For Billy: ‘Breaking the Silence’ Walk Offers Awareness, Action, and A Little Bit of Peace
He was, on the outside, everything a "Tough Guy" should be. He was strong. To his family, he was the backbone, the pillar, the solid foundation upon which the rest of the family was built. He was a father, a grandfather, a husband and a son.
"He was my big brother," said Charlie Unangst, of his brother Billy.
Charlie was at Crossroads Park on Saturday, walking arm-in-arm with the rest of his family during the 'Breaking the Silence' suicide prevention walk, held annually for the past 18 years.
Charlie and his family were there because Billy, just weeks earlier, had taken his own life.
"My brother took his life a couple weeks ago," Unangst stated. "It's real recent. We knew there was a problem [with suicide] here and in all of the communities in the world, but suicide hadn't really hit our family yet. So we didn't do anything about it, but now it's hit our family and it's time to react."
And that's how it is for a lot of us. We don't think suicide could happen to us or to the people we love. Sometimes we can see the signs but, often times, the ones having suicidal thoughts are struggling alone, in the dark. They don't want to be a burden so they keep their feelings to themselves. But then, those feelings start to build. And build. And build. And the thoughts get darker and the plan starts to come together and even though they hid their feelings from their loved ones, they still feel resentment because nobody has reached out.
"Maybe they really don't love me," our brains could tell us. "Maybe they don't care. They probably won't miss me. They'd be better off if I'm gone."
These are thoughts that are all too prevalent in the United States, especially in Natrona County.
Lance Neiberger, a member of the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force (who lost his son to suicide many years ago) said that we are currently in the midst of a shocking trend- in the year 2021, there is a current average of one suicide for every 10 days in Natrona County.
In 2020, there were a total of 19 suicides in our community. If the current trend continues, Neiberger said, there will be 35 this year.
Because of this startling statistic, and all of the ones like it, there is the 'Breaking the Silence' walk. In its 18 years of existence in Natrona County, this walk has offered survivors of suicide an opportunity to remember their loved ones, to honor them, and to maybe, just maybe, offer them some semblance of peace.
But peace is sometimes hard to come by, in cases like these. What's even harder to come by, in many cases, is the courage to reach out to people and ask for help.
"There were little signs," Unangst said of his brother. "But we really didn't expect it because he was a retired cop, a tough cowboy. But there were little things. It's the little things that people need to pay attention to, because you never truly know what somebody is going through."
One of the biggest misconceptions about suicide and mental health is that talking about it, reaching out for help, is not 'tough.' Wyoming, especially, struggles with the idea of what true strength really looks like. The phrase that reverberates throughout our mountains is 'Pull yourself up by the boot straps.'
Except, sometimes, we can't. Sometimes, try as we might, we can't pull ourselves up by anything. And we live in a culture that stigmatizes mental health issues, making it nearly impossible to reach out. It's easier to keep it to ourselves. So instead of talking to a therapist or getting on medication, we self medicate with alcohol or drugs or sex or food or any number of things that are somehow 'less shameful' than just asking for help.
For reasons like these, the Central Wyoming Counseling Center has started a new marketing campaign with the idea that 'Asking for Help is the New Cowboy Tough.' In addition to their suicide prevention lifeline, they have also initiated a texting service that allows individuals to exchange messages with trained professionals. Because sometimes, all people need is somebody who is willing to talk to them; or, better yet, just somebody to listen.
Unangst said that Billy had lost his daughter a few years ago, "which had to have been the most painful thing on the planet."
But Billy, ever the cowboy, didn't let his strength waiver. He took the pain of losing his daughter and carried it on his back, day after day after day. He tried to be the rock for the rest of his family; the one whom they could look at and say "If Billy can be strong, I can be strong."
His family looked up to him. Charlie, especially, did; as any kid with a big brother would.
"I looked up to him a lot," Unangst said. "My biggest memory of him is how much he stood up for me. I'd be teased by people and would look to my brother to back me up and he would. He would always back me up. My brother always had my back."
Billy always had his brother's back, and vice-versa. Charlie had Billy's back too which is why, when he got word of his brother's death, he struggled with guilt.
"I think you can't not feel guilt in some way," he said. "Like, how could I have done things differently? I know that I shouldn't struggle with guilt, but I think a little bit of struggle helps you get through the grief."
Grief, especially in cases of suicide, is hard to process. Are we sad? Are we angry? Are we confused? The answer, simply, is yes. We're all of those things and so many more. We ask ourselves what we could have done differently. We ask ourselves if there were signs. If there were, why couldn't we see them? We wrestle with regret and, more than anything, we wish we could just have one more conversation with with them. We wish we could say one more thing, offer one more hug.
"I would tell my brother 'I didn't know you were struggling with such a deep, dark pain that was within you. Otherwise, I would have hugged you,'" Charlie said.
Charlie had advice for others, as well. He had words for those who may have also lost somebody or who could lose somebody.
"Don't walk away angry," he said. "Talk to your person. Reach out. Truly find what's inside of them and what they're feeling, giving them love and support. Because you don't know what's going on inside. That's my biggest regret - that I argued with my brother instead of hugging him."
There were a lot of hugs exchanged at the 'Breaking the Silence' walk on Saturday. Numerous members of Billy's family turned out for the event, wearing black t-shirts that simply said 'For Billy.' They weren't just dedicating the walk to Billy. They were dedicating their future, their lives, to him. They want to ensure that nobody else, not in their family or in anyone else's, thinks that they have nobody to talk to, nobody to hug.
Charlie said that if Billy was here, if he could see his family now, if he could say something to them, it would be this:
"Be happy, move on, be tough, be courageous."
But if he could only say one thing, if he could only offer one phrase, one message to his family, it would be one that sounded very familiar to them. It would be something that he used to say all the time to them, especially to his granddaughter. It would be this:
"I love you more longer."