Trigger warning: Sensitive content discussing mental illness and suicide.
On February 24, 2015, my youngest brother took his own life by jumping off the old parking structure in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, next to the courthouse. That parking structure is no longer there; it was demolished by the city in 2016. The space is a vacant lot now.
His absence has left a vacant space in our lives, to be sure. It’s been nearly six years since he’s been gone. It is still difficult for me to believe sometimes.
My brother struggled for years with bipolar disorder. Tons of medication, a couple of hospitalizations – the whole schabang. The first time he attempted suicide in 2011, he had taken a bottle of pills on Christmas eve and texted his friends good-bye. The fire department broke down his door that night to save him.
The year before he died, I was living in a women’s shelter in Muncie, Indiana. I heard the news about Robin Williams’ death on the news and it immediately made me worried for my brother. If Robin Williams could take his own life, anyone could.
Six months later, my mom called me to tell me what happened to my brother. I didn’t really believe her at first. It could not be real! He wouldn’t really take his own life, I had always believed. I knew he was sick but…fuck.
As someone who has also been hospitalized for suicide ideation and attempts, I knew what he was going through – at least I thought I did. However, I never imagined he would really go through with it. I guess the biggest difference between the two of us is that I have a child and he didn’t. He had nothing to tether him to this plane of existence.
Interesting side note note: I was sent to the psychiatric ward about two weeks before the election in 2016, the year after he died. The police officer who responded to the call accidentally missed our freeway exit and drove me past the lot where the parking structure had formerly been. I told him about my brother. He told me he was the same officer who had responded to the call about my brother’s death. Chills.
I took up the Tarot for the first time only a few months before my trip to the hospital. In the tarot, there are several cards which can indicate problems with mental health: the Devil, the Tower, Five of Cups, and Seven of Cups are a few I can think of off the top of my head.
The card which stands out most to me, however, is the Nine of Swords. This card depicts a woman in bed holding her hands to her head, with the swords above her. Liz Dean refers to this as the “nightmare card” in her book, Ultimate Guide to Tarot.
In my experience, the card can be extended to include the swirling thoughts of someone with anxiety, a person experiencing a panic attack, and/or someone with delusional, paranoid, toxic, or suicidal thoughts.
The dark background of the dark is a metaphor for the darkness the person is feeling inside. The odd number of swords indicates the person being at odds with herself. The checkerboard pattern on the bedspread shows a pattern of thinking which has brought her to this place, as well as the two sides to the person: The darkness within, and the light which has yet to re-emerge. The swords are piercing through the subconscious in this card.
When I get the Nine of Swords, I am reminded to be careful of my choices and thoughts, because they help to form my reality. My reality is part of the collective – think of it as the ripple effect – how I think and feel affects others. If my thoughts are mindful, I will act mindfully. If I am careless and ego-centric, my actions will reflect this.
Whether others choose to take these steps is irrelevant. If someone else is acting in a violent fashion, this does not give me permission to act in kind. My behavior is my own. As I told my friend a few days ago, karma is its own reward.
The Nine of Swords asks you to focus on something else when your thoughts are panicking. Don’t give in. Your shadow side wants to swallow you into that deep well of despair, so take charge, dip your toes in if you need, but please, don’t take that leap. You are loved.
In memory of Nicholas Charles Alford, July 22, 1993 – February 24, 2015
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)