TW: self harm, gun violence, suicide
Please know before I get on Bummed Out Baker to write I always prioritize working with my family and psychiatrist to stabilize myself. I wouldn’t be on here if I hadn’t first confirmed my safety.
For reasons you’ll soon find obvious, this was distressing to write.
“I’m going to try to find my brother,” I announced to my summer writing collective. It was the meeting before my departure in June. They looked on with concerned faces, but I’m used to people being disconcerted about anything having to do with Alex and his story. The next morning I was embarking on a trip to Texas for six weeks to work on my thesis, the first 100 pages of my book, about mental illness and my brother, Alex.
“Good luck and, just… take care of you,” were the general consensuses in the room that night and in the encouraging emails and texts that followed. I have a special kind of intimacy with my writing colleagues through secrets that can only be conveyed in the written word, and they detected that I was wading into dark waters long before I did. Meanwhile, I was telling myself that they just didn’t know how hardened I was to tragedy.
Like a geographical safeguard, the 1500 miles between New York City and Dallas have stood firmly between Alex’s reality and me since I moved here going on eight years ago. As a result, his story is one I’ve been able to deliver to others for years with a matter-of-fact, placid affect. But, over the course of my recent extended stay, the buffer disintegrated and left me with a raw reckoning.
I haven’t seen Alex in over a year. It’s been so long that I’ve begun having a hard time imagining what his weathered face even looks like these days. That sensation is further unmoored by the knowledge that his body is in a constant state of substance-informed deterioration. He’s an elusive addict making his way around Fort Worth, Texas and is not forthcoming about his location. Six months ago, he changed his Facebook profile picture to a bizarre rendering of someone who used to be the most conventionally attractive Powell child. He looked like a crumbling version of my handsome brother. Who is that? To me, Alex is like a slow zoom out at the end of a movie. He’s becoming smaller and smaller, and the details are now too small to make out, no matter how hard I squint. So, my imaginative subconscious is having a heyday, which is the only way I can explain my waking nightmares that ultimately led to the breakdown I just experienced.
Every time I visit my parents’ house in Texas, I feel endangered. Involuntarily, scenes play over and over in my head until they’re no longer violent fiction but real threats. Here lies the crux. When I am home in Arlington, night after night I imagine Alex getting dropped off in front of my parents’ house, backlit and bathed in the orange glow of the streetlamp, and pulling out a gun. Sometimes he raises the gun to the side of his head and I see his black silhouette fall. Sometimes I see him breaking into my parents’ house with the gun to hurt us. Every time I see these things I’m in his old room, where I often sleep.
One trip home, when the lines of reality had begun to blur, I raced to the front door and flickered the front porch light to alert Alex that I saw him. I see you, Alex! Please don’t hurt me. As soon as the sun came up, these threats that made my heart pound would dissipate like morning dew.
Another night on another trip, I heard the crunch of a car pulling up in front of the house and knew. Showtime. I peeked out of the blinds of Alex’s old bedroom, and saw a tall man exit a car. I was right. Exactly what I imagined has manifested. I raced to the front door in my oversized t-shirt and underwear and yanked it open to find a drunk teenager peeing on our yard. I sputtered before yelling “Hey! Get the fuck off my lawn!” I stepped back into the house, trembling. To me, that drunk teenager was a close call, a near miss of my brother coming to kill us all and then himself. Unlike seven years ago, Alex was going to get the gunshot right this time, and we were all going down with him. I wasn’t angry about my violent fate, just anxious for its arrival. I see Alex inflicting death on his loved ones to be from a place of mercy. It was going to be his way of saying sorry to us and end our suffering along with his. He always did have a hard time with words. Actions, not so much. Was that the front door I just heard? Did the handle jostle? Did it’s distinct suction just sound? For hours that night I lied awake wide-eyed, watching the ceiling fan whir. Another night waiting for death that didn’t come.
I suppose these visions didn’t crack me until my most recent trip, though, because it was the longest time I’ve spent in Texas since seven years ago, when Alex shot himself. This seemed to purely be a case of mental sustainability. How long can I take it? Survey says, three weeks to the day.
It all started on Wednesday, July 17th when I walked into my dad’s office. “Hey, can you tell me that B&E story about someone else claiming to be Alex? I’m trying to write about it.” My dad leaned back in his chair and his eyes flickered upward in thought. He recounted a cop calling him for the upteenth time, asking if he were Alexander Powell’s father. Trembling, he sat down as he confirmed that yes, he was.
“Sir, we have your son here in custody for breaking and entering. He was found in someone’s closet.” My dad thought Alex was at work but, given his history, anything was possible, including a little lunch break B&E. “The issue is, though, he doesn’t match what we have on file for Alexander Powell.”
“Well, there’s one way you can be certain you have the right person. My son has a prosthetic leg. Does that guy have a left foot?”
Alex was busy at work when some guy from our high school spit out Alex’s name, trying to pin a crime on him. I suppose he thought Alex was an easy mark but, for once, Alex was caught doing the right thing. When my dad called to tell him about it, they both had a good laugh. In a strange way, I suppose it was a prideful moment for Alex.
Around 2:00am later that night, I was grateful REM was eluding me when I heard someone in the house. Okay, Alex’s here now. I walked out of his room. “Hello?” I asked the ticking clock on the living room wall. Nothing. Sometimes my dad can’t sleep, either, and makes his way into his office to work, but his office was dark. Alex is finally here, and he’s hiding. I walked through each room of the house, turning on lights, inspecting closets and spaces big enough to obscure a person – behind couches, the pool table, underneath my dad’s desk, the bar. Nothing. I doubled checked every locked door before closing myself back in Alex’s room, again accepting my fate. If I’m going to die, that’s okay. Another night of doing everything I can to prevent death, another night having to make peace with it. My eyes burned and my heart pounded.
Now far out of the realm of sleep, I mindlessly scrolled through the multitudes of Facebook, a road with a million forks that lead to a billion nothings. I clicked on the profile of a girl I’d gone to high school with, wondering what she’d been up to. She was dead.
“I’m in Fort Worth. Please tell my parents I’m safe and I love them,” she’d written to a concerned friend in some buried comment thread. Various photos of her in outpatient treatment centers, encouraging words, and selfies captioned with self-affirmations littered her erratic feed until they ended abruptly, replaced by shell-shocked friends and death’s faithful platitude: “I can’t believe you’re gone.” It seems she’d overdosed. I spent the next two hours scrolling through four years of posts from someone I hadn’t seen in 16 years, searching for clues to a puzzle without an answer. I was entranced by the mystery and likenesses: Except for the end, she and Alex have shared the same road.
My mania had dwindled into a dull throb of depression. Trying to make use of what I was feeling, I opened my laptop to disseminate fresh thoughts about Alex, but my mind was more scattered than my book’s manuscript. There was so much to say, but at the same time there was nothing to say at all. I was beginning to feel like a human husk and leaned my head back onto the hard headboard.
It was 4:30am and the world felt dead around me. Right then, I believed the lie that everyone else had average thoughts and average nights. Meanwhile, my growing perceived isolation felt irrevocable, like a “new normal” I could either adjust to, or die. I was already on the way down, mentally, so I threw the concept of self-care out and dumpster dove into more darkness.
I climbed out of bed and tugged a folder marked “Alex 2016” out from under the throw pillows I’d stacked on the window seat. My mom and I had unearthed it that day while sorting through her and my dad’s bedroom, purging and organizing items that had needed attention for years. We found my Abercrombie & Fitch new hire manual (recycle), Duncan’s study abroad info from his 2005 semester in Prague (shred), and this Alex folder (“Keep it, you may need it for your book.”). Like rotten Easter eggs, upsetting pieces of Alex are hidden all around the house.
I cracked open the tattered accordion folder and started at the beginning. The first three things I pulled out were letters from Alex, one from each time in his troubled life like paper talismans no one could stand to part with. All three were written to my parents, and all three contained apologies, self-lacerations, and unkept promises for improved future behavior. Each decade of tumult was accounted for: teens, 20s, and 30s. By the third letter my eyes were too blurred to read and fat tears were plopping onto Alex’s scrawl, a piece of posterity being marred by my overdue emotions. I don’t remember the last time I cried about Alex, but in that moment heaving sobs overtook me and depleted me, anew.
The sun began to peek through the blinds, leading me to rationalize that, without the cloak of night, Alex murdering us en masse was less likely. Plus, my parents would be awake soon, which meant they’d be my night shift relief. I sent a text to my parents at 6:05am that read:
Was up 2-6am working on writing. Will be sleeping extra strange hours today.
I didn’t tell them the rest. I never tell anyone the rest.
At 2:30pm, I made the bed and emerged from Alex’s room, but my paranoia and general unease had only slightly quelled, unusual for me. I put in my contacts, washed my face, brushed my teeth, washed out my mouthguard, slathered sunscreen all over my face, and changed into clean clothes. Black, always black. This morning routine has become a ritual, a mental imperative. They’re things I know I’m able to do and, somedays, these things are all I’m able to accomplish. July 18th was one of those days.
I made conversation and a cup of tea, trying to play it cool, trying to starve and kill whatever was ailing my mind. “So, no organizing today?” I asked my mom, bummed. I was hoping we’d tackle another area of the house, maybe so I could further numb my mind. Knowing I was blue, she invited me along to hang out with her and her loving, understanding friend, but my capacity for conversation was tapped after just a brief interaction. I stayed put while people moved around me, my mom heading to her friend’s house, my dad working and eating, my nephew, a tiny person with Alex’s face, asking Alexa to play “Old Town Road” over and over. Then, when my dad left to pick up my mom and my nephew ran outside to get in his mom’s car, I found myself alone in our empty house.
No matter how it’s renovated, Alex is like a ghost in that place. I can still see him heading out for the night in his fat skate shoes, seeking out our dad to ask for twenty bucks at an inappropriate age. Passing me in the kitchen as I sat at the table, he’d take a dig at me like a parting gift. “Beeyelly!” He’d say in a mocking voice. “Don’t have any plans tonight? Is it cause you realized you’re too laaarge to be loved? Aren’t you a lesbian, anyway? Just kiddin’!” He’d shout behind him before slamming the door and ripping his truck out of the driveway.
One time, after exiting my room in a horizontally striped shirt, he pounced. “Uh, Beeyelly, those stripes aren’t doing anything for your wide-load body.” My face crumpled up as I walked back to my room and shut the door to cry. A few seconds later, a soft knock came. “Bailey? I’m really sorry for saying that. You know I think you’re really pretty. I didn’t mean what I said.” There was a beat of silence. “You’re not a wide-load,” he chuckled softly as he cracked open my door, peeking in at me while I sat on my bed and stared at my lap. “Seriously,” he said with earnest eyes. “Do you still love me?”
When our dad turned 60, we threw a huge party for him. Just a year and change after Alex had shot himself, we sat next to each other so I could monitor and advocate for him, making sure he was eating enough to match his booze intake and to act as a buffer between him and any prying eyes or questions.
People got up and spoke about our dad, making a bunch of people cry, because that’s just the kind of person my dad is. Duncan and I had already stood up to say something, eliciting laughter and tears. When an old college buddy of my dad’s took the stage, Alex leaned over to me and said, “I have something to say, too. It’d make him cry. Should I go next?” His eyes searched my face for affirmation. Despite his often mean façade, an unguarded desire for my approval still shone through from time to time. I could tell he was serious, but his shoddy record made me wary. He appeared lucid, but I couldn’t be sure how much he’d been drinking, or if he was on anything. Who knew what he’d say. I paused. “I don’t know Alex, you could just talk to him later,” I said. His body was erect, hands placed on the back of his chair as he twisted around to look at the center of the room, rapt and wondering. He looked like a child. When he looked back at me, I doubled down. “Yeah, I think you should talk to him later, in private,” I said. “If you’re gonna upset him, definitely talk to him later.” His face fell.
Censoring him that night, what I now know was a rare time he felt he had something of value to offer, is one of a couple of things I have trouble forgiving myself for. Another is when I was so angry at him I made fun of his limp. After spewing venom at me and leaving the room, I marched through the kitchen mocking his gait, a physical retort to his searing words.
“Don’t do that,” my mom said, sitting at the table and watching me sadly. I think she was sad for both of us.
Alex dropped out of high school, failed out of community college twice, and was discharged from the Army for drug use. He openly resents me and Duncan for going to college, for getting salaries instead of hourly wages, for going on vacation when he wasn’t able to get off work, for doing things like studying abroad and moving out of our hometown- essentially experiencing what some might perceive as conventional success. Despite my and Duncan’s own crippling issues with mental illness, and despite our relentless encouragement of him, Alex refuses the concept of nuance and believes he’s been singled out and shorted in life. Simply, he understands every progression of my and Duncan’s lives to be a dig at who he’s become, a wedge we were driving between us and him as siblings with hateful intention. Shrouded in insecurity, he also points fingers at our parents, especially our mom, desperately grasping for a reason why his life has turned out differently than ours. When I was in college, he’d sneer things like, “Yeah, must be a lot of hard work for mom and dad to pay for you and Duncan to go party for four years. Must be nice! I actually have to go to work,” and “Just ’cause you go party at North Texas instead of here in Arlington doesn’t make you any smarter than me, mmmkay Beeyelly?” He took every opportunity to tear me down and, in addition to dealing with my severe clinical depression, it worked.
On rare occasion, when it seemed like he’d never forgive me or stop making cruel comments, he’d do something like drive 110mph north of Dallas just in time to see me walk the stage at the University of North Texas to receive my diploma. I still remember standing up with my row and giving a final hopeful glance to my family in the stadium. Alex was above them jogging down the steps with that same gait only someone with a prosthetic leg could have, the fringes of his beanie swinging side to side.
Teenage Alex evaporated, twenties Alex evaporated, and I was back in my parents’ house on July 18th, alone.
Historically, my mood sunsets in tandem with the day and, like a green wall cloud taunting me from the horizon, I knew a dangerous storm was coming. At night I’m at my worst, it was arriving, and that strange day contained something extra I couldn’t identify. It was special. Despite the grace of a summer night concluding late, between 8-9pm, twilight never lasts long, and eventually the sun’s going to leave. Feeling helpless, I collapsed into bed, fully clothed, just a handful of hours after I’d emerged from it. I said goodnight to Rick on the phone with a giant lump in my throat, refusing to worry him with my cross-country fear. I was gutted that he was going to sleep. Jealous, even. Simplicity will never be mine. Average people sleeping average hours meant I would officially be alone with my thoughts while an emptiness was growing inside me like a cancer on crack. After we hung up, I heard my parents return home, that distinct aero-gush of the glass door before it’s final slam and lock, a noise I was especially astute at detecting due to my night vigils. I listened to them move and murmur around the house while, unmoving, I watched the last drip of sun fade through the blind slats. The house quieted and night had officially begun.
The tears came, because there was nothing else. I laid on my stomach, face turned sideways on the pillow, and a hot splotch of tears darkened the pillowcase before cooling. Like the sun, even the warmth of my own tears was leaving me. My thoughts pivoted to death, like a villain’s head slowly turning toward a victim in a scary movie. Fuck. I couldn’t smother it. I couldn’t push it down. Death seemed reasonable, and giving in seemed easy. But, I knew I could never act. My family has been through enough tragedy to last several lifetimes. Our quotas were met long ago and, unfortunately, continue to be exceeded. My dad jokes about potential disasters happening to his loved ones. “That’s all I need,” he says, wryly, following with a laugh. It’s a way to cope.
Hot face dampened by cold tears, I found myself in a limbo. I wanted to hurt myself but knew I couldn’t, which exacerbated my helpless self-hatred. I was both suffocating and unable to die.
Which way is out? I can’t see, I can’t do, I can’t feel. There is nothing. What does Alex look like now? Did I just hear a car pull up to the house? Is that a gun? I can’t do this anymore. I can’t not do this anymore.
Smothered between two enormous pillows of inaction, I believed, if left alone, death would win. I have a hard time crying in front of people and, in a great exercise of humility, I called Rick back, voice cracking, to tell him the truth. I’ve long felt guilty that the conventional-seeming blonde person he married turned out to be a lot more than he bargained for. Fifteen hundred miles away, unable to touch or see me, he was dumbfounded. In our five years together, he’d never known me to be what I was that night.
My time was ticking, and I burst out of Alex’s bedroom. “Where’s mom?” I choked to my dad sitting on the couch. I made a game time decision that my mom’s a queen in crisis and my dad, always the first line recipient of bad news regarding Alex, needed a damn break.
Heaving sobs and layering streaks of snot on the sleeves of my black shirt, the only thing I was sure of was the necessity of my being monitored. I could no longer be stagnant. Whether that meant going to a local institution or immediately flying back to New York to see my psych and do the same, something had to happen straight away. Leaving my mom on the phone with Rick, my dad trailed behind me. “Bailey, what can I do? Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”
“Nothing. I feel nothing.” I collapsed back onto the bed in Alex’s room and, with the light pouring in from the hallway, my dad looked on. I imagine that’s a special brand of heartbreak, a niche market. She’s not a kid, but she’s still my kid.
Like a wonky record player, my mind began to loop: hurt myself, hate myself, hurt myself, hate myself. There is nothing else. There is nothing.
Rick and my mom conferenced Duncan, a seasoned vet in wading through dark spaces alone while believing there’s no way out. He recommended a way to manage my immediate situation before hightailing from Dallas to our parents’ house in the suburbs to talk me down. Rick stayed on the phone with me until Duncan arrived, my mom busied herself booking me on the first flight available out of Dallas to NYC the following morning, and my dad looked thunderstruck. Unfortunately, I know that face too well. Underneath it is an indescribable grief, it usually just applies to Alex.
Duncan arrived and sat on the edge of the bed in our brother’s old room. The room of “our missing tripod”, as I call Alex. Wearing his glasses, I realized he’d risen from the comfort of his own bed to come be with me.
“I think Alex is going to come over with a silencer and kill us all in our sleep.” I said, puffy eyes staring around at the beige walls.
Duncan chuckled and shook his head, at once acknowledging the pain and familiarity of a waking nightmare, a conviction that something awful is about to happen.
“It’s very real to me, Duncan!” My face screwed up as I began to cry again. “You don’t understand. In my head, it’s very real.”
“I know, B.” He pressed his lips together knowingly as he looked down at his lap in a thoughtful pause. “I know. But silencers are, like, really expensive,” he pressed his lips together again in a knowing smile, this time looking up at me. For the first time in two days, I smiled. Through humor, I knew I was free to at least let go of the idea of Alex having some kind of GoldenEye weapon accessibility. “I’ve been where you are, mentally, a million times. Like when I was in Midland?” He shook his head, unable to convey the severity of that time in his life. “I get it, Bailey. You will come out on the other side. And also, Rick’s the fucking man.”
I shook my head knowingly. “Poor Rick.” Duncan knows what it’s like to have an indefatigably supportive spouse. “I also try to always remember, ‘If it’s my time, it’s my time’,” I recited, a mantra many people in our family have found both comforting and humorous through bouts of anxiety.
“Yeah, that’s right! And, if you get shot, well, if it’s your time for Dateline, it’s your time for Dateline.”
I burst out laughing in a way only a family accustomed to the coping mechanism of dark humor could.
A few hours later I wheeled my enormous bag toward the car to head for the airport. I’d packed it for a six week trip and had only made it through half, but I did my best. Duncan had fallen asleep on the couch, and as I passed by I patted him on the arm and thanked him for coming.
“Of course. Anytime, B. I love you,” he mumbled through sleep.
I was headed back to New York, my husband, golden retrievers, and psychiatrist.
The memory of sitting on the Newark tarmac the day Alex shot himself in the head, not knowing whether my brother would be alive or dead by the time I landed in Dallas, remains vivid. I canned all that blooming tragedy inside of my 5’9″ frame, a much younger black-clothed body. I’d already checked off the box of flying alone in the midst of tragedy. This time, because she’s a flight attendant, my mom was able to escort me to New York for next to nothing.
“No matter how old you get, you’ll always be my baby,” she said with a sad smile. “Now. What snacks should we get?” She cheered, popping open the airline’s overpriced menu. A special splurge for a terrible time.
When I touched down in New York my bag got lost and it took Rick an hour and half to locate me amidst the chaos of LaGuardia construction. Meanwhile poor Apollo, our 115 lb. golden retriever prone to car sickness who’d been brought along to comfort me, swayed around in the back. When all of this caused me to miss my emergency psychiatrist appointment, I had an encore meltdown next to the line of buses. In hindsight, I always try to find the comedy. Because crying by a bunch of buses while men in orange reflector vests look on is pretty funny. Both the following night and three days after that, though, humor had long disappeared and death was glancing my way again, welcoming me, luring me, reasoning with me. This time Rick was able to physically sit with me, keeping me company while those tedious hours passed. For him I am forever grateful.
Thoughts of death come and go, and I have to accept that they may always be there.
Rick’s uncle officiated our wedding, and in the weeks leading up to the big day we met with my aunt and uncle-in-law-to-be to discuss what we imagined that day looking like and some common imperatives to review prior to committing our lives to one another: finances, children, and challenging family dynamics. I surprised myself, and I think everyone else, when I began to ugly cry about Alex. I was concerned that Rick and I would never properly relate because he doesn’t know what it feels like to have an emotionally and physically absent sibling. It all rose to the surface like oil shoving past vinegar. Prior to our wedding, under all the gown fittings and invitation proofing and cake tasting, I had a hard time swallowing that my brother was going to miss it all. There I was sitting in an elegantly designed living room while Alex was living under a bridge. How much would he hate me for this?
A month after our wedding Alex wrote to me. “Hey B! I so just cried watching your wedding video! ;( thank you for posting it and I’m so sorry I missed it. I’m so proud of you Bailey and I love you so much” [sic]
Three years into my and Rick’s marriage I’m still devastated, but Rick’s grace and patient commitment to understanding and supporting me continues to astound me.
I know I must move forward, but I continue to mourn the living.
I imagine Alex sobering up and dipping his toe into the ocean of reconciliation and reckoning he himself would have to undertake in order to right his wrongs and move forward. Then, I understand why he’d rather stick another needle back in his body. If Alex were dead, his pain would be alleviated.
Alex’s life has been long-suffering, mysterious, at times violent, emotionally volatile, and special. He is Keith and Staci’s son. He is my and Duncan’s brother, and we are each other’s oldest friends. The complexity of Alex is impossible to let go of, and my family’s collective analysis of his trajectory never fails, never ceases. As time goes on, it becomes less likely he’s going to return to us, and I struggle to not become irritated when well-intentioned people tell me to “not lose hope”. These didacts, often under-qualified and over-inclined to offer their opinion on the matter, haven’t weathered the horrific rollercoaster that is being my brother’s little sister, let alone what it’s like to be Alex, himself.
I’ve decided this isn’t simply my lowest point, but an overdue reckoning. Alex isn’t alive, and he’s not dead. He and I remain connected, waving at each other from a distance inside of our respective limbos.
When I got into Columbia, my dad told me that Alex had been raving about the success on the phone and to anyone else who’d listen. He’d call from a stranger’s cell phone to ask for cigarettes and a refill of his anti-seizure prescription and then revisit the topic. “Columbia! Oh my god, my sister got into an Ivy League.” My admission was his victory by proxy, his success. If it weren’t for Alex, I suppose I’d have a limited depth both in life and on the page, so I do have him to thank. I never had the heart to tell him I chose another school. I know his capacity for understanding the financial considerations and complexities of school choice wasn’t guaranteed, so I’ve left his joy alone.
The last time we had contact, Alex sent me one of those chain messages.
I sent an angel to watch over you last night but it came back and I asked why. The angel said angels don’t watch over angels… God has seen you struggling with some things and God says it’s over.
“I love u [sic] Tiny B!” he concluded.
Writing this post felt like flipping over a hard shell and exposing a big, soft belly to figurative daggers. For me, this is the essence of vulnerability. No matter how hard I work on this piece, how many times I revise and rework it, it’s still coming out emotionally discombobulated and, at times, confusing, which I suppose is a poetic parallel to the complexity of my and Alex’s relationship.
Something has happened to me, and I’m still feeling tidal waves of emotion like a meteorite landing in the ocean. My psychiatrist and I have made the provocative decision that, aside from edited events with my family, I need to distance myself from unnecessary engagements until this book about Alex fully emerges from my head. Unfortunately, it’s not a project I can turn on and off between birthday parties and happy hours with friends, but this is a story that needs to be told. It’s hard-earned content that needs to be exorcised for both the sake of my mental health and that of my relationships. It’s not fair to anyone, especially Rick, to drag this out any further. Also, Alex deserves it. What’s that saying? Something like you can’t go around it or over it, you just have to go through it? Well, I’m going through it.
The last time I saw Alex in person he said, “I hope you write my story.”
I’m on it, Ally.
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