10 years. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve seen his face, heard his laughter, hugged him goodbye.
I was 18. I remember it clearly: the sound of the road under my car, Rilo Kiley, and my cat air freshener hanging from the rear-view. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. I had my windows down. I was smiling. I thought about how free I felt to be done with my first year of college. My whole life was ahead of me. Adulthood. Real freedom. I was on my way home from spending the weekend at my boyfriend’s apartment in Madison. I was coming home to Mia, who was then just a kitten, and to my parents, and to my little brother who was only eight.
When I walked in the door, my parents’ phone was ringing. I hadn’t even taken my shoes off yet or said a proper hello. My dad was already reaching to answer it and I could tell almost immediately that something was wrong. “What?” He quickly headed for the bathroom and closed the door tightly behind him. Something was definitely wrong. I threw my backpack down and waited with my mom. “What! What!” she yelled. Finally, she opened the door herself and my dad was standing there with a look on his face I’ll never be able to shake or describe accurately. This complete horror in his eyes, the phone still in his hand. Tears forming, for me, for her, for us, for him.
“Erik killed himself.”
It replays over and over and over and over.
After 10 years, that sentence still haunts me. It hits me when I’m standing in line for coffee, when I’m watching a movie, when I’m sitting in class. I can see my dad’s face, hear my mom’s scream. I close my eyes until it’s gone. Time helps, but it doesn’t heal.
I slept and I didn’t sleep. My mom didn’t leave the couch. We sobbed, we ate in silence. My mom left to be with my aunt, and I couldn’t stomach facing it. How could I ever go back there without him there to greet me? How could I possibly attend his funeral? How could I ever live a normal life again? I forgot what it felt like to be free, to have the same feeling I had in my car just days earlier. I was trapped in a nightmare.
Suicide. Losing someone this way is unlike any other death. It’s not tragic the way cancer or car accidents are. It isn’t a mistake, it isn’t unfair. It’s the only type of death that is 100% intentional. To imagine someone you love going through the steps to end their life on purpose is not something I’d wish on anyone. These series of questions flood your brain at all times. You go through stages of helplessness, desperation, anger. Nobody fully understands this type of death unless they have personally lost someone the same way. There’s stigma, labels, that same look of pity. Questions like, “Did you know he was depressed?” “Why did he do it?” “How did he do it?” “Did he leave a note?” You’re in a constant state of numbness and surrounded by the unknown.
I stood in the hallway at his funeral while Sondre Lerche played from his iPod that my aunt set up for the service. All of his favorite music. All music I introduced him to. Songs I’ve sent him, mix CDs I’ve made for him. I stood by the window and watched the storm rolling in while “Wet Ground” played over the speakers. Tornado sirens were roaring outside and all I could think was how appropriate it would be for us all to be taken away in the tornado I was sure he created. I wanted to find it. I wished for it, even. I was calm.
I miss him. I’ve watched his little brother grow up, turn 16, and then suddenly become older than Erik was when he died. I’ve watched my little brother do the same. My nephews are all almost older than Erik now. Time passes fast but slow. Where did 10 years go? How can a decade pass, but these memories all still feel like yesterday?
Erik liked the feeling of getting into a hot car in the summer; feeling that radiating warmth, if only for a second. He liked disc golfing. He loved music. He was kind, funny, smart. We were going to travel. We were going to do so much. When he left, he took a part of me with him. I’ve grown up, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of him.
You never forget the people you’ve lost. They come in and out of your life all the time because you see pieces of them everywhere. I’ve seen Erik on street corners, in groups of teenagers, in movies. I even saw him playing in a band once and had to run to the bathroom to cry. (I’ll never forget the sweet girl who didn’t ask any questions but just stood there and hugged me until I was okay.) Erik has come to me in my dreams over the years, too. Sometimes he’s knocking on my door, desperate for help, on the run from something but never able to tell me why. Other times we’re at the beach or mini golfing and it’s like he never left. For a year after he died, I would wake up and have this strange feeling that it never actually happened. I wanted to believe he really did run away. I thought up every possible scenario for other ways in which maybe he could have died. Anything but suicide. I just couldn’t make sense of his death or why he would choose to die. It’s something I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life.
Some days it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. Others, it feels like it’s been an eternity since I’ve seen him. My heart aches for him all the time. I never stop wondering what could have been, I’ll never forgive myself for not being able to help, and life is always a little bit foggy.
But I guess that’s why they call people like me, “survivors.” Somehow, some way, we survive in a world full of unknowns. We keep going, we pick ourselves up over and over and over again. The pain is deep, haunting, and always hard to talk about. But I have hope.
My hope is that someday, we’ll be able to talk about mental health in a way that isn’t shameful. I hope the dark cloud that depression brings will finally be understood. I hope someday, people will stop saying, “get over it,” “don’t be so emo,” or “he/she is such a baby,” when talking with or about someone who struggles with depression. Because let’s be honest… Nobody wants to be depressed. Nobody chooses to be depressed. Depression isn’t fun. If it was something a person could just “get over,” don’t you think they would?
I made a promise to myself earlier this year to be honest and careful with myself. I want to take care of myself and pay attention to the areas of my life that I’ve neglected for so long. My own mental health is one of those areas. So, I needed to practice what I preach. I started seeing a therapist for the first time ever last month and I finally feel like I’m breaking open the parts of myself I’ve tried so hard to ignore. So far, I have no regrets. And because I don’t want “therapist” or “depression” to be considered dirty words, I wanted to talk about them here, openly and honestly. This is my safe space. And if you’re here and reading this, thank you.
Erik was one of the many, many people the world has lost to suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and is the 2nd leading cause of death for youths between the ages of 10-24. Each year for the past six years, I’ve walked in Erik’s memory with AFSP, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Walking among other survivors is powerful and healing. If you’re a survivor, I recommend it. Talk about suicide, share your story, and find a way to heal. I hope you practice self-care in your own life and reach out to those who you suspect might need help or guidance. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.