Previous contributor Becky Furuta (who wrote this terrific post) was a fellow competitor of Kelly Catlin and wrote this essay to help her, and us, process her death—Padraig.
I found out Kelly Catlin died from suicide the same way the rest of the cycling community would uncover the news: On social media. Facebook, actually. A mutual friend racing for Rally UHC Cycling—one of Kelly’s teammates—had posted the statement made by the team only seconds after it was released. I barely knew Kelly. Our paths crossed at both Redlands and Colorado Classic. Women’s cycling is a small space and, if you’re there long enough, you’ll eventually exchange kind words with just about everyone. A few quick pleasantries and a brief lament about a criterium course will forever be the extent of our interactions.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had shared a blog post Kelly had written for VeloNews, talking about the challenges of juggling graduate school and pro cycling. Her words resonated deeply with me on that morning, as I found myself pulled in a thousand directions. My business was in crisis, my kids hadn’t seen me in days, I had just returned from two weeks on the road and my training was lagging. I was doing it all and none of it well. Reading Kelly talk about “juggling knives” and dropping them to the floor was cathartic and relatable.
After her suicide, the words which would speak most to me would be those public statements issued by her brother Colin and her sister Christine. “It feels like we went through the grieving process the first time she did this,” Christine said, detailing an earlier suicide attempt Kelly had made in January. “It feels so unreal, but I’m glad that we had the chance to be there and let her know how much we cared.” Mental illness is heartbreak on every level, but on the day my little sister first attempted suicide, my heart shattered.
We were two of four daughters, all of us growing up in the shadow of a depressed mother and an erratic, often violent father. My earliest memories of suicidal ideation came from my mom, who would lock herself in the bedroom or bathroom and, through fits of hysteria, talk about death like a luxury. She would threaten to kill herself through sobs and screams as we sat helplessly on the other side of a thick, wooden door. At one particularly low point in my teenaged years, I remember begging her to just do it—to just end it all so that I could come up for air. Grief, I thought, can’t be more painful than this. From my vantage point, depression was less about sadness than a kind of feverish rampage in which the entire house was swept up, churned about and then set back down as if nothing had happened. There would be complete pandemonium, and then we would plop down to dinner and talk about school or work or politics and pretend that the delirium never existed at all. As I would lope off to my bedroom at night, my mother would turn to me and ask, almost compulsively, “Do you love me?”
By comparison, my little sister’s melancholy demeanor and her anxious habits seemed like mere quirks. In hindsight, her own struggles were achingly prescient.
She was quiet and withdrawn, trying to please everyone all the time and keep some semblance of peace in the home. She was fearful, checking locks over and over again and throwing the full weight of herself against the door “just to be sure.” The pounding of her body against the wood could go on for twenty minutes or more until, defeated, she would just stand there staring out the peephole with a worried look.
By the time she went to college, she was having full-blown panic attacks. She refused to eat, obsessed about her dress to such measure that she couldn’t leave her tiny apartment until she had taken hours to select the right clothing and shoes, and then two more hours to do her hair and her makeup. She would stay up all night studying, skimming the same pages of her textbooks over and over again. “It feels like my head is going to explode,” she would tell me.
In the months before her first attempt, I would roll up her sleeves and find bright red slash marks and scabs over the pale, milky skin of her forearms. She would take razor blades and carve into herself, making visible to the world the pain that was spilling over from her head and her gut.
“Your sister’s a drama queen,” my father would say when we suggested she might need help. “She’s just looking for attention”. I can’t agree with her because I have no idea what’s going through her mind. My older sister and I were closest both physically and emotionally to her. On the day of her overdose, we ran to be at her side. She would only talk to me. She sat, sad and pale on a gurney with a large, white sheet covering her. She refused to look up at me. The nurse asked if I knew she had marijuana in her system. This seems like the least pressing issue at the moment, I replied.
I asked what she needed. She shrugged. I went to the gift shop and came back with a cord to charge her iPhone and a few magazines to read while she was busy throwing up the handfuls of pills she’d consumed.
I remember telling her that I loved her as they took her away on the 72-hour psychiatric hold. I told her not to worry about anything while she was gone.
I bought her pajamas and slippers, a new toothbrush and a comb. I walked through the doors of the psych ward where patients in sock feet padded quietly through the halls. The polished floor with pale blue tiles and the white walls made everything look soft and gentle. And she was there, in an oversized sweatshirt, sitting in front of the television with a row of other patients. Her face was expressionless, and her hair was a mess.
“The other people here are really nice. I feel bad for them,” she said. My sweet, baby sister. There was the little girl who always wanted to please everyone else, feeling a kind of compassion for others that she could not know for herself. She deserved kindness it as much as anyone in that room, but she felt empathy only for others.
In the days and weeks that followed, I would have to make a hundred little decisions for her that, in many cases, the system told me I wasn’t equipped to make. I had to pay her bills, find her therapists, try to understand her university health insurance plan, contact her professors and ask for a reprieve until we figured all of this out. My father couldn’t pay her hospital bill so that, too, fell to me. All the while, I couldn’t speak with her therapists or her doctors about her treatment plan. When she was released, she came to my home where I had to lock away all the knives and razors and require her to check-in with me throughout the day.
In the aftermath of Kelly Catlin’s death, you often hear outliers ask, “Why didn’t anyone try to help her?” You hear people question what went wrong. The public speculates on how those closest could have been unaware. It’s just not that simple. My sister would attempt suicide two more times over the next 22 months. Each time, she would creep closer to dying. Each time, I would wonder if I could do it all again. I understand, deeply, that my sister’s struggle was so much harder and so much more important than any temporary inconveniences I had to deal with. And I’m so grateful she got the care she needed. She’s now healthy, stable and, most important, alive.
The path to healing for us all was a move out of isolation. The hardest, most heartbreaking moments of life are all too often hidden away. Kelly Catlin’s family has shown tremendous courage in talking openly about her death by suicide and the struggles she—and they—experienced. Asking the unknowable only amplifies the pain, and nudges those impacted by mental illness back toward the shadows. Instead, the answer should be unabashed compassion. Love and light to the Catlin family.