My personal experience around mental illness is centered in the death of a loved one by suicide. Though this story is not explicit, if suicide is a trigger for you, please give careful consideration before reading my narrative.
My name is Curtis. I am fortunate to be a reasonably happy person. I am fortunate in that my brain naturally produces the proper chemicals that allow me to feel pretty good most of the time, and I am conscious of my choices to help maintain that balance: I exercise regularly outdoors, allowing my brain to produce endorphins. I put in effort to maintain meaningful relationships, fostering the production of pheromones and oxytocin, and I take on challenges in my work that grant my brain the reward of dopamine. I have not been overly taxed by trauma in my life, and the stress that I do experience provides me with a natural amount of cortisol: the hormone that (in the correct volume) allows humans to overcome adversity.
Not everyone is as fortunate as I have been.
I was raised in a family of eight, the third of six children, five of whom are boys. Our family life was happy, and what I would consider “normal.” My parents were not rich or poor; both served as community leaders in different capacities and their children learned life skills through their examples. Looking back, I feel like we lived charmed life, free of tragedy. We had everything we needed and I have considered it a blessing that I learned hard work as a necessity and not just a principal.
The six of us children all grew to adulthood as functioning contributors to society and I am proud of the little cohort I call my siblings.
I am eight years older than my brother Alex, and ten years older than my youngest brother Keaton. As such, I feel like I had a hand in raising them. As adults, I enjoy chiding them that I did in fact at one time change their diapers!
This story is about my brother Alex. Alex was always quiet and thoughtful and because he didn’t share much, it was hard for people to feel like they knew him. He was smart, and graduated high school early. At 17 he moved across the country to attend college in Utah and at 19 moved to South America to labor as a volunteer Christian missionary. His transition to life in a foreign culture and language was difficult. As well, living a life of sacrifice and service to others is not easy. Still, Alex maintained his quiet demeanor, and back at home his family was unaware of his building anxiety and depression.
After six months of service, Alex reached out and finally gave voice to some of the suffering he was experiencing. After some deliberation, Alex made the choice to return home earlier than planned. Upon his arrival I learned some of what he experienced. He had been dealing with feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, stress, and embarrassment that led him to engage in some self-harm. I was heart-broken to learn of the pain my kid brother had suffered. I must admit that though I pitied him, at that time I did not understand what was so difficult about his time in Argentina. I did not understand that his brain was likely not giving Alex what he needed in order to prosper.
Alex was referred to a therapist and participated in some counselling, though I know that he agreed to do so only at the urging of our parents and he was not bought into the process due to the stigma associated with therapy. Alex was always concerned about the opinion of others and would never want to do something that would cause him to appear weak or vulnerable. This is where our culture failed him.
A month after he returned home Alex bought a car, moved to Texas, was working hard and saving for college. I was encouraged for him. He exercised regularly and planned for the future. He made goals and hit them. He enrolled in school and enjoyed some successes. He was promoted at work where he successfully led a team of his peers, he developed friendships and relationships, and the collective concern of his friends and family naturally receded.
Later, Alex began seriously dating a young woman, a natural step for a young man at his age. The evolution of their relationship has been difficult to unravel in retrospect. The girl Alex was dating had an established history of mental health concerns. Alex had to call emergency services on more than one occasion on her behalf, and visited her during at least one law enforcement imposed emergency detention. There are more details that do not serve our purposes here other than to say that a relationship between two people struggling with mental wellness is complicated at best and dangerous at worst.
Tragically, this young woman completed suicide. As can be imagined, Alex was deeply impacted. He felt shame, guilt, and he felt responsible.
Our family rallied around Alex, watched over him 24/7, sent him to therapists, and offered every counsel and resource available. He quickly returned to work as a distraction, though it was clear he was laboring under serious personal strain. Even in this tragedy, he could not find it within himself to be vulnerable enough to unburden his feelings on anyone, not even mental health professionals. He viewed vulnerability as weakness.
A year after my brother Alex suffered this loss, he acted on a decision to end his own life and completed suicide.
In the wake of his death, I imagine I felt something of what he felt at the loss of his friend: responsibility, blame, guilt. Survivors of suicide are forced to confront self-imposed implicit blame. I have scoured the catalog of my memories for mistakes I made in my relationship with my brother, as I am sure others close to him have done in the grieving process. Did I give him poor relationship advice? Was I a bad example? Was I too critical of him? Did he know I was proud of him? All this is a false narrative, and one of the most sinister characteristics of suicide: It breeds more suicides.
My emotional response to my brothers death has been, I feel, better than could be expected. I don’t think about the loss on even a weekly basis. I don’t remember the date of his death (though we celebrate his birthday without fail as a family). His loss has had little negative on me, and I have labored to ensure that the manner of his loss means nothing to me when compared to the memories of his life. Everyone misses their lost loved ones and I am no exception to that rule, but I have made the choice to not blame myself for circumstances out of my control.
What I have learned, and what survivors of trauma and loss need to know:
Prior to the loss of my brother I was very set in my opinions about personal discipline and success. I believed that if you struggled in life, it was your failure and your weakness which kept you from the rewards that discipline provided. I still believe that in cases where individuals repeatedly make poor decisions without consideration for others or remorse. However, my understanding has been opened to know that brain and mental health is a major factor when considering how the deck is stacked. Those of us who are naturally happy and capable serving as a strength to others, we are lucky, and we have the responsibility to be understanding and encouraging. Those of us who find happiness difficult, despite deploying good mental health practices and life choices, please allow yourselves to be vulnerable enough to seek help.