“I have what I have and I am happy. I’ve lost what I’ve lost and I am still happy.” — Rupi Kaur
“Do you have any siblings?”
It’s a seemingly harmless question, one that often comes up when you are getting to know someone.
“Yes, an older brother. He passed away.”
Some leave it at that with an obligatory, “I’m sorry,” and they move on to the next question in an effort to avoid the awkward can of worms they accidentally just opened. Only a few, the bold and brazen, will continue to tip toe down the line.
“That’s terrible, I’m so sorry. How old was he?”
You can see the gears in their head working. So young — something must have gone awry. I already know what’s coming next.
“How did he pass away?”
“He committed suicide.”
Boom. Talk about a conversation killer. It’s almost as if people are expecting something like cancer or car crash, and they had their sympathetic response lined up. But because it’s suicide, it’s just so hard for most to wrap their head around and they no longer know what to say. Though this often makes others uncomfortable, for me, this is just a fact of life. My name is Michaela, I am a dog person, the beach is my happy place and at thirteen, I found my older brother, Marshall, dead in our garage when I was coming home from school. How’s that for an ‘about me’ bio?
For awhile, I hid this fact from many. At thirteen, I didn’t want to be Michaela, the girl with the brother who committed suicide; I just wanted to be Michaela. I hated the awkwardness that clung to the truth. In an effort to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable, I often found myself feeling guilty for hiding it. It was as if I was ashamed of how my brother died and it stripped his name of all its rightful glory. No longer was he Marshall, the kid with the dope fro, the brightest smile in the room and hugs that could take away any bad feeling in the world. He was now Marshall, the kid who committed suicide. Even though 1 in 5 adults in the United States suffer from a mental illness in a given year, to me, mental illness remains one of the most isolating diseases anyone can suffer from. It’s as if we are afraid that if we interact with someone who has one, we will catch it. Or if we already have one, admitting we do makes us weaker than everyone else. I’m not one to talk — for years I hid the fact that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of Marshall’s passing.
The day after Marshall’s death, my parents put me in therapy. Like the amazing parents they are, they did everything in their power to prevent me from ending up like Marshall. Unfortunately, I don’t think they could have done anything to stop me from what was to come. My mother says that on September 12, 2006, she lost not one, but two children. She is right — with the end of Marshall’s life, so too came the end of my childhood. PTSD is an ugly disease. Each day became an endless struggle to fight the demons that seemed to have taken over my life, matched by the depression and grief that came with losing my only brother. During the day, I fought back tears, flashbacks of finding Marshall and such negative thoughts that scared me to even admit I was thinking. At night, Marshall revisited me, but in the form of nightmares where I continually found him dead in various places. One time, we were at our house and he was alive and ‘dream me’ was confused. I continued to ask him, “Are you alive? I thought you were dead. What’s going on?!” He just looked at me and smiled. I felt the same sense of peace that Marshall’s hugs gave me when he was alive. Perhaps he wasn’t dead, and this was all just a bad dream. All good things come to an end, however, and when I awoke, I had to reprocess the fact that my brother was dead and this was my true reality. It was a trauma in and of itself. On the outside, however, you would have never known the battle I was enduring. I was so desperate to return to my normal life that I pushed forward in any way possible. I went to swim practice the day of Marshall’s funeral. I put all of my effort into swimming as I began to rise to the top in my state and attend major meets like Junior Nationals. I continued to go to school and was an A student. By faking normalcy and happiness, I eventually managed to trick myself into believing everything was okay again. I “graduated” from therapy, and I felt like everything was back to normal again. Not processing the trauma, however, caught up to me my junior year of high school when I encountered my first break up. As a typical teen, a break up always seems like the end of the world but you get through it and you’re on to singing dramatic pop songs about how boys drool and girls rule. For me, however, I genuinely thought my world was ending. The feelings I had tried to outrun three years ago bubbled up to the surface stronger than ever and for the first time in my life, I was suicidal. Was I destined for the same life as Marshall? The flashbacks and nightmares returned and with them came the thought that perhaps, this was what my life was going to be like forever. The feelings of despair and loneliness engulfed me whole. Though I had the most supportive parents in the world who could see I was suffering, I continued to isolate myself. I didn’t want to admit to them that I felt the same way Marshall did only a few years ago. I felt so guilty, like I had let them down. Here were two of the most loving people, yet I was drowning under their watch. Though I had a number of friends, turning to them for support was the last thing on my mind. I barely knew how to handle this, there was no way another teenager could even begin to understand. So, I continued to unravel to my breaking point in the fall of 2010, and I ended up being hospitalized for my PTSD. While I was there, I was placed on medication that stabilized my mood and allowed me to hold on for dear life — literally. Looking back on this I realize I did not do this for myself, but rather for my parents. I didn’t think I deserved to live, but I certainly didn’t think they deserved the death of another child.
Eventually, I made it to Williams in the fall of 2011. I thought this was the answer to it all. Here I could start again, where no one would know my past and I could be ‘normal’ Michaela again. For the first semester of my college career, this rang true. I made new friends, attended parties, swam on the college team and my relationship with my parents improved. Gone were the days of PTSD. That is until the NESCAC championship came rolling around and with it came another relapse. I felt myself breaking and the demons of the past coming back to pull me into their vicious grasps. Not only was I struggling with my mental illness but I was struggling with myself. I hated myself for letting it take ahold of me once more. How come no one else had this problem and why couldn’t I just get over it? It seemed like this was what my life was destined to be — a series of relapses and setbacks each time a major negative life event occurred…unless I decided to do something about it. So, in the midst of a major championship meet and another torturous breakdown, I decided to start facing what I had been running from. I quit swimming, which appalled a few of my teammates. They did not know about my past or Marshall because I so desperately tried to hide it all from everyone. In their eyes, my decision to leave the sport after being recruited seemed selfish. It hurt, I lost friends and I often questioned if I was making the right choice, but I realized that I needed to be selfish in order to finally get better. I stuck with my decision and continued to rebuild myself by joining the mental health committee on campus. The more I became vocal about mental health, the more people approached me with their struggles of mental illness. One night, I sat by the side of a crying friend who was severely struggling with her anxiety. I mentioned the idea of therapy to help her and she simply replied, “God no, that’s for crazy people.” I was dumbfounded. Here was someone who knew of my history, my passion for mental health and desire to make this my career, yet this was her reaction? I should have known better than to be surprised, however, because this was life in the purple bubble. You did not speak of your struggles, though I’m sure everyone on campus was dealing with their own in one form or another. It was as if admitting your troubles would make them real, so we hid them behind closed doors and drank our way through the darties as if we were living some semi-charmed life.
In the fall of my junior year at Williams I was selected to speak at You Are Not Alone, an event in which we shed light on the various issues people on campus face in an effort to prove that struggle is inevitable. With this I took another step forward in my journey of mental health. It was the first time I had spoke of Marshall in such a large crowd and after, many approached me saying they had no idea of what I had been through and thanked me for sharing. While it felt good to disclose this part of my history, I also knew it was partially a lie. I didn’t speak a word of my struggle with PTSD or the darkest times of my life. I still had to walk around campus, I wasn’t ready for that many people to know my most intimate secret.
After graduating from Williams, I moved home to CT to fulfill prerequisite courses and apply to grad school for the upcoming fall. During this time period, I went through another tough breakup — this one much more complicated and painful than the last. To my surprise, however, those unrelenting feelings of despair and darkness did not come to swallow me whole. I managed to keep my head on straight as I worked a full time job, attended classes and applied to schools. Granted, it was still hard. One night, my mom opened my bedroom door to find me bawling at my desk while studying for an upcoming anatomy and physiology exam. I looked up from my books, tears streaming down my face and she said, “I’ll come back later,” and she quietly closed my door. Looking back on this, we can laugh at this moment and acknowledge what a hot mess I was but also realize how much of a defining moment this was for me. I had encountered another hardship but somehow I managed to dust myself off and bounce back a little more gracefully. This time, I got back up and landed a spot at Boston College in their Direct Entry Master’s Program to become a psychiatric nurse practitioner.
This last year has been nothing short of interesting. It’s the first year of my mental health career, I am discovering a new city on my own and it also marks a decade since Marshall has passed. With this has come a lot of self reflection and that’s what prompted me to write this post. When I look back on the past 10 years, I realize how much I’ve changed — not just as a human but in my own grieving process. Grief is a life long companion and it does not come with a guide book. For Marshall’s tenth anniversary, I prepared for it the way I did the past nine years. I went to class, I kept my mind busy, checked in on my parents and I appreciated every text full of love that I received. Around 8 pm when my day ended, I found myself laying in my bed staring at the ceiling and finally allowed myself to think of Marshall. Right as I began to, I received a phone call from a very close family friend checking in on me. When I opened my mouth to rattle off my, “Doing as well as I can be,” pre-rehearsed speech, out came a guttural cry, accompanied by gasping for air. It was the most hideous sound I had ever made, and I can only imagine what my new roommate was thinking as she heard this horrendous noise come from the other side of my closed door. As hard as I tried to stop it, it only grew louder and eventually the tears came and I thought they would never stop. She stayed on the line and cried with me for what seemed like an eternity, only stopping to say, “Let it out, I know it hurts.” And that’s what it comes down to. This shit hurts. The sadness comes from so deep within that your entire body evokes physical pain and sometimes, you just want to succumb to it all. But I know this is not what Marshall would have wanted. In his final letter to me, he said he hoped I would make the most of my life. I remember as a thirteen-year-old reading this and getting so mad at him. How could he wish that for me, yet leave me? Didn’t he know that making the most of my life required having him here with me as my brother? Much to my thirteen-year-old self’s dismay, however, this is no longer an option.
A few weeks ago, my father and I went to see Sheryl Sandberg speak on her book, Option B. In it, she talks of how we are not born with a set amount of resilience. Rather, resilience is like a muscle, and the more we practice it, the stronger it becomes. As I listened to her speak, I realized that each trial and tribulation I have endured has helped me build my resilience as I live out my Option B. So to all of those people I have lost over the years as a result of my mental illness or life in general, be it acquaintances, friends or ex-boyfriends, thank you. While we may no longer speak or we only exchange cordial happy birthdays, you have played a part in my story and helped me build up my resilience. I can only wish the best for you. For those of you who continue to shower me with love and support, I cannot thank you enough. I am the happiest I have ever been in my life, and a large part of that is due to knowing that people like you stand in my corner. And to anyone that reads this, whether we talk daily, haven’t talked in years or have never spoken at all, know that you are not alone in whatever you may face. You are in my thoughts and you are why I continue to advocate for mental health. Choosing to write and share this piece marks yet another step in my journey, albeit a rather difficult one. Even after posting this, I know there will be a voice in the back of my head telling me to delete it, saying that it is too raw and too personal to share. But there is another voice within me, one that is much louder, that reminds me that coming clean and no longer hiding behind my past will inevitably set me free. If I can open up the conversation a little bit more, one can only hope that it can save another person in their mental health struggles. And like all things that I do, this is most definitely for Marshall.