I've been putting off writing this for 2 weeks now. Maybe if I don't put pen to paper I won't have to relive it again. I've spoken about him publicly for years but I've never written about him and how it ended. I think that scares me.
My brother died 2 weeks ago. 12 years ago. He threw himself off a cliff and killed himself. (Goddammit now I'm weeping on the plane as I write this. That didn't take much! Probably could've written this post later in private... Ah well.. We're here now). I choose those words with consideration because they are true and accurate. I've never wanted to say he 'suicided', or 'committed suicide' as though he'd done something wrong, or 'passed away' because those terms either avoid the issue of suicide or carefully sugarcoat its impact. Honest words are the enemy of stigma and that's what has lead me here. To this window seat in an empty row near the back. Flying on the way to Hobart.
World Suicide Prevention Day and RUOK Day have been in everyone's minds and I can't really avoid it anymore so bare with me...
His name was Christopher and he was 17. Only a couple of years older than me at the time. I remember the day that I turned older than him. I felt guilty about it because I always looked up to him and I shouldn't have moved on and become the older brother like that. It wasn't my place to outgrow him.
There was a lot to look up to.
He was athletic, popular, and confident. He was funny and cheeky, always a bit of a trouble maker but mostly got away with it. The kind of personality and presence that draws people in and makes them feel special.
I was never athletic. In my 8 years of playing rugby I only once scored a try... for the wrong team. Apparently you're meant to swap sides at half time and I'd just forgotten to. Not quite First XV material. I was also once made captain of my cricket team as punishment for not caring about sport. But I was ok with that. I was much more into being a drama nerd and when I successfully campaigned my high school to allow 'circus skills' as a school sport for Year 9s and 10s I couldn't be happier.
Like Christopher I was however popular, confident, funny, and cheeky. Sometimes. When I wasn't depressed. When I was depressed I was none of those things but I'd do my best to fake it which was exhausting. We both thought a lot about suicide.
I spoke about it. He didn't.
Maybe he had more pride and social standing to lose than I did. Maybe rugby players aren't meant to talk about 'girl things' such as human emotions and vulnerability. Maybe he just didn't know how to say it or who to say it to. Or maybe he didn't really want to he saved.
Everyone's focus was turned toward me and perhaps rightly so. I was in and out of psych wards at the time, on all kinds of meds that weren't working, and openly discussed the end of my short life. Poor mum and dad. Upon reflection I can see that I put them through a lot! They've always been incredibly supportive. And what a bizarre time to reflect. These horrible feelings are so foreign to me, so far in my distant past that I feel as though I'm telling someone else's story now. Life is wonderful now and I almost missed it. (This story does get a lot happier so stay with me here...) The preemptive guilt of what throwing it all away would do to my family is all that kept me going for a while. I'd imagined my funeral being a celebration of my life and a fond farewell from loved ones but when I attended my brother's funeral I saw myself in his place as I always did but this time it was cold and lonely. Just numb. There was nothing to celebrate. Just hatred toward ourselves for missing it and letting him go.
I've never blamed myself for what he did.
It's a horrible and toxic trap that's too easy for family and friends to fall into after suicide. "What if?" — We deserve to treat ourselves better than that but it takes practice.
My mum recently had her very first book published titled 'Missing Christopher'. It's her memoir of our family life before and after my brother's death, and of my life and her struggle to keep me going. I'm trying to be as completely unbiased as I can here but I really believe this is a rare and incredibly important book for anyone who has experienced mental illness or cared for someone who has (read the first chapter here if you don't believe me. It's insanely captivating from the very beginning).
I bring it up for purpose of saying what I've learnt by reading it. Some of Christopher's journal entries are peppered throughout the book and so I was given an insight into his mind for the first time since high school. What was scary is that his written journal and my mentally recorded journal could've been written by the same person. There were near identical thoughts on depression, anxiety, self esteem, goals, failures, and suicide. Two brothers in the bedrooms next to each other pouring our hearts separately into private thought. He wouldn't let me see the cracks forming and so I thought he was flawless. Really though, behind the confident athletic exterior he was just as scared and as fragile as I was.
I didn't let him go. No one did. If he'd ever given me the chance to have a one on one conversation with him about what we were both going through then maybe I would have been able to help. Maybe I would've felt guilty if I had've ignored him in that scenario but of course I don't feel that way. He never gave me the chance.
We need to talk about this shit. You, me, our friends, workmates, family. Everyone. It's up to all of us to do our bit to help break down these barriers of stigma. Talking about it can save lives and we can make those conversations happen ourselves. Yes, the message of RUOK is fantastic and a brilliant initiative. I sort of like to add my own extra take on that which is to say that we need to create a social environment where people will speak up when they're not ok. (Ok, so that hasn't got quite the same ring to it yet but you know what I mean). It's about displaying an openness to listen to people who are suffering without them fearing judgement or social exclusion. That's something we can all do bit by bit. It's achievable and I think that's empowering. Give a little of yourself by letting your guard down a bit because that alone can bring the barrier down for someone suffering who secretly wants to express it. And not to forget the excellent talking therapy services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline.
So that's why I'm heading to Hobart. My life was thrown off course by having a mood disorder and dropping out of school but since then I've found what I really need and want to do. Work in the field of mental health and wellbeing. And talk. Talk about suicide. To young people, to old people, to anyone who will listen and to the many who won't.
More on mum's story here. She's a much better writer than I am! www.missingchristopher.com