Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Recalling a Brother's Suicide

In February of 1981 my older brother Stephen, at the tender age of 28, apparently felt he was out of options. A witness to the incident that claimed his life said to police, "I don't know what the guy was thinking. He darted right out in front of that car."

So ended the flickering of a bright, yet tortured, young light. The last several years of his life serving as one long suicide note. Steve's demons were many. Alcoholism, anger, depression, religious delusion, to name a few. As one who has benefited from the competent - and yes, loving - intervention of mental health professionals, I have learned that these so-called "demons" are manifestations of mental illness, pure and simple. Alcoholism is insidious; anger is ubiquitous; depression is horrible; but religious delusion is one symptom of illness that appears to simply confound most of those who venture into its path.

I can still conjure the image of Stephen proudly posing for a photograph under our blossoming apple tree, adorned with his bright red, eighth-grade graduation gown, hands clasped together in prayerful repose, fingers pointing skyward. A portrait of pure religious conformity. A veritable soldier for the army of Christ. No, this is not delusion. Not yet. This is, however, where the substance of his later delusions would find their origins. So obsessed was he with God, religion, and the supernatural, that when he eventually became ill, these very obsessions invaded his perceptions of reality. He often spoke to me of the time he was visited by God. As difficult as this is to disprove, I would suggest such a visit was unlikely. Yes, Steve claimed to have been paid such a visit, and it probably occurred during one of his many hallucinogenic voyages fueled by the drugs he experimented with in his youth.

There is a distinct difference between possessing a general belief there may be something beyond that which is observable and an obsessive belief in the truthfulness of an entire religious doctrine, the details of which fly directly in the face of all reason, logic and reality. This is my understanding of religious delusion. Unfortunately, for my brother, the brand of religiosity that was visited upon him by his Christian educators - and especially my parents - was without question a factor in his suicide. Stephen saw himself as totally undeserving of the only kind of redemption he was taught was valid: Christian redemption of the eternal human soul. Attempting to reconcile his imperfect, i.e., sinful, nature with the perfection he demanded of himself, proved a deadly undertaking. Harsh though this is, I perceive my brother's final act of desperation to be a direct consequence of the moral and religious overkill so egregiously thrust upon him by my mother and father. Totally forgiving them this transgression will no doubt take a very long time.

Steve eventually escaped the gnawing clutches of drug abuse. It even seemed to me that he was attempting to defect from the religious army that had conscripted him many years earlier. Reasoned thinking was on the horizon. But, when the "beginning of the free" took hold, and smatterings of a truly independent self began to emerge, the resulting inner conflict became too much to bear and he threw himself into the path of an oncoming car.

I often wondered if Steve was merely calling out for help; trying to reset the variables of his own perceptions by causing this "accident" which, had he survived intact, might have given him the respite he so desperately needed. A prolonged hospital stay. A brush with death. He might have emerged invigorated enough to actually assert his freedom from lifelong religious incarceration.

My guilt over never having found the keys to his emotional prison cell and aid him in his escape from irrationality has persisted these many years despite knowing in my heart I was a good brother to him. Could I have loved him any better? Could I have lent him just one more gesture of understanding? Would it have made a difference?

Steve's death taught me many things. Among them to always be on the alert for despair in my fellow man; not to make excuses for poor behaviour either in myself or in others, but to search for that which explains. By doing so, another remarkable human virtue - forgiveness - suddenly appears within reach of our grasp.

Your life, your suffering, your death, were not in vain, dear brother. You reminded us all just how precariously perched we sometimes are upon the tree limb of life. I believe you would have made a great ally in my quest for enlightenment.

1 comment:

  1. Very touching comments about your brother. Like my Granmother used to say, "Blood is thicker than water."