. I was 23 and he was 26.

For 18 months, I felt there was no way out of my depression. I withdrew from university and was barely working. I found it difficult to leave my unit and be in public. I didn’t want to be seen. I couldn’t find the motivation to do anything and felt I was letting my life slip away. I lost contact with many people, some by choice and some not. Most people didn’t know what to say and left me alone. Others had offensive and ignorant opinions about his death and some just didn’t want to know the truth. This only isolated me further and made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. I found myself covering details and tiptoeing around people. At the mention of his name, a conversation would turn awkward and silent. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to grieve. It got to the point where I thought “You find this difficult to hear? Well, I find this difficult to live with!” After regular sessions with a psychologist and psychiatrist I finally accepted that I was allowed to grieve, and I gave myself permission to feel it.  It was then that I actually found some strength within myself and managed to start functioning again. I began interacting through online grief and depression pages and support networks; which helped me a great deal. Many people have harsh judgements to make about suicide and mental illness which make the hurt and longing feel denied. It takes a long time to find the strength to stand up to this.

The negative judgements that are placed on suicide and mental illness need to stop. The stigma does nothing but make people feel alone, ashamed and misunderstood. As a consequence, it can stop people, like my brother, from reaching out and seeking help. Being diagnosed with a mental illness doesn’t make you less of a person. Receiving treatment does not mean you are weak. I tried to make my brother believe this. It took losing him for me to finally seek help myself when in retrospect I should have reached out for assistance many years ago. If only I’d known then what I know now.

Death by suicide leaves behind grief that is complicated and riddled with regret, guilt, self-blame, frustration, aching and never ending questions. There is much controversy and a lack of understanding surrounding it.  Knowing that a person you loved chose to die is tremendously difficult to live with. I feel immense sadness knowing he felt the way he did. I have lost my life-long friend and it is difficult to reconcile losing both the past and future. I thought we’d always be able to share our lives together. It is important to acknowledge that losing a family member whether by suicide or another cause can create a damaging rift within a family. The family dynamic is forever changed which only adds to the grief. Family members can have opposing beliefs and opinions on suicide. A lot of blame and finger pointing can take place and many unpleasant attitudes can surface. Grudges can be held. If there was an existing stigma, it can, sadly in some cases, get stronger. Learning as much as I can about mental health and mental illness has helped me cope, but some family members would rather turn a blind eye to what happened. For me, the loss has been a driving wedge between my mother and I. In many ways, I have lost her too as our relationship has completely changed and we no longer share any closeness. I have grieved over that too. I can only hope with all my heart that in time these issues will get better.

If you are concerned about someone who is suicidal, feeling suicidal yourself or grieving over a loved one, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to get help. Talk about it and ask questions. Learn as much as you can. Make sure you reach out and share your feelings. You have nothing to lose by getting help. There is nothing healthier than wanting to talk and discuss your life with someone. There is nothing wrong with wanting to develop coping mechanisms. There is nothing wrong with admitting that you feel troubled and conflicted. There is nothing wrong with opening up to somebody. There is nothing wrong with admitting that your family life is far from perfect. It doesn’t make you less of a person. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you a failure. These are lessons I have had to learn. There are no rules and no time limit to grief. We learn to carry it with us. I am no longer afraid to grieve. I grieve because I loved him.

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