On Sept. 8 of last year, I received the call from my older sister that our brother, Billy, was gone. She said police had broken into his apartment where they found him.
The toxicology report confirmed the primary cause of death was the combined toxic effects of cocaine and alcohol. My brother died of a drug overdose.
Billy had fallen into darkness in which he isolated himself. He suffered from depression and was bipolar, and chose to self-medicate throughout his adult life with his drug of choice, crack cocaine. One by one, he had distanced himself from family and friends, and masked his pain with anger.
We don’t know if Billy died on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The fact of him being so out of touch and alone that the exact date of his death isn’t known still haunts me.
The sad truth is that although Billy was alone, he wasn’t the only one. Mental illness has reached epidemic levels.
I was crazy about Billy; we all were. He was senior class president at Edison High School and graduated from the University of Tulsa with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He was Hollywood handsome and talented beyond measure — a master at illustration, acting, writing and composing music. He filled a room with his energy, charisma, charm and smile. A performer with the Houston Opera, in churches and various other venues around the country, he captivated audiences with his beautiful, passionate singing voice.
And the love he had for his family was magnificent.
While growing up, I didn’t really understand what confidence was. But I knew Billy had something special. He was my big brother, and I put him on a pedestal.
But over the years, Billy started to change. His love for singing and entertaining, which were his livelihood, began to wane. His spirit morphed into being withdrawn and remote. His smile was replaced by resentment and blame directed to those who loved him. Not one of us was exempt. He slowly began to disappear.
A few years ago he came to Tulsa for a visit. His paranoia was off the charts. Conspiracy theories had consumed his mind and debilitated him. Our family had many failed attempts to reach him through interventions and lengthy one-on-one visits. On this particular visit he agreed to check into 12&12 — one of Tulsa’s leading addiction treatment and recovery agencies — where he stayed a few months to get clean and sober.
Upon completion of the initial phase, his counselor recommended he advance to their transitional living facility where job placement and sustained accountability were required. Billy opted out, however, and wasn’t strong enough in sobriety to manage his depression and substance dependency.
Billy’s story isn’t unique. Twenty-one percent of adult Oklahomans reported having mental health issues in the past year and 12 percent experienced a substance abuse issue; that’s 700,000-950,000 Oklahomans. It’s difficult for people to admit they have psychological issues because of the societal attitudes and social stigma toward them. That leads to exclusion. They long for public acceptance.
We all know someone who suffers from depression or other mental health issues. The question is what we’re doing to help them. The more open we can be about this topic, the more people we can reach.
Help is available through many United Way agencies including the Mental Health Association of Oklahoma, Palmer, Family & Children’s Services, Morton Comprehensive Health Services and 12 & 12. And resources are available with a call to 2-1-1.
I’ll never feel like I did enough to help Billy. If only I could have one more late night visit with him in the living room. But in losing Billy, I’ve become much bolder in trying to encourage and support others who need help and acceptance. I hope you’ll join me. Let’s talk.
Becky J. Frank is chairman, CEO and managing partner of Schnake Turnbo Frank. She is the Tulsa Area United Way board chairwoman and a member of the Tulsa World Community Advisory Board, a 24-member panel formed by the newspaper as a means of connecting with the public. Opinion columns by board members run each week in this space.