My brother committed suicide on Jan 8, 2011, a couple of weeks before he would have turned 52. He barricaded himself in his garage and sat in his running vehicle with a full tank of gas until his lungs filled with carbon monoxide and ended his life. His body was so saturated with carbon monoxide, the funeral home had to work harder to ensure his body would not deteriorate so much that an open casket would not be possible. It didn't occur to me at the time that there didn't have to be an open casket, and that people could have said their good-byes and got closure in some other way. The shock of his suicide hit me so hard I wasn't capable of rational thought for many months afterwards.
I realized much later that he had planned everything down to the most minute detail, and his planning had taken months. He had been coming to my house almost every weekend for several years to watch football and have a home cooked meal, so I spent a lot of time with him in the months leading up to his suicide and I had no inkling that he was planning to end his life. For many months after his death I recalled conversations that we had that at the time of the conversation seemed innocent enough, but in retrospect gave some insight into his emotional struggle with his decision.
My brother went through life a little differently than most of us. He was termed 'slow' in those days and people would often say that he walked to the beat of his own drum! He was diagnosed as dyslexic when he was very young, which caused him to struggle in school and later at his job. He tried really hard to 'fit in' with the crowd but the thing was - he just couldn't relate to the crowd most of the time. He loved music - especially Elvis, the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and both CFL and NFL football, and Dean Martin.
When I was 12 years old, he jumped off an overpass onto a freeway by the high school he had attended. He carried a suicide note leaving his beloved Elvis record collection to me. That was all he had in this world and it meant a lot to him. I remember the police officer coming to the house to notify us . I was in bed when the policeman came to the house but not asleep yet. I overheard him ask who Penny was, which made my heart race with fear. I couldn't figure out why the police were looking for me. My parents became really upset, my mom started crying and my dad was arguing with the policeman. The next day I didn't go to school. Instead, we all went up to the hospital to see my brother. He had a broken pelvis, a collapsed lung, and a large hematoma on his brain. His one eye was so swollen, it looked off to the side, and would stay that way for the duration of his life. His head injury had caused amnesia, but he was somehow able to recognize me and a close family friend.
The day he jumped, he had called to ask me to come over to his apartment and listen to some music. I would often go over to his place to do that very thing. He had left home right after he finished high school and had a little studio apartment in an older part of town. We were going to the beach that day so I told him we would have to get together a different day. That phone call and my decision to go with my family to the beach haunted me for several years. I carried a lot of guilt wondering if it would have changed anything had I spent the afternoon with him.
My dad didn't believe in psychiatry, psychology or any kind of therapy, so he was dead set against allowing the psychiatrist access to my brother and was very vocal about the whole thing. My dad, I realized many years later, was in full blown denial about the entire event. He refused to accept that my brother would even attempt suicide, and instead concocted a story that he had been mugged and thrown off the overpass. I know now that it was his way of denying his own guilt. I'm not sure how he reconciled the suicide note though......
When my brother recovered from his physical wounds many weeks later, he was released from hospital and came back home to live with us. I noticed he was very different after 'the accident'. That's how we all referred to it - the accident - going with the whole mugging theory I suppose. He was easily frightened, cognitively slower than he had been before, and now socially awkward. Me, my mom and dad tried to be more supportive and even protective of my brother for a time, but eventually our family culture returned to our usual dysfunction and my brother once again found his own place to live.
My brother didn't have any recollection of his suicide attempt for many years. His mind had, in an effort to protect him from the horror he experienced, buried the experience deep into his subconscious until it thought his conscious mind was ready to work through it. He told his friends of nightmares he was having about jumping off the overpass, and he suggested that the death of Elvis had been a contributing factor to his decision. I wonder now if there were biochemical imbalances influencing his emotional struggles.
As an adult, my brother voluntarily sought psychiatric help through a mental health program his employer offered. He sometimes struggled in both personal and work relationships. As with a lot of people who are intellectually challenged, he could become very belligerent with his supervisors and anyone he felt was treating him as if he was 'stupid'. He didn't know how to stand up for himself without being outright hostile. He had been teased and bullied all of his life so was on the defensive more often than not.
When our mom died, he was deeply affected and had a hard time processing his grief. A few years later, our dad had a heart attack that resulted in his requiring bypass surgery. Some of the complications from the surgery were difficult to understand for my brother and the thought that our dad might die was very frightening to him. My brother spent every weekend with my dad after that heart attack. Several years later, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer that eventually spread throughout his body. He passed away 2 years later. The death of our dad sent my brother sent my brother into a psychiatrist's office once again. This time, he prescribed an antidepressant to help him through his grief.
My relationship with my brother was like a lot of sibling relationships with ups and downs - mostly downs. During our dad's battle with cancer, my brother's fears and inability to understand the situation were expressed in hostility towards me. My dad had surgery induced dementia and had to be tied to his hospital bed so he wouldn't pull out his IV, urostomy bag or hurt himself some other way. My brother did not understand how this dementia would come and go, and was frightened by dad's strange behavior. Watching me help the nurses tie my dad to the bed did not go over well either. My brother flew into a rage - screaming, yelling and throwing things at me in the hospital room. The nurses, for some unknown reason, refused to help me explain what was going on with our dad, so my brother felt justified in his hostility and in blaming me. He would avoid visiting when I was up at the hospital and he refused to speak to me altogether. As our dad's cancer progressed and spread through his body, I had to move him into my house to look after him. My brother had no choice but to come to my house to see him. The day before our dad passed, I had arranged for him to be moved into the hospital. He didn't want to go to the hospital and was really angry at me that I was sending him there. My brother, overhearing this, had yet another reason to be angry with me.
My brother didn't speak to me for well over a year after our dad passed away. Then, one day, he showed up at my house for a short visit. The short visit turned into more short visits and eventually a weekend routine where my brother would come to watch football and have a home cooked dinner. In the winter months when there was no football to watch, he would trade shovelling the driveway for dinner. I knew he didn't cook for himself and his eating habits were far from nutritious, so I made sure that he ate well on the days he came over. At the time, I had no idea how his lack of proper nutrition was contributing to his anxiety and depression.
Friday Jan 7, 2011 I drove back to Regina after spending the Christmas holidays in Calgary. Saturday Jan 8, my brother came over for a visit and I told him that I had made the decision to move to Calgary in the spring. He was acting a little odd that day, but not so unusual that I suspected anything close to what he had planned. We spent the afternoon at my place listening to music and discussing my upcoming move. When he left that day, he told me that he would see me on Thursday after work. Tuesday morning my phone rang at 9am. My brother had not showed up to work for 2 days and had not checked in with his boss. My heart started pounding inside my chest. I immediately knew what had happened. I called the police and eventually convinced them of what I knew. His body was discovered in his locked garage, inside his vehicle. As far as we know, I was the last person he saw before he took his life. The guilt I felt at 12 years old came back to my adult mind and joined in the guilt I was now experiencing.
THE SPIRITUAL CONNECTION
My brother had never discussed his previous suicide attempt with me, nor did he ever describe any of the dreams he had when his memories finally resurfaced. I know, from my own observation, that he was different after that first attempt. His fears seemed bigger than they had been before and his emotional outbursts more frequent as the years went on.
The summer before his death, he asked me about last rights. We weren't Catholic, so I asked him how he knew about last rights. He explained that in all the cowboy movies, a priest would give last rights to the dying. I explained the best that I could - not being Catholic - that last rights were a ritual performed by a priest so the dying person could be forgiven and accepted into heaven. At the time, it seemed like any other conversation we might have on any given day. My brother would come up with random ideas all the time that had spawned from a variety of sources - usually movies or television. You never really knew what exactly instigated a particular train of thought for him, so this conversation didn't seem unusual when he mentioned the cowboy movies. In retrospect, I suspect he was struggling with some kind of guilt for something that he felt he needed to be forgiven for. I don't know what my brother's relationship with God was, or even what his personal perception of God was. He had, at different times in his life, attended a few different churches looking for where he belonged.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, wonders where they belong and maybe even IF they belong. We were adopted as children, and my brother sought out his birth family to see if he felt any kind of connection, but didn't find what he was looking for. Our dad was strict, very opinionated and difficult to please. Our relationship with our dad was the biggest contributor to both my brother's and my own lack of self worth. Our dad's dad was abusive and even though our dad tried to be better than his dad was, he became the very thing he was hurt by. He didn't know any other way. I think this is how the sins of the father are passed to the children.
MY OWN THOUGHTS TURN DARK
I thought that I had forgiven my dad years before my brother took his life, but I hadn't really. My brother's suicide, the behavior of a genetic sibling and having to go through multiple surgeries again brought to the surface all that stored anger, bitterness and resentment that I thought I had dealt with years before. My own health had declined further than ever before in my life and I became sicker than I had ever been in my entire life. I finally understood what it felt like to want to give up. My physical body, emotional state and an absent daily Spiritual practice combined to get me to the point I actually contemplated taking my own life. I asked God to help me find a reason to live because I couldn't think of any. I needed a miracle. I was forced to revisit all the memories of my childhood, and finally forgive not only my dad, but all the people that I felt had hurt me in some way over the course of my life. I had been molested, raped, bullied and battered. There were a lot of people that I needed to forgive.
Eventually, I was able to forgive the people I felt had harmed me and feel genuine love for them. God had granted me that miracle I asked for.
DEPRESSION AND NUTRITION
My brother wasn't big on learning how to cook, so he ate out every day. He loved hamburgers and hot dogs, subs, pizza and lasagna. His favorite soft drink was coke, and his favorite thing to snack on while watching football was two bags of chips with two kinds of dip. His overall diet was far from nutritious. Occasionally, he would order a salad with his pizza or pasta dish, or make sure to include lettuce and tomato on his sub, but he rarely ate any kind of fruit or consumed a wide variety of vegetables. On the weekends that he had dinner at my house, I made sure he had a fresh salad or a cooked vegetable to go along with whatever meat I cooked, but I doubt now that he actually absorbed any actual nutrients by this time of his life.
At the time, I had no real understanding of what proper nutrition was. I, like most people, followed the advice of the Canada Food Guide and knew to include fresh fruits and vegetables in my daily diet. I limited cakes, pies and other treats to special occasions and didn't eat a lot of bread, but as far as actual nutrition knowledge - I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did.
I was certified in holistic counseling many years before becoming certified in natural nutrition. Holistic training of any kind includes information about the physical body, how emotions can affect the physical body and the importance of a Spiritual connection, but focused training is exactly that - focused. When I was studying counseling, the focus was from a psychological perspective, and when I studied nutrition, the focus was biochemical perspective. Health care as a whole has become very specialized and the training for each discipline is detailed towards that speciality, therefore any type of health care practitioner - holistic or otherwise - cannot possibly be expected to keep up with all the advancing education in every area of the body all of the time. Each person must learn to assume some level of responsibility for their own health, and trust that Divine Guidance will lead them to whoever they need to see to help them achieve wellness.
Nutritional Deficiencies, Biochemical Imbalances and Depression
Every body requires water, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, but the exact amount of each nutrient is unique to an individual. Some substances - like sugar - send your body on a roller coaster of ups and downs and deplete vital nutrients rather than provide any. Sugar has been linked to aggressive behavior, anxiety and depression. My brother's steady diet of refined sugars, nutrient deficient foods, and especially the amount of cola he drank would have certainly depleted his body of chromium, folic acid, zinc, vitamin C, magnesium and B vitamins, all which contribute to emotional stability. He only ate deep fried fish occasionally and didn't eat any real amount of seafood. He wouldn't have consumed any natural iodine source so in all likeliness, his thyroid was imbalanced which we now know can also contribute to mental health issues. Gut health - specifically good gut bacteria levels - has been directly linked to digestion, absorption, hormonal balance, immunity, and brain health.
My own physical decline was a combination of many years of high stress , multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies due to all the orthopedic surgeries I had over the years, a severe bacterial imbalance and a low functioning thyroid. It took me almost three full years to bring my physical body into balance through diet and supplementation, several trips to a psychologist to help me see my life from a different perspective, and a lot of prayer to get myself back to a loving state.
MENTAL HEALTH IS MORE THAN JUST DARK THOUGHTS
The entire time I was living through my personal Dark Night of the Soul, I was seeing numerous different medical professionals. Not one of them, including the psychologist, had any inkling whatsoever that I was at the point of suicide. Like my brother, I never told anyone. I just thought about it. My physical health contributed to my emotional health, and my Spirit was hurting but still trying all the time to guide me to where I needed to be. A power much greater than I am made sure that I found whatever it was I needed to get through my dark night and return to the light.
Every life has meaning and purpose, and every experience we have - both positive and negative - can help others if we have the courage to talk about it. I hope that by sharing my experiences, others are given hope that there is light at the end of that dark tunnel, and help is out there. God DOES hear every prayer. Sometimes the answer is difficult to hear or not what we thought we wanted, and we might not want to do what we are guided to do. Trusting the process is in itself a process.
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