In honor of my brother's passing five months ago today, I thought I would post this reflection (below). I read this reflection to 100 or so people last week at an event for Notre Dame's Mental Illness Awareness Week. Thanks again to everyone who came out and made me feel so loved!
It was spring break of my sophomore year at Notre Dame. A few of my friends went to the beach for the week. Some went to the mountains. I went home to visit my brother in the mental hospital.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he told me, as he balled his eyes out in my arms. We were sitting in the waiting room of the hospital where he had lived in isolation for the past month or so.
It all began a few years back, when he went off to college at Indiana University. He was never that great at school, so it was hard for him to keep up with the competition at IU. The classes got harder, the grades kept falling, the depression intensified, and the marijuana seemed to be the only thing that brought him some sort of happiness.
Most of this went under the radar, until one day, my grandma received a phone call.
“I just want to jump off a bridge,” he told her. “I just want to kill myself.” Soon enough, he came home from IU and moved back in with my parents.
My brother was a few years older than I. The day I got into Notre Dame, he jokingly said, “Hey, Indiana’s my state!” But after a few moments, he pulled me in for a huge hug and told me how proud of me he was.
Knowing my brother was only a few hours away at IU eased the inevitable nerves I felt when I first came to ND in 2012, nearly a thousand miles away from my home in Dallas.
Yet before I could even fully settle into my new home at ND, my brother had dropped out of IU and was back at home. He was just beginning his junior year, on track to graduate in 2014.
But my brother never graduated. He never got his degree. He never even came close to living a joyful life. He never got a good job. He never was able to follow his passion for playing guitar. He never got married – never had kids.
I say all of this because there’s a lot my brother was never able to do. Above all, the biggest thing he was not able to do was live past age 23.
On May 12, 2015, just some months ago, my brother ended his life.
His name was Zach, and he was just about the sweetest, most good-intentioned person you’d ever meet. He struggled throughout most of his life, but one thing I know for sure is that he had the greatest heart and the sweetest soul. Doctors used countless labels to describe his personality, labels like “very bipolar,” “extremely schizophrenic,” or “severely depressed.” I prefer to use very different labels to describe my big brother, labels like “dreamer,” “giver,” or “good listener.”
He really was the greatest listener. In high school when my older sister was already off to college and Zach and I were still home, he would come into my room after school, playing acoustic guitar, and listen to me vent FOR HOURS about the latest drama at school or anything at all that was bothering me that day. Now I look back and wish I listened more to his stories instead of always sharing my own.
He always gave the best advice, too. One year he gave me a book for Christmas filled with inspirational quotes. Zach always encouraged me to stay positive. He always told me that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.
Ironic that those words came out of the mouth of someone who would kill himself just a few years later. Ironic that Zach promised me multiple times he would never actually kill himself because he knew just how much that would tear me apart.
But the truth is that his mental illnesses kept him from keeping his promise to me. That is what mental illness does. It takes away your hopes and dreams and makes you think that you are stuck and that there is no way you will ever get out of this hole you’re in. It strips you of any sort happiness you’ve ever experienced. Mental illness becomes so difficult to live with that, in a way, it emotionally kills you even if you don’t make the choice to physically kill yourself.
But it’s not that difficult, right? Just get on some medication and see a therapist, right? Wrong. In a society like ours it seems increasingly difficult to live with mental illness. The stigma associated with mental illness is absolutely disgusting to me. When my brother was still alive, many people were scared to go near him; they just thought he was crazy. My mom and step-dad were too afraid to really tell people what was really going on, probably because of the stigma associated with the situation.
Because you see, when someone has cancer, it’s obvious that this person is getting sick. The community rallies around that individual, raising money and sponsoring charity events and visiting him or her in the hospital every day.
But in the case of mental illness, you can’t tell that someone is mentally ill. Mental illness is a mystery, hidden from view and only apparent to those who really have eyes to see.
So here is my plea to you: have eyes to see the pain of the mentally ill, and work with me to fight the stigma. Let’s work tirelessly together to fight the stigmas surrounding mental illness, depression, anxiety, and anything else that may lead to suicide. Let’s work together to prevent any more brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, or friends from taking their own lives. Let’s work together so that each person will plan to be here tomorrow, and each person will always believe that there is still hope. Because after all…“Hope always involves tomorrow. It's choosing to believe that things can and WILL change, and that tomorrow can and WILL look differently than today.”