The Woman in Control

Since 3 died, I’ve experienced quite a few changes, spent quite a bit of time trying to classify new parts of my identity. First, I tried to adapt to the very fact that I have a dead brother. Then, I started a new chapter of life in which no one knew about 3. Now that I’ve moved back to the US to start Part C of my current fellowship, I’m adding yet another facet to my post-3 self.

For the past month, I’ve been incredibly productive at work and at home. I’ve completed and submitted articles, written hundreds of lines of syntax and run the subsequent analyses, cooked homemade meals, snacks, and desserts, and worked out every single week day. I even flew to Boston for 36 hours to visit two friends last weekend and have started preparing job applications for when this fellowship is over. It’s the first time in my adult life (and probably my whole life, to be honest) that I’ve had such a consist run of productivity.

Each time I complete a new workout or check another item off my to-do list, I feel more competent. I’m good at my job, I’m trying to be more healthy, and I’m making an effort to maintain friendships. It leaves me feeling very “women can have it all,” very Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud. Over the past four weeks, I haven’t been the girl with the dead brother. I’ve been an independent, competent woman, and I’m in complete control of my life.

I’ve written a lot about my heightened desire for control since 3’s suicide, and I finally feel like I have it. I’m back at a university that respects me as a colleague and researcher, I’m living by myself in an apartment of my choosing, and I have all of my belongings with me. I have control over every possible aspect of my life, and I’m better off for it. I’m making the decisions, and I’m reaping the benefits.

I’m much better off when things are in my control. I feel like one of those women in magazines, the ones with good careers, healthy lifestyles, and meticulously organized day planners. It’s a nice feeling, but I know how precarious it is. The only reason I can get so much done is because I’m keeping my own world very small, very constricted. At any moment, another tragedy could strike, another thing beyond my influence could go horribly wrong. So for now, I’ll try to hold on to as much as I can, keeping control wherever possible.

The Funny Ones

Understandably, I heard, read, and saw more about suicide and mental illness this week than I ever have. Fortunately, most of what I read was very positive and understanding; some of it wasn’t. I, of course, am now going to add my two cents. This might take awhile…

Obviously, I’d never met Robin Williams; like most other people, I had just grown up watching him in movies and on TV. One of my first memories of Sesame Street is of Mr. Williams showing a muppet robin that he has a red breast, too! That kind of joy and humor proved confusing for some people, as they wondered how such a bright and hysterically funny man could take his own life.

I really can’t answer that question any better than the brilliant writers over at Cracked. While I don’t know that this kind of characterization is true of every funny person, the article does a good job of explaining not only the innate fear behind the humor, but the unhelpful reactions of others. Funny people don’t share their pain, because others are only used to seeing them smile and joke. “Lighten up,” indeed.

Like I’ve said before, 3 is the funniest person I’ve ever met in real life. He didn’t have the manic energy or wealth of impressions of Mr. Williams; 3 was more like Jimmy Fallon, giggling at his own jokes. As mentioned in the Cracked article, 3 didn’t have the greatest childhood. He even said to me once that he figured out pretty early that if he made jokes and said silly things, grown-ups would stop asking him how he felt about Mom and Dad’s divorce. I don’t think 3’s humor was entirely a defense mechanism, though. He genuinely loved laughing and making other people laugh. Still, it’s desperately important to note that people who are depressed or suicidal don’t necessarily traipse around, somberly staring at the ground, telling anyone who cares to ask that they’re going to kill themselves. Don’t expect people to be happy all the time, and don’t overlook the funny ones.

Sadly, not all internet reactions to Mr. Williams’ death were compassionate. Shocking, I know. I won’t get into the ignorant news anchors or bitter old pseudo-celebrities who are either truly cruel or just saying things for the sake of being shocking. I do, however, want to address a moderately popular blog post that went into great detail about how suicide is a choice. I mean…really?

Someone has just died. Forget the fact that this said person was an internationally beloved comedian who consistently went out of his way to be kind and generous to others; he’s a human being. Can we not make our first response to someone’s death “They were wrong”? Or at least wait more than 24 hours before bloviating about the nature of death under the mind-numbingly self-centered proclamation of “truth”? Goodness.

Let me be very clear: if you want the barest, meanest, most compassion-less technical classification, then yes, suicide is a choice. The thoughts behind suicide are not. Do you understand the distinction? Yes, suicide is, by definition self-inflicted, but what leads a person to that point? Depression, mental illness, abuse, constant bullying – these things ravage a person until they are INCAPABLE of seeing any other way out. They don’t choose to hate themselves or their lives or their circumstances. The haywire chemicals and hormones in the brain of someone with mental illness prevent healthy thoughts, just like pancreatic cells in the body of a person with diabetes prevent the health production of insulin.

Two Christmases ago, after a fight with my mom over S’s upcoming marriage and the nature of love and relationships, I thought about suicide as I made the 9-hour drive back to my apartment. Somewhere around Cincinnati, I sobbed as I thought about what it would be like to just drive through the guard rail and into the river. It was never a serious consideration – more of a thought exercise. Too messy, too much trouble for my family, my mom would blame herself, etc. It’s the closest I’ve ever come, which is to say, not close at all. Point being, I did not have the disordered thinking, the misfiring synapses, the improper chemical levels that cause people to overlook the consequences, to forget how much their lives mean, to believe that suicide is the only option.

I wish people would stop acting like the single greatest reason people commit suicide is because no one ever told them not to, no one ever told them to be happy or to enjoy the beauty of life. It’s so much more complication than that. This isn’t to say that I’m advising against telling people such things. On the contrary, I’m all for doing and saying whatever you can to keep people from taking their own lives. I just don’t think “Don’t do it” is a solution that’s going to work for everyone. Schizophrenia can make you see things and hear things that aren’t there, and depression can prevent you from hearing “I love you, please don’t kill yourself” even when it’s being said directly to your face. Mental illness is not a choice.

These Dreams, Part III

I’ve had this post planned for a few weeks, since I had another dream that reminded me of 3. He wasn’t in it, though, and that was the problem.

It was a pretty basic dream, realistic-looking, but slightly off. I was with a bunch of people, and we had all been somehow displaced from our homes. We were in the process of building a giant castle as our new shelter and were getting ready for bed one evening. I was laying next to my 2 biological sisters, RJ and S, and Mom was sitting next to us, expressing her concern that the castle wouldn’t be completed before winter set in.

Just your standard, family dream, right? Only this is the first time I can remember since 3 died that I had such a normal dream about my family that didn’t include him. Here we were, Mom, RJ, S, and I, being our little biological family selves. The fact that 3 wasn’t there wasn’t even mentioned. This is just how we are now. When I woke up and realized that my subconscious is acknowledging the fact that 3 is no longer a part of our family interactions, I was a bit jarred.

But then, just 2 night ago, I had another dream, just a little snippet of a dream. I was sitting on a couch, and 3 walked in. He was a bit younger than he was when he died, but still taller than me, with his gorgeous, green eyes. He knelt down and gave me a big hug, and I knew it was a dream, and I knew it wouldn’t last.

“I love you,” I told him. He didn’t respond, but kept hugging me.

“Say it,” I begged. “Please say it. I love you.”

And just as I started to wake up, 3 looked up at me and said “Love you, too. Both…”

And then I was awake. I don’t know what the “both” referred to. I might have known, in that space between sleeping and waking, but I don’t anymore.

So I still haven’t gotten the exact dream that I asked for, but a far as dreams of 3 go, this one was pretty damn good. Way better than the first one! I woke up grateful and comforted. My nightly chats with 3 might keep getting quieter, but I appreciate getting such a beautiful and straightforward dream visit.

Having a Brother

I came across this movie trailer the other day, and, like so many seemingly innocuous pieces of media, it got me thinking about 3. I’ve written before about how much I love being a big sister, but I didn’t mention how much I loved having a brother.

As 3 got older, particularly in high school, and he started becoming a man, I loved our newfound, grown-up relationship. I enjoyed talking to him as an equal, rather than feeling like I was talking to a child. As the black sheep cousins of our dad’s family, my siblings and I grew pretty close, and relished our image as delinquents. One Christmas Eve, for some reason, we decided we would be the first one’s to leave Dad’s family’s party. As my bat-shit crazy uncle has a habit of letting his kids stay no longer than a half hour at any family function, this was going to be quite a task. As soon as Crazy Uncle started looking toward the door, RJ rushed us all out of the back room, crying “This is not a drill!” We all laughed as we ignored our aunts’ and uncles’ frantic good-byes and pleas to stay, not even bothering to put our shoes on as we ran out to my car. By virtue of a good parking spot, we managed to pull out ahead of Crazy Uncle, giggling like we’d just pulled off an escape from Alcatraz. We managed to find a still-open liquor store on the drive back to Mom’s house and bought some beer and rum to celebrate.

It’s those moments I want more of, those kind of things that I thought we’d get to experience in adulthood. Arguments and inside jokes like in that movie trailer. In an early episode of the show Parenthood, the adult siblings get together and smoke a joint in a school parking lot late at night; when I first watched that scene, years ago, I could totally picture doing that with my siblings – just relaxing, doing stupid things, enjoying the freedom that comes with being grown-ups.

3 and I, especially, had a good, developing adult relationship. We could ask for and give honest advice, we could share stupid stories. We even smoked together once (my birthday present to him was getting high, because I’m an awesome sister). Now, we won’t have that. He’ll never visit me in Ireland, he’ll never make fun of Hipster Professor for me, we’ll never sit together at our nieces’ school recitals. The twins in the movie trailer might be dysfunctional, but they’re damn lucky, in my opinion.

Now I Get It…Kind Of

In the video that 3 made before his suicide, he talked about how he was tired of fucking up, tired of making the same mistakes over and over again. The bulk of my initial reaction to that statement was something like “Well, just don’t fuck up so much!” Not that I don’t make more than my fair share of life errors, but I thought that 3’s particular brand of fuck-ups were exceedingly obvious and tiresomely repetitive. Dude, you know better.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I, yet again, pissed off my sister S by (somewhat inadvertently, though no less at-fault) sharing my honest and highly uncomplimentary opinions with her. Talk about knowing better! I’ve been saying stupid shit to S my entire life. She and I are polar opposites – Myers-Briggs even told us so! – and she prefers a communication style vastly different than the one I enjoy using. While I am tactlessly honest and enduringly cynical, S inherited Mom’s boundless optimism, truly believing that everyone will share her exact opinion on everything from wedding invitations to Disney restaurant options to her husband.

Point being, I know all this. I know that I can’t be honest all the time with S. I know that I have to use my words carefully, always choosing unfettered support over honest disagreement. I know that she gets really upset when she finds out I don’t share her opinion on something she cares about, complaining about either my choice of words in expressing my dissent, my dissent itself, or both. When she asked for my opinion on her wedding invitations, I, in the course of the conversation, referred to them as “folksy,” which set off an indignant rant, much to RJ’s delight. (I stand by that assessment – the invitations had a gingham pattern!) I know all this, and yet I still keep sharing my opinion with S, and she keeps getting mad about it.

I had a lovely conversation about this topic last night with my senior year roommate from college. SYR is a magnificent woman, fiercely devoted to making herself a better person. Over the course of living together and remaining friends for the past 9+ years, she and I have seen some pretty unpleasant sides of each other. What I love about SYR is that she accepts not only my flaws, but her own as well, seeing them as obstacles that can definitely be surmounted. Together, we try to hold each other accountable, and every time I talk to her, SYR makes me believe that I still have a chance to stop making these mistakes, to improve my extensive list of abrasive personality traits.

So, I get it, at least a little bit. I see what it feels like to do the same stupid thing AGAIN. After mentally apologizing to 3 for not acknowledging just how damn hard it is to stop making the same mistakes over and over again, I retroactively amended my reaction to his video. Yes, it sucks finding yourself in the same shitty situation for what feels like the thousandth time, be it facing down an irate sister or holding yet another traffic citation. It still doesn’t warrant suicide. Obviously, I don’t have a solution for such consistent mistakes, but my current coping mechanism is to laugh, roll my eyes, talk to a friend who believes in me, and try to do better next time.