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Mental Health

A Lesson for Me, Dear Sister

Peyton Brooks*

Reprinted from "Suicide" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(7), p. 20

stock photoI've always had a bit of a fascination with suicide - though not in a dangerously morbid sense. My codependent 'fix it' nature lent itself to relationships with people experiencing varying levels of suicidal ideation. From a best friend in high school who lost the promise of a stellar hockey career and a parent to divorce and alcohol, to a husband haunted by demons that he lulled with heroin and who twice nearly took his life years before he would know recovery-my fascination has been like a dance with the devil.

I remember being profoundly impacted by a suicide awareness workshop in school, noting the checklist of warning signs: giving away prized possessions, no longer finding enjoyment in activities once found enjoyable, withdrawing from friends and family... I stored this information away like Jeopardy? trivia.

The hanging death of a schoolmate, from his childhood swing set two weeks prior to graduation, left its mark - to this day I have the small yellow ribbon we wore pinned to our graduation gowns in his memory.

Praised for my compassion, strength and knowledge by those who relied on it, I was the voice of reassurance and the shoulder for many to cry on. But tragedy doesn't play by lightning's rules, striking only once in the same place: suicide would be a recurring theme in some of my most significant relationships - and I arrogantly believed I would recognize the precursors.

Then came a night I'll never forget. When I walked up the stairs of my parents' house that night and saw my sister and her friend playing some kind of game in the living room, I wondered if I should bother to acknowledge her. For some reason that seems inconsequential now, it felt like a standoff: who would acknowledge whom first!

My sister and I had grown up sharing toys and clothes, but later barely even shared words. I could list my share of excuses: chiefly, I was struggling to keep my own head above water as the reality of my husband's addiction grew clearer. But that great stress hadn't left me mute; I was still capable of uttering the word "hi," and if responded to, may have even mustered a "how are you." But, I didn't, and I'm ashamed of that.

It was hours later when my mom screamed for my husband and father to help her. She was dragging my sister's drugged body from her downstairs bedroom (a friend sworn to secrecy later told us my sister had ingested at least 17 pills).

And I, the Jeopardy? suicide-category hands-down winner, became the worst nightmare-in-a-crisis as I scrambled to think of something besides my own guilt. When my sister began drifting into the warmth of unconsciousness, instead of shaking her gently or calling her name, I slapped her hard across the face. As I drove, shoeless, in the direction of the hospital, my husband spoke to her soothingly - he was everything I should have been. I could only reel through, in my mind, the previous days, weeks, and months-her car accident, the painkillers, the doctor denying her prescription refill, me accusing the doctor of being insensitive, her late nights spent with new friends, more pills of the non-prescription kind, the distance between us... What more did she have to do...sign over her prize possessions? Later I realized I had even missed that warning sign: she had called me at work just days before to tell me I was the beneficiary of her RRSP should something happen. I had missed all the signs.

We sat in the waiting room for hours. We listened to my sister scream and curse as the medical staff stuck a tube full of charcoal up her nose. Once she had finally quieted down and the nurses had assured us she would survive - luckily her drug of choice would unlikely have resulted in a lethal overdose - my husband drove my father home. They offered to take my pathetic self with them, but I insisted on staying at the hospital.

As my sister lay with her hands strapped to the sides of a hospital gurney and streaks of grey charcoal marking her cheeks, I sobbed, "I'm so mean to her." And I promised her, silently, that I would be a better sister.

I wish I could say the change happened quickly - that upon her release from hospital I nurtured the relationship as I had assured her I would. It was better. I was softer, for the first time seeing my sister as fragile. And I resumed my protective older sister role - but instead of leaping across the abyss of distance between us, I crawled.

Now, with the pending birth of her first baby, my nephew, the gap between my sister and I has been steadily closing. My sister, who once believed her life was no longer worth living, is now giving life to another being. And I, the not-so-perfect knowledgeable and compassionate sister, was offered something that, tragically, isn't always possible when it comes to suicide - a second chance.

Life is not about knowing the right answer; it's about taking the time to ask the right question. The right question can be as simple as "how are you." I may have been slow to learn my lesson, but the day I hold my nephew for the first time, I will again remember the lesson and humbly thank the universe for teaching me to appreciate the gift of a sister - who is perfectly flawed, just like me. I love you, Sis. Thank you for loving me back, even in those darker days.



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