I wanted to share my personal experience with suicide.
My older brother, Yancey, took his own life the night of Dec. 22, 2013 at 28 years old. Yancey was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and suffered from horrific bouts of depression, anxiety and OCD for more than a decade. Even with years of therapy, medication, and even hospitalization, the pain of Yancey’s mental illness was too unbearable to keep living. Upon reading this, you may assume that Yancey lived a sad, lonely life. That is quite the opposite.
Growing up, Yancey was the shining star of our family. Yancey succeeded in school and athletics with ease, often earning scholastic recognition and winning MVP baseball, swimming and football awards. Yancey was bright, funny, had a huge smile and made friends effortlessly. The best part of Yancey was that he loved all of it – friends, sports, school. He was such a happy kid.
Yancey was my best friend. He would cook for me, play with me, help me in school and sports, find ways to make me laugh, and he would even let me sleep in his room when I was scared at night. My family moved around a lot growing up, so when it was hard to make new friends, I always had Yancey.
When Yancey was in high school, he started taking Accutane, a drug to treat severe acne. That’s when everything started changing for Yancey. Accutane has been reported for causing severe depression and suicide attempts in users. I’m not saying that Yancey’s mental illness was caused by Accutane. Yancey was prone to probably becoming bipolar eventually, as there have been other members of our family with bipolar disorder. However, I do think Accutane brought his mental illness the surface sooner and more viciously than if it would have occurred naturally, if at all.
Yancey’s depression seemed like it hit out of no where. I can’t even imagine what the pain was like for Yancey to go from a happy, busy teenager to so dark and sad. It was very devastating for our family, his coaches, teachers and friends, as well. Suddenly, one of the best players on the varsity football team didn’t show up to practice. The straight A student stopped turning in his homework. He would hide out in his room for hours, reluctant to be with friends and angry at family members. None of us understood, and we all thought he was just acting out as some teenagers do. He started becoming more violent when he would get angry – throwing things, cursing, pacing. My parents had never seen this side of him and had no idea how to react other than discipline him.
Yancey’s radical behavior led to him getting kicked out of his boarding school. He went to a public school for a few weeks before our family moved to Huntsville, Texas. We all thought it could be a great new start for Yancey, but he only spent a couple of months in school before it became too much for him. Yancey physically could not get out of his bed in the morning to go to school. Yancey just didn’t care anymore, and this clearly wasn’t the same person we all knew.
The next few years were so emotional and dramatic for our family, filled with doctor appointments, arrests, hospitalizations, prescriptions, fights, but mostly confusion and sadness. Looking back, I’m sure that time was so traumatic for Yancey. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a doctor tell me there is something wrong with me and that I’ll have to live with it for the rest of my life. I’m sure all the different medications he took didn’t help either. There’s no way someone can feel stable while testing several different brain medications. Yancey hated the way some of the medications made him feel and would often try to quit the pills cold turkey, which in turn made him even more unstable.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I was often scared to have friends over to our house, because I didn’t want them to know I had a brother who had a mental disorder. I was still relatively new to Huntsville High School, and I was worried that people would judge my family for Yancey’s problems and think that it was our fault for the way that Yancey acted. I didn’t want anyone to know the pain we were going through, and I didn’t want to appear different or strange. I longed for the relationships of other siblings in high school together, supporting each other on the sidelines at games, sharing friends and riding to school together.
Every so often, there would be signs of hope. The real Yancey I grew up with would come back to life, and I could see it in his pretty, blue, happy eyes. We would crack jokes and listen to music together. But then, out of no where, something would set him off and his eyes would turn black and empty. He looked so different when he had his manic swings. Scary. It hurt so bad having the sweet, loving person I knew go on uncontrollable manic rampages. The manic episodes were not pleasant, and he would threaten and get mad at me for the smallest things, like leaving to go to work, talking on the phone with my friends or not wanting to stay awake at night to talk to him. If you have ever seen the movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” you know that you just can’t calm a bipolar person down when they’re having a manic episode. Nothing can derail them from what they’re hyper focused on. If you try to tell them to calm down, it can turn into an even worse episode. Yancey would have huge angry blowups that were incredibly disruptive and scary for me and our family.
Yancey brought so much turmoil to our household that he was asked to leave. For the next few years, I saw Yancey sporadically. I was in college and would see him sometimes when I came home for the holidays. There was a time where he rarely wanted to spend the holidays with us, because he was frustrated with our family for not always understanding him. I get it. We wanted to understand, we really did. We just didn’t want to feel pain and be hurt by his actions anymore. While I rarely saw him in person, I imagined I saw him dozens of times while I was at UT-Austin, walking down the street, on the bus, as one of the transient kids on Guadalupe Street. My love and fear for him was haunting me.
While I was in college, Yancey had a little girl, Zoey. She was a force for change in Yancey’s life. There had been many ups and downs over the years, but this is when we started seeing more ups than we did downs. Yancey loved Zoey to death and wanted to be a good dad for her. When Zoey’s mom, Kimberly, would go to work, Yancey would look after her. Yancey started getting out of the house more, going to Zoey’s soccer games and picking her up from school. He also started coming around our family more, hanging out at barbecues, participating in holidays and even coming to church with us sometimes. It wasn’t always perfect, but we could see that Yancey had a desire to get better for his daughter. Zoey gave Yancey a whole new purpose in life.
While we were seeing more up swings, the down swings were the heaviest of down swings. They would usually consist of an angry manic episode, and Yancey would go for months without speaking to our family. This was always particularly difficult on my mom, because she worried about him so much and wanted him to know we loved him. By this time, we all had grown to understand (as best we could) and respect Yancey’s mental illness. We loved him and wanted him to be a part of our family. Before that last down swing where he ultimately ended up killing himself, we truly thought Yancey was on the right track to managing his mental illness. I hate that after all these years, we still could not fully understand the severity of what he was going through.
During his last few years, Yancey was tormented feeling sad for himself, because he felt like he had failed miserably after once having so much potential. The worst part for Yancey was coming to terms with the fact that he had a mental illness. He hated the idea of being labeled as bipolar or depressed. He just wanted to be normal. He felt like people looked at him like a freak, but also as someone who should be able to just “fix” his illness on his own, as if mental illness was not a “real” illness. It’s not like having cancer where a terrible disease just happens to you, right? WRONG! Mental illness is exactly like having cancer. No one wants to have cancer and no one wants to be mentally ill. And no one can just FIX it with the snap of their fingers.
The stigma of mental illness in our society was so hurtful to Yancey. He didn’t want to look at his mental illness as something that he would have to manage his whole life. He wanted to fix it and be well like everyone else. I think the realization that it would never be fixed was one of the many reasons Yancey decided to end his life. He didn’t want to accept a life of medications and therapy to maintain a happy, functioning life. I also think he started to worry about his daughter coming to the realization that her dad was not “normal.” He knew that having Zoey see him during his manic and depressive episodes would not be healthy for her. Yancey felt hopeless. And I can’t help but blame myself for not providing him hope. My family and Kimberly feel the same as well. I’ll always wonder what we could have done better so that this would not have happened?
It’s been less than one year since his death, so the pain is still very raw. I believe that God shows grace for the mentally ill, and Yancey is in a better place. He was suffering so much for so many years, and now he can peacefully be in heaven with his two grandmothers who loved him and were crazy about him.
I hope that Yancey’s story will encourage others to learn and talk about mental illness. One of the common misconceptions is that the mentally ill are bad people or “crazy.” Yancey was not a bad person. He did not drink, do drugs or hurt anyone other than himself. Once the stigma of mental illness is eliminated, I think we’ll see less mentally ill people feeling hopeless and killing themselves. I want people to know that mentally ill people can manage their bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia etc. just like other people manage their cholesterol, autism, alcoholism and other problems with medication and therapy. Just because they have an unwanted problem does not make them bad people that we should ignore within our society.
One of the greatest things about talking about mental illness is that you realize you’re not alone. Since my brother’s suicide, I’ve had more people tell me about their friend/family member who has mental illness and/or committed suicide than I ever have in my life. It’s been comforting knowing that I have a community of people who have dealt with similar struggles as my family.
I could go on for days talking about Yancey, the stigma of mental illness and my hopes for change in society. But what I want to leave you with is this… One of my biggest fears is that Yancey didn’t know we loved him. So, take the time to love today. You never know what your friend, neighbor, significant other or family member is going through inside. Tell them you love them, give them a hug, talk with them, listen to them. You never know what hope and joy you can bring to someone’s life with a little love.