Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When life becomes a death sentence


My brother now exists only in memory, form and features erased from the physical world. I can hear his staccato laugh, recall his smile and remember the tone and cadence of his voice, but I cannot touch him, squeeze his shoulders or even give him a friendly jab on the arm. I cannot ask him or ever know the answer to what propelled him off a ladder into another realm—one that I am not part of and have no access to.

Our lives are composed of stories. Some we tell ourselves, and other people add to the narrative. In the wake of my brother's suicide, the only conclusion I have come to is that we have to be careful of the stories we tell ourselves and what they lead us to believe. Autobiographies are not necessarily a work of nonfiction.

If the voice in our head is telling us that we are no good, damaged, less than honorable or unworthy, it might seem like taking one's own life is a plausible solution to what appear to be unsolvable problems. But is that really the truth? If we shine a light on the darkness, we might find what frightens and pains us, but is it not so that we will also illuminate the gifts that are inherent in each of us? Gifts so priceless and unique that it is unfathomable that one would destroy the very essence of who and what they are, including the pain. My brother's willful sacrifice of his preciousness leaves me bereft and mute. Only unanswerable questions remain: Did my brother regret his final act? Did he have a moment of clarity that made him wish he had not stepped off that ladder? Could the love we had for him have helped him back from the brink? Did he know how much his family and friends loved him? In the end, did any of it matter to him?

It seems that if I can find the answer to those questions, that terrible final moment will be reversed and I will have my brother back. But instead I am left wondering—and hoping—that he found the peace he struggled to attain while on this earth. But his departure has touched off something in me: Why am I OK when he was not? How do I go on when he could not? How do I find meaning in a life that he rejected?

Growing up, we had a family friend who was a noted psychologist. When his patients expressed that they wanted to commit suicide, his response was, "How can I help?" Even as a 10-year-old, this shocked me. It seemed tantamount to loading the bullets in a gun, but Earl explained that the question—without fail—elicited two responses. One was people were so outraged and angry at his suggestion that they actually wanted to die that it reconnected them to their life force and stripped away all apathy. The second was that Earl's brutal honesty and unwavering support allowed them to honestly explore and untangle the feelings that led to the ideation of suicide. To my knowledge, he never lost a patient to suicide.

In the face of mental illness, perspective is hard to maintain. Depression and anxiety are the great isolators, and if you already feel cut off from a world that seems to function much better than you are at the moment, it is an easy assumption to make that people might be better off without you and that you are the only one in pain. That is unequivocally false.

What exists in the devastating chasm of a loved one's suicide is nothing but more pain, more questions, more unease and more sorrow. The chaplain who presided over my brother's service noted, "If everyone who had ever been abused [or who had] stolen, lied, committed adultery or was ashamed of something they did committed suicide, we would all be dead."

While whatever problems my brother was facing might not have been easy to solve or accept, they would have been infinitely easier to navigate together than trying to cope without him. The memories that I now have are tinged with a gray doubt. I examine pictures of us smiling. Were our happy times true? I wonder. Were they real? I can only hope.

If the stories in your head are giving you reason to think suicide is a good idea, please share them with someone. Elaboration and collaboration could help you craft a different conclusion to your story. It might not be a fairy-tale ending, but it will not be a tragedy. Together we write the stories of our lives. Together we can all go forward.

Jody Zarkos is the sports editor at KECH/KSKI Radio and a former reporter for the Idaho Mountain Express.

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