my story

Owning your own story is a lesson in acceptance and in hope. The exercise of owning all of the story can be difficult and it takes work. I write my story here in an effort to continue the process of acceptance and of hope. Every story is beautiful, no matter how much pain it contains. Every story is valuable and we cannot deny our own reality for a better story. We cannot somehow reject our story, locking it away in a box, where it cannot be kept or contained.

The story seems to eek out, eventually. It must. Because life does not work by locking part of ourselves away. The funny thing about your story is that it will not be denied. If we accept all of our story, others can connect to our vulnerability and we can connect to the deepest parts of who we really are. 

I will tell you a story of how our family unraveled even as we tried ardently to hold it together. I want to note the aftermath of suicide and the terrible toll it takes on a family.

{What is your story? How has it changed? What caused you to be where you are now in your life?}

My story began in the small metro Atlanta town where I grew up. My father still lives in that brick, ranch style home. I am the 6th child of  7 children born to my mom and dad who are still married to this day. Nearly 61 years strong.

I am an identical twin. My twin sister is the 5th born child. We have 4 older brothers and 4 years later, we had a younger sister born to our family. My parents had children from age  20 to age 40. Yes. I know. That is A LOT.  

To say my mom was overwhelmed is an understatement. She made huge, country dinners every night. Cornbread, collard greens, country fried steak, garden fresh vegetables of every variety. We ate like southern royalty (and I did not realize that at the time) and we never ate out, we could not afford it. Mom yelled a lot and tried hard to keep order in our home. She loved us well.  Somehow, at the same time, she set out to save the world. Making constant trips to our state capitol and even to Washington D.C. Our mom was involved in countless political causes and campaigns. Ultra conservative and ultra Baptist. My father worked two jobs, day and night, to support us all. That was our family. What I realize now is that my parents did the best they could. As their children, we made choices and we made mistakes. We all did. 

My two oldest brothers began acting out around the time my sister and I were born. They were our built-in baby sitters; when our mother was gone. They ultimately rebelled against all of the rules and strict expectations. I am sure it was also difficult for them to help raise infants. Changing diapers and getting their driver's licenses and first cars and first dates.

My brothers started using drugs and drinking. My parents tightened down the rules and in turn, they rebelled more. It was the late nineteen seventies and early eighties. Certainly, a time to dabble in the drug culture of disco and rock and roll. Only there weren't any discos in our rural southern town. Just a lot of rules, responsibility and church.  My older brothers were made to cut their shaggy hair and attend a new, strict church and enroll in a stricter private school. They struggled.

My oldest brother tried to maintain a normal life and with a really strong wife by his side, for the eighties and nineties, he limped through addiction while his wife held their little family together. 

Our family struggled through my oldest brother's drug abuse for many, many years. My dad went into business with my brother to try to help him. Of course, that didn't really help. It just put more pressure on him to function when he could not function. He was 16 years older than me. Watching what my parents went through, I wanted anything but the pain that drug use brought to my family through my brother. Ultimately, I went back to grad school and became a mental health professional, because of wanting to help people like my brother. I thought I knew pain.

Prior to my brother's suicide, our second eldest brother attempted suicide twice over two years, 2011 and 2013. He began using drugs and alcohol again after being laid off from his job in 2005. He was severely depressed and could not seem to find his footing, bouncing from one job to the next. He thought everyone would be better off without him. We were shocked and deeply shaken. Twice he landed in ICU due to severe overdoses and narrowly survived. I thought I knew pain.

After my surviving brother's second suicide attempt, 4 weeks later, my mother suffered a major, debilitating stroke. She had kept a vigil at his bedside and ultimately her body could not handle the stress of nearly losing her son and then trying to forge a way forward. Her stroke changed her from a working woman, loving and doting mother and grandmother to a mother confined to a nursing home. She was our king pin. I thought I knew pain... 

So many secondary losses. 

In the years since the death of my brother, I have become intimately acquainted with grief. Even in the years prior to his suicide, I worked in a psychiatric hospital for 8 years, working with suicide survivors and their families. After being stabilized from a suicide attempt, the first thing a patient saw was me where I assessed their mental health history, diagnosed their psychiatric presentation and recommended a course of treatment. I thought I knew pain. 

Through all of this, I could have never have prepared myself for my own grief journey, with the tragic loss of my brother. I was be-bopping along in life.  Me, a wife, mother, professional, with young kids. My little family had just finished a year-long renovation/addition to our home a few weeks earlier and had just moved back in the week before I received the call that he was gone in early May 2015. My head spins thinking of that week now. My husband and I making the call to his daughter and son, our niece and nephew, to let them know that their dad had ended his life. Meeting my immediate family at the sight where he ended his life. We all convened there and yet we had no idea how this loss would damage, warp and redefine our family. 

It was a bitter combination of him being dead (what?!), anger (at him for ending his life), shock (denial, disbelief), embarrassment (a member of your immediate family ended his life and now what? You honor them?), funeral arrangements (again, what?!), trying to protect his children and realizing that no one could possibly keep them from feeling the heartache that lay in store for them and trying to pretend to my family, children and friends that I was OK. And then soon realizing that I was anything but OK. 

Our 3rd brother, Robert, eulogized my brother at his funeral in a way that only he could have—beautifully. He also explained in the service that our brother had ended his own life. I remember feeling shocked at his honesty. And also relieved to be honest in the face of a very stigmatizing loss.

In the 9 months prior to losing him, my brother had been in and out of jail since my parents had asked him to move out of their home. He lived with them for 10 years before a final incident forced them to ask him to move out. His marriage had dissolved 15 years prior to his death due to drug use. His children were adults by now and had always been a big part of our lives. 

We did not know how to help him as he refused to seek treatment for a very long, drawn out decades old drug problem. Even though I had wondered if he would take his life or if his body would give out from exposure to harmful chemical dependency, I could have never prepared myself for his death. Funny, when I found out he was gone, I initially thought, OK, this is how it ends. He was unwell. Emotionally and physically, he was unwell. 

What I quickly learned is that you cannot rationalize the loss of a member of your family. Your brain won't allow you to. The loss will be felt. The loss, will not be denied. 

Grief and pain became an even more familiar part of my life after the death of my oldest brother. I didn’t know grief like this existed. I had no idea.

I share my loss here because I know all of the stages of grief. I know all of the symptoms of depression. I can think my way in and out of most psychiatric dilemmas and stressors. We are not all the same, and yet, the patterns we exhibit are very similar. There is a rhythm to our human behavior. 

With everything I know, grieving was just as colossal and just as painful. 

We limp on, we do. We miss my brother. We miss our party of  7. Even though it was not perfect, it was us. We keep on loving; we keep on connecting and at the same time we are very different and forever changed by this loss. 

My husband and I talk with our 3 boys about grief, loss and suicide. It isn’t taboo in our home to speak about pain. We lean into it. It feels easy and natural now. (Even though it took us a full year to tell our boys how he died.) We talk about how any problem we face in life, we can get through it, together. No problem is so big that it is life ending.

My oldest brother, accepted everyone. He did not judge. He was the funniest person in the room. Belly laughs rolled due to his quick, dry wit.

When we were little, he was the most doting brother on this planet. Driving us to the corner store for bubblegum, just because. He taught us to water ski behind his bass boat. He knew every classic country or rock and roll song. He loved anything Native American and had the coolest collection of arrowheads he had found himself. He had the coolest collection of old cars. He loved the outdoors and he loved to fish.  He loved the mountains.  He loved his kids. This warm expression filled his face and eyes when he was in the room with his children. He almost poked his chest out a bit and held his breath as he looked at them with so much pride. I can see his clear, bright, hazel (and sometimes bright blue) colored eyes so clearly as I write this.

I think, we should take an updated photo together. One where his eyes are fully open and then I realize that we cannot take another photo together. Grief is like that. You forget the loss. Reality tricks you. You forget for a moment he is gone. Until you remind yourself.  Tears again. 

David, big brother, your kids are still amazing humans and we miss you every single day.