crystal graham its been 30 years without tina

Crystal Graham: It’s been 30 years without Tina

christina kaye abbe
Crystal and Christina Abbe, 1992

It’s been 30 years without Tina. She was beautiful. She looked much older than 15.

Her photos showed signs of sadness … signs of being tired … signs that she was in pain.

As her twin sister, I knew she was hurting. She would talk about dying – something that seemed “off” since none of my other friends and I shared these types of conversations.

I didn’t really understand what suicide was – and I didn’t know anyone who had died by suicide. No one talked about suicide. It was like a secret. If you didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t real.

In her final days, she was worried about me. She knew her pain would soon be over – but she wanted to make sure that I was taken care of. She asked my mom to always look out for me. She knew I had been hurt by a boyfriend recently.

And looking back, she knew that she wasn’t going to be there for me anymore.

Tina was the bully and was bullied. She lashed out at people who hurt her, I believe because she was hurting so much herself. She was insecure and unhappy with herself – and boys breaking up with her and girls being mean to her only reinforced what she already believed – that she wasn’t pretty enough or smart enough.

As her identical twin, I focused more on school. She got to a point where she could really care less. In some ways, I think I was to blame for that. I wanted to be an FHA officer and a SADD officer. And I was chosen even though she also applied. They couldn’t choose both of us, after all. I wish I had stepped back from one, or both, for her. Although I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have changed the eventual outcome.

She moved on and focused her attention on boys – most of whom were much older than her. She wanted them to want her. I had boyfriends too. I just didn’t take the relationships quite as seriously as she did.

For her, it was either love her deeply or not at all. It was one way or the extreme other – and nothing in between.

Her ex-boyfriend was a bad influence who threatened her and treated her with the utmost disrespect – and she kept going back to him over and over and over again. I begged her to leave him for good – but she never really did.

For many years, I blamed him for her suicide. We asked him to leave the family night after Tina died. Was it his fault? Probably not. But he was easy to point the finger at.

The likely reason for her suicide was something much bigger: her mental health.

Christina was never formally diagnosed with depression. She had been to a family counselor because we knew something was wrong. But the counselor didn’t understand the depth of her pain – and the entire experience really just angered our whole family pitting us against each other. A lot of blame. No real solutions. No diagnosis. No medication. No real therapy.

It’s been 30 years without Tina. 30 years. I’ve now lived two-thirds of my life without her.

The anniversary of her death always brings me down – brings me to an unhealthy place. Grief is different for everyone, I guess. I wish I could deal with her death date in a healthier way … think of the good times we had instead of focusing on how she died.

I grew up a lot at age 15. I was not your average teenager. I had dealt with more at age 15 than anyone I knew. And somehow, I managed to survive.

In my years working in suicide prevention, I’ve learned that she gave us warning signs. She left notes and gave away possessions. She was drinking, sometimes heavily, to dull the pain. She lost interest in school and hobbies. She sat behind a locked door in her bedroom most nights … on the phone or sleeping or crying.

Because no one talked about suicide then, our family wasn’t prepared for what to do. I know my mom tried to help her. We just didn’t have a roadmap.

Today, 30 years later, I think more people do talk about mental health and suicide. And that’s a good thing. I think a teenager would likely be better prepared today if they were worried about a sibling or friend and saw warning signs.

Every time I see a prominent figure talk about their struggles with mental health, I am thankful.

Every time I see a friend post on social media, it helps.

It normalizes the feelings that we all have from time to time. That this world would be better off without us.

Depression and anxiety never really go away. They are always under the surface. There are times, no matter how much money you have or how many dogs are there to kiss away your tears, that life is still very, very hard. There’s no way around that.

In the last year, I’ve struggled. I don’t have thoughts of suicide. But there are times that even though everything seems OK on the surface, I break down and cry, and I’m not sure exactly why.

I’ve been to counseling. I’m taking medication to help me through.

It’s been 30 years without Tina. I am who I am today because of her. I am strong and weak. I am happy and sad.

It’s been 30 years without Tina. 30 years. No matter how I try to re-frame it, September 23 will always be the worst day of my life. I think with every year that passes that I will learn to celebrate Tina instead of being overwhelmed by grief.

Maybe next year.


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Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.