Mental Illness: “If Love Could Have Saved You”.

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“If love could have saved you,
You would have lived forever.”

Two years ago today, October 13th, my sister died.

It was Thanksgiving morning. I was getting ready to go to work. My Dad sat me down in the living room, his face was pale. In a shaky, restrained voice he said, “Elizabeth died.” Within a few hours we were on a plane to Vancouver to sit through my sister’s funeral. A slideshow of Elizabeth’s short life played as my mum’s hysterical cries echoed loudly throughout the church.

Early autumn used to be my favourite time of year. It’s the perfect temperature with a breeze that still holds the warmth of summer. The trees put on a beautiful display of deep reds, bright oranges and golden yellows, as if an artist plucked the trees out of the ground and dipped them in paint. Piles of leaves are gathered on front lawns, coffee shops add pumpkin flavoured everything to their menus and everyone is wrapped in warm, cozy sweaters.

It’s no coincidence that I write this from my beautiful apartment in Sydney, Australia where the season is currently spring, not autumn, and Thanksgiving does not exist. I suppose I had hoped this day would pass without notice. It didn’t. Moving to Australia did not absolve me of suffering. I know now that October 13th will always be a painful day for me, no matter where I am in the world.

It felt like impending doom whenever someone would mention something happening in the middle of October. My stomach sank at the thought. I started writing over the course of a few months as an emotional release. I have come to realise that writing has become the biggest source of therapy for me. I love the feeling of freeing the thoughts that swirl in my mind, the ones I rarely talk about out loud. It’s like opening the windows in an old, dusty attic.

The biggest reason I wrote this was because I hope to bring more awareness and understanding to the ambiguous and murky subject of “mental illness.” Because the truth is, my sister did not die of cancer or in a car accident. She died of suicide.

It’s so hard to write that, let alone say it out loud. I quickly deflect questions about how she died because I don’t want to risk being socially ostracised. But here’s the thing: losing my sister is painful enough as it is. My family and I do not deserve the added weight of shame and guilt on top of the searing pain of grief. There is only so much a human being can endure. So before forming an opinion on my sister’s character or upbringing, let me explain.

I want to start by saying that this did not happen because she was not loved enough. My sister was, still is and always will be loved immensely. It was not an act of selfishness; in fact, it was very much the opposite. She did not end her life to cause us pain; she did it to end her own. It did not happen because she was not strong enough. My sister is stronger and braver than anyone I have ever known. To go through life weighed down by severe depression is incomprehensible to someone who is lucky enough to have never experienced it. She fought hard for many, many years—literally for her life. Her decision was acted out by the voice of depression, a voice of absolute hopelessness, of believing that death was more bearable than living another day. Human beings instinctively want to live. Depression is so powerful that it engulfs our most primitive and strong human instincts with an effortless, crushing force. Clinical depression grows like a disease. It starts out benign; then it slowly consumes your whole being, leaving you with only a shell of the person you once were.

During university I studied psychology and spent most of my time trying to find different ways to pull my sister out of depression. Elizabeth’s illness and everything around it consumed so much of my mental energy that I barely had room for anything else. I felt like I was in an almost constant state of worry and dread. I read countless books on mental illness, for school and out of interest. I remember running home in joy that maybe I found a way that just might make her happy again. It breaks my heart because I can just picture her sitting so keenly on the side of her bed listening to me and taking notes, saying “talk a bit slower I didn’t get that last part.” Then faking enthusiasm and telling me she feels “happier already” and me leaving her room feeling so proud of myself for finally getting through. But I never got through. I used to get so mad at her for being lazy and unproductive, not realising the effects of her depression combined with her prescribed medications caused severe exhaustion. The very aspect of getting out of bed was excruciating for her.

After she died I was prescribed one of the exact same medications she was on to numb my own sadness. I remember standing there and staring at the bottle for a few minutes before swallowing a pill and entering a state of dreamy numbness, a feeling of a complete disconnection from reality and fighting through exhaustion. I finally, only then, could understand.

When my sister was depressed it felt like watching her drown and not being able to do anything to help. It felt like no matter what my parents or I did, she’d just keep getting sucked under. I’d literally try everything and anything I could think of, eventually collapsing in tears. I would get so angry that I would take my anger out on Elizabeth. I’d scream and yell and tell her I wanted nothing to do with her or the family anymore. I would storm out of the house and retreat to my boyfriend’s place for a few days. Eventually I’d return home late at night, slowly open the front door and catch eyes with her sitting on the couch eating pickles, watching Cold Case Files and looking at me like “Can we stop fighting now?” I just love my sister so much I could never give up on her. So I would just sit down on the couch, ask her about the TV show and she’d look at me with a big smile and continue to explain every detail to me.

Elizabeth’s brain chemistry was different to that of someone who isn’t depressed. It simply didn’t produce the same amount of “happy” chemicals that a normal brain would. When her depression hit it was like throwing a bucket of black paint on a beautifully vivid, colourful painting. It took the core of who she was away. It stole her creativity and smothered her spark. Growing up we used to have intense battles with each other; it would be over something so small like who got the front seat. Hair would be pulled, tears would be shed and my parents would roll their eyes and beg us to please grow up. But as we got older and her depression set in, she just didn’t have the energy. I remember instigating fights and she would simply shrug her shoulders and walk away. It hurt me more than a fight ever could to see her like that because my sister could be a real firecracker. Looking back now, this was a clear sign that a real problem was developing. I kept thinking it would fade, but it didn’t.

If you believe this happened because of faulty parenting, know that my sister and I were raised in the same family and were together every step of the way. I may be slightly anxious but overall I am a very happy, positive person. I have bad days just like everyone else but I have never been clinically depressed, nor have I ever felt suicidal. My parents did everything to provide us with the best life they could. I really don’t know how or why her depression developed. It just did. Similarly, I don’t know why my grandma developed Alzheimer’s disease when she spent her life as an accountant and kept her mind active by doing crossword puzzles every night before bed. When my grandma struggles to remember things, no one would dare blame her because we know it’s out of her control. Depression falls into the same category in that it is uncontrollable and sometimes develops completely randomly. Both deserve equal amounts of empathy.

I know in my heart that my family and I did everything we could to save my sister. I know that my sister did not want to die; she just wanted the pain to end. I wish I could’ve taken her pain away, I never wished for anything more desperately than that. But it didn’t work. My love for my sister was not enough to save her from depression.

However, I do not want my sister to be defined by her depression. I want those who knew her to remember her for the energy she brought to them before depression took it away. I want her to be remembered for her pure kind-hearted generosity. For those Christmases when she’d send us a large, wrapped box written in a decorative calligraphic font “~The Hetheringtons~” even though we told her repeatedly we wanted nothing. Or for those times when she literally had homeless people over to her place for dinner. I want her to be remembered for her sense of humour and that infectious laughter that made everyone smile.

I think because I lost my big sister that I feel an instinctual need to stand up for her. I can’t allow her legacy to be one of pain and sadness. I can’t allow whispers and judgements to be made when no one understands the whole story. I want Elizabeth’s legacy to be filled with hope and joy because hers ended in the opposite. I hope it inspires people to be supportive and encouraging to others. To listen when someone is hurting, even if you can’t understand why. Just listen. Never minimize a person’s suffering by comparing it to another’s. What hurts one may not be a concern to another; we all feel and interpret things differently.

I am forever grateful to have a sister like Elizabeth. My amazing big sister, who washed the wheels of my stroller as a baby, protected me from the boys who bullied me in high school and created the kind of art I could only dream of replicating. I watched the person I idolised the most get taken down by depression. My time in University studying Psychology did not end in the classroom; it was a part of my daily life. It made me more empathetic, understanding and open minded.

I chose to share Elizabeth’s story to help bring understanding to suicide. I want anyone out there suffering from a mental illness to know that they are not alone; that those negative, poisonous, self-defeating thought patterns are not facts. I want them to know that they deserve to be here just as much as anyone else. I want them to know that this is not their fault.

I hope we can find effective ways to save people suffering with a mental illness. I hope they receive the kind of medical help that fell short on my sister. I hope that no one else’s sibling, child, spouse, cousin, parent, grandchild or friend will ever have to endure the pain of losing someone they love to suicide. I hope that one day mental illness will be treated in just the same way as any other fatal illness. Each time we share our own stories of mental illness, we are slowly breaking down previously held beliefs and coming towards acceptance and understanding. I know things are changing for the better and I hope this story adds to that.

In these past two years I have been overcome by emotions that I never experienced so intensely before. I don’t know why, but when I experience joy now, I feel absolutely immersed in every particle of it. I think it’s my body’s way of creating balance within itself. The pain from my sister’s death was like a pendulum that crashed through walls within me I’d never even knew existed. But it also swung back with such force it has allowed me to experience a level of happiness that is so potent it feels almost euphoric.

And when I feel that kind of pure euphoria, I hope that wherever Elizabeth is, she feels it too. I hope she feels it every single day.

~

~

Author: Kimberly Hetherington

Editor: Caroline Beaton 

Photo: Author’s Own

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Kimberly Hetherington

Kimberly Hetherington is a Canadian raised in Egypt, Pakistan, Ghana, Jamaica, and Ukraine who now lives on the shores of Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia. You can follow her blog at Life After Elizabeth.

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anonymous Oct 30, 2015 3:53pm

Thank you for your beautifly written letter. My mother suffered with depression most her life and now my son is battling this horrible disease. Depression is a thief. It steals lives. It sucks out all of a persons joy, energy and feelings of value. It creates such pain, physical and mental. I pray someday Autumn will be that wonderful time of year for you again and that memories of fun times with your sister will bring you happiness.

anonymous Oct 29, 2015 11:55pm

Kimberly!

Wish you love luck and happiness.
You have written it so well.
I can relate to what you have written.
Thanks for sharing and yes sharing helps a lot.

anonymous Oct 29, 2015 3:35pm

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I've suffered with severe depression with suicidal thoughts my entire life. I thought after being diagnosed Bipolar a few years ago that my family would educate themselves & it would change the way people related to me, but I'm still as misunderstood as I always have been. The world needs more people like you, people that have compassion & try to understand what goes on in the minds of the mentally ill. You literally took the words out of my mouth about what it feels like to be debilitated by depression, to not want to die… Yet want to die. I'm so sorry you couldn't save your sister from herself, but you're saving many others with her story. I'm sure she's looking down on you with pride & true happiness in her soul! Peace & love to you!

anonymous Oct 29, 2015 1:17pm

That is the most amazing story. I lost my Mother to suicide three years ago and am only now understanding what she went through , she told me she was in a dark hole and couldn't get out , I tried so hard to help her but I could never make her happy in the end I left home and travelled as much as possible and was barely in contact with her , she was on so many pills that she never made sense anymore.
I blame the doctors and pharmacists in my town who fed her with all sorts of drugs that she asked for over the phone.
Your story and words made it all easier to understand and to explain to myself and to others who my Mother really was and how sick she really was. Yes she loved me too and all of us and at least we knew that. We felt the same about her.
Thanks for sharing

anonymous Oct 29, 2015 8:26am

This is so well written. My mother suffered from depression. I remember the day it came to stay and never left. I remember feeling all things you described. Most of all I remember thinking if I could just do something I could make her better. I blamed myself, I became angry, I turned away from her. I had lost the mother I knew and it was so painful. Years later she died of an accidental overdose. More guilt washed over me. But in My Journey Of Grief And Healing I realized many things: she loved me fiercely, I can't blame myself and that she didn't choose to have a mental illness. Your words touched me deep within. Thank you.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 10:15pm

Great story and article! So well written, expressed and shared! Forever sorry and touched by your loss. Thank you!

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 9:51pm

Thank you for sharing your story. I'm very sorry for your lost. I lost my big and only brother to from suicide on September 23 2015. Five weeks today. It happen to be the first day fall. Not a day goes by don't cry or think of my brother. All I have left are memories and pictures . There needs to be more awareness to mental health. Your article touch my heart. Thank you again

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 9:17pm

As someone who deals with cyclical and severe episodes of clinical depression, I deeply appreciated the way you described it and its effects on both the one who suffers with it and those who love him/her. There is such a lack of understanding in society and I think that, the more of us people hear from, the more they will come to learn. I am so sorry for the pain you are feeling since the death of your sister, and for the frustration you had in not being able to help her. I’m not convinced that everyone *can* be helped, but I’m speaking from that dark place, so some would say I’m not thinking rationally (I wouldn’t agree, of course, but…LOL).

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 9:12pm

Your words, and it's story, stopped my heart and invited tears to my eyes in a way that writing rarely does… I can still feel the waves of emotion moving through my heart. I am years out of the worst of my depression; and although I will never forget the depths of its darkness and how thick in the throws I was… to see it through your heart, and eyes, left me remembering the broken spirits of those who loved me most, then. The more their visits and invitations came to my bedside, the harder I would push and often the further I would retreat into myself… to receive their love would shine too much light into a place in me that had become so dark. Even when my heart wanted nothing more than to be engulfed in such a thing as what those I love offered… the sting of my anger would leave them hurt, and every time I sent them away I would cry behind the closed door they left. I'm not sure if I consider myself recovered or if anyone who has ever known such a place in themselves could consider such a thing… I consider every day that I feel light, a gift. It was a very hard thing to trust at first (because I felt like it could leave me at any moment…) but with time, it's become easier. The sunlight of a starting day isn't so bad and I even appreciate things that used to send me curling inward… I share this because these places in me can often hide like the secrets I never meant to keep. Someone who meets me today might not see these layers of me… but they will always be there; a part of me. It's now something I keep in check and have been lucky enough to find some freedom from… I have also loved those who are suffering and know those who have loved lost those they love most to suicide, and the silence that is often mental illness… thank you for giving depression a voice; for sharing Elizabeth's voice; and most of all for sharing your own voice. The path of healing, I believe, will always reside in sharing and shining light (into what was once) the dark places. Xo sending you all the love and gratitude a message can <3

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 6:58pm

I’ve been on the ledge before…in the pain…in the darkness. I am so sorry for your loss. But I understand depression and your sister just wanted peace…relief. And it isn’t something someone else can offer. You are wonderful to understand and not judge her decision. Thank you for sharing your story. The more we talk the less stigma there is.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 5:09pm

I’m so deeply sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your story…it is almost identical to my own. I lost my sister to suicide in October 2005. I miss her everyday. The pain of losing her is always with me but I keep my memories of her in my heart. Even 10 years later I still occasionally cry, but I’m also able to recall memories of her that bring a smile to my face and put a spring in my step. Thank you again for sharing your story…it means more than you know.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 3:36pm

If you were in front of me I’d give you a huge hug! You described this all beautifully but please don’t think it’s your responsibility to explain any of this to anyone. Though it may help others to understand and be at peace, people’s negative judgements on you in such a painful time is their karma, not yours. I hope you continue to heal and be at peace even though i know this is a pain that never disappears.

    anonymous Oct 30, 2015 9:25am

    I think and hope that writing this is a catharsis for her. This is what was conveyed to me through her compassionate reflections about her dear sister. She also spoke of 'bringing understanding' and awareness to this illness, and I thank her for that contribution.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 3:28pm

I won’t even begin to explain how much this relates to me but I will say this touched my heart in the best ways, thank you for putting this in such beautiful words.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 2:58pm

You wrote my story. Mental Illness has taken the life force from little sister, only she still walks this earth. A lifeless shell. Thank you for sharing this piece of your soul. I know exactly how hard it is to put it down in words. You did it justice.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 1:27pm

I, too, lost my sister to suicide in 2009. Every word you wrote speaks to my heart. Thank you.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 1:25pm

Thank you. I too lost my sister to suicide in 2009. Everything you wrote speaks to my heart. Thank you.

anonymous Oct 28, 2015 1:06pm

This is a beautifully written piece that captures the essence of clinical depression. “When her depression hit it was like throwing a bucket of black paint on a beautifully vivid, colourful painting.” Such an accurate description. I am sorry for your loss, Kimberly. May you find continued healing in sharing Elizabeth’s story. And may others find understanding and empathy from your words.