Into the Light Walk 2011 Keynote Address:
I was living in New York City, in an old six story walk-up apartment building on 2nd Avenue and 12th street. It was a Sunday morning – and sometime after 7 a.m., the phone rang…and rang…and then stopped.
Then, it began ringing again. Through the paper-thin walls, I could hear my roommate’s voice creak “Hello.” And in that space of silence – I might have held my breath – I had this sickening feeling something was wrong.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. O’Brien,” my roommate whispered. Something, indeed, was terribly wrong. I jumped out of bed, swung open the door, and looked at my roommate’s shocked face as he handed me the phone. “Kev,” my mom sobbed. “Conor… Conor’s gone.”
Looking back, I don’t remember her exact words, but she told me what had happened. I lost it, throwing the receiver across the room. I went into a full rage, shattering a couple wooden chairs and a coffee table into splinters and wailed so loud I woke the entire apartment building. I wanted to wake the world, or at least wake up from this nightmare.
But this was no nightmare. This was a reality I could have never imagined – even after Conor’s first failed suicide attempt a month before his death. After eight years of struggling with bipolar and its dramatic manic highs and paralyzing depressive lows, Conor died at 22 years old. This was a reality I couldn’t accept and still can’t believe.
Now, eleven years later, I still wish to wake the world – not with my anger and rage, but with a message of compassion and education.
Had Conor received early treatment and there was the information that there is today – and there was less stigma – who knows? I may not be here today. Yet here we are. And if you’re here, it is likely suicide and mental illness has impacted you, your family, or your friends.
Know that it affects all of us; thus, we are never alone. So, we are here today – to bring light and hope!
My brother Conor could light up a room with his smile. At 6’2,” two hundred plus pounds, he was an incredible athlete in soccer, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse. Yet he was at his best, perhaps, off the field, working with children as a beloved camp counselor – a gentle giant with a sweet sense of humor and tremendous sensitivity. I believe Conor’s empathy would have made him an incredible teacher and coach if he were alive today.
For eight years, Conor fought mental illness; however, he was not diagnosed bipolar until eighteen. No one knew what to do, especially those first four years. My family didn’t understand what Conor was dealing with – Conor didn’t know what it was either and suffered in silence and fear.
Although Conor was not a teenager when he died, he was first hospitalized at the end of his freshman year at age 15. He couldn’t sleep and high anxiety made him manic and paranoid. It was 1992, and doctors didn’t believe children could be bipolar; the medical professionals didn’t understand mental illness as we do today.
Keep in mind the time – nearly 20 years ago. This was seven years before the first edition of the The Bipolar Child was published. It’s now in its third edition.
Today, we as a society are fortunately more open to discussing mental health issues. Through science and technology, we know more. Now, it’s about spreading the word.
My brother struggled through three high schools in five years. He started at Mayfield High School, then Phillips Academy Andover, back to Mayfield, and then Western Reserve Academy where I now teach. Back then, there was no world wide web – no internet, no “You’ve got mail.” For students here today, it may be hard to imagine – no twitter, no blogs, no facebook. No status updates or posts that might cheer you up if you were down. No easy Google searches for depression or bipolar – or online support groups. No cell phones.
For my mom and other parents that were desperate for answers, the information was scarce. Library books, just a few years old, already seemed outdated. People were reticent or afraid to talk about it.
Now, thankfully, times have changed. We have brain scans, advanced medication and therapies, and national and local hotlines for suicide prevention. Now we have the Suicide Prevention Education Alliance.
In high school especially, Conor often felt isolated and alone. After Conor’s manic highs, he would crash into despair and depression – compounded by embarrassment for his previous manic episode. Embarrassment can be deadly. In Conor’s case, it was.
While attending Ohio Wesleyan University, a manic episode resulted in serious trouble with the law when he vandalized the student center. He was threatened with a felony because of the damages. Despite assurances that he would receive probation if he followed his treatment plan, he feared prison; after his arrest, he had spent five long manic days in county jail. Fear of returning, literally, scared him to death.
With a potential felony on his record, he believed his life would be over. In his eyes, the embarrassment and shame was bringing bad luck to our family. In his delusional state, he felt we would be better off without him. Eleven years of pain and loss, in no way are we better off without Conor. All problems are temporary.
As I reflect on my own life, I remember struggling with depression in high school especially during the winters. In college, I knew more about mental illness because of Conor’s battles. When I grew suicidal and depressed during the winter of my sophomore year, I sought help immediately after my former teammate and lacrosse captain at Penn, Ryan Taylor, tragically took his own life. Since college, I am not ashamed to say that I have suffered personally from depression and have met regularly with counselors and therapists. The winters are still tough for me, so I have learned to take special care during that time of year: proper sleep, diet, and exercise – lots of yoga.
This summer, I finally joined a support group for suicide survivors. For years, I didn’t want to talk about it. When I first went this summer, I felt I finally could talk about Conor. But really my job was to listen and simply to be there as support.
We all have our stories of loss. I realize that the only way to lessen my pain is to help others with theirs, especially those that have had a recent loss. I am reminded again and again that we are never alone.
It’s a humbling experience to be here this evening as the keynote speaker – one that I never imagined. Last year, my family walked in memory of Conor, but I will be candid, I really didn’t want to do it at first. I was busy with school, teaching and coaching. Frankly, I rather enjoy Sunday football and relax. We are Browns fans, win or lose.
However, my mom, as most mom’s are, was persistent, “We are doing this walk. It’s a mile and a half and it’s at the zoo.” So I grudgingly agreed to make mom happy. Then in the last week before the walk, it hit me – if I have to do this walk, I am going to make a difference. So I reached out to friends and raised awareness and funds for our walk team Conor’s Light.
Although I had talked about Conor on a couple occasions over the years at all school meetings, last year I wrote a speech about my own struggles with depression. Although nervous about opening up, I felt a tremendous relief in letting others know – and was overwhelmed by all the positive feedback. Many people came forward and talked to me of their own struggles or others they know that suffer in silence. That speech at WRA ended up in the hands of Pat Lyden and Marti Neveu of S.P.E.A.
How it got there was no accident – my mom emailed it to them. Did she ask me? No. And now, here I am. I used to have a tremendous fear of public speaking, until I realized it wasn’t about me – it’s the message that is important – and more importantly, the audience that receives it.
As I wrote this speech, I imagined looking into the eyes of my parents that lost a son. And my brother Sean who lost his older brother – Conor was the middle child – I am the oldest. In my family, each of us has experienced Conor’s loss in our own way, grieving in our own way. It’s been a slow and never-ending process, but I feel blessed that we have grown closer and more patient and loving with one another, yet it has taken time.
Since Conor’s death, my dad, with little comment, simply stopped drinking – and has been my mom’s “rock” of support. My mom admitted recently that she was in a fog for about eight years after Conor’s death; it was my mom that found him. As she comes out of the fog, she may be the strongest person I know. Now she is determined to make a difference – by fighting the stigma around mental illness.
Obviously, I wouldn’t be speaking here today without her encouragement. Sometime down the road when she is ready, I hope you will return to this walk and my mom will share her story, as a mother, with all of you.
Yet as I wrote this speech, I couldn’t stop imagining all the families like mine, the survivors, looking into their eyes. Families that have lost sons and daughters, or mothers and fathers. Brothers and sisters. Cousins and nephews. Uncles and aunts. Grandchildren and grandparents. Friends and classmates.
Losing a loved one to suicide is hard to fathom. Suicide is sudden like a heart-attack or stroke, yet the death is self-inflicted, so that those who are left behind live in pain and can only wonder “Why?”
And wonder what they could have done…if they had only known…
To hear that “suicide is preventable” used to make me more than angry. Many survivors wish we could go back in time and do things differently. I regret not being more compassionate with Conor. I regret failing to listening more. I regret not knowing what I know now. We didn’t know how high the odds were that he would try to kill himself again – even though he promised otherwise.
Years later, my regret, along with anger and guilt, comes in terrible waves. I confess: it still haunts me in my sleep. Sometimes I have nightmares of losing Conor or trying to save him. A few times, I have had lovely visitation dreams where he’s alive and smiling: once I hugged him and it felt so real I swear I could smell him. Then I wake up to think for a moment that Conor never died – and these years have all been just a bad dream and I hold onto that notion for as long as I can…in that quasi-sleepy state between dream and waking reality. I want no family to have live this nightmare.
I like to think Conor is at peace – and I will see him again. Until then, my only solace is focusing on others. It helps me let go of the anger, the guilt, and the regret. In helping others, I find peace, tremendous hope, and yes, even joy. After losing Conor, I imagined never being happy again; only recently have I fully accepted the truth: that in the past we did the best we could in that situation at that time.
With acceptance, there is possibility – for healing and happiness. We can’t change the past.
In writing this, I imagined seeing my family and other survivors, but when looking out at my students from Western Reserve Academy and countless other students, tonight, I am overwhelmed with hope.
I love that S.P.E.A.’s message is one of hope. Yet it goes beyond hope by taking action. Their mission is to empower young people. Their unique program in over 100 high schools across Northeast Ohio helps and educates 15,000 students annually. Those students and the students here tonight represent our future.
As I look out at these young people, I am more than hopeful, because they are future doctors, biochemists, and researchers. Some will be compassionate counselors, teachers, police officers, lawyers, and judges. And of course, the promising artists: the singers, actors, filmmakers, painters, photographers, and writers that will bring light to the darkness through their craft – giving voice and expression to those in silence. The students here tonight are already powerful activists, philanthropists, and fundraisers – all are educators that can save lives.
So to the students, I share a simple and true message, “Suicide is preventable through education and early treatment.”
My plea: Never keep a secret when a friend’s life is in danger.
You’re our best defense in this battle with mental illness and suicide.
My warning: Alcohol and illicit drug use severely impacts brain chemistry and impairs brain development which can lead to mental illness.
My reminder: Don’t be afraid to ask for help – you’re never alone.
If your friends are going through treatment, reach out to them with unconditional support. Stay connected with them – let them know they have your support and nothing to be embarrassed about – we all have storms to endure.
As an English teacher with such a great audience, I’d be remiss if I was not a little didactic and reminded all of you how our words have tremendous power.
Once spoken, once written, once texted, once posted online – they cannot be taken back; therefore, be impeccable with your word. Understand their denotations and connotations.
Be kind with your words. And please, stand up against bullies.
Listen to the words of others. Listen carefully; you might help someone that is hiding their pain behind the facade of a smile. Hear their sarcasm. Understand their subtext. When someone jokes, “I could kill myself.” Please call them out on those expressions, and ask, “What do you mean by that? What’s going on? Talk to me.”
Educate yourself through reading. Learn as much as you can about mental illness so you can be compassionate with everyone you meet.
You never know what someone is thinking or feeling.
You just never know.
Thank you for listening.
Thank you SPEA for this opportunity; it’s been a truly healing journey as your keynote speaker.
My final wish is that tonight we will remember our loved ones while we, the living, cherish the moments that we have together with greater love, understanding, and compassion.
Tonight, we have saved lives. Despite the darkness and the rain, tonight we have brought hope and light! The future is bright because of you. Now with hope and education, take action!