My brother and I were seven and nine when our beloved baby sister, Leslie, was born. She was infinitely funny, with a lightning-quick wit. She was beautiful and artistic and quirky and rebellious. She was both big-hearted and tender-hearted and would give the shirt off her back for those in need.
Despite all of the wonderful things Leslie portrayed to the outside world, privately, she was losing an epic battle with depression. While there were times when her mood swings were chalked up to being a cranky teenager, Leslie was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder at the age of 13. Our parents’ divorce only made things more difficult for Leslie.
One way she stayed connected with our dad was a common enjoyment of target shooting. We grew up on a farm in east Texas where taking a rifle out to pasture to shoot soda cans was commonplace. Leslie had a level of comfort with guns that I never had.
Leslie had a wide social circle with fiercely loyal friends. However, a group of girls were mean to Leslie during her high school years and Leslie found it difficult to cope with their unkind behavior. Only those closest to her knew about her real struggles.
Her bouts with depression would come and go, triggered by a breakup, or the loss of a job, or a fight with a friend. These episodes would throw her into a hole she could not climb out of for long periods of time. Like so many living with mental illness, she was prescribed medication to help stabilize her moods, but did not always take it.
At the age of 24, as Leslie’s friends were finishing college, starting careers, getting married and having babies, she was living much the same life she had at 17. She was living at home with my mom and employed at a job with little opportunity for advancement. As someone who loved and cared for Leslie deeply, it was hard to watch my sister struggle to find her path.
Leslie tried twice to kill herself without using a gun. Each attempt was followed by intensive psychiatric treatment and an adjustment to her medication. Then, she would be back to her funny, bubbly self. Leslie was so upbeat and happy during her good times it was easy to convince ourselves that the worst might be over.
One morning, as I was talking to my mom on the phone while driving my young son to a Mommy and Me class, she noticed Leslie lying lifeless in the backyard.
“She looks dead! She looks dead!” my mother screamed.
I will never forget the horror of that phone call, and my mom will certainly never be the same.
Leslie had retrieved a handgun from under my mom’s mattress, loaded it with bullets she found in a cabinet, and went to the backyard where she shot herself in the head. My mom had never disclosed the location of the gun and ammunition to Leslie, but she knew.
It has been five years since my beloved baby sister took her life, and I still reach for the phone to call her. Sometimes I’ll see a particularly sassy purse or bracelet that she would have liked and get the urge to buy it for her.
I honestly don’t know if Leslie would be alive today if she had not had access to that gun. What I do know is that she got a second chance after attempting suicide twice before without using a gun. There is rarely ever a second chance with a gun.
I ache with the need for Leslie to know my children. I wish the doctors working in the treatment centers had taken us by the shoulders, looked us in the eye, and said that treating her illness was going to take many years—maybe even a lifetime. I wish those doctors would have told us that we needed to keep guns away from my sister.
Certainly we cannot stop all suicides, but as with all gun deaths, we can take commonsense measures to help prevent some of them. As a BeSMART presenter, Texas Survivor Engagement Lead and Dallas Spokesperson with Moms Demand Action I am committed to educating my community on how to safely store and responsibly own guns in an effort to reduce the number of gun deaths.
Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7, free and confidential support if you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support.
This piece is by Amanda Johnson. If you or anyone you know has been personally affected by gun violence and would like to share your story with Moms Demand Action, please email [email protected]