I’m the youngest of two children in my family, and that has been both fortunate and unfortunate at times. Our parents were much harder on my sister since she was their first crack at it together, but I’ve found it difficult to earn respect being the youngest. Anyway, I guess I was what you’d call an ‘intentional accident.’ I took so damn long to conceive that after almost a decade of trying, my parents gave up. Then I happened. So there’s quite an age difference between my sister and I, and she’s often been like a mother figure to me.
Sadly, my father’s first wife passed away, so I do have a few older half-brothers and half-sisters. I didn’t know them much growing up, and there’s still one I haven’t met. A couple in particular came in and out of our lives occasionally making contact with my father, so I’d see them visit a couple of times every few years but that was about it. One of my half-brothers who made an appearance once in a while seemed likable to me and I enjoyed the times he came around.
I remember once when I was no older than 10, he and his wife came to our house to visit before they had their son. They had a convertible and he asked me if I’d like to go for a ride in it. Having never been in one, I giddily accepted his offer and they buckled me up in the backseat on the passenger side. My half-brother sat in the passenger seat in front of me and his wife drove the convertible with the top down.
I don’t remember where we went or how long we were gone. I only remember feeling pure joy sitting in the backseat with the breeze blowing through my hair and the sun on my face as he turned around to me and asked, “Are you having fun?” All I could do was furiously nod my head up and down and grin as he smiled back and mimicked my response to his wife. I tend to ‘block out’ a lot of memories from my past, but for some reason that memory remains emblazoned in my mind; his face in the sunshine peering between the seats to check on me. Perhaps that’s also where my love for convertibles began.
I realize I’m smiling now as I recall the memory.
I remember bits and pieces about the few times I saw him growing up, and I was convinced he was someone I’d get along with. He was always smiling and kind to me, and I decided that when I turned 18 and could make my own choices I was going to contact him and form a relationship with him. At 11 years older than me, I liked the idea of having a big brother.
My parents traveled for business occasionally when I was in my teens, so I’d be under the supervision of my sister who lived with her husband in the apartment my parents built off of their house. One evening when I was 16, my parents were away and I received a call on the house line asking for them. An intelligent teenager, I didn’t say my parents were away and instead asked the identity of the caller. It was a family member of my half-brother, and I knew such an unprecedented call would be important so I told her I’d get my sister for her. Then, concerned, I asked her if he’s OK and she said simply, “No…”
I ran next door, gave my sister the cordless phone explaining who it was, and walked away letting the adults speak. My mind raced wondering what could have happened to him – a car accident? What? Way too young at 27 years old to have a heart attack. Whatever it was, I hoped that my sister would take me to the hospital to see him when he got better.
After what felt like forever, my sister came over and found me in my room sitting on my bed. She came and sat with me and I asked what happened. She said quietly, “He killed himself…”
I couldn’t believe it. That outcome had never even crossed my mind. I never thought he’d be dead, and certainly not by his own hand. It made no sense. I guess that’s why he wasn’t ‘OK.’
Turns out he and his wife had separated and he took their son on certain predetermined days. In evident depression, my half-brother drank a lot to ease his pain. I didn’t know him well enough – but since we share blood I’m willing to wager he suffered from depression anyway like the rest of us, so the separation and not living with his son likely had him over the edge. I heard that he returned his son to his wife with alcohol on his breath once, and she said she would stop allowing him to see his son if it happened again.
It was his son’s 9th birthday and he had taken him for a portion of the day. Upon returning him, she said she smelled alcohol on his breath and forbid him from ever seeing his son again. His (likely alcohol-fueled) response was, “If you stop me from seeing him, I’ll kill myself.” Furious, she didn’t believe him and told him to go for it.
That same night he got a gun. Then rented a motel room. Then scattered his brain across the motel wall on his son’s 9th birthday.
My parents were about 7 hours away; my dad rented a car and made it home in 6. He spent the entire drive grieving the loss of his son searching for answers. I went to the funeral with him, and I remember feeling rather out-of-place as I didn’t really know him that well. Suddenly his wife came up to me, hugged me, and whispered, “He talked about you a lot, you know.” I was so relieved to hear that the brother I never got to have maybe dreamed about having me in his life too. It also made me angry that he took that chance away from us.
I’m not sure why, and perhaps it cannot be explained to someone who has never experienced someone’s suicide, but I took his death extremely hard. It’s an eerie feeling losing someone who had a choice in the matter. It causes you to think of a multitude of unanswerable questions and forces you to wonder what exactly they were thinking and feeling milliseconds before pulling the trigger. I was upset that I was so close to being able to get to know him and it was ripped away from me.
It made me fear for my own fate knowing I have his blood in my veins. I’ve seen the depths of depression, I’ve held a blade to my own wrist, I’ve envisioned my own funeral – what if he did these things too, had these thoughts at my age, and he just couldn’t take it anymore? I like to think that I have my depression ‘in control’ and that I will never let it defeat me, but it terrified me to think that someday it might. It defeated him, and he chose to submit to the ultimate surrender and threw the towel in. My heart ached for the utter worthlessness he must have felt. Hell, perhaps we could have even understood each other because age 16 was one of the worst for me.
I was actually repainting my bedroom before all of this. Being the artistic nerd that I am, I also had the ceiling tiles of my suspended ceiling removed for painting. Behind ceiling tiles is a dark, dingy void of rafters, cobwebs, and mousetraps. Already scary during the day, it transforms into a vortex of terror when the lights go out and shadows bounce around the holes in the ceiling.
I was already experiencing a myriad of emotions, but they intensified at night. Though I knew nothing was there, my brain imagined that my half-brother was in my room or even more unsettling – crawling out through the missing ceiling tiles. As if this wasn’t terrifying enough, it got even worse – when I saw him, his head was blown off. Just a headless figure of him standing there. Sort of. Not actually there, but my brain fabricated that he was. I was 16 – no alcohol, no drugs, just incredibly severe mental trauma. Soon it wasn’t just at night, but also happening during the day. It was in my vision frequently as if a picture of him was taped in place when I looked around.
I know he wasn’t really there; it was only a mild hallucination. But it disturbed the hell out of me so much that I remember some nights sitting in a ball, my knees clutched to my chest with my arms wrapped around them in the dark just crying from fright. I soon realized I was suffering from symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Thankfully, the symptoms passed after only a few weeks, but it was all especially distressing. I thought it may have been Acute Stress Disorder because it was relatively short-lived, but I experienced the exact same symptoms a couple of years later when our family cat met a unique and untimely death under my watch. My history of depression put me at risk to develop PTSD more easily, but like everything else that’s wrong with me – as long as I can identify it, I can keep it in control.
This was 15 years ago and I still think about him frequently. More often than not I’m
reminded of him due to other peoples’ lack of awareness. Have you ever put an imaginary ‘finger gun’ to your head to signify frustration or irritation?
You’re reminding me of my dead half-brother.
To those who use this gesture: when you pretend that your situation is ‘so bad’ that you put a fake gun to your head, you’re making me think of the motel housekeeper who found his brain smeared across the wall – the one who likely shrieked in horror when she unlocked the door and walked in when he never checked out in the morning. If you’ve done it, don’t feel bad – I know you meant no harm. But when you mimic this incredibly sensitive and serious act, you’re making me think of what he might have looked like in that motel room, all alone with the gun pressed against his skull. I’ve imagined that motel room a million times by now in my mind. When I see you do this, my heart drops, my stomach turns, chills run down my spine, and these images rush to my mind.
You wouldn’t grab a woman on the street and mock raping her to signify that you’re horny, so why would you joke about killing yourself? There are millions of people who have lost a husband, cousin, son, friend, or brother like I did to senseless suicide in that very manner, and we could all probably do without the reminder. Self-awareness aside, no part of suicide is funny.
I was inspired to write this because a few weeks ago I was reminded of him in this manner yet again, but I was disappointed to see who the conversation transpired between. I was third in line to check-out at a register with a father and daughter just ahead of me as I waited. I’m not sure what they were talking about, my attention was only caught when the father raised his ‘finger gun’ to his head and said, “Shoot me, ’cause it’s quick!,” as his daughter giggled.
Normally I see this gesture from adults, but I was really discouraged to see a father teaching this type of behavior to his daughter. I’m sure he meant no harm, and he’s probably never thought twice about what he’s doing, but it’s a complete lack of self-awareness on his part. It was a simple enough gesture to them – but little did he know, he was triggering my PTSD and forcing me to look away and think of the images of the ‘scene’ I’d created in my own mind of my half-brother’s suicide.
Self-awareness is the only thing that is going to save this world from ourselves. If politicians, oil drillers, corporations, everyday citizens, etc., were more aware of the impact their words and actions have on the people and world around them (and cared), we’d be in a lot better shape as a planet. And with over 40,000 suicides per year in the Unites States alone, you’re bound to run into someone in your vicinity affected by a suicide. If we all were a little nicer, drove a little better, helped a little more, and stopped being so damned selfish, we might actually be able to save ourselves.
On another note, I think that alcohol had a huge part to play in his death. Having experienced alcohol many times over the years and then converted to weed, I can say factually that alcohol can negatively alter one’s brain. Alcohol exacerbates any feelings one has and often spins them out of control. I’ve found myself screaming at the top of my lungs in utter anger, that when reflected upon later felt completely unjustified. I’ve never, ever, even remotely felt that way with any form of marijuana, and that’s why I made ‘the switch.’
And not for nothing – terrorism and mass shootings aside, perhaps if gun control was a bit tighter, access to a gun might have been a bit more difficult for him. But suicide statistics don’t seem to make the news much.
So my guess is that he threatened to kill himself, saw that his wife didn’t care, then proceeded to get drunk at the motel room rolling the idea of suicide around. Stupid ideas become feasible when alcohol in excess is involved, so I imagine he drank until it sounded good. It breaks my heart to think this could be how he expired, so I always think twice about any ‘thoughts’ I have while drinking.
Aside from being reminded by the carelessness of others, I also have a hard time seeing firearm suicides/murders in movies and on TV. One of my favorite movies is American Beauty, but I always have to look away during this scene.
Incredibly talented people such as Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin died at the young age of 27 also, so I like to think that my half-brother is in a special club with them listening to some fantastic music. I may not have gotten the chance to really get to know him, but in his memory I can share what I know about depression, suicide, and triggering to help educate others.
When someone mentions suicide, listen. When you’re out in public, think about the words you say and the gestures you make – something innocuous to you could be a nightmare to someone else. And most importantly – if you’re thinking about suicide, “This, too, shall pass.” There is nothing that can’t be fixed with time, just hang in there.