Twenty two years ago this Christmas day I lost my younger brother, a manic depressive and later paranoid schizophrenic. As I write I wonder if that diagnosis is even possible? After my mother's death, I discovered that she was also being treated for MD. Forty years ago I was diagnosed with MD and although I've not seen him in decades nor ever spoken about it before then, I am certain that my elder brother was too. More recently my diagnosis has been changed to bi-polar disorder, I am not at all sure I understand the difference. The point is, we all suffered in silence. I’ve never spoken about my brother or myself, not to anyone that knows me, and certainly not to the psychiatrist I was referred to recently, who, with the greatest respect for his profession, did not possess a sufficient knowledge of English to understand what I was trying to say to him. I fully understand the NHS is under great pressure and lacks the time and resources. Nobody outside of the NHS wants to know, unless of course your pockets are well lined. Besides, what right do I have to expect anyone to want to know? Isn’t there enough misery floating around?
In February 1988, I was working in Florida when I got a call from my employers telling me that my brother had died. My response was, which one? They didn’t know. They were unaware I had two brothers, David, the younger one, who for some time I’d expected would be the reason for a call of this nature, and Peter, the older brother, who for many years I’d wanted to be the reason. I called my sister. Tell me it’s Peter. It wasn’t. David had been found in a flat in Liverpool. She need say no more. I knew it was that he had finally succumbed to the mental illness which had plagued him for most of his young life.
I caught the first available flight and at the family home I found my older brother waiting for me. We sat and listened as my sister told the full story. It was very short story and contained little more information than the telephone call, except to say that there had been a note. It was a scruffy envelope with a few words scrawled across it: “Goodbye to Peter, Tony, Karen and Angela. What did I do wrong?” The question said it all. I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve screamed that question a hundred times, quietly, to myself. The other striking thing about the note was the date. Originally it had read December 24th, but 24th had been crossed out and replaced with 26th. Why?
Peter and I went to the local police station across the street from where David was found. We were hoping for some sort of explanation. Why I don’t know, we both knew David was not a well man. Perhaps I’m being slightly unfair. I knew he wasn’t well. Peter hadn’t set eyes on him for many years, not since he’d smashed a beer glass on a pub table and threatened to cut David open with it. That sent David into hiding in Hackney, east London, which is where I’d seen him last, a year or so before.
The police report said that David had taken an overdose of his prescribed medication on Christmas Eve. Instead of easing his troubles it just made him violently ill, so much so that he had staggered into the street seeking help. The hospital records showed that once recovered, the doctor treating him gave him a prescription for very strong tranquilizers and discharged him from hospital. I seemed to be the only one that found this alarming. I knew that David’s condition often manifested itself in frightening bouts of mania and he may very well have been given one or two tranquilizers to calm him down. But to write out a prescription for a bottle of them, then discharge a patient who was only in the hospital because he’d demonstrated a desire to commit suicide left me cold and angry. We were told if we wanted to know more we should speak with David’s next door neighbour who was also the buildings janitor, and the one that found him.
Crossing the street to his flat I could not escape the feeling that I should have been there for him. A year or so before, he’d been missing for some time when my mother asked me to check an address she’d been given by the Salvation Army. I found him in a forbidding mental institution in Hackney. His life was in tatters. I tried to help him but after a couple of weeks of tripping across London to see him all I could think about was giving him some money, tidying his flat then going about my own business, hoping one day he’d sort himself out. I of all people should have known better. I completely ignored the fact that I too was on medication. I tell myself it was because I was then, and still am, too terrified of the stigma to tell anyone.
There were no personal items in David’s flat, nothing. This didn’t surprise me as I knew from my visits with him in Hackney that with the exception of the clothes on his back, he frequently gave away everything he owned. The dates on the envelope I also understood. Our mother had died six months before. She actually died of cancer but had twice attempted suicide the year before. Like me, David hated to be alone at Christmas and this was the first one he’d experienced where he had nowhere to go. No family home where he could turn up unannounced and know he’d be welcome. His behaviour had been erratic for some time and other family members had grown tired of him. He couldn’t turn to Peter because he was terrified of him. I was in America, as was Karen, our other half-sister. The rest of the family didn’t want to know, but he knew his mother would never turn him away, certainly not at Christmas, but now that door too was closed.
We believe David tried to fill the prescription on Christmas day but would have been unable to find a chemist shop that was open. This probably explains the crossing out of 24th and replacing it with 26th and not 25th. I can’t begin to imagine what that Christmas day was like for him. Had he made a decision that the next day he would take his life? If he had, what were his thought for those twenty four hours? Or was it done on the spur of the moment once he’d filled the prescription on Boxing Day? We’ll never know.
Had I been living in the UK that Christmas day, David would have turned up at my front door, all tousled hair and jangling nerves as always. I’d have been a bit annoyed at him, but only for a while. You couldn’t be angry with him. Then I’d have remembered he was my brother and he was alone. I would also have remembered how alike we are and maybe, just maybe, he’d still be alive today. Instead, by taking his life he made me sit up and take notice of my own illness, my own ‘bad’ behaviour and consequently to seek help. It’s help which simply means one prescription after another, something I see as dust beneath a carpet rather than real help. Nevertheless, I’m alive because David isn’t. It’s an ill wind.
Recently I have become much more aware that it is very likely that the lack of an understanding ear, forcing me to keep my feelings bottled up, has done more harm than good. I am also patently aware that not lending David an understanding ear myself is a large part of the reason why he’s no longer here. The doctors told me that he was so far gone it was inevitable. That’s no consolation. There was a chance, just a small one, but a chance nonetheless and my competitive make-up is such that I will never give up as long as there’s a chance, but I let it slip. I dislike the idea of sounding melodramatic and I’m certainly not fishing for consolation or forgiveness, but it is an absolute truth that I could have and should have done something more to help him, even if it was only to listen a bit longer than I did, but I didn’t. Perhaps if society was a little more accepting of this form of illness more would have been done. David’s death haunts me almost daily, more so at Christmas. He was a timid, gentle soul who didn’t deserve his lot. On that tattered and dog-eared envelope David asked what he’d done wrong, nothing at all my old mate, nothing at all.