Remembering Alex

This is a guest post from Julie McLaughlin, sister and twin to Alex McLaughlin. Alex was a former student-athlete at Acadia University who died by suicide in Spring 2014. SAMHI is proud to partner with the 2015 Alex McLaughlin Memorial Basketball Tournament (AMMBT). Thank you for sharing this story with us.

His name was Alex. He was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, and a friend. His Mom nicknamed him “Alexander P” – P for perfect. His Dad coached him, and perfected one of the purest jump shots I have ever seen. His brothers were excited any time they got to hang out, play basketball, or play video games with him. He had a support system that was envious to all. Despite this, Alex suffered from a dark depression that he hid from every one in his life. No one knew Alex was suffering until April 17th, 2014. On this day, Alex succumbed to his depression and took his own life. He was my twin brother, and I loved him more than anyone could believe.

I am not going to speculate about what was going on in his mind in the months leading up to that day because that is something no one will ever know. I am going to tell his story, as I knew it, and how the stigma of depression has left a family devastated. As the outgoing twin, I always did the talking for shy Alex, so it is only fitting that I be the one to share his story.

Alex was a phenomenal athlete. He seemed to be a natural at any sport he tried. Basketball was his first love. He was a beautiful golfer with what my Dad called “a natural swing.” His 6’4” frame made volleyball a breeze for him. He played pickup tennis with my little brother, basketball for Team Nova Scotia, he was the male athlete of the year for our high school, and he was recruited to play basketball at Acadia University. He also had the ability to hide from all of the pressures that he faced.

Alex worked hard at his basketball skills as he did with everything else in his life. He went to Acadia knowing that he wouldn’t be a star but he was determined to be the best that he could be. By the end of his second year he was a starter and was a major contributor to the team. He spent his summers training and practicing and doing whatever his coaches suggested to improve his game.

But things didn’t work out for him in his third year. There was a lot of recruiting that year and Alex’s place on the team became more precarious. Alex made the courageous decision to leave the basketball team after the first semester of third year. His playing time had diminished, and while he had close bonds with his team, he decided he was no longer happy. Each and every one of us supported this difficult decision to leave the game he loved and we were so proud to see him stand up for what he felt was right for him. While we always grew up in a basketball family, basketball wasn’t everything. There was never a day where we were forced to play, or that it was expected of us. But it was a big bond between all of us and perhaps Alex felt an internal pressure to play and had a sense that he had let us all down.

Alex was never much of a talker. He had a great sense of humor and a perfectly timed delivery, but he was very content to sit back and take in a conversation. In his last words to us he stressed that he never felt good enough to be a part of our family. He explained that the pressure he was under was simply too much for him to handle. He did not know what he wanted to do when he graduated. Everyone kept asking him, “What’s next?” He had no idea. His passion at Acadia had been basketball and that was over. He never had a calling like the rest of us, but still he pushed through his business degree. The sad thing is that this is a common feeling for many university students. Why do we have to know exactly what we are going to do the second we walk across that stage? At 22 and 23, we can’t even rent a car. Why does everyone expect us to know what we are going to do for our whole lives?

When Alex quit playing basketball, everyone around him believed that a pressure was lifted from his shoulders. We thought that he realized something that many athletes cannot see. There is more to life than basketball or whatever the game of choice. Eventually the practices and games stop. When the lights go off in the gym, rink or field, you still have your family and friends. They are what are important in life. As soon as something consumes your every waking thought, and you continue to stress about not being the best, or what you can do to be better, it becomes unhealthy. Student athletes are under an enormous amount of pressure. They not only have to be continually working on themselves physically, but they also need to succeed in the classroom. The pressure of school is too much for many young people who are only focusing on school. We hoped that Alex had figured this all out but unfortunately he could not see that there was a life outside of university.

One thing that has continued to come up in the aftermath of this tragedy is that no one pushed Alex when he did not want to talk. We all just assumed he would talk when he wanted to. He told us that he was embarrassed about being sad, and that he could not confide in us because he saw this depression as another failure. That has been the most difficult thing to accept. If he had reached out to just one person in his life, maybe he would still be here with us today. He was one exam away from graduating, and finally being free of this insane pressure university students face. All he needed to do was talk. Open his mouth and say, “I’m hurting.” He lived with seven amazing people who would have dropped anything for him. My parents would have done anything to ease his pain. My brothers would have found a way to make him laugh again. And I would have been the shoulder he cried on. Anyone would have done anything for this beautiful human being.

This stigma that mental health is embarrassing needs to stop. What is the difference between cancer and depression? No one asks for either and yet, when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they instantly reach out to their loved ones. When someone has depression they tend to shut themselves off from the world and those who care about them.

Alex told us that he wanted his organs donated so that he could save a life. Unfortunately this was not possible. Our family has made a vow not to hide from the cause of his death. By speaking out and sharing his story we hope that we can help raise awareness about the importance of tackling depression. We are all hurting. There is a deep void in our family that will never be filled. My brothers will get married one day, and they’ll be missing a best man. My parents will never get to be grandparents to what would have been tremendous kids. I have lost the person I share my birthday with, the person who was supposed to graduate and enter the adult world with me. He was supposed to go through every bump and every milestone with me, and now I have to do it alone.

Everyone who reads this post needs to take a second and think, “is there anything I want to say to someone?” Say it now. Happy, sad, or mad, just stop hiding from your feelings. Hiding does nothing but make the problem worse. Depression is treatable, but suicide is forever.

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