August 28th is the 9th anniversary of my brother's death. I found out early the morning of the 29th. I was in shock, but over the next couple of weeks, I was also shocked by other people's reactions. There was no time to think, just get to Pullman for the funeral. Once there, we had to pick a coffin, decide on what the announcement in the newspaper would say (self-inflicted gunshot wound), the program, the clothes he would wear, who would officiate, where it would be, on and on. There was a viewing the evening before the funeral. My mom pushed me to look at my brother's dead body with the bullet hole in the back of his head (concealed, of course). That night, a friend called. Somehow, she tracked me down (pre-cell phones) and was upset I had not called her.
Here I was, in the middle of it, stunned and completely overwhelmed with an experience that nothing can prepare you for, and she wanted to know why I had not thought of her. It was the first thing she said, not "I am so sorry" or "how are you doing?" I know she meant well (I think), but I did not understand how she could be so insensitive.
It happened the summer before my last year of college, and I was working at a restaurant/bar. Even though I told the general manager exactly why I had to leave town suddenly, he told me that if I did not come back to work by that weekend, he would have to let me go. I had to pay rent (not having a savings to live on as I was a student and working for minimum wage) so I went back to work as soon as I got back. I soon discovered that the general manager had told everyone I worked with that my brother had committed suicide. My co-workers treated me like a leper- left me alone, didn't talk to me, except one manager, who would corner me while I was washing dishes and ask a series of rapid fire questions- "why did he do it?" "How did you deal with it?" "How does it feel?” I felt like I was on a talk show, the kind of talk show that provides voyeuristic entertainment from the pathetic guests.
I was in an emotional wasteland. I had a headache (re: migraine) pretty much all the time, and I felt raw and painful, as if my skin had been peeled off. At the funeral, my boyfriend stood up and said we should not stigmatize my brother because of the way he died. I thought, how crass, no one would do that. Why is he saying that? Who cares how he died or what people think? I discovered it does matter what people think, or at least, it matters how they treat you. It matters when most of your friends never call to offer their support and ask how you are doing. It matters when your boyfriend will not talk to you about it after the funeral. It matters when you spend your time in between classes crying in the bathroom, and your evenings alone with your thoughts.
It definitely matters when you have been taught your whole life that no one cares about your problems and you should just keep it to yourself. When adults knew your family was abusive but did not do anything about it, when a therapist even says you are being physical, emotionally, verbally, and sexually abused but does not intervene as required by law, you start to think there is no point in opening up your life for scrutiny.
When a policeman takes you away in his police car after you finally call Child Protective Services yourself, he assures you that he will save you. He will not tell you where he is taking you or what will happen to you, however. At the police station, they take pictures of your body, ooo'ing and ahhh'ing at the fresh bruises, the lumps, and the crusted blood. They tell you that because of how bad you look, you have a strong case against your dad. They make you tell your story over and over, asking repeatedly, because this is important for your case, don't lie or we'll find out, did he hit you with a closed or open fist? They lock you in a room without anything to read for 2 1/2 hours, popping in occasionally to tell you that your caseworker is running late. Finally, a woman who does not even ask you how you are doing takes you to a doctor. The doctor confirms "your story" about the closed fist, but does not clean your lip where your braces have punched (this is the operative word, punched) all the way through your lip, or do anything to determine if you had a concussion or are in shock (yes on both counts). In fact, he tells you he is not allowed to treat you. CPS will not pay for it.
They take you to a foster home, where you meet a girl whose dad stabbed her with an ice pick for years, because he enjoyed hurting her. She was a cheerleader, and the police came during a pep rally and lead her away in front of the entire school. Her parents were allowed to call her every night, which they did, to yell at her for betraying her family and demand she drop the charges against her dad (even though she had no control over what the state decided to charge him with). CPS moved her to another town and did not allow her to have any contact with her friends, her only support system during a lifetime of abuse. (The foster parents explained to me that CPS thought it was best she start a new life and wanted to distance her from her old life so she could let it go and move on, but could not prevent her parents from talking to her because they have legal rights.)
A social stigma is a "mark of infamy or disgrace; sign of moral blemish; stain or reproach caused by dishonorable conduct; reproachful characterization" (Webster, 1913). A stigma is what happens when the police lead you away in front of your friends as if they are arresting you, when your dad is never arrested, and despite your strong case and all the pictures, they drop the charges. (Why? I have no idea.) A stigma is when a teacher tells you "it's about time" when you drop out of high school because you've turned 18 and the foster care system will not provide for you any longer. A stigma is the entire school knowing what happened to you, including the teachers. Want to know what it is like to go from a straight "A" student to flunking classes because your home life is a war zone? How about fighting your way into college from the streets, only to have your brother commit suicide a year before you graduate? I was feeling pretty hopeless at that point. All I wanted was to escape that life.
I think it is fair to say, in my experience, there is a stigma around suicide. That is not to say that everyone feels that way, but after living with the stigma of child abuse and the initial reactions to my brother's suicide, I thought it made more sense to avoid talking about what had happened as much as possible. I thought if I could just finish college, I could move on with my life, unencumbered by the abuse and chaos of my past. Dealing with Jeff's death also meant dealing with our childhood, our parents, and the hell that we shared. It was more than I could handle at the time. I just wanted that college degree, that proof that I really was smart and capable and not a loser and a failure.
As a result, I avoided talking about and acknowledging my past, especially to myself. Even now, with all the support I have received since I have laid it out for the world to see, I fear the stigma. It is a trade-off. When you talk about it, you give people the opportunity to offer you support and encouragement, but you also give them the opportunity to pull away from you and act uncomfortable, like there is something wrong with you. After years of feeling like an outcast and a freak, I wanted acceptance and appreciation. Who doesn't?
I guess I really should not care if child abuse and suicide makes some people uncomfortable or changes the way they think about me. It is harder than it sounds, though, because I hate the thought of being defined by some victim status. I want to be judged on my merits and weaknesses, not my family's. I am a writer, a poet, an MBA, almost a CPA- these are my accomplishments, not things that happened to me that I had no control over. I want sympathy and understanding for the extraordinary circumstances my brother and I dealt with (or not so extraordinary, unfortunately) but I also do not want to be treated differently than other people are.
If that seems contradictory to you, it does to me too. I am different, whether I like it or not. I have strengths and challenges that not everyone has. That's not a bad thing. The person whose judgment and stigmatizing I struggle with the most is me. Indulge me while I quote Sex in the City (I hope I'm not violating some copyright rule)- "The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself." I know that how I feel about myself, and my ability to appreciate who I am and not see myself as undeserving or flawed, is infinitely more important than how other people see me. I do feel acknowledged, now that I have talked about it, for what I have survived. Now all I need is my own acceptance, and to stop making myself so uncomfortable.