Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Overnight

Twenty-three years ago, I became a suicide survivor. I was nineteen, and had a week left before high school graduation. My best friend and first love lost his battle with depression on May 1. Seemingly, he had a lot to live for - college, a loving family and friends who adored him. None of that was enough to save him.

I still remember that day vividly, down to what he was wearing, and the fact that we fought - our final words to each other. That experience shaped me for the next several years as I struggled to understand, to make sense of the non-sensical. The memories have not faded, nor will they ever.

Last year, I became a second time survivor when my thirty-eight year old younger brother ended his life on May 14. I was celebrating my birthday with friends when I got the call from my mother. In an instant, life was turned upside down. He left not only my mom & dad and myself, but also a six year old daughter. Once again, I struggled to understand.

They say that hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, looking at my brother's behavior over several years, he was most certainly battling some sort of depression. His highs were high, but the lows were at the bottom. In some conversations, I felt as if I were walking on eggshells, just waiting to step on the right one, and have it crack. Despite my previous experience, I was oblivious to my brother's illness.

In the days, weeks and months after Brad's death, I shied away from telling people about how he died. Society has placed a stigma on suicide and depression. Both are looked at as character flaws, weaknesses. As I have continued to heal, I realized that this stigma is just that - a label that is convenient, but wrong. We are accepting of diseases that can kill, like cancer, diabetes, heart disease - even AIDS. But mental illnesses (which can also kill) are still something that society feels should remain a "dirty little secret".

Last night, I took a step (18 miles worth, actually ;)) to erase that stigma. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) hosted its annual walk, "The Overnight - A Walk Out of the Darkness". Accompanied by good friends Hannah, Michele and Sue, and my new friend Lindsay, I walked to help raise awareness - to remove the stigma attached to suicide and depression - to help just one person make a different choice and get the treatment they need.

This was an emotional journey that started when I decided to sign up for the walk in late May. First, I needed to tell my parents, who are still healing themselves, what I was planning. They were both very supportive and even helped to spread the word to their friends. Next was actually putting out to the world via email and Facebook that my brother had committed suicide; a major step, but one that was met with compassion and understanding.

In fact, the response to what I was doing was overwhelming to me. I heard from so many people who had in some way been affected by depression and/or suicide. Brothers, cousins, fathers and uncles lost, children struggling, personal struggles. It was an honor to share those stories with all of you and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the support that you gave, both in financial contributions and emotionally.

I knew going in that this event was not going to be easy. I wasn't so much worried about the walk, as the emotional aspect that I would face. And, as I registered and got myself squared away prior to the event, the emotion hit full force. As part of the event, walkers are sent luminary bags to decorate which are then used to light the path back to the event in the early morning hours. I found pictures of Brad and I from 1974 and 1995, had copies made, and attached them to my luminary, as well as writing a note. When I went to hand the bag off, I just couldn't do it. It was just a symbol, but it was symbolic of the relationship we shared, and the first tears were shed. I ended up carrying the bag to dinner, but did manage to turn it in (tear free) before the walk started.

The opening ceremony was another very emotional event. Here we were, sitting in City Hall Plaza, almost 2000 people who all had lost someone to suicide/depression, or were themselves, battling to overcome the disease. Twenty-three years ago, I felt like NO ONE, with the exception of my friend's family, knew what I was going through, and that I was alone. Last year, again, I felt that sense of aloneness - people couldn't possibly understand what this was like. And last night, I was surrounded by 2000 people who all KNEW exactly what it was like.

The personal stories were heart-wrenching, as were the reactions of the people in the crowd. In front of us, a mother, father and daughter all clung to one another - they had lost their son/brother. Beside us, a woman on her own (who we later walked with for several miles), remembered her best friend's father (her best friend was married last week, and the absence of her father was difficult for everyone). Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. So much loss in such a small space.

But, as we began the walk, the mood shifted. People were excited to be underway, to be walking to make a difference. Tears were replaced with laughter. Conversations were animated, and many stopped to take in the sights along the way.

We started the walk at City Hall Plaza, and headed to Beacon Street - past the State Capital, the sunset reflecting in the gold dome. We crossed the Charles on the Mass Ave Bridge, and walked along the opposite shore - flanked by MIT on one side, and the Boston skyline on the other. And then, back across the river and back into the city - past BU and around Fenway Park. By this point, we had come from some of the last walkers to start, up through the pack to pass much of the peloton (oh - wait - this isn't supposed to be a race report!).

It was at Fenway, at mile 6.2 (and after 10 pm), that Mike was waiting. He had ridden in from home to cheer us on, and to show his support. Along the way, he'd gotten lost, but was determined to be there when we walked past. It meant a lot to me that he was there, just as it has meant a lot to me that he has supported me through this difficult time in my life. I don't say it to him often enough, but I thank him for being there, and helping me along the right path.

We left Mike and Fenway behind (he later texted to let me know he'd gotten home just before 11:30 - by then, we were in Southie!), and continued walking all the way down Boylston St - through the shopping district, past many VERY busy bars, along the opposite side of the Boston Common, and into Chinatown. We saw some pretty interesting characters on this stretch of the walk. I'm not sure some of the skirts could have been shorter, or the heels taller! DOH - that just showed my age, some ;).

From there, we passed South Station and headed into the Seaport district. We were excited along this part of the route to pass the halfway mark - nine miles down, and only nine more to go! All five of us were still hanging tough, ready to conquer the remainder of the route.

I had never been to South Boston before, but the neighborhood here was actually quite lovely. Nice architecture, and we walked along L street to the shore, where we were greeted with the ocean, some fireworks, a lovely park, and lots of "kids" just hanging out. We reached the "dinner" stop on Castle Island around 12:30 a.m. I didn't realize that a ham sandwich at that hour could taste so good ;). We spent a bit of time here, eating, stretching and changing our socks. We were at mile 12.3, and on the homeward stretch now.

But, just like on a long bike ride, the stop likely wasn't a great idea. It was about this point that the tired started to settle in, and the aches started to be more pronounced. Around mile 15, as we passed Rowe's Wharf, Lindsay claimed that she felt as if she were waddling - it took all of our effort to pick the legs up and move them forward without swinging them in a half circle. Our last pit stop came around mile 16 at the New England Aquarium. By now, all 5 of us had sore feet, sore hip flexors, and were pretty fatigued. We felt a few splatters of rain as we passed the TD Garden, but it was, thankfully, short lived.

We knew we were near the finish. As we approached City Hall Plaza just before 2:30 am, we were all tired. What greeted us there were cheery volunteers, 2000 lit luminara telling the stories of victims and survivors, and - breakfast. We took one last photo together - we made it. Eighteen miles all to help make a difference. My feet were sore, my legs were sore, and I was ready to go to bed. But none of that compares to the pain and suffering that my brother dealt with. I can only hope that he was watching over me last night, proud of what I was trying to do in his honor.

At the end of 18 miles

We were too tired to sit for three hours for the closing ceremony, so we all headed home. As I drove on 128, the sun began to rise ahead of me, with the full moon in my rear view mirror. I had accomplished a lot - not just overnight, but in the months since Brad's death, and certainly on the journey. I watched the sunset over Boston, and watched it rise again in the morning - literally walking out of the darkness. In my car, I whispered, "I love you, Brad", and knew that we had done a good thing.


Sue MacLean said...


JanetR said...

I loved your description of the walk and it was really great that you did it with Hannah, Michele, Sue and Lindsay. It sounds like a wonderful event and I am glad that you don't feel alone anymore. It can be so confusing and mysterious for the survivors as to why someone takes their own life but hopefully the walk will help raise awareness to the general public. Last November my friend Rhys committed suicide when he was about to become a father 3 weeks later. It was a shock to his family and friends but he felt that suicide was the only solution for him. I hope that you can eventually find peace with your brother's won't be an easy journey but you have many wonderful family members and friends that will support you along the way.

Caroline said...

As you know, it is hugely important to me that you did this.

Thank you,
Teary-eyed C

Steven said...

Well done Cathy. I found your description of the walk very moving. You have made many people very proud. You HAVE made a difference.

Brian said...

Big Hug

Trigirlpink said...

Geeze Cath, that is a heavy load to bear. What an awesome way to celebrate your brother, bring awareness to this tragic disease and also help you to heal.

Anonymous said...

I am Sue's sister and have been so proud of her for doing this walk. Your description is wonderful and painful and hopeful. Sue and I and others in our family have battled this disease our entire lives. Our tireless efforts to conquer this battle are finally making strides later in life but still the same, coming out of the darkness... finally. Thank you for sharing and for walking. I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend and brother. You are very brave to bring this disease into the light and walk in honor of those who lost the struggle.

Paula said...

This is a beautiful, moving entry, Cath. I'm proud of you for how far you walked and how far you've come. Keep walking. I'm right there with you. Love P.

Il Bruce said...

Thanks Cathy et al.

Michele said...

Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

gewilli said...

i'm typing this as I'm wiping a few tears from my eyes. Must be some smoke here in the office or some dust blowing...

wonderfully recounted, it was hard clicking on the picture of the luminary for me. very emotional.

thank you for sharing...

shootingstar said...

I'm sorry to hear of your loss. And another one.

It's a fine line at times, between sanity vs. depression. We need to remember this --always.

claudia said...

That was a very, very good thing that you did. Nice job.

megA said...


like you

and the people who love you


and now i'm crying. . .