I smile when people ask me what your name is and then continue to ask, “Oh is that short for Charlotte,” and I proudly state: “Nope, she’s Charley. She is named after my brother, whose middle name was Charles.”
If you are lucky, you may have a few people in this world that change your life for the better: they will make you think about life differently and make you feel truly blessed for all the beautiful things you’re able to see, do, smell, and hear. To me, your Uncle Jeffrey was one of these people.
It is hard to be overly sensitive in a sometimes cruel, unrelenting world. People aren’t always kind. Life doesn’t always pan out the way it’s supposed to or the way we dreamed it would. Something haunted your Uncle Jeffrey and to this day, no one will ever know what. We do know that he suffered from depression, a mental illness he fought without medical help because he refused assistance over and over. Later, we’d put the pieces together to learn about own his extensive self-medication through alcohol and drugs—but I’ll get to that another day.
You see, even who seem like the most happy, popular, well-liked people may only be pretending to be happy, outgoing, or even “okay,” when inside they may have unspoken suffering, and the world around them misses it. It’s a guise. Maybe they are unsure, or even worse, terrified to speak up about what’s really going on in their heads. There is unfortunately still a stigma around mental health issues especially for adolescents, who are combating so many intense feelings simultaneously as their minds and bodies undergo important maturation processes in this transition from childhood to adulthood. These feelings and very real illnesses may go unnoticed and without help, become so large, they can overpower the individual—making them believe there is no way out. The pain builds up until it becomes intolerable.
Anyway, I could be completely wrong, I’m not a clinician and don’t know the science specifics behind adolescent psychiatry, but this is how I imagine it as a layperson that witnessed my brother silently suffer until his own pain became unbearable.
Your Uncle Jeff was one of the most beautiful people this world was lucky enough to know—it’s been 16 years since he’s passed and I’m slowly learning that sometimes the world’s most beautiful people give the outside all their beauty and allow themselves to suffer so much inside. As a child, he wouldn’t let anyone kill an ant, spider, or anything living. He wanted to save every living creature. He was “Jefferoni” to all our younger cousins and family friends, because he was constantly making them laugh, and giggle with sheer contentment. He’d surprise me with a fully decorated birthday chair every morning on my birthday, the day after his. He made Mom go out shopping last minute to every sports store this side of the state to find me the skiing hat he’d know I’d love. He’d let me sleep in his bed at Christmas as kids because I was terrified of a stranger (Santa) coming into the house. And I’m pretty sure he made every adolescent boy aware of his presence when I was venturing off to high school as a naive young woman. This was Jeff: loving, protective, yet sensitive to a fault—who for whatever reason, always needed to have people’s validation in order to feel good about himself, without internally realizing or embracing how wonderful he truly was.
He made everyone else a priority, but didn’t take the time to make himself a priority.
The night he called me, July 16, 2000, I knew something was wrong. It wasn’t strange for him to call that late, but something was different in his voice. He was living with your Grandpa out in the Berkshires and I was living with your Nonnie & Papa on the Cape—miles and miles away. We talked for about three hours about many things, some hurtful, some happy, but mostly him beating around the bush—knowing he’d be taking his own life, knowing he’d already taken enough drugs to be successful—and hoping he’d be able to assure me that even with him gone physically, he’d always be there. He wanted to me to go to college, to rise above. He said he’s always protect me. I kept asking him to assure me that he would be alive the next morning when I called, that this was all a drunken episode, that tomorrow would be different. He assured me he would, but I think it was just to make me feel better about getting off the phone with him and not arousing our parents because he knew what he was doing. I didn’t understand that then. I was only 15-years old. I believed he would be awake the next morning, so I called and called. His phone was off the hook.
I remember that next day so vividly, I shudder every time it passes through my memory. I lost my innocence in all it’s entirely that day. From that day forward, my life was never going to be the same and I knew it. I didn’t know then how profoundly, but I could feel it with every cell in my body.
When things get hard, I become a robot, I move swiftly through the motions as quickly and efficiently as possible. I don’t think, I just do. It’s an autopilot program I think my brain installed to get me through the hardest times and days of my life, a protection mechanism. For if I felt all the pain his death caused me all at once, I don’t think I’d be able to breathe. I feel it in gradual waves and over many, many years—and even then, I still have a hard time breathing. I often felt guilty that I was breathing and he was not, that I couldn’t save him from his demons. How did I not know, and why didn’t I try harder with what I did know? So many unanswered questions stole the sanity from me.
There’s this song by a band I barely knew at the time, but the lyrics read: “You used to captivate me by your resonating light. Now I’m bound by the life you left behind. These wounds won’t seem to heal. This pain is just too real. There’s just too much that time cannot erase….”I listened to that song, Immortal (Evanescence), Patience (Guns’N’Roses) and With You In Your Dreams (Yes, Hanson) daily—for months just hoping they’d bring me some temporary relief in believing that someday his passing wouldn’t hurt so much.
I turned 16 two weeks later, my “Sweet Sixteen”—That birthday chair Jeff used to always make me wasn’t there. Jeff wasn’t there. While everyone around me was concerned about clothes, gossip, sports, and boys, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. I couldn’t find common ground with anyone my age, I couldn’t find any peace in my own head. I quit soccer, the first love of my life, and I went on autopilot. I feel so much sadness when I think back to that lonely, lost 16-year old girl, my former self, who like Jeff, hid her pain from the outside world. I want to hug her and tell her life would be amazing someday if she had the patience, she’d have true lifelong friends, travel the world, discover new passions, marry a supporting, loving man, give birth to a beautiful daughter, have dogs to make her laugh, a house of her own to redecorate—but I can’t, but I am SO thankful that girl somehow managed to get by those years and pain to be able to experience the life she is currently living. That she would someday finally allow herself to grieve– and in grieving, acceptance would come.
It took me many years to feel normal again, if that was ever truly possible, at least I felt better. When I went away to college at Simmons, a school that embodies the eradification of inequalities, I felt a renewed connection to Jeff—via learning about social issues, helping people, helping change the world to be a better place if even in the smallest of ways. In doing, I felt close to Jeff. It was my own therapy of sorts, a therapy I continue to do—a therapy that transcended this connection to become who I am at heart, a doer. Jeff gave me this gift.
There’s this article I recently read about a woman losing her mother at age 23, which writes: “It took me a while for me to realize that losing my mother while in my 20s would bring nuances of grief that would only become apparent much later, like time-delayed emotional grenades… If there’s one positive thing to losing a parent when one is a young adult, it’s the development of a deep and abiding resiliency. Life has already hit you, hard. You might carry scars, but you’re still standing.” These lines really resonated with me because I do think my resiliency is abnormally strong, but that doesn’t mean it still doesn’t hurt like hell– and that time-delayed emotional grenade definitely hit, hard.
I chose a career studying adolescent substance use, abuse, health, and drug policy. For anyone that knows me, it was obviously not a random choice, but Jeff’s story also wasn’t something I ever talked about while going through the motions and in my academic circles until much later. I was in my own world of didactic and self-discovery learning. I needed to do that for me. I needed to understand how this could happen—and learn ways to help prevent it from happening to others.
I finished the last leg of my formal education, the dissertation last Spring and the end of the acknowledgements after thanking everyone especially my key mentors and your dad for his patience and your impending arrival, reads: “To my eternally beautiful brother, Jeffrey Charles, who succumbed to his complex battle with depression and substance use when we were just adolescents. You have always been and continue to be my inspiration everyday. You are the reason I do this work and if it can someday help even one adolescent, one family, one sibling—I will have succeeded. This is for you.”
In my head, I had completed a journey to better understand the environmental and psychosocial reasons behind his suicide, in my heart, I still didn’t feel the closure I so badly sought after. That’s when I realized that I never would. His death changed me in ways I’d never be able to sew shut, but I could constructively make peace with those changes and embrace every part of me forever changed.I could allow myself to finally grieve his passing and forgive myself for not knowing, not trying harder.
Sixteen years later. He’d been in my life shorter than how long it’s taken me to finally feel peace with his passing. Up until this point, and your arrival, I told myself I was healed from his passing, I was “OK,”– it’s been too many years not to be “OK” right? I wasn’t. Your arrival and loving someone as deeply as I love you and as I loved your Uncle Jeffrey brought all these feelings back. When you love someone so much and they leave, they take a piece of you– and then you came, expanding my heart, but re-opening those broken pieces more than I imagined was possible. I feel so much sadness that you’ll never get to meet your uncle, who would have inevitably brought so much happiness into your life. I feel sadness for the wife and children he’d never have—because he would have made the best father and husband. In essence, I wasn’t healed yet, I am now just finally arriving at the last of the five stages of grief: “Acceptance.” Something you both helped me realize and reminded me that taking the time to finally heal was best for the both of us.
Suicide, I’ve learned, is a lot different to accept than a loved one’s passing from other kinds of mortality, yet it is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults ages 15-24 according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. I am not alone in this journey, something I also wish wasn’t true. Every time I hear a news bite speaking of another adolescent who prematurely took his/her life, my whole body stiffens and my heart sinks thinking about those he/she left behind, the finality of it all. So much life ahead cut short in a temporarily lapse of judgment in one moment. I often wished that Jeff just died in a car accident, so I didn’t have all these unanswered questions in my head, questions that both hurt and haunted me for years. I know many families, sisters, brothers, friends have dealt with and are dealing with similar journeys. I hope they know they’re not alone either and don’t hold back in speaking up. I felt alone all these years trying to understand something one should never have to grasp—and it took me years to speak up, something I wish I had done much sooner.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been an adolescent and I know how much times have changed with the introduction of social media, the constant desire to fit in with peers and the spectrum of experiences and premature ‘growing up’ adolescents are accustomed to today—it honestly scares me a bit knowing that one day, you will go through adolescence in this new era. I am truly thankful social media came out after I was in college and had more confidence and happiness in who I was as a person—that I don’t have those constant reminders of those awkward, self-conscious, autopilot days. I say this because I hope you get through your adolescence knowing how lovely you are, how much life there is ahead of you, how much goodness you have to share with the world and how amazing it is to just be yourself in a world where everyone wants to be like, look like, act like somebody else—I want you to love yourself wholeheartedly without needing validation from others. I hope your own voice is voice enough. Dad and I will always be there to reassure you if ever you can’t hear your voice through all the cacophony.
I am so proud to have named you after Jeff. In his honor, I hope to teach you some of the selflessness he possessed, the sports he excelled in, the adoration and love for all animals, and just the goodness and dedication he shared with those he let into his heart in his short time here. Although I’m not religious in any organized religious means, I am spiritual to the core of my being—and although I may not have witnessed you meeting your uncle, a huge part of me believes you already have— and I truly feel that you will always have a guardian angel looking after you—as I have for the past 16 years.
I want to conclude this post by saying that it is my greatest hope that you will come to me with any problem no matter how big or how small. If not me, Dad, or anyone else you trust. If you come to me, I will always make time to listen to you, to hear what you’re saying, even if you wish to stay quiet. Life isn’t something to live alone, life’s hardships aren’t something to internalize. You’ll always have a community of love surrounding you; please never be shy or afraid to speak up with what’s going on with you—no problem is too small.
You will turn 10-months old in one week—and I can’t believe how much you’ve already grown and changed. You are one very active little one and amaze me each and every day. Taking time off to be with you has been the most rewarding gift. I love being able to soothe all your cries now, and I’m honestly terrified for the day that I will no longer be able to do so– life will get much more complicated. When that day comes, I will have faith that you’ll know what to do—and who to reach out to if needed. I hope you too, take pride in your name and the uncle you may have never met, but who you will always know.
I love you to the moon and back.