On September 10, 2013, the World Health Organization and the International Association for Suicide Prevention will co-sponsor World Suicide Prevention Day. To commemorate this day, the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work invites people to participate in their Suicide Awareness Blog Day.
Here is my story.
Anyone who met my older sister Alana loved her for the same reasons – her infectious laugh, smile, intellect, natural beauty and kindness. She was the life of any party, especially if there was a karaoke machine.
Only 2 years younger than Alana, I always looked up to her and was never far from her shadow. Although we were born and raised in Sydney (Australia), we shared a deep love for Japan. We both chose to go to university there but in different parts of the country.
One of my favourite memories is deciding at 5am after a night of clubbing to go to breakfast at the biggest seafood market in the world. Off we went, in our high heels and revealing dresses. As the sun rose so did the faces of the Japanese men packing crates of tuna fish and octopus. They were surprised at what they saw. 2 female — Western, bilingual and all dressed up, walking through smelly fish guts at the crack of dawn.
Alana’s suicide at the age of 23 follows an eating disorder. In her final year she informed doctors that her anorexia began when she was 15 when she had self esteem issues about a boy she liked. We were oblivious to this at the time. Later that year she went on a school exchange to Japan, where she lived with a seaweed growing family. She came home emaciated but explained her weight loss by saying her hosts did not feed her enough. We believed her and over the next year, helped her to regain her health and vitality. Looking back we now know that the eating disorder seed was planted in her brain. The problem ran deeper and the eating disorder had already started to take control.
Alana went on to excel in high school and in her final exams. She secured a scholarship and moved overseas to study Asia-Pacific studies, a mix of economics and sociology. One day a close friend of Alana’s contacted us, concerned with her weight loss and antisocial behaviour. The friend felt she was betraying her friendship with Alana, but was so concerned she felt she had no choice. We regularly asked Alana about her eating and if she was OK. She always insisted everything was fine. Her eating disorder was hiding what was really happening inside of her.
Alana finished her degree and accepted a marketing job overseas. But she came home unexpectedly, which was a cry for help. The depth of her physical and mental illness then became all too obvious. Alana isolated herself. She made plans and accepted invitations, and then would cancel. She didn’t communicate, flew into mad rages and self-harmed. She also stopped caring for herself – she rarely showered or changed her clothes.
Every meal at home with Alana was a battle of wills. We knew that the designated meal plan of 3 meals, morning & afternoon tea & supper was essential to maintaining those hard fought kilos. The trouble was that my family’s voice of love & reason competed with the voices in Alana’s head telling her she’s ugly, a burden, worthless. But calm must prevail. So, after sitting at the dinner table with Alana for as long as each meal took, it would be time for a few games of banana-gram (a non-competitive version of scrabble). This was the recommended strategy to battle the post meal urge to charge out the door in a rage of anxiety & walk until the calories were purged. If we survived the post meal madness then we would have a DVD ready to watch.
At the same time, however, Alana managed to work for a year in Sydney in her first and only job. Part-time as an online marketing co-ordinator for an International company overseeing the Japanese office. It was a totally female office and what was staggering was when Alana had to resign to go into an eating disorder clinic, no one realised that she was sick. [Imagine their shock when a year later we phoned her manager to tell her she was dead.]
Alana was admitted three times to clinics but after running away several times, my dad decided to take her on an overseas holiday, a trip intended to motivate her and get her involved in life again. Whilst there were some signs of progress during the trip, the eating disorder voice still had its control. She returned to Sydney in a medically unstable and depressed state. She entered another clinic but after 5 days, the eating disorder voice decided the struggle was over.
At 1.30pm on the 22nd July 2011, Alana slipped out of the hospital’s fire exit unnoticed (this shocking lapse of care will be the subject of a coronial inquest later this year). 50 minutes later, she took her life. And my life changed forever.
Alana’s sudden passing has taught me many lessons. Above all, it has taught me that suicide does not discriminate. It can happen to people of all nationalities, ages and ethnicities. It can happen to those who come from happy families, have no history of alcohol or drug abuse, live in safe neighbourhoods and appear to have everything.
It has also taught me that if a friend or family member is showing signs of mental illness or suicidal intent, always reach out to them even when it’s hard to know what to say. It takes courage but get involved. Try to address those signs and do not simply rely upon what they are telling you. Do your own research and form your own views. Give them the information they need, pick up the phone if necessary. Remain in constant contact and assure them that they are loved, have reason to live and that you are there for them.
Although an estimated 1 million people take their lives around the world each year, suicide IS preventable. I am sharing my story because I do not want anyone who is reading this to go through the living hell of having a sister, brother, parent, cousin or friend take their life. Believe me, your life doesn’t go back to normal. So we must keep working together to protect ourselves, and our loved ones.
Since Alana’s passing, Simone has launched a storytelling project called Our New Lives. By offering honest yet interesting discussion, it aims to provide inspiration, information and comfort to the bereaved and to reduce the stigma associated with death, grief and recovery.
If you or a friend are considering suicide please call Lifeline in Australia or the USA. It is free and confidential.