That's usually what people say. "They were such a bright light ... the life of the party." I know, because I used to say these things about my brother, Evan.
Now I know better.
Four years ago, just a few weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Evan ended his life with the intention of forever ending his pain. And I am left with blood on my hands. My misconceptions about suicide have made me an accomplice.
I thought his inability to deal with reality and grow up, or to get over a girlfriend, contributed to his suffering. But I was wrong; a character flaw or single traumatic event didn't lead him to taking his own life. Evan was battling an internal monologue on a daily basis.
Evan was the kind of person who could make you laugh even when you didn't want to crack a smile. Everything about him was happy. A trendsetter, he knew what was cool before the rest of us. A social butterfly, he could walk with many different groups at school and was respected in all of them. A talented athlete, a creative mind with artistic gifts, he was the last person you would expect to be tormented by thoughts of suicide.
Evan was a state champion runner. He was long and lean and fast. When he was a kid, he would retrieve the mail by begging Mom to clock his race down our long driveway to the mailbox and back. His speed was his ticket. And then one day his senior year in high school, he lost interest.
Looking back, this was our first missed warning sign.
Away at college, he wrote in his journal: "So it's like 9 a.m. and I'm still up from yesterday. ... I don't understand how I am functioning, but I am. I feel like my brain is about to implode. ... I can barely smile. I fake it on occasion though. ... I think I need to have a talk with my parents ... maybe my sister, she's right, when she wants to listen."
I tried to listen, but like he says, I wasn't really hearing him. He was becoming increasingly depressed, but I continued to reassure him that everything would be OK and that there was nothing wrong with him. I wish I could go back.
Our parents were worried and pulled him out of school. I had just graduated college and moved back home too, putting all of us under the same roof again. Although Evan was at his worst, I am still thankful we had this time together as a family.
As hard as he tried, he couldn't be happy anymore. The enthusiasm with which he used to live life to its fullest was gone. He was using drugs and expressing rage at the slightest offense. After a family argument, he punched the wall and broke his hand. Either from the drugs or from his deteriorating mental health, he became increasingly paranoid about the intentions of his friends. His art and creative interests became dark and confusing.
He let my parents take him to the family physician. All he got was a prescription for antidepressants and the medical advice to "not worry too much about it; he's just being a boy." I wonder if that is how the doctor would treat someone facing a cancer diagnosis.
Foolishly, we believed things were getting better. And then, on February 23, 2010, my mom called with life-changing news. I raced home and up the driveway, the same driveway my mom had timed him on all those years. I was used to helping Evan out of jams -- surely this would be no different.
The house was dark. I remember firefighters, paramedics and police crowding our dark courtyard, staring at their feet. They had come to save a life, but they were too late. There was no life they could save. Blinded by a police officer's flashlight upon my face, I froze. There was nothing I could do for Evan either, I realized.
As I comforted my parents, I began flipping on the light switches, a feeble attempt to bring light into our dark home. We were broken. When Evan took his life, he passed his pain on to those of us left behind, his family and large circle of friends. Through tremendous loss, we inherited his suffering.
Immediately after Evan's death, I was consumed with learning more about suicide. I read everything I found on the Internet and purchased many books and memoirs as part of my healing process. I created a media watchdog group to educate local media on responsible reporting about suicide.
I intentionally do not share the graphic details about my brother's suicide. Extensive research has shown that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals, including descriptions of the means and method. When we talk about suicide carefully, it can change public misperceptions and correct myths, encouraging those who may suffer from thoughts of suicide to seek help.
Over the past four years, my family has been my source of strength. Together, we have worked to understand depression, suicide and the misconceptions that fuel stigma. In June 2012, my parents and I traveled to San Francisco to participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk
. We walked 18 miles through the city overnight, crossing the finish line at dawn to bring suicide prevention and awareness out of the darkness.
My father believes that it has been the hardest thing he has done since my brother's death, and for the love of Evan, he is ready to take those steps again this year.
That old cliche is not true: Time does not heal all wounds. But we have survived, and we have experienced joy again. It is a much richer happiness as we live each day in honor of Evan's unfinished life.
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They have trained counselors available 24/7 to provide free, confidential help.