The Christmas of 1997 I was 19 years old and preparing to travel from Tucson, Arizona to Willowvale, South Africa to teach school as a missionary. I actually didn’t even have knowledge of where Willowvale was on a map. I had very little experience traveling and I was giddy with excitement to head out to the farthest place on earth I could imagine. Christmas Day was the usual gathering at my grandma’s house with my mom and my brothers. My Uncle Mike, my mom’s brother, was supposed to be there too. He lived in town and we saw him quite a bit. He wasn’t there. I remember feeling bummed about that because I was excited to tell him the news.
As the day went on, I knew there were frustrating phone calls happening and I had gathered my uncle was on the other end of those calls. I watched my grandma nervously tending to the phone and then to the meal she was making, nervous whispering with my mom about whatever was happening. My grandma often had worry on her face, but this felt a bit different. When the phone rang next I answered it. My uncle was on the other end of the line, his words slurring and his tone angry and loud. When he realized it was me, he softened a bit. He wished me a “Merry Christmas” and then he told me to tell grandma to come get him. I knew he was drunk and I knew he was making Grandma upset. I said we weren’t coming to get him and hung up. My mom was on duty next. Her conversations were not a whole lot better. The phone was ignored a few more times as we ate dinner.
These interactions weren’t unusual behavior.
I had actually just seen my uncle the week before. He arrived at our house wearing shorts, a tank top, and sandals at 11 pm on December. I was talking with a friend on the phone when he knocked and was very annoyed to see him standing there. He was slurring and asked me for a coat and water. I got him the water and found him a sweater. I wanted to get back on the phone with my friend. It was a rushed interaction. I remember saying something about my “crazy uncle” to my friend, my tone dripping with judgment. That wasn’t unusual behavior from me. I shamed others easily back then.
It was hard not to have Uncle Mike there on Christmas and it was hard to watch my grandma worry about the best thing to do. The calls stopped for a bit and then started again after dinner. My mom answered. He was hurt. He had fallen through his glass table and needed to go to the hospital.
I went with my mom and my grandma to Uncle Mike’s apartment. He was bleeding and had a shirt wrapped around his arm and hand. He saw me and asked that I be the one to help him down the stairs. I remember feeling scared for him. For all my judgment I adored my uncle and a lot of my anger and ire was because I hated to see what he did to himself. Back then, I thought he could just stop it if he wanted. I thought he was acting this way on purpose and it was too much.
The rest of the Christmas night we spent in the emergency waiting room. I was cold and aloof, arms crossed over my chest and staring at the floor. My grandma and mom were near each other. I realized that Uncle Mike did not know my big news. I told him I was going to South Africa to teach school. My uncle had this sweet smile spread over his face and his voice had an ease and lilt that was uncommon for him when he was suffering. He was proud of me. He told me. I saw it. I felt it.
I have a hard time recounting what happened next because nothing really happened, yet something changed. I remember getting this swell in my chest, sadness and love for my uncle as I took in our surroundings. There are not a lot of things more sobering than being in a sterile institution on a day of intended joy. I looked at him and smiled again. He laughed a little and shook his head. I laughed a little and shook my head too. The judgment fell away and I scooted next to him and leaned on his shoulder. I realized for the first time that Uncle Mike hated this more than we did. He was in pain and did not know how else to fix that pain.
A horse-whispering awesome friend of mine, Chris Edwards, taught me this: Everyone’s behavior makes sense to them at the time, otherwise they wouldn’t do it.
All of the things we do are an attempt to meet a need within, and my uncle sure had a lot of pain he was living in and a lot of solutions that no longer worked at all. He had been trying to find ease for a long while; most of my life I witnessed this.
I first heard that my uncle had bi-polar disorder when I was eleven. They didn’t call it that, though. They called it “manic-depressive”. The medical model used language that said mental illness WAS the person. Here’s the difference and it’s an important one: “my uncle is bi-polar” versus “My uncle has bi-polar disorder”. The first makes the person’s only identity be the mental health disorder while the second sees my uncle as a person with a disease. We don’t say “Ed is a heart attack”. We say “Ed had a heart attack.” We have diseases, illness, etc. We are humans with these conditions and the same is true for mental illness.
At age 11, I had witnessed a change in my uncle gradually and then dramatically. I saw him turning in circles quickly and I heard him say his belief that if he stopped spinning, a tornado would happen somewhere. He was making himself exhausted and dizzy because his mind told him he was controlling the weather. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.
In my teenage years, I would spend time with him while he spoke of prophecies about the end times and his belief of the rapture, desperately wanting to make sure we would all make it in the afterlife. Remember that night he showed up the week before Christmas and asked for a jacket? He left my house and trudged up to up at the top of A-Mountain in our town of Tucson. His feet were cut and scraped because sandals were not made for this journey. My uncle had a chemical disease and he was attempting to treat that chemical disease with alcohol. He lived with bi-polar disorder and addiction on a daily basis.
Uncle Mike’s brain created so many scenarios that absorbed him into his own mind, leaving the world behind. I think we mistakenly call that selfish and don’t realize what a painful state it is to be left in your own mind, to make sense of the world all around, pushing away those who love you and who you love, alienation and pain being the unfair trade that gets made.
That Christmas night of 1997, my uncle was patched up at the hospital. I said my goodbyes to him and he to me, fully expecting to get time together in a year or so, after my mission work. I left about two weeks later to South Africa, having finally found it on a map and understanding where my plane would land. My grandma wrote to me all the time as the year progressed and I heard about Uncle Mike. He had been on some medication and it was seeming to be a bit better. I was heartened and my grandma seemed the same in the letters. If you had asked me about him then I would have expressed hope and gratitude based on the outside view of what “better” looks like.
About ten months into my life in South Africa, I got the phone call and was told it was an emergency.
Have you had this call? The two sentences of pleasantries, the tension in the voice on the other end. Some of us may have been asked to sit down before the caller continued on. Others may have heard the caller say “I have some bad news”. I have no idea what my mom chose to say to start.
I remember very few words as a sense of panic rose in me.
I ran for a friend who came to sit with me as my mom told me again, calmly, lovingly. This time I heard the other words: “Your Uncle Mike lit himself on fire and was found still alive. The fire was put out. He lived a couple days. We made the decision to end life support. Uncle Mike died on October 5th.”
Recounting this to you, so many years later, still takes my breath away. The internal pain he must have been in to take this action is overwhelming to me. I will say that the trauma of how he died likely increased the incredible pain we all lived with in the days, months, and years to follow. I remember taking my grandma’s car to the gas station for her to pump gas because she could not stand the smell of gasoline. Her tears were endless for her son and the painful way he died. My grandma never fully recovered and died a few short years after he did.
It has taken me a long time to be able to talk of my uncle’s death. I knew he was in a great deal of pain. The few times I had tried to talk about it outside of my family, I was met with some form of judgment. I heard the word “selfish” a lot when I talked about this. I knew, though, this had nothing to do with selfishness. This was some serious pain he was in. It would take lots of time to navigate the social messages about his death and suicide in general. I made it my life’s work to understand these things.
Here is what I know now:
My uncle Mike died from suicide and his death was not a selfish act, it was not a crime he “committed”, and it was not a lack of fortitude or strength. The brain is an organ like any other organ. Suicide is a potential outcome from the disease of depression and, if is treated, it can often be preventable. If the disease of depression is coupled with the disease of addiction, it increases the risk of completed suicide.
I have the disease of addiction and I have the disease of depression. For a while there, I was scared I would have the same outcome as my uncle had as though his death from suicide meant something about my future. It was as though I thought I had to make a decision to NOT die from suicide since he died from suicide.
That is a myth, dear ones. My increased risk is not because he completed suicide, it’s because genetically I am more predisposed to depression and addiction. It’s as simple as that. It’s not some taboo that I must now choose or not choose. It’s the potential end of a disease process for which I seek treatment.
Why is that important to know?
The stigma around suicide increases the likelihood that people who are having such thoughts will not seek help. I am sure I do not have to drive home the point that this increases the likelihood of attempts and completed suicides. What a difference the sliver of light can make in such a dark, lonely place.
My uncle died on 10/05/1998.
You can likely imagine that 10/05 is a hard day for me and my family. And it is. Yet, something else happened on that day just eight years prior to his death to make that day something we had been celebrating.
On 10/05/1990, my mom stopped drinking. I was 12 years old and was aware of the degradation and torment she was in due to her addiction. My mom got recovery first time asking for it. She admitted she had a problem and started a path of sobriety. I watched someone in deep emotional pain lay claim to a life with options and love. She had to work hard at it. She had to change so many things to stay on that path. I know I did not make it any easier for her, often flinging my resentments and anger her way. She was steadfast.
I lost an uncle who I loved dearly
I gained a mother seeking a path that would lead to wholeness
I saw a potential end of a disease that caused my uncle so much pain
I saw a potential beginning of a life that caused my mom so much joy
I learned that the loss of a dear one from suicide creates so many layers to sift through
I learned that the life of a dear one through recovery gives me so many foundations to stand on.
My mom introduced me to resiliency, seeking Spirit, believing I can and should do better. My mom showed me the way out and she was one of my first calls when I needed help years later.
My uncle is still with me in all the permeations of life he lived. When I think of him I remember he laughed easily and often (the Mulvaney Machine Gun laugh — I have it too. You’ll know it when you hear it). He enjoyed golf and often made me watch it. I always grumbled, but it is something I still put on in the background when it’s on because it soothes me. He soothed me. He was a chef with incredible talent. He was loving and kind to those vulnerable around him. He was fun to play with and learn from. He was proud to be my uncle.
He was human and disease happens to us humans.
It’s been almost 18 years since my uncle died. I still think of him all the time. The word “selfish” never once pops into my head in relation to him. How could it?
If our behaviors are an attempt to get a need met, what does my uncle’s death tell me?
It tells me that his co-occurring condition was so painful within him, death by fire seemed like a better choice.
That is not selfish.
That is suffering.
When we know that, we have new options. The reason I knew to call my mom and admit that I needed help is that my family does not cloak this in shame and stigma. I knew if I had depression, I would not be shunned. I knew if I had thoughts of suicide I needed to talk about them and not keep them locked inside. I knew that mental illness and addictioncause a person to go inside themselves, away from all who can help and who love them.
Christmas Day 1997, I leaned on my uncle’s shoulder as he waited to get some relief from the external pain he was in. I thought about this trip I was getting ready for and the plane that would take me farther than anyone else I knew had ever gone, the farthest place on earth in this big, wide world. I did not realize the farthest place we could ever go on earth is actually within ourselves, locked away believing the shame and pain of mental illness and addiction is reflective of weakness in character. And I did not know my Uncle, Michael Owen Mulvaney, had already made this trip alone.
You are not alone in this.
If you are considering suicide, please tell someone.
Check out some of these resources. Reach out to folks who get it.
Keep talking. Keep breathing. Keep being.
September is Suicide Prevention month. Here are some resources for you and anyone you love:
- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) National Hotline
- Crisis Center Locator: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/getinvolved/locator.aspx
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: http://www.sprc.org
Image credit: Davin Franklin-Hicks
“Top left is me and my mom Teri and the same next to it. Bottom left is me and my uncle Michael Owen Mulvaney and the one next to it is him as well.”