September is suicide prevention month, a time to shine a light on the mental health issue that brings so much pain and sorrow to those who have lost a loved one far too early. When suicide touches your life, it’s never the same. It surprised me, the number of people that have been affected by suicide, people seemed to come out of the woodwork. Some people I had known for years, but never knew they had also lost a loved one to suicide. Other people were complete strangers sharing heartfelt stories about their loss. Suicide connects people through acknowledging the pain and loss and holding a mutual disbelief that life can be so cruel and mental suffering so intense that no longer living seems a viable answer.
Suicide awareness groups use the term “completed suicide.” I hate that term. I understand the rationale, “committed” has a negative, criminal connotation, but the word “complete” means finished. My brother’s life wasn’t completed or finished. His was a life lost far too early and left incomplete. Suicide isn’t a completion or an accomplishment, it’s a wrecking ball.
I know this may sound harsh; it is harsh. Getting that phone call at 11 pm from my father who lived 3,000 miles away, was gut-wrenching. I knew the moment I heard his voice what he was calling to say. I tried to stomp down the realization that a tsunami wave of grief was about to wash over me and my family. Nothing would ever be the same. I tried acting like this late-night call was normal. “Hi Dad, how are you?” I was driving my family home from a wonderful dinner with friends and my dad said, “pull over Jenni.” My children were 12 & 14 and watched me break down at the wheel, crumple like I’d been gut-punched, the wind knocked out of me. My husband drove us home and the realization settled in that now, life was minus my older brother- my friend, my co-conspirator, my goofy, funny, gregariously wild brother, who made everyone laugh and roll their eyes and shake their heads.
This realization wasn’t the first thing that entered my mind, what I first thought was the insurmountable pain that he must have been in to take his life. It was an automatic feeling that I would never experience what he had, I couldn’t understand it and I was horrified by the realization that he felt so much pain. I didn’t want any details. I never asked, I didn’t want to know. Of course, I found out, eventually, someone told me and I learned the manner of his death.
My brother’s death didn’t come out of left field. He had been feeling suicidal for months. He was struggling big time. He saw his regular Dr., and got anti-depressants prescribed, and when they didn’t seem to be helping, the dosage was doubled. He fell through the cracks in the health care system in about the worst-case scenario there can be. He was asking for help and so many people in the family and extended family were trying to help him. How does that happen? I’ll tell you how.
Mental illness has wreaked havoc on my family and I feel that I have been playing dodgeball for 30 years. My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was in my final quarter of nursing school. I was 23 years old, just found out that I was pregnant, in a long-term relationship with my high school sweetheart, and planning a wedding. My life is typically chaotic, so this was kind of par for the course. Her diagnosis didn’t happen all at once, it took 2 years and 7 physicians to put a name to “what is wrong with Mom?” It was April of 1990, my mom was 50 years old and was diagnosed with “Bipolar schizophrenia with psychotic tendencies.” The mania she was experiencing was profoundly affecting my parents’ relationship and my father was also diagnosed at that time as clinically depressed. I was the support person, being the only girl in a family with 3 brothers, also because I am “the nurse.” If you are a nurse, you understand how that works. This wasn’t unusual, this was my life and I have learned to excel at being the person that cares for everyone and holds it all together. The middle child is like that, I learned that in my psychology class.
Coincidentally, (or not) I was on my psych rotation, the last rotation of Nursing School and I was working in a psych unit when my mom was diagnosed. She was also admitted to a psychiatric facility (thankfully not at my hospital), and I got to learn from experience along with lectures and book study, all about mental illness. I got straight A’s that quarter. Sometimes I think if I didn’t know so much about mental illness and what my mom was going through maybe it would have been better. Having insider knowledge doesn’t always make it easier.
Fast forward 14 years; my older brother Zac was showing signs of mental illness. There were episodes of mania that were hard for me to pinpoint because Zac had such a big personality. He filled the room; you didn’t encounter him and forget. Manic behavior was not too far from the norm but then came the depression. That was obvious, he lost a ton of weight. He had multiple ER visits and said that he was feeling suicidal, but he didn’t have any plan and before a social worker could do an evaluation, he would talk himself out of needing to be there. He would start to feel better and become embarrassed and anxious; waiting on someone to come so they could discuss his broken mind. He would leave the hospital with instructions to follow up with his Dr. and start counseling. Now the laws surrounding mental health have changed and it is an automatic 3-day hold for a person who comes to the ER with suicidal ideation, not “wait for the social worker and we will see if they can help you.”
Do you know that saying about hindsight? Well, it can make the honest truth more painful. We were all exhausted. I could explain but it will take a book. I am just starting my journey of explanation, putting the story together, along my road of healing. It has been 18 years next month since we lost him. The big, bold, musically gifted, funniest guy you ever met who could tell you the name of whatever song was on the radio, play it on his guitar, and sing the lyrics to you. He was just that good. His guitar went with him everywhere and the show was always on. At the park, on the ferry, and in a parking lot, Zac would talk to and sing for whoever wanted to listen. Music was his life. His was a story of adventure, more than once he was invited to have dinner with people whom he just met, because he never knew a stranger.
Zac started becoming paranoid and delusional, like my mother around the age of 38. He quit his great job of 20 years because he started having anxiety attacks and was a crane operator at Boeing. He tried to take a medical leave of absence and the company physician wouldn’t allow it. He couldn’t do the job and was extremely stressed so he quit and cashed out his retirement. Those last years, months, and days were very hard. If things could have only gone differently, the way they are supposed to go, Zac might still be here. If he could have gotten the help he needed and was crying out for, maybe he wouldn’t have taken his life. When I say that we all tried to help him, I mean it. So many attempts, contacting health professionals trying to get him admitted for psychiatric care, to no avail. Our healthcare system failed my brother.
Because this is September, and Suicide Awareness/Prevention Month, I am writing this story. There is no “coming to terms” with my brother’s death from suicide, but there is an acceptance of what has happened, acknowledgment, and grace. Also, and most importantly, for my healing, there is a story to tell and I am working on writing it, one page at a time.
A beautiful human named David Zachary Jenckes, my brother, lost his life to mental illness on 10-23-2004, at 40 years of age. Life altered for all who knew him. Sadly, this is the truth for all of us who have lost loved ones to suicide. Be kind to yourself and others, be a light where there is darkness, and offer a helping hand to those in need.
Call 988 if you need help and are suicidal. People are there to help, whenever you need them.