I was 19 years old the first time somebody close to me committed suicide.
It was the beginning of my sophomore year of college and I was, once again, starting with a fresh slate. I'd broken up with my old boyfriend, switched dorms, and even found a new roommate when my first one decided to take some time off. It was only two weeks into the semester when I discovered that she had been found dead inside her apartment after overdosing on over-the-counter pills. Three weeks later, my next door neighbor hung himself in his room.
As a teen, I made one unsuccessful attempt on my own life and, to date, I've known six people who've done it successfully. I know first-hand how hard it is to be on either side of that equation. That is why no matter how difficult it is to keep a relationship afloat, no matter how unreasonable or cruel someone can be in the throes of their depression, the moment someone threatens self-harm, no matter how casually, I will never let that relationship go, especially when those threats come from my own family.
My brother was almost 9 years old when I was born and by the time I started third grade, he had left the house for a college on the other side of the country. We spent the majority of our early life as adult and child, never really existing in the same world at the same time. It wasn't until I was nearly an adult myself that I had any real interaction with him, and by that time, it was clear that his emotional issues had made him an angry person.
My sister's drug abuse compounded his volatile emotional state, and when an intervention went wrong, my brother ended up breaking her arm and refusing to speak to her for the next decade. Following a series of blowouts with his roommates, he moved back in with our mother shortly before his 30th birthday, just months before her death.
If you heard him tell it, my brother selflessly dedicated himself to the care of our ailing mother in her time of need while the rest of our family selfishly allowed him to bear the burden alone. In reality, our brother, like my sister and myself, dedicated our time to the care and comfort of our mother in the short period of time between her diagnosis and death. My sister, who was a new mother at the time, spent her few free hours in chemotherapy appointments. I dropped out of college so I could do the same.
These details escape my brother when we speak these days. During our phone calls, he'll call me selfish, accuse me of not spending time with him, and in the same breath refuse to come to family events, his voice heavy with whiskey. When I ask him how he's feeling, or tell him how hurt and confused I feel when he behaves this way, he'll remind me about the shotguns he inherited from our father.
The threat of suicide holds you hostage: I am constantly at the mercy of my brother's arbitrary requests for fear of what he might do. Two days before my wedding, when I asked him to bring me a photo from his house to put on a table at our ceremony, our conversation turned into a one-sided fight in which he accused me of not wanting him at the wedding or in my life at all, accusing me of wishing him dead. He arrived late to the hotel, insisting that I had forced him into an emergency session with his therapist.
I spent my wedding day apologizing to my brother, begging him to still walk me down the aisle, and insisting that we all loved him and wanted him alive.
While normal families call each other because they love one another, because they want to remain part of one another's lives, and due to the occasional pang of religious guilt, my phone calls are to ensure my brother is still alive, to make sure he hasn't taken the pills or put the gun in his mouth.
What do you do when you don't even believe a threat? If I thought I could anticipate the day when it was too much, I would have called the police, but there's a feeling in my gut that tells me that if I give in, and keep giving in, and keep letting him get his way, then he'll stay alive. He'll keep smoking weed all day and drinking himself to death, but at least his death will be slow and angry, and not without warning.
So I wait. I wait and I call. I call and I cook Christmas dinners and I look at my driveway for his car and I brace myself for the phone call telling me how selfish I am to expect anything, or for the one that's worse.