I feel obliged to issue a disclaimer here: this post is a very sad and personal one for me. Some readers may find it disturbing. I have thought long and hard about whether to share it, and in the end, I think it’s a story that should be told. It is my story, my family’s story. It is a story of pain and loss. It is a story about suicide. I have chosen to include details in this story because I can’t live in silence any more.
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On October 7, 2012, in the late afternoon, or maybe the early evening with its fading golden light, my brother Scott hung himself in the garage. The garage was his sanctuary and workspace, the place where he had spent so many hours fixing cars, smoking cigarettes, watching television, and hanging out. He was 34 years old. I had known him my whole life, and without warning, he was gone. Without warning, my family’s life changed forever.
Am I lying when I say it was without warning? I might be lying. There were signs. But the truth is that it is possible to be shocked by something without being surprised. That’s what Matt told me, anyway, among other things that I don’t remember. He was the first person I called after I got the terrible news from my sister, and maybe it seems strange that I would call him, of all people. Matt knew the sad, complicated story of my relationship with Scott, and I needed to talk to someone who was not family (even though he kinda is family, in the way that friends and loved ones can become a chosen family of sorts). Matt, my favorite wise man, my melancholy Matt—I don’t remember much of what he said the day after Scott’s death. I do remember sitting on a wooden bench outside of my work building, crying and blubbering into the phone, beginning to unleash a deluge of tears. The next day, I made the long trip from Texas to Michigan to be with my family during what would become the most surreal of my visits to the Mitten.
Scott had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2009, I believe. I remember talking about it with my therapist (and how fortunate that I had a therapist that year!), who kindly photocopied information about bipolar. As soon as I heard the diagnosis, I knew that it was accurate. It explained so much. It explained everything: why Scott had had such a hard time during his childhood and his teenage years—the years when we were living together and my younger brother and I were the victims of Scott’s endless cruelty. I remember wondering, Why is Scott so mean to me? It went way beyond brotherly teasing. It didn’t make sense, the way his need to insult and harass was never satiated. I was 16 when he finally moved out, and my life was immeasurably better without him around. Is it disrespectful to say such a thing about your dead brother? Maybe. But it’s true. All I wanted was to be left alone. It was a tremendous relief when he left.
I was 27 when I learned that Scott had bipolar disorder, and suddenly, there was light and clarity, at least for me. I realized—or I reasoned—that Scott’s cruelty was not about me. It was the disorder, beginning to manifest itself. His brain chemistry was going off the rails, and he was a victim of his own body. His lashing out may have been the only thing he felt he could do. If he couldn’t dominate and control his moods, at least he could dominate his younger, weaker siblings.
After Scott moved out of my parents’ home and I went away to college, he and I forged an uneasy truce. Once I had the freedom to be left alone, it was a little easier to be in the same space with him. And truly, I didn’t wish bad things for him. It was never my intention that he somehow be “punished” for all that he had done wrong. Who among us hasn’t made mistakes, said hurtful things, inflicted pain on others? I knew I was capable of doing terrible things, just as Scott was. And I knew the gratitude that I felt when people forgave me for my wrongdoings, so in my heart, I think I wanted to extend him the same generosity. But we never spoke of the bad things that happened when we were growing up—we rested lightly on our truce. I know that some of the last words I said to him were, “I love you.” And they were true.
I uttered those words during my last visit home, in June. Those long summer days would be the last time that I would see Scott alive. There had been signs that something was different with Scott. He seemed unusually slow in his movements, and his mood was low. He moved through the house like a shadow, silently willing us to ignore him while he poured himself more coffee or made himself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. He skipped family meals, preferring the solitude of the garage or the darkness of his bedroom. He ignored our little nephew Devin, who adored Uncle Scott. I distinctly remember starting to freak out about the possibility of suicide, wondering if he might not wake up from his nap. I felt powerless. How do you keep someone alive who doesn’t want to live?
The risk of suicide is perhaps one of the scariest and saddest parts of bipolar disorder. People with bipolar disorder are 10-20 times more likely to commit suicide, and one out of three of them attempt suicide. One in three. I think Scott had the odds stacked against him for a very long time. He was just dealt a crappy hand in the poker game of life, and what could he do? What could we do?
That question looms large for those of us in his immediate family. We all had a different relationship with Scott and thus a different relationship with his disorder. There’s a lot of regret, a lot of If onlys…there are conversations that I wish I’d been brave enough to have with Scott. But I’m not a particularly brave person, and I stuck to taking care of myself and not pushing the envelope with him or with my family. When he died, it was like the floodgates opened and we all started crying and talking and trying to make sense of this person, our Scott, who had been so hard to love and yet so loving in his own way.
This post is getting very long, and I have more to say, so I’ll end here by saying stay tuned for another installment…and thank you for reading.