I remember the day vividly. My dad had picked me up from elementary school, and upon pressing the automatic garage door opener and revealing my brother’s car hooked up to a large tube, my dad firmly told me to go inside.
As a 5th grader, I had little understanding of my much older brother’s mental state, but I’ll never lose the emotional cues now connected to the smell of gas.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and I have much more in common with him than I ever thought I would. He and I have both been artists who dropped out of school, had difficulty working the full-time grind, suffered mental illness, and moved back into our parents’ home because we couldn’t support ourselves.
I distinctly remember him fighting with my parents as I tried to block the door so he couldn’t storm out. I had yet to realize that I would soon be in the same situation. The only difference between him and me in this instance is that I eventually left that house and have now reached the terrifying marker in time where I’m about to surpass the age my brother was when he killed himself in my parents’ garage.
My family never talks about my brother’s death. Even when we were planning his funeral, they acted in an orderly fashion, repeating to loved ones what had happened and organizing funeral arrangements. I have no doubt my parents were devastated by his suicide and dealt with it in the best way they could, but I picked up on their emotional cues and joined them in going completely numb, forcing myself to cry before we buried him. To this day I still don’t know how to handle his death, and the one connection I have to him is knowing that we’ve faced the same struggles.
Throughout the years, it’s made me feel better knowing that my brother, with his hilarious wit, conversational charm, and incredible kindness, went through the same issues as me. Turning 25 came with the fear that succeeding his death would be like moving on from the one person who painted me posters of Care Bears and swung me over his head to make me giggle like the little girl I was.
I guess something inside of me always rejected the idea that I would be alive longer than my brother. Although I’ve never been seriously suicidal, I’ve had my fair share of suicidal ideation in response to the pain that comes with living with mental illness. Deep down, I figured that if my brother couldn’t make it at 25 then I didn’t have much of a chance either.
The past few years have been incredibly difficult through trying different anti-depressants, therapists, and natural remedies. But finally last year, I set apart the time for self-care and consequently got healthier. Even though I’ve found a lifestyle that works for me — eating a clean diet, exercising daily, and reducing un-needed stress — the thought of my brother’s fate still hangs around me as I work to give myself a stable future.
As a writer and entrepreneur, one of the reasons I’ve chosen this career path was to work around how I’m feeling day to day. Although I’m in a much better spot than I was before, I still don’t feel able to work a full-time job and I’m not sure if that lifestyle will ever be a good fit for me. This comes from years of attempting to work various jobs while feeling unwell — and therefore losing said jobs due to poor performance.
Many people don’t understand that just because I work something like 12-hour days at home, that doesn’t mean I can work eight hour days in an office. For one, I find that I’m much more productive in the comfort of my own home, where I can take breaks whenever I need to without the constant stress of supervision. But hustling to make your own money, especially when you’re starting out, comes with the price of living paycheck to paycheck, and I often stay up late wondering which would be a better trade off: my financial or mental stability.
While I somehow make enough each month to feed myself and pay rent, I barely have the disposable income for anything else. I often wonder if it was this never-ending cycle of fighting to survive that drove my brother to take his life. And although it saddens me that he didn’t find a way out, I don’t blame him.
I’m fortunate to live in 2015 when mental illness is less stigmatized and more talked about. Without the support I’ve had I could very well have been in my brother’s place. While I’ll always feel a connection to him through our shared mental illness, especially at the darker times, I know that he would have wanted me to become healthier and succeed in my own life.
Like his scenic paintings that hang on my parents’ walls, it’s time to appreciate the beauty in life and change with the seasons.
I understand now that surpassing his age isn’t moving on from the good memories of my brother or the struggles we shared, but moving toward a brighter future while keeping in mind the perspective of how bad things can become.
I look forward to my future accomplishments and knowing that he would have been proud of me.