If I were to guess, I'd be money that you've had a moment, or moments, that have changed your life. They have changed you in a way that can't be given back, can't be undone. You are forever changed.
Sometimes for the better, sometimes not so much.
The biggest moment that changed my life was my brother's death. Many of you have heard pieces of this story, but this week I felt compelled to share details that I've kept inside. Some sort of pull was calling me to be honest and give this story to the world. So, this post is answering that call. My hope is that it leaves you feeling grateful for all the experiences in your life, good or bad. We can find meaning in everything in our lives, including tragedy.
A piece of this is quite selfish, I find a ton of healing in writing and this story is no different. I hope it helps you find peace in your life as well.
This week, I shared this story as a 5-part series in my Facebook group Peace within Me. If you are female and looking for support, I hope you join us.
This post may be triggering (suicide).
You know when you get a phone call in the middle of the night and your mind begins to think the worst? Like "Who died?" and "Where are all my people?" and you start going down the list of people you love, noting in your mind where they are?
My phone call came around dinner time.
My brother hadn't shown up for his shift at the bar. It was very unlike him. Two days prior, my grandma had suffered a serious stroke and was in the ICU. It honestly wasn't looking good for grandma so when the calls started coming in, I thought perhaps we had lost her. But, that wasn't it.
No one could find Mike. He wasn't answering phone calls or texts. I tried endlessly to reach him and when I couldn't, I began to cry. I knew he was gone.
The months and weeks leading up to this day were "normalish". Mike was struggling, but that wasn't unique. Below are our last text messages that we exchanged.
Here are our last text messages. The first one is a note about how Emily (my daughter) was loving the birthday present he had given her. He was the best present giver. Then, his next text to me eludes how he knew things weren't okay but he was working on it. I tried to reassure him that we loved him because we did. More than anything. It didn't matter how often we were able to see him or what was happening in his life. We knew his heart and that was all we needed. Then, on 4/14 was the text message that I never got to see come to fruition. The one I left hang.
If you've ever loved someone struggling with mental health or addiction, you will understand why I let that one hang.
He had texted me at 8:28 AM and I didn't call him until around 11. When I did, he was at the bar, opening up and my parents had shown up right after he answered. So, he said "Mom and Dad are here, let's talk Monday and do lunch next week."
Monday came and went. I didn't call him and he didn't call me.
I'll never know what he wanted to talk about. I wonder every day what it was. While I know in my mind that I couldn't have done anything to save him (he needed to do that himself), my heart can't help but wonder every day if there might have been something that could've changed things. It isn't guilt, but a never ending wonder.
We sent my cousin's husband over to my brother's house to see if he could wake him up (he lived close). Maybe he was sleeping?
He drove over to Mike's house with his son (he was 9 at the time) and by the grace of God, they didn't find Mike. But, his Explorer was parked in the garage. It wasn't looking good.
I called Mike's girlfriend and she said she could drive over for me and check once more (again, she lived closer). It had seemed like forever since I had heard from her (it really wasn't, but I was anxious) so I called her and stayed on the line with her while she arrived, opened his garage door, and walked in.
The next moments are etched in my mind forever.
She began to scream. Shrieking screams, mixed with crying and an array of terror, really. I knew what she was seeing. I stayed on the line with her for a few minutes and hung up to dial 911 (I was about 15 minutes away).
The only thing I recall about that 911 call was the operator telling me to calm down. He couldn't understand me and I couldn't calm down. He was asking me to take deep breaths. "Ma'am, you need to calm down. I can't understand you."
All the while, no one else in my family knew. No one.
My mom and cousin were at the ICU, visiting my grandma. I called my cousin (and also my best friend) and told her that I need her to stay calm, knowing my mom was sitting right next to her at grandma's bedside. I told her to drive my mom to my brother's house and not tell my mom anything until they arrived.
Knowing mom was en route, I called my dad. He was at the bar, planning an event with some of his friends. I asked him to step outside so we could talk. He did and I did my best to tell him his son had killed himself. There wasn't really a script for this conversation. I asked him to have one of his friends drive him to Mike's house. Now, he was en route.
Lastly, I called my sister. She lived in an apartment complex with her two kids so I asked her to step outside her apartment, away from her kids. She did and again, I explained how Mike was gone. I told her I would come pick her up, to find a sitter for the kids, but I was heading her direction.
I didn't smoke at that time, but once I picked up my sister, I grabbed one of her cigarettes, lit it up in my car, and we headed towards my brother's house.
She made phone calls and I did my best to focus on the drive.
Once we turned the corner into my brother's development, there was a sloo of cop cars and other cars lining both sides of the street in front of my brother's house.
I could see my parents outside, cops walking around, my brother's girlfriend, and other friends of my brother outside his garage.
I froze. I didn't want to face what I was seeing, but knowing this wasn't going away, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and opened the car door.
There is something really sobering about seeing the strongest people in your life, keeled over in severe emotional pain, tears streaming down their face, holding on to the side of a garage. Moments like this one are forever etched in my mind, replayed at the most inconvenient times.
My dad called the Pastor and he arrived at my brother's house. We all stood there in a circle in the garage, almost speechless about what was happening. There were no words. I asked Pastor, while glancing at my parents for approval, if we could pray. We all agreed and we joined hands, bowed our heads, and asked for peace and comfort.
Since I had called 911, the cops needed to interview me. While I had some wild days back in high school, I had never seen the back of a cop car. Two officers escorted me to a K9 car and opened the back door. I plopped down and quickly realized that there aren't normal seats in the back of cop cars, it was some hard plastic concoction and in my state, I laughed at how ridiculous this whole situation was. There I was, in the back of a cop car, ass hurting from slamming down into the back seat, and I hadn't done anything. Clearly the laughter was from shock, but it was really ominous when the cop shot me a look that said, "What the hell is wrong with you?!".
I remember seeing the coroner backing his mini van up to my brother's garage and seeing him wheeled out in a black plastic bag on a gurney. I watched that mini van pull out of the neighborhood, as he drove off to bring my brother's body for an autopsy, standard procedure in a death like this.
I watched the lights go out inside my brother's house and the garage door shut. That was it. I didn't want to leave his house that night. It seemed so final. I couldn't help but think this was all a crazy nightmare and the brother that I loved so much would be coming home any minute now. Any minute. . .
The days that followed were full of questions. Who knew what? What was going on in those hours up to his death? And, most of all, how the hell did we get here?
We spent the next few days preparing for his funeral. We created a beautiful slideshow of pictures, we shared beers with his friends, we cried and even laughed sharing stories of my brother that loved everyone.
I had gotten to a point where I couldn't cry anymore. It hurt so much yet I had no tears left. The night of the wake, the tears started again. And, during his service, I thought I had composed myself fairly well until the moment the casket closed. I lost every bit of composure when that happened. I'm not sure why, I suppose it was the last time I would see my brother's face in real life and it just hit me so hard. This happened, of course, right before we needed to do the processional behind the casket when the service ended so I could hardly walk back up the church aisle. I was bent over, hanging onto my brother's girlfriend as I lost all my shit.
The next weeks were full of busy work. I was a CPA with my own consulting practice so I had pushed all my client work off for over a week. Accounting doesn't take a pause, so I was forced back into work a bit sooner than I was prepared.
Life goes on. There is no way around it. I found a way to get through my days in between tears. I dealt with his financial struggles that inevitably came to a head when he passed. I'll never forget the companies that were unbearable to deal with (Frontier Communications comes to mind!) and the ones who knew how to handle it (Capital One, thank you!). I'll never forget the probate court visits and the incredible pain that brought me to my knees in a courtroom, a story for another day. Painful memories forever etched in my brain.
Slowly, but surely, the tragicness of what had happened morphed into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I'm not sure if my therapist has that in my notes, but I can promise you, it was and is a definite thing.
The 911 call replayed in my mind on a reel, along with the screams of my brother's girlfriend. I couldn't go into basements (associated with my brother's death) for months and when I finally could, I ran back up the stairs as fast as possible. For years, I couldn't look under my deck after letting my dog out to the bathroom because I would see him hanging there. I am happy to say that these symptoms are much better today, but they aren't gone. Certain days, certain sounds and smells, remind me of him and bring me back to these dark places.
I grabbed one of his Minnesota Twins pullover jackets from his closet that smelled of his cologne. I wore it and snuggled with it, breathing in his scent for comfort. Then, I made the mistake of wearing it to a bonfire, replacing the scent of Mike with bonfire smoke. I'm still upset with myself for this one.
I had a dream one night so vivid I know it was him. My family was in the basement of the funeral home, picking out his coffin, and he walked up to me and we hugged. I told him he was so cold and he said, "I know, it's weird right?". Yes, very weird.
I've visited a medium several times to talk to him, which helped me better understand his death and he apologized for what had happened, but said he couldn't change it. It was done. I still don't know all the details, and I never will, but visiting a medium brought me comfort. In fact, in one of those readings, she said, "Mike is telling you to breathe." Once she relayed that message I noticed my throat and chest were tight and I wasn't breathing. I could feel his arms around me as I sat there and the medium told me he was holding me. Honestly, I'm not a super woo woo girl, but this shit was as real as it gets.
On a side note: Mike was always working at the bar and his "normal" job so seeing him was always a treat and he was the life of the party. He was a bright light in my day. I once gave a talk about suicide awareness and I explained being able to see Mike like being a kid the night before Christmas and being so excited to open presents the next day. That's how he made me feel.
Somedays I worry that I won't remember his face, his one syllable laugh or the crazy cyst behind his ear that he refused to get checked out. I miss him so damn much.
And, while I would give anything in this world to have my brother back, I do believe that we can find meaning in hard things, in tragic things.
After my brother died, I struggled for a while. I did all sorts of things I'm not proud of. But, it didn't take long for me to right my path. In hard times, I think we can take two paths: the good or the bad. I definitely tried out the bad one and I realized that I needed to shift and right my way.
I had been surrounded by addiction, or so it seemed. It wasn't only my brother. Several other people in my life were and some still do struggle to this day, and I'm not ready to share those pieces, yet. But, if you work with me 1:1, you'll likely hear some of it.
Over the next years, my family raised money for suicide awareness and prevention efforts with motorcycle runs (my parents are avid Harley Davidson riders). We raised tens of thousands of dollars. I've brought events to local communities, to share about mental health and start killing the stigma of dealing with hard shit. I've given some talks and gone way out of my comfort zone, knowing that I needed to share what I knew.
I got divorced and attended graduate school at Hazelden Betty Ford (hello, trailblazers!), wrote a book, and now I help other people find peace. Never in my wildest dreams would I have picked this as my career. I promise you it has picked me and I feel an immense responsibility to fulfill this calling.
I'm no hero. Not at all. I have a knowing that this event happened in my life so I could serve others. I spent YEARS, miserable, trying to piece back together people and things that I couldn't fix, no matter how hard I tried. I've done the tough love thing, the friend approach, and finally learned how to accept people in my life as they are. It wasn't an easy road, but holy moly, what a difference I feel in my heart and soul. It's peace. Despite all the chaos, I feel peace.
And, that's what I want you to feel. I want you to feel it sooner than I ever did because living in stress and anxiety is no way to live. Life is a beautiful gift. Life can be hard, really f-king hard, ladies. That's okay. My brother told me once that life was never meant to be easy.
If you want some help on your journey, book a no-cost call with me. Let's chat and see if I can help you. You don't have to feel like crap anymore. You can love yourself and the people in your life, just as they are. It's possible.