My brother Craig died 13 years ago at the end of August, two weeks before 9/11. It was a season of grief and sorrow as one fateful event spilled into another. All those feelings jumbled together—personal tragedy coupled with national tragedy, and no explanation for either.
Craig was 40 and vice president of research and development for a software firm in Atlanta. He was the genius behind his company’s chief product, a computer program he designed that allowed chip manufacturers to view their work in 3D.
He was at the top of his game, or so it seemed. But a few months after his sudden passing, just as we were getting over the shock, the coroner’s report arrived. Cause of death: cocaine poisoning. More grief and pain, and now stirred into the mix: guilt, anger and shame.
The explanation that we were first given, that he suffered a heart attack, stuck as my “official” explanation whenever friends or colleagues asked how he died.
It was a long, long time before I could tell anyone that my brother died of a drug overdose. It was a full six years before I really came to terms with his death. To my friends at Annandale United Methodist Church, if you saw a man standing in the cemetery one afternoon in late October 2007, that was me talking to my brother who is buried there. Tears came streaming down my face as I drove back to the office. I guess that visit was more cathartic than I realized.
My mom took Craig’s death the hardest. I think she sensed more than any of us that he was having difficulty. An anti-depressant was found in his apartment, along with dozens of empty beer cans. Some past behaviors began to take on new light.
Up until then, I had no first-hand experience with mental illness or addiction. When you come from a family of high achievers hardwired for success, these kinds of things aren’t supposed to be part of your makeup. They are viewed as signs of weakness that need to be stamped out, defeated through self-discipline and willpower. Like when you get hit hard in sports, and the coach tells you to walk it off and get back in the game.
I’ve since come to know better.
I can’t say that Craig occupies my mind every day, but I believe his spirit lives on in the volunteer work I do and in a greater sensitivity I now have towards addiction and those who suffer from it. And when someone famous like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies of an overdose or Robin Williams commits suicide, a little bit of the protective scab I’ve formed gets pulled off, drawing fresh blood, new hurt.
How many more brilliant stars like Hoffman and Williams must fall from the sky? How long must those with mental illness and addiction feel marginalized or inadequate or outright failures because of a disease they didn’t do anything to deserve and cannot shake off no matter how hard they try?
Robin Williams touched so many lives that maybe this time the dialogue will last a little longer. A few more attitudes will change, and our collective awareness will be raised a notch.
The poet John Donne reminded us that we’re all connected, and therefore diminished, by the passing of another. His words seemed all the more fitting to me when Williams died:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.