May 9, 2008.
It was too late. All of the things that I should have said at any point in the eight years prior. I said too late, 48 hours too late. There’s countless clichés, or lyrics about not truly valuing what you have until it’s taken away. Those may be clichés, but also a tagline that sums up my life as a little brother. The person I wanted so badly to see smile, laugh, to see happy. I had lost forever. I never truly valued what I had until it was gone, and I never ever told her. Not once. I told her 48 hours after she’d left. Perhaps if I sent that note to her before I assumed she was OK… maybe I wouldn’t sit here recounting this experience, wondering how things could be different. I’ll never know, because I was two days too late.
Part II, admittingly was very difficult to write, and to relive. Part II was a glimmer of the tragedy that would define the rest of my life. It was the moment everything changed. My entire life stopped dead, and took an unexpected turn. Part III is not about a single moment, but rather it’s the unexpected turn, and the series of moments that would follow, and spiral.
There are glimmers, there are images of moments that I can vaguely pick apart about the immediate days after May 7, 2008. The 48 hours after were a blur, except for the whirlwind of different emotions that would soon take over. Confusion, anger, humiliation, regret, sadness… Looking back, the volatility and unpredictability of these emotions was my introduction to the first phase of the grieving process.
The first memory was going to break the news to one of my best friends, possibly the day after my life had changed. It was mid-afternoon, and as we sat at his kitchen counter, I could hardly speak, but I tried desperately to remain stoic. Finally, I spit it out, but what followed was the beginning of my regret. I asked for him not to tell anyone what had happened, or how she died. I was humiliated that it was suicide. I thought that would bring unnecessary attention to our family and we would be judged or, even I feared it would harm my social status maybe. This would quickly become one of the first regrets I encountered as I trialed my way through the grieving process from May 7th, 2008 onwards.
After I finally managed to get the words out to tell Brett what had happened. His response was everything I sought at that moment, unknowingly. It wasn’t generic sympathy, or sympathy really at all. It wasn’t sorry to hear. He didn’t look at me, or speak to me any differently. It was just real. There was an awkward silence, followed by “Let’s go for lunch to DQ, I’ll buy.” There’s no manual for this stuff. We were 18 years old. Neither of us had ever been through something like this before, so how do you respond. How do you know what to say. I needed normalcy to avoid reality.
Lunch was awkward at times. I didn’t want him to see that I was hurting. I didn’t want anyone to know I was hurting. I tried so hard to keep a brave face, and I did. From the morning after the tragedy to the funeral, I kept a brave face. I didn’t let anyone see me hurt, because I didn’t want them to think I was weak. But, I know when I was alone, I buried my face in a pillow and I screamed, for hours. I hurt, and I think I hurt more because I didn’t want anyone to know just how hurt I really was, I didn’t want help. I refused to admit defeat. This would become the next defining regret of my life, and would foreshadow greatly what was to come.
Shock, Denial & Anger
From DQ, I have little to no recollection of the next few days until the morning of the funeral. As my family was at the church, I would be picked up by one of my grandpas friends. As he pulled into the drivewya, I hopped into the black suv, and did my best to just avoid eye contact. I didn’t say much, if I said anything at all. He didn’t either. What was there to say. What do you talk about?
As I stared intently out the window, wishing for this nightmare to end. This guy in khaki shorts, a sun hat, and a white t-shirt was mowing his lawn. His neighbor was watering the flowerbeds, and another family was out walking together. I’ll never forget the disbelief and anger I felt after seeing this. This was the introduction to anger stage of my grieving process. I could not comprehend how these people were going on resuming their normal lives. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I just assumed that for a day, the world would stop, or at least it would pause until I was ready to resume. I was numb. How could this be happening? I never did snap out of it. Those three groups of people bothered me all the way to the church. What they don’t tell you about the grieving process is there is no order. They number it off 1-2-3-4…. But, sometimes it’s anger, then it’s denial, then acceptance, then it’s all three. Some last for years, others days. The timing is what makes the process of grieving so unpredictable, and challenging.
The funeral was blur. I remember again trying so hard to be stoic, almost robotic. While, I don’t remember the words at all, I know my Grandma did the eulogy and it was incredible. How she held it together for that is simply remarkable, speaks to the true strength of our family. I wish I remembered more of what she said. I would love to read it one day. Then the closing song came on, and I don’t even recall what the song was. LeeAnne Womack, or was it Sarah McLachlan. I don’t know, but it bothers me that I don’t remember what my Grandma said, and that I don’t’ recall the song. I was so distracted by trying so hard to look “normal” and “ok.” that I missed what was being said. But, I couldn’t hold strong much longer. As the song went on, I broke down, and I lost it. Uncontrollably. I had my first real melt-down in front of everyone. I collapsed back in the chair. Threw my head in my hands and I just sobbed. I had no control of my body, and my mind just raced a million things again, all of which telling me I had lost the chance to forgive my sister. I would never get that chance again. All the guilt came crashing down at once, and I broke.
Denial & Bargaining
Shortly after the funeral, As my 19th birthday approached. My friends & family advised me not to celebrate my birthday but instead just wait a few weeks. Everyone knew, myself included that alcohol would not be a good idea. All I could think of was that this would be an opportunity to get so drunk that things could be normal again. Even if for just a few hours. Maybe it’ll help me forget. So I insisted, and party was on. My only recollection really of this night, was again losing complete control of my body, and my emotions and having a breakdown in the spare bedroom of a friends condo. Thankfully, the people that were there were my best friends at the time, and they did everything they possibly could to help me through the night, and they did just that. I just remember that being such a difficult night, and one I should have avoided as was suggested.
These were just the few days that followed the passing of my sister. As I look back, those few days would foreshadow much of what was to come.
In the following months, years as I tried to resume my life. My mental health diminished year after year. I always knew what depression was, but I never really knew depression with the added weight of guilt, and loss. It was totally different. I began to feel this disconnect between myself as time went by. I had struggled with figuring out who I was before, but now this was worse. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t feel like things I did were me. It’s hard to explain. I couldn’t feel connected to myself, and my emotional attachment with others became obsolete. I had zero regard for anyone else’s feelings. I became even crueller of a person then I had ever been before.
I tried to read more about grieving, and dealing with loss. Lot’s of things I read would talk about how time heals. So, I think I expected simply that. I grew impatient. Time wasn’t healing. I had almost expected time to completely remove the hurt, and pain I felt from this loss. Like a scrape on the knee, over time… everything would be back to the way it was. That of course, never happened. There were nights I thought I could bring Jen back. I’d squeeze, and clench my entire body as tight as I could to the point I couldn’t take the pain anymore, so I’d let go. Open my eyes, and she wouldn’t be there. Nothing brought her back, and accepting that became incredibly difficult.
As I began to cope with that fact that I would never physically get my sister back, I learned to talk to her more then I ever had before. When I needed help, I’d talk to her, I’d beg for her to help me. In the first year, there were countless times where I needed her and I’d just say
“Jen, please, help!”
Just like that I had the help I wished for. I began to feel like I had a genie on my side, my own real-life angel, sort-of. The first instance of this I remember was later in the summer of 2008 at that dream job I had lined up before everything changed. I couldn’t get this piece of equipment to work or something, and I was kind of stranded, freaking out. I thought I was screwed, and started wondering how I was going to get out of here, what was going to happen.
I closed my eyes, and just said
“Jen, help me. Please help me.”
Just like that it worked. I was safe. I was good to go. I laughed, giggled, looked up to sky and just said “Thanks Roo”
Eventually, I would tell myself I was taking advantage of my sister looking out for me, and instead of feeling relief, joy or a connection to her, I felt guilt and sadness. So I’d stop asking for her help. I’d get angry again. It didn’t feel right. Why was I talking to her more now. Of course, now that I needed something.
That fall of 2008, I would return to MRU against my mom’s wishes. She thought it would be best I take my time to heal. So, of course… I did the opposite. I went back and loaded up on the most difficult course load I’d take at MRU. Like the night of my 19th birthday, I thought I knew better, and would be fine. I think the only reason I went back was that it gave me a place to hide, and to hide the truth of how much I was hurting, but at least if I were at school. No one would know. That semester was a disaster. I continued to refuse help, and admit defeat. I had an 8am class I maybe went to three times. I just couldn’t get myself out of bed. Either because I stayed up till 5am playing video games, or drinking, or both, or simply didn’t have the energy to get up and face real life. I’d often sleep in as late as I could. I started skipping other classes too, anything that was hard, I stayed away from. I refused to embrace any sort of struggle. Instead, I shrunk and hid amidst struggle. Of course, my grades began to suffer tremendously. I remember fighting with my mom about it, but she never really knew just how bad they were, and just how bad things had become. I kept telling her I was fine, and that I would get help. Of course, I refused to get help. I didn’t want to risk showing any weakness. Then, I thought perhaps failing a class and taking it twice would hurt my pride more, so I had to figure out a way out of this stats class. I withdrew. W was better than an F. Once I didn’t have this class, I felt like an entire weight had been lifted. I realized that I was OK after withdrawing, so seeking help might actually be OK. I promised myself to smarten up, and bare down. I somehow managed the strength, and courage to go and talk to my accounting instructor, which was the other class I was failing, and failing to attend. I spilled my entire guts to this poor instructor. Why I wasn’t at class, what I was going through, had been through and that I needed help. I told this guy more in fifteen minutes then I’ve told any therapists. He was incredible. Very understanding, and made me a deal. If I would put in an effort to catching up in class, and take some study sessions, then he would give me the leeway to pass the class. We both held up our end of the deal. I am incredibly grateful for this guy.
Once again, as I started to climb back out of the hole in my life, and things were looking up. My mental illness would kick me back down. I began to feel guilty that I was using my sisters death as an excuse to get me through situations I couldn’t get through on my own. I hated myself for it. Absolutely hated myself for it. My depression continued to worsen fast, the disconnect and detachment I felt for myself and others worsened. I began to beat myself up that everytime I seemed to be doing OK, I’d fall further backwards. I felt stuck, I could never take a step forward. I was running out of steam, and patience to one day find happiness and healthy acceptance. I continued coaching hockey, but that outlet began to wore off, I began to lose my passion for it. The only thing that may have got me through this part of my life was that Amanda and I had found our way back to each other. I can’t imagine how much harder I made her life, but she kept me alive, and I knew it.
My last semester at MRU, I had one class. It was the “final project” class. I had anxiety about this project since I learned about it years before. It consumed me, what was I going to present, what would the topic be. I convinced myself I wouldn’t be able to present this project whatever it ended up being because I was terrified of public speaking. I was embarrassed, terrified and riddled with anxiety before this thing ever started. In the years leading up to this course, more thought went into how I would get out of this presentation then I put into putting the presentation and project together.
I took a leap, and chose mental health in sports (hockey) as my topic for this project, and my presentation. My anxiety changed to publicly talking about depression and mental illness. What if people considered me weak? Ridiculed me? How much was safe to reveal about myself?
I spent more energy, effort and time on this project then I did any other part of my MRU life. I was passionate about this. I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to have a normal conversation about mental illness in hockey. As I went through this project, and put in time. I felt empowered, it made me stronger. This project in fact became a massive coping mechanism for me in my own struggle with depression, and grieving. I crushed the presentation I remember. It was so natural, smooth. I learned that day if you’re working on something you love, and are able to immerse yourself into it, you can do anything. But, what I also learned from this project was that no one thought any less of me because of the topic I choose. In fact, I think people probably thought more of me afterwards. I was proud of myself, and that was a feeling that had become foreign to me. Being able to openly speak about this topic, would later provide me with the foundation of strength I’d need to try and turn my life around a few months later.
As the novelty of being graduated wore off, I became more and most lost. Again, I grew further away from myself, and joy became more and more obsolete. Then, I hit another new rock bottom. Just when I thought I had already been to rock bottom, and done that. I found a new low. There were consecutive days where I would not get out of bed. There were days, three, four days in a row where I would literally say five words. I couldn’t even talk. I can’t imagine the hurt this caused Amanda to live with someone who was basically a mute. I was inept at showing any sort of emotion, or love. I turned into a emotionless, stone-faced zombie. Nothing brought me joy, nothing brought me happiness. Not even hockey, friends or family. I realized how depressed I was, how this was getting worse and worse, but I just lacked the creativity and strength to help myself get better. The only time I would put in effort was to pretend I was in fact good when they were others around. Sometimes I wonder if I’d put as much effort into seeking help, instead of pretending that I didn’t need help, perhaps I would have saved a lot of the pain I caused people. I just kept telling myself the books, and the experts say two things. 1) it will get better, and 2) time heals. So I continued to just wait in despair for that one day when everything would get better.
As I continually became more and more buried in my own depression and guilt. I thought about how low was the point when Jen made the decision. Was I nearing that point? How bad did it get for her? I decided I was probably getting close to things getting so bad that they would never get better. I imagined that was how Jen felt too. As I felt like this, I think I naturally just tried to push everyone important in my life, out of my life. I began to treat Amanda as a roommate, rather then a life-saver, or the love of my life that she was, and is. I ignored my family as much as I could. Wouldn’t text them, or reply to texts, and I stopped going back home to visit friends and family.
Then, a new rock bottom. Coming home from practice one evening, I decided I was finally at that point where things would never get better, and things would be better without me. My parents wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore, and try to help me. Amanda could finally find real happiness and would be free of the emotional damage I probably caused her. I wanted her to be happy, and I thought I held her back from that. I was just so sad. I couldn’t feel anything but pain, guilt and sadness. That whole way home my mind just raced again, thinking about all of the things I should’ve done to maybe help my sister. Thinking about all of the things I did wrong after she died. I basically ran through every little possible regret in my life. I wanted to make things right with her, and I decided I wanted to be with her, to tell her how important she was to me, rather then sending it to an empty facebook account.
As I turned down the dark two-way highway that night that led to our community, I just kind of turned up the music, leaned back, closed my eyes and took my hands off the wheel. All at once, I felt joy, for the first time in seemingly forever. With that, I felt relieved. Relieved that I would be able to make things right with Jen. Relieved that I didn’t have to hurt anymore, that this would soon be all over.
My mind slowed finally, and time seemed to freeze. I’m sure it was just seconds, but it felt like minutes. I opened my eyes, and nothing had happened. I was still here. I was still alive. The large semi-truck that was coming had passed me. My little car was still going straight. On it’s own. It never went straight. Ever. I felt even more relief, and joy. Jen took over the wheel and saved my life. At that moment, I felt her presence more then I ever have. I could see her, I could hear her.
“Not a chance brother, not your time kid. You’ve got so much stuff to do, trust me this will get better”
I raced home, for the first time in years, I was grateful, and happy to be alive. I think I probably caused my family some alarm as I texted Amanda how much I loved, and appreciated her, and texted my family something. Still nothing to show any sort of weakness or struggle, but just to let them hear from me.
I realized I had to do something different. I had to get creative, and work on myself. Things weren’t going to just get better with time anymore. I had to actually put in some labor, some sweat, and tears to find my own happiness, or at least get out of this dark hole that I was stuck in.
That was the beginning of www.goneawayboys.wordpress.com. I wasn’t going to hide behind my mental illness anymore, and I would tell my story. I finally believed there would in fact be a better day.
This blog provided me with so much over the two years I really invested time and effort into it. But, like everything else. When I thought there was a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel, there was instead another descent to an even lower rock bottom.
The writing eventually wore off. I lost the passion for it, I lost the energy. Mostly, I thought I was becoming a burden to people writing about the same thing over and over. I didn’t think I had anything new to write about. No one wanted to hear about my depression, or grieving anymore. I couldn’t even re-read my own entries, not even to edit them so why were people going to read the same story twice just in different words, and under a different title. I lost the purpose of this blog. The purpose of it was my own healing, and somewhere along the way it became a duty for me, instead of an outlet. I told myself if I didn’t have anything to write, it meant I was OK. That was false.
I hated my job. I hated everyone around me. I hated myself even more. This was the deepest fall into rock bottom. The only time I ever felt ok, or normal was when I was with a group of friends partying, but only when I was intoxicated. Just socializing with people, I couldn’t do it. I was loading up credit cards at bars, restaurants. I was out of control. I knew I was out of control too, but I didn’t care. I think I had kind of given up. I thought two years ago was rock bottom, but this was worse. So I became angry that there was probably never a glimmer of hope, or a light at the end of this. Things were never going to get better. I lashed out on my life. Amanda and I fought all the time, I was an incredibly difficult person to be around. Worse then ever before. I was angry, irritable, and very quick to be the meanest person anyone had ever met. It didn’t take much, and Amanda wore the brunt of most of it, unfortunately.
Then it all came to a head one evening. What started out as a fairly normal, harmless night turned into disaster. I went for dinner with a buddy, we had a couple drinks. Nothing crazy other then I think it was a Sunday. We went to a club downtown, and I drank as much as I have probably ever drank in my life. I felt great. The more I drank, the further I was from my real life, so I kept drinking. Shooters, Whiskey, Beer, Rum, Shooters, Shooters, and more Shooters. At some point, I just remember leaving the bar, and making the decision to walk home, twenty kilometres from downtown Calgary to the SW edge of the city. I had no money for a cab, and I had no vehicle. How else would I get home. The next few hours would become probably the most dehumanizing moments of my life. This is how I knew this was rock bottom. I don’t know how far I walked before I came across a dealership, and then climbed into the back of a truck that was on the lot. This is where I would pass out. The next thing I remember, I woke up in our kitchen, laying on the floor in my own vomit.
This was the rock bottom.
I just remember the look of fear on Amanda’s face when I awoke early that morning. I didn’t know how I got there. I was angry. I was embarrassed. I was defeated. She never once yelled at me, or gave me shit for any of this mess. She cleaned it up and helped put me into bed before telling me that she had called my mom a few hours earlier and that my mom was on her way here. It had to have been like 4:30, 5:00am or something when she called my mom. I was confused how this all happened. But, I was too ashamed, and afraid to ask. I just told her over and over to tell my mom I’m ok, turn around. Thankfully, Amanda… knew better. I was not OK, and she needed reinforcements. I was too far out of control. I kind of just dozed in and out of sleep for the next hour until my mom had arrived. Here came that intervention that I feared May 7, 2008. This time, deep down, I knew I needed it. Amanda gave me heads up that they wanted to take me into the Foothills Hospital and go to the psych unit to seek treatment. I didn’t want too. I knew I needed too, but I didn’t want too. I tried to fight back but I knew I wasn’t winning this argument. I promised I would stop drinking. I looked for all the right things to say to avoid admitting defeat.
It became so exhausting to fight because I just had no energy anymore. I was so depressed that I couldn’t even dispute it anymore. I began to see the pain I was causing my mom, and Amanda. It killed me, it hurt to see them hurting because I was so broken. They wept as they tried to help me. I expected both of them to be angry, and give me shit but they didn’t. They were both so gentle and calm, but visibly sad. They were right, this had gone too far, and I needed help. Both my Mom and Amanda were angels that day, life savers. I knew that they were being backed by Jen too. So I had to get my shit together. As I neared defeat, I thought about the last time I hit rock bottom, and the time that’s passed since. Then it hit me…
This gave me the last ounce of strength to fight back and defend my well being and say I was ok. I feared people who read my blog, or had read it would think I was a fraud. I couldn’t let this happen. I felt like admitting I was having a “mental well-being relapse” would hurt the people I had helped, or people would think I was a phony.
Then my phone rang. It was my Dad. That was when I broke down. All walls came down. I had admitted defeat. It wasn’t that my mom and Amanda didn’t do a good job of showing me how much help I needed, they did. But, when it came from my Dad it was just different.
The toughest, most stoic person I know was on the other line with his voice trembling, same way it did May 7th. That same tone. Urgent but careful. Desperate panic, yet calming. He asked if I was OK. He didn’t scold me. He didn’t bring up the disastrous night I just had. He just talked about how much they needed me to get help, and get better. My brother, my mom, him, Amanda, my grandparents… everyone. He talked about how Brody needed his big brother. Everything I wish I would have told my sister six years ago, he found those words on the other end of the phone that day.
Ok, lets go. I admit defeat. I need help.
We went to foothills and checked into the psych unit. It was dark, grungy and looked like hell to be honest. It certainly didn’t make you feel any better about anything. I remember our hockey team had a game that afternoon, but there was no way I was well enough to go. I called our coach Ty and told him I had family in town, and wasn’t feeling great so I wouldn’t be there. No way I was about to tell him I was laying in a hospital bed on the psych wing at foothills hospital, with the possibility of checking in for the night.
I don’t remember the order of people that came in to talk to me, or their positions. I don’t know who the nurse was vs the doctor, or psych guy. I was scared. This all became too real. I didn’t want to get checked into this place, so I tried to say the right things that I thought would get me home. I remember the guy doctor I talked too, I didn’t like him at all, he bothered me for whatever reason. We weren’t making any progress with him. It wasn’t genuine. Then, I don’t know if they switched doctors, or who this lady was but she was much different. Had that same gentle tone my family had used earlier that day. She didn’t interrogate me. We just talked. We had a conversation. I felt safe, and didn’t feel like she was judging, or assessing me. I finally decided it was safe to open up, and be honest with her, so I was real.
After our conversation, she left the room, my Mom and Amanda returned, and we awaited their recommendations. I don’t think there’s ever been a point in my life where I just wanted to go home so bad and be with my family. I appreciated my family more at that moment then ever before. I began to really fear their recommendation would be I stay overnight and check in fomr some time. Thoughts ran through my head about my sister again. This time, I wondered if this was how sick she felt. Was this her low point? This time, with my family by myself and her by my side. I felt strength. Strength to want to fight this illness. I wanted to get better. I didn’t want to live like this anymore, in darkness and pain. I didn’t want to hurt my family anymore. It all became so clear as we awaited the recommendation from the doctor. I wanted to fight. I wanted to defeat depression.
The female doctor came back into the room and we talked, I don’t remember much of the conversation, I don’t remember what their solution was, or recommendation. The only thing I remember her saying was “frankly, he’s just very, very, very sad” Her solution was that this place would not help me feel any better, and that I should go home.
That moment stuck with me for a long time. She was right. I wasn’t angry anymore. I wasn’t agitated anymore. I wasn’t suicidal. I was just extremely sad. But, it was the way she said it. It was just so fluid, and smooth. It was… normal, and simple.
As I did with that accounting instructor a few years earlier. I bargained. I made another deal, this time with the doctor, and my family. I’d get to go home if I promised to partake in the Foothills PAS program. I happily agreed. I owed it to my family to do everything in my power to get better. I owed it to my sister to get better. I convinced myself that perhaps I didn’t do things the right way while she was alive, but I have a second chance to do things the right way now that’s she watching my side from above.
My life began to change that day again. As a visual person, I always look for visual analogies on just about everything. My life, at the time was a very dark maze with hundreds of different levels, and unforeseen cliffs that drop off and throw you into a new, lower rock bottom. Just when you thought you had made some progress towards that better day, you find yourself approaching one of those cliffs, and you’ve hit rock bottom.
But that day I got home from foothills hospital, I realized how much I was loved by my family, and there was no better feeling. I finally had found the road that would lead me from the deepest rock bottom to the light at the end of maze. It’s unknown how many steps are on this road. It’s hard to see. There may be millions. But, the better day is real, and it exists. I can see it now, you just have to take the first step.
As I walked into the PAS Program at Foothills Hospital a couple of weeks later, I finally took that first step to a better day.
“I’m Blair Courchene, I have an appointment at 9:15am”