A Brother’s Promise, Revisited.

By Whitney WilsonSeptember 19, 2011

On a morning in August, I was checking Twitter.  It was a regular Thursday morning.  Then, I saw that John Green, a writer and vlogger I follow, tweeted, “Go read @johnmoe‘s twitter feed.”  I did the only sensible thing and clicked through to John Moe’s profile.  

We shared his series of tweets on our Behind the Scenes Tumblr later that day.  John Moe’s brother Rick died by suicide four years ago, and his birthday was August 24.  He would have been 49.  As a way to honor Rick and prevent other people from losing their older brother, John promised himself that he would talk about Rick and his life, that he would encourage people facing the same kind of darkness Rick faced to reach out to someone instead of trying to walk that road alone.  

I was incredibly inspired by John’s honesty.  He doesn’t shy away from how suicide affects the people left behind and that it might take more than one try to get help.  His words stayed with me in the days following, and I wanted to hear more of the story.  Below is an interview John was so kind to do with me.  It’s a glimpse of his experience in losing his brother.  It is not light reading, but then suicide isn’t a light topic.  We should talk about it anyway.  Talking about suicide is a start to breaking the silence that sustains the stigma.  Let’s break it together.


What was Rick like?
Most of what I remember of Rick is him as a kid, a slightly older kid than me. In those days, he was incredibly energetic, really funny in the kind of dry way that our dad pioneered in the family. He was charismatic. But he did really poorly in high school. Part of that was, I think, what might be diagnosed as ADHD today. Part of it was that he fell in with a crowd that smoked pot and probably did some other drugs too. I don’t know if he was trying to medicate himself for depression or what. He had a strong intellect, boy he was smart, but it was intentionally defiant against school. He’d read science journals but bomb in science class.

In later years, he was a screw up. He was a meth addict. He drifted from job to job in San Diego, different living environments, I’d lose track of him for extended periods. And he’d try to get money from my parents or my sisters or me.

He was nice when I talked to him but I never knew if he was trying to manipulate me to get more money for drugs. That’s something you learn about addicts, their disease makes it so nothing matters more than getting more drugs. So he’d call me up and leave a message talking about hearing me on the radio and how much he loved it and I would just delete it.

But he was evidently clean for several years leading up to his death.

He was your older brother, yes, and therefore a superhero of sorts.  But you talked about his struggle with addiction in your Infinite Summer post.  Can you share a bit about how you learned about his addiction and how/if he sought help before his death?
Well, like I said, he was a pothead in high school. I kind of bristle now when people talk about pot like it’s no big deal because in my experience, with Rick and with other people I know, it was absolutely a gateway to harder stuff. So I saw Rick do that.

In later years I know he got picked up on DUIs. Then I heard about the meth, this was before I even knew what that meant.

But he entered treatment and by all accounts he was sober. He volunteered at a sobriety hotline, he went to NA. A lot of people at his funeral were from that kind of sobriety community.

Still, the damage was done and he wasn’t quite tethered to the world any more in the time leading up to his death. I don’t know if he was getting real medical support or not. I think if you do the kind of drugs he did you sort of blow holes in your brain that you can’t recover from.

What is it like for you to talk about Rick now?
It’s incredibly painful. Because I have a hard time bringing back the fun memories, the human memories. When I think of Rick, I think of one thing: him covered in bandages and blankets lying unconscious in an emergency room after he shot himself. His brain was dead, his body would soon follow. But his hand was still warm. That image – they tell me I have post-traumatic stress- is the one I always go to because it burned into my brain.

Is it difficult to talk about the nature of his death?
Yes. But it’s vital. It’s important. I decided, literally at his funeral, that I needed to talk about it as much as possible. There’s this horrible stigma associated with suicide, like it’s a shameful thing, a moral failing. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a symptom of an illness. And the shame contributes to the isolation of the person suffering and it compounds the problem. The way we treat suicide makes for more suicides, I’m convinced of that.

As for talking about the specific nature of his death, he shot himself at a gun range. There are a lot of details about that. How he joined the range weeks before but never came back until the day he died, indicating a high level of premeditation. He left his car there and I had to drive it away, knowing that the radio was not on. These are horrifying details and human details. I am actually thankful to talk about them because I want people to know that this is the kind of horror you leave behind if you make this horrible choice.

I’m a writer and I know that details in a story are what bond people to the characters and the action. I hate talking about the details of Rick’s death but I have to. I just have to.

In what ways do you advocate for suicide prevention in your life?
It’s hard to know what to do, frankly. I have something like 13,000 followers on Twitter but I earned most of those through jokes. So I like to keep that source consistent. Still, once or twice a year I talk about Rick and urge people to get help if they need it. If you had a broken leg, you’d go to the hospital, I say, and you should treat your depression just as seriously. And oddly, when I post about this, I get this huge outpouring in response. Celebrities retweet what I say which brings a lot of people in. And that’s all great. I also do the occasional public event and I write about it when asked.

At the same time, I have to be careful. People come to me for help with depression and I can’t provide that. I’m not a therapist of any kind and I can’t and won’t accept responsibility for these people’s lives. I provide resources, phone numbers, web sites, anything I can. But that kind of speaks to the heart of the issue. You can provide help but everyone needs to help themselves, ultimately. They need to take ownership of their health and they need to get better. They owe it to themselves, to the future, to other people who need them.

What do you say to a person who has lost someone they love to suicide?
Rick died four years ago now and I’ve talked to people who’ve lost someone recently. I’ve told them, first of all get help. You can’t do this alone. You aren’t strong enough. You’re just simply not. Get a therapist, not just a friend but a professional. There are options for low/no income people in this regard too.

And I tell them that this path is just beginning. It’s a long road, you’ll walk it forever, and it’s going to suck. It doesn’t travel in a smooth trajectory. You might feel fine a month after it happened and immobilized with grief in two years. Generally, it gets better. You get more functional, you talk about it more, you find joy in other places. But it’s never cured and you never get over it. Life just gets different from that point on. You just have to keep walking. 

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