On Feb. 20, 2016, Aletha Pinnow made the tragic decision to end her own life. But as her pain ended, it was only beginning for her family, especially for her sister, Eleni Pinnow, who found her suicide note — an experience that Eleni detailed in a heartbreakingly beautiful story for the Washington Post.
Eleni made an incredibly brave decision to write about her sister’s suicide in her obituary, and by taking one of the most private acts imaginable and making it public, she offered a lifeline to the rest of us who have been in her shoes. I didn’t even realize how much I needed that lifeline until she gave it to me.
To say you know what someone is going through is a special kind of hubris, and this is one I hoped I’d never have. And yet… I do understand, just a little, Eleni’s pain. Because I, too, was a sister standing outside, oblivious and helpless, while my little sister tried to kill herself to end her pain.
My sister and I are three years apart. We grew up sharing a room. I’ve talked to her nearly every day of my life for as long as I can remember. We got married within a year of each other, had babies at the same time and started similar careers. No one understood my jokes, my fears or my idiosyncrasies like she did. We were a team bound by more than our identical voices and freckles: I knew she was in labor with her last child before she did. She always knew it was me calling before caller ID was even a thing. We once went to the same store on opposite ends of the country, on the same day, and bought the exact same dress on a whim. We could practically read each other’s minds.
Until the day I couldn’t. I still look back on that day — the day she intentionally overdosed on pills — and wonder what I missed. I didn’t get so much as a single, psychic twinge that bright sunny morning she decided to end her life. It still didn’t seem like it had really happened even when I stood in the hospital emergency room waiting for her stomach to be pumped, waiting for the doctor to tell me anything.
Eventually, I learned about all of the pain and sorrow she’d kept in for so long. But that day when the social worker asked me why I thought she did it, I had no answers. No good ones anyhow. I should have known something. We’ve both struggled with depression, and I knew she’d been going through a rough time. I just hadn’t realized how bad it had really gotten. And what exactly makes a good reason for ending your life? I’m still not sure.
But one of the worst things about the ordeal was how alone I felt, how I couldn’t talk any of it out — because the first person I always called when I was upset was my sister. Yet my sister was adamant, once she could talk to me again, that I tell no one.
“Tell them I had the stomach flu,” she begged as she handed me her cellphone, purse and keys — all the necessities of life that would not be necessary in the place where they take people who try to end their lives. It was the last thing she said to me before they loaded her in the ambulance to go to the mental health unit. Not “I love you” or “I’m glad I’m still here.” Just “Don’t tell anyone.”
I thought about that for the next several weeks as I cared for her children, juggled well-meaning relatives and friends, monitored her social media, called her landlord and all the other minutia of a life that could not be paused. She wasn’t allowed (or chose not) to talk to anyone as she recovered, so I was left, for the first time, with my own answers to my own questions. But the silence — both hers and the societal silence around depression and suicide — was wrecking me.
I wanted to tell people. I wanted to tell them that depression runs deep in my blood, that my family tree is a weeping willow, that my sister was not the first. I wanted to tell our family, to say this, this, is what happens when we don’t talk about our depression and when we pretend everything is just fine. I wanted to tell her children that their mommy was sad, but I knew she still loved them and that they should please-for-the-love-of-God tell someone if they are ever feeling really sad. I wanted to tell her that I was so, so angry and so, so relieved. It changed by the day.
In the end, when the treatments were finished and she got her kids back and when “normal” life resumed, we never did really talk about it. And since then, it’s been hard to talk about anything, honestly. The deep conversations no longer happen, and the everyday ones feel strained by the weight of so much unsaid. We’re back to pretending everything is fine and all the bad is in the past — and that terrifies me.
So in one very major way I am luckier than Eleni Pinnow: I still have my sister. She stepped back from the brink. For now. But a tiny part of me envies her freedom to share her truth, to shout it from the rooftops.
“The lies of depression can exist only in isolation. Brought out into the open, lies are revealed for what they are,” Eleni writes. “Here is the truth: You have value. You have worth. You are loved. Trust the voices of those who love you. Trust the enormous chorus of voices that say only one thing: You matter. Depression lies. We must tell the truth.”
That is the honest truth, one I believe with every fiber of my soul. And someday, perhaps, my sister will let me tell her that.
If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).