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By Maureen C
Today there was a “jumper” on the Key Bridge between Washington, DC and Arlington, VA. I work in a 24-story building that overlooks the water, and as the police showed up to block off the roadways and footpaths, my co-workers crowded around the windows hoping to catch a glimpse of what was happening below.
I walked over initially to see what all the commotion was about, but standing there and surveying the scene, I felt anxious and guilty. Though no one I work with knows it (and I’m sure few would guess even if asked), I’ve been on the other side of things.
I never tried to jump, but at 16 I did want to kill myself so much so that I ended up in all-day outpatient treatment at a mental hospital. But while that personal understanding of feeling suicidal make me sad for whoever was out there on that bridge, it’s not the true reason my stomach sank. You see, a little over 4 years ago, my brother tried to jump.
He was depressed, and at that point in time, he thought that was the solution. Thankfully, perhaps out of hope, but just as likely, perhaps out of preemptive guilt at what his death would do to those who care for him, he called me. This is the story of how I met my brother at the bridge.
“Mo, I don’t know what to do.” My brother’s recorded voice sounded harried. “I think I’m going to kill myself. I’m driving to Sycolin Road and I think I’m going to jump.”
It was one hell of a voicemail.
The day my brother tried to commit suicide in November of 2008 was unusually sunny and bright, albeit a little chilly. Crisp might be a word I’d have used under other circumstances. I was away at my Junior year of college at American University in Washington, DC, living for the first time off campus in an apartment with friends. My brother lived, split between my mom and dad’s houses, in Ashburn, VA, a 45-minute or so drive away.
Things hadn’t been easy for him for a while leading up to that Fall. That hadn’t really been easy for any of us -– I’d struggled with my own mental health from about age 12 (coinciding quite perfectly with the demise of my parent’s marriage), but had finally found stable footing by the time I left for college thanks to a combination of great therapy, generic Prozac and an painfully honest relationship with both my parents that finally allowed me to draw significant boundaries.
But in breaking (mostly) free from the craziness that had been my home life during my teen years, a lot of the burden of the remaining dysfunction fell to my brother and sister.
My brother and I have always had a close relationship. He’s 3 years younger than me in age, nearly a foot taller than me in height, and, in personality, well –- in many ways, he’s a male version of me. I’m unbelievably proud of him. Proud to the point where even writing about him my heart swells; it’s the sort of ache I can imagine parents feel for their children, both knowing he’ll be wonderful at everything on his own and at the same time wanting to shield him from any difficulties or pain. And for us, that was part of the problem.
You see, when I was 14/15, I was anorexic. Not hospital bound, but my emotional relationship with food was deeply broken. I’d calorie count and go days without eating, all while training two hours a day as a competitive swimmer.
And, my brother, well he was a slightly chubby 11-year-old. It makes sense –- in the years after he grew to stand about 6’5”, but when I was sick, he was shorter. And somewhat rounder. And as hard as it is for me to admit this, at the time it bothered me. So I nitpicked. I watched what he ate, making “helpful” suggestions about swapping this food for that food. I criticized where it wasn’t my place.
Though there’s no good reason, and I deserve the criticism I’m sure I’ll get from this, at the time I thought I was helping. With my own issues clouding my judgment, I thought that I was protecting him from what I saw as the “danger” of not being thin, of maybe getting teased as he entered middle school, and most paradoxical and hypocritical, of not feeling good about his body.
The summer he was 11, my brother started throwing up.
And yes, I feel directly responsible for his bulimia. We’ve talked about it a few times over the years, and I’ve apologized and he’s told me he forgives me, but I know from experience, that that kind of damage carries with you. If I could take it all back I would –- I’d unconditionally love my little brother, tell him he was perfect just the way he was (is). And, just as importantly, I’d unconditionally love my younger self.
By the time he tried to kill himself in 2008, he’d been bulimic on and off for 4 or 5 years. On top of that, he was dealing with pressure, from my father, from his swim coach, from teachers, to constantly over achieve. And though he was beyond talented (qualifying for Nationals in swimming, attending a magnet school in our home town), he never felt good enough. Eventually, it became too much.
The morning my brother called me to tell me he wanted to die was a Wednesday. Thank God it was a Wednesday. Because Wednesday at American University meant no one had class. Wednesday meant that, when I woke my roommate up and tearfully begged her to let me borrow her car, she didn’t have anywhere she needed to be and handed over the keys with an “I’m so sorry, Maureen” and a hug.
I called my brother back. He answered, sounding more defeated, more tired, than I’ve ever heard him.
“Sam? Sam, I’m coming to see you,” I hurriedly breathed into the phone. “Please, I’m getting in the car right now. Don’t do anything, just stay on the phone with me.”
I finished throwing on shoes, grabbed my purses, and headed to the stairwell so as not to lose cell service.
“Sam, you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“OK. I’m on my way.”
We spent the next 45 minutes like that. Not talking, not yet. Just checking in periodically while I drove my roommate’s car along the highway, out of the city, across the Potomac and back to the streets I grew up on. I knew that as long as I could keep him on the phone, I had time. And when someone wants to end their life, sometimes a little more time is a lot to ask.
Finally, I drove into Ashburn. Down the street, past my mom’s house, was Sycolin Road. It was the road we took together in the early mornings to get to swim practice. Though it’s been widened in recent years, and paved, at the time the area still wasn’t fully developed.
I pulled up to find my brother sitting in the front seat of the still-running minivan just past a construction site. The bridge he was parked near overlooked the Dulles Access Road. It’s awful to think about, but the fall wouldn’t have been high enough to kill him. The real danger would have been the traffic.
I tried to put these thoughts out of my mind as I did a U-turn and pulled up behind him. As I parked the car and got out, it finally sunk in how real this was, how close I came to losing him. Honestly, I don’t know if or how I could have made it if he had gone through with it all. I walked around to the passenger’s side of the van, opened the door, climbed in and hugged him.
Neither of us spoke for the first few minutes. In part because we were both crying, but also because there was nothing at that point that needed to be said. Without words, he told me everything -– I’m scared, I’m hurting, I’m angry (yes, even at you), I’m sad, I’m defeated, and I’m tired; I’m really fucking tired.
In turn, my dialogue would have sounding something like: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I love you, and I’m so, so sorry.
When we finally did speak to one another, that’s what I told him: “I love you. And I’m so sorry for everything. But I’m thankful you called.”
“I know,” he told me, but the tone of his voice said he wasn’t entirely convinced.
After talking for a few minutes, we decided to go to my mom’s house, a few blocks away. The initial crisis was over, but I still wasn’t confident he was feeling “safe” (to put things in the therapy-driven terminology I used at the time), so I made him drive first. That way I could follow in my roommate’s car and keep on eye on where he went. Once safely inside, I called out mom to come meet us. It was only then that I asked he question everyone wants to know when a loved one threatens, or worse, commits suicide: “Why?”
Not surprisingly, he didn’t really have an answer. And having been there myself, I know that, usually, when a person gets to that point, they’re not thinking rationally. Clouded by pain and exhaustion, they’re looking for a way out. A way that, at that point, seems only accessible through death.
Though his road to happiness was immediate, and certainly wasn’t easy (not even 6 months after his attempt, his best friend’s father, who had in many ways been a surrogate father to him, committed suicide successfully), I watch my brother today and am constantly amazed at the beautiful, flourishing person he’s become.
Four years out, as he’s about to graduate from Virginia Tech, his life rich with hobbies, great friends, and a sweetheart of a long-term girlfriend, it’s hard to remember that, at one point, things were so bad he wanted to end his own life. It’s honestly not until days like today, when faced with the immediacy and acuteness of someone else’s suffering, that I reflect on what might not have been.
I read somewhere that, with jumpers in particular, survivors often regret their decision mid-air, if not before. I’m forever grateful that even with all the hurt he was carrying, there was something, somewhere in my brother that convinced him to reach out first.
*Name has been changed.