Before I get into this, I want to first warn those reading that what I'm about to share may be triggering to some. If you aren't in a good headspace to read something traumatic, please stop here.
I'm not even sure where to start. The horrific events that transpired recently have been rolling through my mind almost constantly since they occurred. I've tried countless times to determine if this is something that should even be shared, as it's so deeply personal and painful, but as someone who considers myself to be a mental health advocate and a nearly open book with my community, it feels almost wrong not to share. I know others have suffered through similar situations and the last thing I'd ever want is for another person to continue feeling alone in their grief because what they endured is almost never spoken of. It's hard enough to be in this kind of pain, but to believe no one else could understand what you've gone through is an excruciating addition.
If you're only here to satisfy your curiosity about what happened because you saw my Twitter or Instagram posts last week, I'd like to ask you to read through this entire post rather than just getting the details and moving on. I feel it's important to include additional context and I'd appreciate it if you'd stay for it.
Last week, my older brother CJ killed himself, along with his youngest daughter, my 9 year old niece Adrianna. Some of you may have been introduced to one or both of them through my streams or social media content, as they were frequent visitors before my move to Phoenix in May of 2020. They were both incredible people and they will be missed dearly. Unfortunately for our family and those who loved them, we don't know why this happened and it's unlikely we ever will get all the answers we seek. If you're looking for details regarding exactly what happened, I won't be sharing them and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't ask. This has been an incredibly traumatic experience for us and we're all doing what we can to manage and grieve this awful and confusing tragedy. Our hearts are all broken in ways we could never have imagined before this happened.
My brother was a complicated person and he could be challenging to deal with at times due to several factors, one of them being his bipolar disorder. Even though he struggled to manage his bipolar, none of us could have ever seen this coming because one thing that was incredibly obvious was the deep love he had for his daughters. It was evident in so many ways. Everything he did and said always came back to them. He wanted them to have better lives than he did, than we did, growing up. He wanted them to grow up feeling strong and self assured, feeling unconditional love, but he wasn't always great at getting those messages across. He could switch from his typical goofy and fun loving self to someone more serious and intimidating without much warning. Some days we felt we were walking on eggshells with him, other days things felt, I guess, normal? His explosive tendencies were non-violent, his usual tool being his words. He'd speak his mind aggressively or write out long messages letting us know what we had done wrong in no uncertain terms. Most of us did what we could to calmly advocate for ourselves while trying to keep in mind that it wasn't really him who was treating us this way. Once his manic episodes or angry outbursts subsided, "he" would return and we'd go back to our usual friendly and loving relationships.
In addition to my brother battling bipolar, I feel it's also important to include the fact that he had been repeatedly traumatized throughout his life, and never really got the help he deserved. If you've been a part of my community for a while, you may already remember some of our shared backstory. Some of it you can catch up on here, if you're so inclined. Our challenges began when at the ages of around 3, 2 and nearly 1, my older sister, brother and I were abandoned by our birth mother and left with our grandparents under the premise we were there to be babysat temporarily. She had been struggling with drug addiction and her own mental health issues at that time, and had left us with her mother and stepfather knowing they'd be able to provide a better life for us. When she disappeared, my grandparents didn't have much of a choice in terms of what came next. My older sister was born with a liver disease and needed regular treatment and care, and she couldn't get that treatment without a parent or legal guardian present.
Their options were to either surrender us to the state, knowing that the 3 of us would be split up never to see them or each other again, or to adopt us. They chose to adopt us. Without meaning to, they quickly became our Mom and Dad, and that's how they'll be referred to from this point on. When our parents adopted us, they were in a comfortable but new situation. They hadn't been married long and had recently blended their families of older children (late teens +) together. My dad had 4 kids from a previous marriage, and my mother had 3 (one of those being our birth mother). They all became wonderful older siblings to us after the adoption. At the time, my dad was still working as a firefighter and my mom was a successful real estate agent. They had both worked their way up to a life where they were near retirement and were blessed with several luxuries, including a nice home and a large houseboat. Once we were adopted, especially due to my sister's high medical costs, their lifestyles had to change drastically. The boat was sold, and after my Dad was forced to retire from the fire department due to an injury, we downsized and moved to a new town.
My father was a good and loving man, but he also struggled. He had immigrated to the United States at the age of somewhere around 7 or 8 from Sweden, and was taught English and how to assimilate through abusive tactics from the religious school he was placed in. He would often tell us about how if he said the wrong word in English as a child, he'd be cracked hard over his knuckles with a yardstick until he got it right. Alcoholism ran in his family, and he became one too. He was already an alcoholic before leaving the fire department, but he became an angry alcoholic after. He had been so proud to have worked his way up from nothing, going through the Air Force and eventually becoming a firefighter, that when it all crumbled he was miserable about it. He wound up having to take a job making very little money as a custodian / maintenance man at a small fabric company. He was the only man in the office and essentially was the go to for everything maintenance or mess related. He hated it.
When we were young, my brother and I took the brunt of his angry abuse when we acted out. My brother undeniably got it the worst and my sister was spared, partially because she was very sweet and mild mannered and partially because of her illness, I think. As we got older and he could no longer take the belt or wooden spoon to us as punishment, his abuse turned verbal. Dinner table conversations frequently included arguments amongst my parents about his drinking, with him regularly telling us "if it wasn't for these damn kids, I wouldn't have to drink". My brother's behavior worsened and he acted out more and more, getting himself into trouble at school often. I was also battling anger at this time, but began to withdraw more than anything. I became reclusive and around the age of 14 or so, was taken to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with severe depression, panic disorder, and insomnia. Unfortunately, the doctor I had wasn't great. She didn't listen to my complaints about the impacts of the drugs I was on, and over medicated me. At the age of 15, I attempted suicide out of despair, self hatred and confusion.
I remember being inpatient at the hospital when my parents and brother came to visit. We were doing our best to pretend things were normal, and I was doing my best to pretend I wouldn't attempt anything like that again when my brother started crying. At this time in our lives, as teenagers, we really didn't show emotion much so the tears were a shock to me. It was the thing that really stood out to me that someone would actually be hurt if I were to disappear. I vowed never to self harm again after that point, but really I didn't quite realize all the ways I had already been and would continue to self harm for years.
My brother and I had started smoking cigarettes when I was in 5th and he was in 6th grade. We started sneaking alcohol shortly thereafter. Marijuana and whatever other drugs found their way to us became easy escapes for us to numb all of our self loathing, internal pain and external anger. I'm grateful that neither of us were introduced to some of the most extreme drugs during these times in our lives, because I don't know what might have happened then. CJ became an alcoholic quickly, and an angry one at that. He would vary from being the fun drunk and life of the party to attacking someone for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. After high school, when I was 19, my sister and I moved in together. We spent a lot of nights trying to manage our brother, or being called to places he was or had been to try to calm him down. It was known that we were the ones to call when he lost control.
Sadly, our sister passed away unexpectedly in 2008. I'll never forget the pain on my brother's face when some of my older siblings and I went to his work to find him and tell him the news. After that, both he and I spiraled, but in different ways. I sunk deeper into depression, and he drank his pain to numbness every chance he got. He ended up getting multiple DUI's and on his last one, was charged with assault on an officer because he was so belligerent that when the cop tried to buckle him in during his arrest, he attempted to bite at him. He was sent to prison. He had two young daughters at the time, and once he sobered up, they became his clear reason to heal and start a new life once he was released. After he got out, he did everything he could to make good on that promise. He went through AA and Smart Recovery, worked his way up through jobs and wound up doing a great job of changing his life around before having his youngest daughter.
There was just so much trauma he never healed from though. The trauma from our childhood with our family, and the trauma from existing in the area we grew up in. My sister, brother and I are all half Mexican. We were raised in a predominantly white area, so it was clear to others right away that we weren't white - even with me being as light skinned as I am. He and my sister had much darker skin than I did, but none of us were spared the racism that comes with being non-white in a white area. My brother told me about how when we were still young kids, before even junior high school, he got into a fight at our bus stop because some of the boys from the neighborhood had pushed my sister down onto the ground and were kicking dirt at her while yelling slurs and calling her "brownie". All of us got the constant questions of "what ARE you?" from people who could see we were different. As we got older, we were all met with the "jokes" of being called beaners, wetbacks, and spics, and having people try to win arguments with us by telling us to go mow their lawns. We both fought often to defend ourselves and to defend our sister. We wanted to make it known that she was off limits, because we knew how vulnerable she was due to her illness.
In spite of all of this pain and trauma we endured, CJ and I were close and grew closer in recent years. He was the type of person to always stick up for me, and was always there when I needed someone to talk to. When our birth mom came back when I was around 16, she brought with her three young kids, our siblings. (Our birth mom is a wonderful woman btw, and I'm grateful to have her in my life again.) We all became very close. While all of us knew of his volatility, we also knew him as a loving goofball, and someone who we could trust to always have our backs. We had so many great times together, playing board games or video games together with just him, or with him and his daughters. My siblings would go out skateboarding with him and his girls often, and we all stayed in frequent communication about everything going on in our lives and our minds. Before my move to Phoenix, CJ and Adrianna especially were at my house sometimes several times a week. We'd have breakfast or lunch together, have some coffee and color or watch movies. It was so wonderful to spend so much time with them, and Adrianna loved to play with our dogs and snuggle whenever she got the chance.
As much as I loved being close to family, my boyfriend and I knew that the best move for us was going to be to head to Phoenix, because both of us had more opportunities on the west coast. My brother was incredibly supportive and helped us make preparations to leave whenever he got the chance. In April, after the pandemic had hit, his behavior had begun to change and he became more intense, harder to talk to, but underneath it all was the clear awareness that his actions were still coming from a loving place, so my siblings, family and I did what we could to manage his frequent tangents where he'd go off and almost preach to us about whatever it was he felt most passionately about at the time. Our text conversations changed from normal stuff, check ins, jokes, memes and deep conversations to him sending us all long winded messages of what he felt was inspiring or crucial information.
When we moved in May, we all did our best to stay in touch. We'd have regular group FaceTimes, spoke on the phone at least weekly, talked in our group chat often and did what we could to be there for each other. Sadly, the pandemic changed up his life routine drastically. He went from always having somewhere to go or something to do with his daughters, like taking them to sporting events or out to play or eat, to having to stay inside more. He became obsessive about what he called his "research", which had begun to veer into some conspiracy theory adjacent areas. I remember dismissing something he shared once by referencing that it was a known conspiracy theory, but he immediately retorted something along the lines of "just because some people think it's a conspiracy theory, doesn't mean it's wrong".
My family and I watched him get further and further lost, but we still had hope for him. We hoped he would see that he needed help again, as he had once before, and maybe go back on his meds. We hoped that by not responding in a way that triggered the outbursts he would sometimes have, that we could slowly help bring him back to us. We would often see glimpses of the real him, the easygoing, loving and silly guy we all knew. One of the most recent times being during a FaceTime chat we had with our younger siblings around Christmas. We all laughed so hard that night, there was no preaching, no ranting or rambling about stuff he had researched, just talks and being silly together. It was so wonderful. Unfortunately things got much worse for him in January, he dove in deeper to his "research" and wound up losing his job the week before he took his own life and the life of his beautiful baby girl.
Everyone who knew him is shocked by what happened, and the only solace many of us have is knowing that it wasn't him. The CJ we knew would never have done such a thing, and it breaks our hearts to know that this will be a part of his lasting memory. We don't know why he took Adrianna with him. We have been left with far more questions than answers. The last time I had spoken with him was only a few days before he died, and we were talking about how I had recently begun to feel my baby moving around and kicking. He was excited. We talked about my pregnancy and his joy for me becoming a mom, often.
Personally, what allows me to keep going each day is the belief that both CJ and Adrianna are now at peace. CJ suffered internally and externally throughout so much of his life (and in so many ways I didn't have the time or ability to list here) and now his suffering has ended. This has been the worst thing I've ever had to experience, and I cannot even begin to imagine what others involved are going through at this time. It hurts so bad to know how badly everyone is hurting. If you've made it this far, please, take a moment to send some prayers to those of us who are still here and suffering through the pain and grief that comes from this incredibly complex and traumatic experience. Some of us were already in therapy, but several of us, myself included have made the decision to find a long term therapist to help us through this.
I don't know when I'll be back to stream, I'm trying to figure that out. My younger sister is currently living with my boyfriend and I in Phoenix, and we're doing what we can to heal through this in a healthy and mindful way. We're riding the waves as they come. Sometimes they topple us and leave us gasping for air, and other times we've been able to stay afloat long enough to smile and feel human again.
If I may, I'd like to make some suggestions on possible takeaways from our horrible story:
- I don't believe in the notion of evil. I don't believe in monsters. I believe there is a cause for everything, and while it certainly can't justify anything, it can help to explain some things. If you haven't already, please look into what are known as ACE's - Adverse Childhood Experiences. You may know complicated people in your own lives who have been written off as "bad people", but they too, have stories, they too have likely suffered through trauma that was left unhealed or unmanaged. Let go of labels and seek to understand others more. You never know what kind of life someone has lead, or how it's helped to shape them. Be kind. Lead with compassion.
- Therapy is not just for people who are sick or hurting, therapy is a tool that should be accessible to everyone. A friend who works in education once told me they had heard that everyone carries with them roughly 7 generations worth of trauma. So many of the things our parents and their parents did weren't healthy, but many of them didn't know better. Make the conscious choice to help us stop the cycle of trauma and abuse with this generation. You deserve to be heard, you deserve the support of someone who can understand you and how your individual brain works. Some folks need to meet several therapists before they find the right one for them, so please don't be discouraged if the first professional you meet doesn't feel right to you. Keep going. If you are uninsured or underinsured, this website has some resources that may help make therapy more accessible to you.
- Things in our world and our country desperately need to change to help prevent more future tragedies. Mental health care should be free. Healthcare should be free. The entire prison system must be changed drastically. We have countless humans who have been traumatized as youth that end up in prison, only to be traumatized further and then sent out into the world with even less options after. Less job options, less housing options, less options for basic human needs. This needs to change. We have to start humanizing our policies and work to create positive change in this world. No parent should have to choose between medical bills and food, no incarcerated person should be locked away in isolation to suffer endlessly, no mentally ill person should have to fear the police during an episode or outburst. If you're a person who has chosen to remain silent or uninvolved in politics, it's time for that to change. We all must work to become more educated on our systems, and become more involved so families don't have to suffer the way mine has, or the way countless others have and will. We must do more for BIPoC folks, for the LGBTQIA+ community, for disabled people, for veterans, etc. Please don't look away from the traumas and tragedies of the world. Take the time you need to manage your own mental state and balance, and then dive in and do what you can to help advocate for people in need.
There's so much more I want to say, and will do my best to say in the future. I promise to do what I can to lead by example when it comes to caring for myself and others, and doing what I can for those in our country and world who don't have the same rights. First, I need more time to heal. I need to fully process this horrendous thing that's happened. I need to grieve.
Thank you for reading this to this point, and please, if you have further questions about what happened, keep them to yourself. I'll speak on what I'm comfortable with, when I'm comfortable. As far as questions about anything else, feel free to ask. I'm open to talking about my own personal struggles and what I've done to heal from those till this point.
Please remember to take care of yourselves. Remember S.H.A.D.E.S. - Sleep, Hydration, Air (get out of the house safely when you can), Diet, Exercise & Stillness (meditation, journaling, affirmations, practicing gratitude, etc.) as a baseline for self care (there's more info on that towards the end of this video).
Remember you are not alone, even on days it may feel like it. You deserve to feel good. You deserve love.
Thanks again for reading.
Much love to you all and may you all be well.