I was a sweet, blue-eyed seven-year-old girl watching The Parent Trap while my big brother was babysitting. He got me a cup of water after asking if there was anything I needed. Little did I know my answer should have been, “I need my big brother.” Only minutes later I heard a heart-stopping, deafening boom. I sat there, frozen. What was that?
My blonde hair on the back of my neck was standing up, and my ears were ringing. The terrifying noise was the gun my brother used to take his own life. Thirteen years later, that emotionally scarred little girl is now a young woman at twenty. I still see a therapist after not only losing my big brother to suicide, but other traumas as well. There is something different about my blue-eyed twenty-year-old self…I do not hate my brother anymore. I used to be confused, traumatized, but now I understand that things do happen for a reason. I have come so far with not only the help of my family and friends, but also with the help of psychiatric therapy. Everyone has a story, this is mine.
Because I was young when my brother took his own life, I didn’t know how to deal with it. Even though I was young, I specifically remember thinking, “Everyone is sad and I should make them laugh.” Throughout the years, my feelings about my brother’s death became more intense, especially when I was a sophomore in high school and my sister’s boyfriend died. I refused to sleep for two reasons: I wanted to be there for my sister when she woke up crying in the middle of the night, and the little sleep I did get was filled with night terrors which had enough gore in them to drive me insane.
Two months went by until my parents sat me down and said, “You can’t help others unless you help yourself first.” I started to see a different psychiatrist and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. “PTSD is an anxiety disorder that some people get after seeing or living through a dangerous event. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger” (NIMH, 2013).
I had lived with PTSD ever since my brother died, but the most intense symptoms came back to haunt me after my sister’s boyfriend died including flashbacks, night terrors, trouble sleeping, feeling strong guilt, being easily startled, and feeling on edge (NIMH, 2013). I sat across from my therapist with a dead stare in my eye and said, “It’s been eleven years since Jeff died. Am I going to live with PTSD for the rest of my life?” His answer was, “There are many different treatments, but I think cognitive behavioral therapy is best for your situation.”
He went on to describe cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT. The three main parts of CBT are, “Exposure therapy- this therapy helps people face and control their fear. It exposes them to the trauma they experienced in a safe way. It uses mental imagery, writing, or visits to the place where the event happened. The therapist uses these tools to help people with PTSD cope with their feelings. Cognitive restructuring- helps people make sense of the memories. Sometimes people remember the event differently than how it actually happened. They may feel guilt or shame about what is not their fault. The therapist helps people with PTSD look at what happened in a realistic way. Stress inoculation training- tries to reduce PTSD symptoms by teaching a person how to reduce anxiety” (NIMH, 2013).
I sat there as he told me what would happen during the intense therapy. I was to meet with him every week, make myself believe I was that innocent seven-year-old girl, talk into a tape recorder and relive every little thing about my brother’s death including what I smelled, the last look I saw in his eyes, the sharp and painful noise of the gun he used to take his life, his funeral and after. I would listen to the tape recorder once a day until I would go in the next week, relive it again, and make another tape. Again, I sat there and watched his lips move. I was scared and the welling up of tears was clouding my vision. In a whisper I asked, “How is this going to work?”
I couldn’t base his reply on anything except trust as he replied, “You will go through the grieving process properly for the first time since you’re brother died. Eventually, you’re going to get so sick of listening to the events you describe on the tape recorder. Your brain will process the events over and over again until you realize there was absolutely nothing you could have done to prevent the tragedies, therefore you will slowly be telling your mind there is nothing you can be afraid of anymore. You will hate me for a few weeks, but you will get through this.” Although it sounded promising, I felt scared and hopeless.
One week later, I went in for my first CBT session. I wearily asked, “So how do I make myself believe I’m there?”
He replied, “Most patients find it helpful to shut their eyes. Try shutting your eyes and telling me the first thing you remember about that day.”
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and started out saying, “It was April 9th. It was really sunny outside…” Within two and a half minutes, I was seeing my brother again for the last time. I broke down. The tears rolling off my face were tears I didn’t know I had kept in for eleven years. My therapist whispered, “Take however long you need. Just start talking again when you’re ready.”
I took a few deep gasps for air and talked, and talked, and talked. I talked of things I blocked out but remembered as I was reliving it. I smelled the flowers in the funeral home. I tasted the strawberries I ate after the funeral. I smelled the basketball my brother’s teammates had signed for him. One hour later I stopped talking and opened my eyes. I was sitting across from my therapist in the office. I wasn’t that scared and confused girl, but a sad and traumatized nineteen-year-old. My therapist and I summed things up and I agreed to listen to the tape once a day until our next session the next week. I got home, sat on my porch steps and called my mom.
“How was it?”
I replied, “I feel like Jeff just died an hour ago.” Just as my therapist had promised, it got worse before it got better. And just as he had also promised, I hated him for making me listen to it once a day. However, if this was going to get me better than I would commit to it 100%.
The final stage of my CBT was to go to a gun range. My friend and I walked into the range and the sounds of the gunfire made me almost turn around and walk right back out, but one thing kept me from doing just that…I would not be a coward. If I walked out, I would have failed not only myself but also my family. This was my chance to overcome my fear of loud noises and prove to myself that I would get through this for my brother, for my family, and for myself. As I loaded the gun I thought of what my brother could have been thinking when he loaded the gun he used to end his life. As I aimed for my first shot, I thought of how my brother aimed for his only shot. I took a deep breath and I shot away all of my fears and questions.
This one is for the last time I saw him. I pulled the trigger.
Was he crying right before he pulled the trigger? I pulled the trigger again.
This one is for the man who took away my sister’s boyfriend.
This one is for listening to my sister cry herself to sleep.
This one is for my night terrors, another for my panic attacks.
Here’s to the little girl banging on the door that my brother locked.
This one is for the hatred.
When I ran out of bullets, I loaded the gun again and kept pulling the trigger. I eventually stopped shooting, put down the gun, and looked at my friend. She was smiling. I pressed the button so I could see my target. The man who had set us up with the guns and the bullets asked me, “Have you ever done this before?”
“Because you kept hitting the target perfectly.” I looked at my friend and smiled. She shot next. We kept going back and forth for an hour. When we walked out, the sounds of the gunfire weren’t making me sweat anymore, tears weren’t blurring my vision, and I could breathe.
Over time, week after week, I grieved for our loss properly for the first time. I didn’t hate my brother anymore. I could now understand that his mind was in a place of no hope the moment he decided to end his life. CBT was the hardest thing I have ever done, but thankfully my family and friends were there for me. My family had already grieved the loss of my brother, but they understood what the therapy was helping me with and asked me how I was doing every day. I asked them questions and they answered with honesty and comfort. I cried and they hugged me. I hadn’t realized that I was living with bricks on my chest until after CBT…I could breathe, and the air wasn’t poisonous anymore.Tags: association of death education and counseling, death, Depression, faith, getting to the other side of grief, grief, grief and loss, Grief Support, guilt, healing, hope, Loss, mental illness, Moving forward, survival, writing