My big brother Ryan was funny and unfailingly kind. He was one of the most talented musicians you might encounter, and had a prodigious ability to pick up any instrument and play it by ear within the span of a single day. He was handsome. I didn't know it then, because I was younger than he was and not inclined to think about it. But when I look back at photos now and see him with his cocky grin and his startling blue eyes, I realize that he would have been quite the catch.
When I was a young girl, he was my best friend, my constant playmate. I can still see the two of us vividly in my memory, staying up late in our room playing the alphabet game: "My name is Carla and I'm going to Cincinnati to sell Crabapples. My name is David and I'm going to Delaware to sell Dogs..."
As an adolescent, he was my protector. He advised me on how to handle a bully, how to throw a punch and how to thread a ramen noodle in through my nose and pull it out through my mouth. He wasn't necessarily better or worse than anyone else's big brother, but he was mine and I loved him.
He was my big brother until I was about 12 years old, and then his mental illness took over almost completely.
He would take his own life before I turned 15.
It's heavy, I know, the reality of that sentence. But here I am, admitting the worst of the worst, the ugly truth of my brother's disease and its near-destruction of the family it left behind. I'm talking about it 16 years after his death because when it comes to mental illness, nobody else is. Because people are afraid to talk about it, to admit to its existence in their own lives or in the lives of their loved ones who aren't getting themselves the help they need.
I spent yesterday afternoon with a friend of mine who has a brother who recently started struggling with mental illness. As with Ryan, these problems didn't start until her brother was a teenager. It's like someone simply flipped a switch and turned this bright, charismatic, straight-A student into someone unrecognizable. She feels impotent and frustrated in the face of a disease she has no experience with and beyond me, she doesn't know anyone else who does. She told me yesterday: "If he had cancer or heart disease, I feel like I could talk about it with other people and find support. But I'm terrified to say anything, I don't want them to think this is all he's ever been... he used to be so much more."
I understand where she's coming from completely. I grew up in a small town and mental illness wasn't something anyone talked about. I didn't want to admit that my brother was "crazy." It was sad and shameful, and if I'm being honest, embarrassing. Even now, living in Los Angeles, a fairly forward-thinking, self-help kind of place, I don't think it's something most people bring up in polite conversation. thirty thousand Americans will commit suicide this year and 1 in 4 adults -- that's fifty-seven million people -- suffer from a mental health disorder. It's terrifying that even I didn't know those statistics until I looked them up.
57 million people in this country are suffering from variations of the same disease and we're not talking about it.
Think about the various types of illness and causes that we talk about every day. We'll chat about cancer, animal cruelty, saving the whales and what Kim Kardashian will name her baby. People will devote whole Facebook status to their political beliefs, religious beliefs, their opinion on illegal substances, abortion or even who they hooked up with last night. We've lost the filter, or any fear of oversharing... and yet, this chronic disease that is mental illness is somehow too taboo to discuss?
I don't know any way to the other side of this conversation without trudging through it. I don't know any other way to get a discussion going besides starting it myself, and so I will. Not many people go around admitting that their family member was borderline schizophrenic. Or that they were severely depressed, obsessive-compulsive and would go through multiple doctors and various mood-stabilizing medications before they even had their driver's license. Very few people would tell you that in his worst moment, my brother got access to a gun and left the discovery of his body to his little sister.
It's horrible and sad and it's my truth. Mental illness lives all around us everyday. I've seen it in other family members, I've seen it in friends and I've dealt with it myself with my own postpartum depression. The people I know and love, who fight back against their illness even in its bleakest moments, are some of the strongest warriors I've ever known. They deserve our support and understanding, our education and our acceptance. More than that, they deserve a dialogue.
Martin Luther King said, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
This topic matters.
It matters to me, it mattered to my brother, it matters to my friend and her family and the young man they're trying desperately to help through this. It matters to the millions of people who are battling their inner demons every day with no one to turn to for support.
We need to start a discussion.