Alyssa Relyea

@alyssa-relyea | contributor
Alyssa Relyea, MA has been a passionate advocate for suicide prevention since 1997, when she lost her twin brother, Andrew, to suicide. Working with a nationally-recognized suicide prevention organization and hearing the stories of struggle and loss strengthened her dedication to the cause. She now writes for outlets including The Huffington Post and speaks frequently about suicide prevention and mental health for audiences ranging from students to suicide prevention volunteers. A teacher by training, she is interested in the future of education, and in the power of compassion in changing our world.
Alyssa Relyea

On Surviving the Suicide of My Twin Brother, 20 Years Later

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. My 40th birthday is coming up. I’ve looked upon this event with dread for 20 years, but not for the usual reasons. I don’t fear growing old. I don’t fear the loss of my looks or vitality. I don’t fear the beginning of the end. I have feared living most of my life without him, instead of most of my life with him. My twin brother died in 1997, when we were just 20 years old. It was a surprise to us, as I find it is to many suicide loss survivors. It seemed impossible, this idea of moving forward in life without Andrew. Many days I felt a frozen sense of self, something much more than numbness. I was stuck in the hours of his last day on Earth. The continuous loop typically associated with anxiety was instead stuck in repeat on a deep, dark sadness that was difficult to fathom, much less dig myself out of. So I stuck to one refrain: I had 20 years with him. It would be 20 years before I would cross the bridge and spend most of my life without him. It was my 40th birthday that was the enemy. Until then, I could rest somewhat easily with the knowledge that more of my days were spent on an Earth that had Andrew on it somewhere too, running around doing his thing. It would be OK. But I turn 40 in a week now, and my mind keeps going back to the minute I had the realization about the 40 and 20. I am bracing myself for January 19th, the beginning of a different ratio. What I’m forgetting in all this is what’s most important to remember: everything I learned when Andrew died. What he taught me by taking his life at the most unexpected moment in our youth, when I was certain we’d live forever, conquer the world and knew it all. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I can look at the past 20 years and Andrew’s death to see that if I had not lost him, I would not have learned to find beauty in others where it seems not to exist: the painfully shy or the narcissistically exuberant, the arrogantly wealthy and the desperately poor and pathetic. Losing someone in the prime of his life showed me that the flipside of everything tragic is something beautiful. When I look at anyone now, no matter what state they are in, I can see the underbelly of their prominence or the apex of their fall from grace. You are so much more than you seem on the surface, at this moment, on this day. When I tell people that losing my twin brother to suicide was, in some ways, one of the best things to ever happen to me, the shock on their faces is plain. In no way am I suggesting I was happy to see him go, but I am suggesting we all look at the horrible happenstance of our lives and try to find the positive in it. It took me some years to come to this conclusion — even more to be able to verbalize it. Some days are easier than others.  Some situations are easier to deal with (it took me three months to write this post, for example). But at the end of the day, when you reflect on what happened as you fall asleep, rethink that crabby person in line at Starbucks. Re-evaluate your reaction when you were cut off in traffic. Consider keeping that friend with the different political views. It is in this manner we will recover, we will prosper, we will be reunited as a whole. Start with yourself and your outlook, your ratio, and then move on to change the world. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 o r text “START” to 741-741 . We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Images via contributor

Alyssa Relyea

Suicide Loss Survivor Argues We Need Trigger Warnings

Trigger warnings, seems like you love them or you hate them. Intended to forewarn those who might be seriously and detrimentally affected by something about to be read or discussed, trigger warnings have come to represent the newest affront on our country’s Puritanical past and pull-up-your-bootstraps attitude from the warm and fuzzy, helicoptering, overprotecting parents on the left. It seems like no one likes trigger warnings, but college campuses are becoming increasingly annoyed by them. Interestingly, mental health issues on college campuses are also on the rise. Is that because we’re getting soft?  Is it because these helicopter parents haven’t adequately prepared their kids for independence and self-sufficiency? Or maybe people just talk about and express their psychological problems, whereas 20 years ago they would’ve kept silent?  Maybe the world is becoming more stressful? We could debate the reasons for mental health issues in young adults until the cows come home, but would that refute the fact that more of these college kids are having them? Telling a 19-year-old that the reason they feel anxiety is because mommy didn’t prepare him for life doesn’t change the fact that he feels anxious, it just makes him feel ashamed. And when we make others feel ashamed of their illnesses, the results are disastrous.  People don’t seek treatment. People die. So while you may have no need of trigger warnings, perhaps a portrait of why they are sometimes necessary will help negate the argument that they shouldn’t exist? Nineteen years ago, I lost my twin brother to suicide. It was traumatic. It was unforeseen. It was horrible. I wouldn’t wish the turmoil and grief and guilt we all experienced after his death on anyone, let alone an enemy. I do everything I can to help others in the same place he was. But 18 years ago, my grief was still very raw and fresh and painful. I have little need of trigger warnings now, but almost 20 years ago, I would’ve loved them. Unfortunately, they didn’t exist in pop culture. If I was lucky, someone would tell me not to read or see something because it was about suicide, sensing intuitively it might upset me. There was a kindness and empathy in that warning I never hear in the voices of the people who complain about such warnings today. Two years after my brother died, I was somewhat healed. I was living in a new city and trying to move on. I was doing a good job. My boyfriend took me to see a very popular movie at the time, “Fight Club.” Most of the movie is hazy to me now, but I do remember the ending. Jack takes a gun and he shoots himself in the face. This is not how my brother died, but it was close enough in time that this bothered me. Bothered me how? I can hear you wondering. I tumbled from my seat as he pulled the trigger, dry-heaving and falling over myself the whole way, desperate to unsee. I ran through the lobby, holding back sobs, and into the dark parking lot. Outside, I began screaming through my sobs, “How could they do this?  How could anyone do this?  Why would anyone want to see?” as my boyfriend apologized profusely. His guilt over being a party to my pain was tremendous. Because you see, if he’d known, he would’ve warned me. He would’ve told me to close my eyes or given me the option to avoid the movie altogether. And I could have decided for myself if I was ready to see a death by suicide, if the pain it would cause was worth it. Are we babying kids too much these days? Absolutely. I think it’s absurd I can’t let my 8-year-old walk to the bus alone without raising eyebrows. But when it comes to mental health, I think it’s high time we shut our mouths when it comes to judging someone else’s problems. If you haven’t been there, you could hardly understand. And in the absence of knowledge, don’t defend your ignorance. Gracefully acknowledge it, and let others decide for themselves what is and what isn’t OK for them to deal with today. Tomorrow, if your time comes to live through a trauma, we will extend the same courtesy. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Alyssa Relyea

When Depression Slowly Closes in On You

I’m on a plane between D.C. and Chicago. I’m halfway between my life’s wish fulfillment (lobbying in the Capitol) and my life’s reality (sick kids and sh*ty neighbors). I feel the long-forgotten but readily-remembered clamp of depression closing down inside me. I sigh at the realization, and then begin the long struggle to unscrew it. For me, the slow descent into depression begins with a flutter of anxiety. My thoughts run a looped track in my brain, and there’s truly no slowing down their frequency or stifling them with reason. My heart’s anguishes, my mental illnesses (how very difficult it still is to say that), never sneak up on me in the middle of the night. They never steal their way into my daytime thoughts. The anguish slowly backs up inside me because my anguish, my depression, is a clamp. The clamp does not just drown out reason or color my world with sadness or any other of the common themes that swirl around depression. It does all those things, but more. It turns itself ever-so-slowly, yet ever-so-steadily tighter and tighter. It sits right above my breastbone in my chest. It screws more and more tightly shut, and in doing so it separates the lifeline between my head and my heart. For me, mental well-being means the clamp is wide open, and reason and emotion can flow freely between my head and my heart. For me, mental illness is a shut down between the two, leaving emotions trapped in my heart, unable to be reasoned out and deciphered by my level head. I knew why this clamp was screwing shut. I felt it open the minute after I landed in D.C. and had a good cry, ridding myself of the bad blood and bad decisions I’d left in Chicago. Family stress, neighbor annoyances, judgmental people and most damning of all, my harsh treatment of myself, had bogged down in my heart and screwed that clamp tighter each day. How happy I was to be free of everything I’d left behind. Being in D.C. meant being me without the encumbrance of my family or my responsibilities. Here I was, back to being me when I was single, and empowered and free. How selfish, I realize, but what a nice treat. So on the plane ride home, when I’d almost forgotten the clamp had been there just days before, it circled back on me and took me quite by surprise. I drew a deep breath, I looked at my tray table, I tried not to cry. And I thought about how we unscrew that clamp. Why does the medication and talk therapy work? For me, the medication lubricates the machinery, while talk therapy and all the supportive work I do on my own (journaling, meditation, yoga) allow the clamp to untighten and finally release. The process can often work without one or the other, but many times, in the most desperate of times, we need both. I thought of how hard it would be to write these words, to even own these words, even in this day and age: I have depression. I need help. But how if I don’t write these words on my best days, I may never have the courage or the energy to write them on my worst. Write them I must, we must, you must. I volunteer now for suicide prevention as a tribute to a lost twin brother and an honor to my own struggles. We are changing the conversation about mental health in this country, but we have not yet changed all the attitudes. I tremble in fear of the looks from my peers after reading this, whether perceived or real. I ache to make them stop. One day in America, a visit to a mental health practitioner twice a year may be as commonplace as a visit to the dentist. Last time I checked, we all have teeth as well as feelings and brain chemistry. And a mental health professional can help you keep the lifeline between your head and heart unclogged and unclamped and healthy. But until then, won’t you write these difficult words with me when you’re having a struggle, or even when you’re not? The more mouths we hear from, the more change we’ll make. have depression. I need help. I can’t do this alone. If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 . You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.