America was a year into its deepest economic fallout since the Great Depression. As most of my classmates watched their futures collapse, I had accepted an offer from a prestigious management-consulting firm.
I worked as a business technology analyst, specializing in information management. I couldn’t explain to Mummy, Papa, or my brother Yush what this title meant or what my job entailed, though, because I myself had little idea. After a week of training in Pittsburgh, the new-hire class flew to Orlando, where hundreds of recent college graduates filled a convention hall and learned about how impressive the firm was and how impressive each of us was for being hired by the firm. During that first month, I spent ten-hour days staring at PowerPoint slides in conference rooms, then six more weeks making PowerPoint slides from home about terms I would ultimately never understand. In September, the firm placed me on a project in Boston.
I would spend my weekends in Pittsburgh, flying to Boston for the project, where I’d stay at a hotel from Monday through Thursday. I had been brought in for an urgent, mysterious task, but no one told me what that was. After an entire week, I still did not understand the project or my role on it, yet I was there until ten o’clock every night. On Friday evening, things became even less clear. The partner leading the project told the analysts to cancel our Monday-morning flights; we’d have to come up Sunday. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs, just do it,” he said. We estimated that Sunday’s work, whatever it was, would cost the client an additional ten thousand dollars. This is it, I thought. All of my new training and knowledge will finally be put to use.
The call came three nights later, around midnight. I was asleep. I didn’t recognize the number. I ignored it. The phone rang again. I picked up, irritated but concerned. Why would anyone call so late?
“Prachi, this is Gabe, Yush’s friend. We found Yush’s suicide note—”
Yush attended Carnegie Mellon, living about a mile down the street from me when I went to Pitt. We saw each other every week, at least once if not more, and his friends became mine and mine became his. During finals week my junior year, when I got severely dehydrated from the flu, Yush came over to my apartment between classes to check up on me. I could not walk, I could only crawl. He camped out on my bedroom floor and helped me get to the bathroom, nursing me to health with gallons of Gatorade and Miyazaki films he downloaded on his laptop. I am sure it comforted our parents to know that we were there looking out for each other.
Although Yush had initially hesitated to study programming, in college he discovered tech projects that had the potential to change the world’s future. He joined the Google Lunar x Prize challenge to build a spacecraft and land it on the moon, ran a hackathon on campus, and learned to program his own operating system. He maintained a stellar GPA while taking the hardest courses the school offered in computer science and electrical engineering.
But as college progressed and his course load increased, Yush turned away from his social life. I encouraged him to ask out one of my friends, a pretty Indian American woman who had a crush on him. He dismissed it as a distraction.
He lived off a diet of pasta and five-hour energy drinks. He devoured cookies, milk, and beer before bed to pack weight onto his wiry frame—an effort to bulk up, he said. He mused that the overwhelming majority of men in his computer science classes meant that women were less capable in science than men were. I gently pushed back, but my own lack of talent in math and science didn’t exactly support my case. I found his insecurities and growing bias against women troubling, but at the time it didn’t feel like Yush was changing much. It felt like he was blasting off into the heavens, accelerating along the trajectory of his destiny.
“Prachi, this is Gabe, Yush’s friend. We found Yush’s suicide note—”The summer that I graduated from college, Yush rented an apartment in Venice Beach while he interned at SpaceX. He coded software for a space capsule that delivered cargo to the International Space Station, but my friend Swapna and I joked that he made fireworks, because that was about the most complex projectile we could fathom. One night, Elon Musk took the employees out for drinks. Yush bought him a shot at the bar, toasting by quoting Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, “To infinity and beyond!” Musk laughed, knocking back a shot on Yush’s command.
I knew that Yush’s friends often played pranks. Yush told me that he sometimes ran a “fight club” in his room, where he and his friends would wrestle or take swipes at one another, imitating Brad Pitt from the movie. I think he probably exaggerated swapping a few playful jabs with friends, but the idolization of violence still worried me. Yush dismissed it as “a guy thing” that I wouldn’t understand.
But this time they’d gone too far. I got angry. “Gabe, if this is some sort of joke, it’s not funny,” I said, my voice cracking with worry.
“It’s not a joke.” Gabe’s voice was urgent but calm. “Yush wrote a suicide note. His car is gone. We’re looking for him with the police. Have you heard from him?”
I started hyperventilating. I tried to think about how I could help. “Do you know his license plate number?” Gabe asked.
“I don’t.” I got mad at myself. How could I not have memorized his plates?
Gabe told me they’d keep looking and give me updates.
Yush was trying to kill himself—or maybe he was already dead—and I was pacing back and forth, hundreds of miles away, in a Westin hotel room. The following minutes were agony. I left Yush voicemail after voicemail, crying into the machine, telling him how much I loved him. Please don’t do this, don’t leave me alone in this world, don’t take away my best friend. I need you, I said. I love you so, so much. The machine cut me off. I called again. The machine cut me off. I called again. I had no idea if Yush would ever hear those messages. I was alone, and my fear strangled me.
I called my boyfriend, Thomas, and woke him up. He was calm. He was always calm. Sometimes I wished that he would get angry or scared on my behalf. I asked Thomas if I should call Mummy and Papa. “Of course,” he said. “They’re your parents.” In my panicked state, I had hesitated because I wanted to somehow bring Yush to safety before I involved them, even though, of course, I could not. I did not want to call them, to let them know your son is missing and might, in this very moment, be killing himself.
Ultimately, I called. Papa at first didn’t understand what I was saying, and then he said he was on his way. They drove to Pittsburgh in the middle of the night.
Six months earlier, to celebrate that new job at the consulting firm, I planned a ten-day vacation to Prague with Swapna, which I paid for with my signing bonus. A few weeks before the trip, I called to review my schedule with Papa over the phone. Instead, we fought. Then I did something I’d never done before: I hung up on him.
It felt forbidden and scary. Good Indian Girls did not hang up on their fathers. But it was also a luxury. Now that I had a job, Papa couldn’t do the things he’d done when I was younger and dependent on him: threaten to cut off my phone access, or forbid me to apply to jobs that he didn’t approve of, or warn that he’d stop paying my tuition. Hanging up gave me a surge of power. Stemming the fight really was as simple as pressing a button.
A few minutes later, Mummy called me. She urged me to do Papa’s bidding. She pleaded with me to come home earlier. She said that I had hurt Papa and that she was trying to calm him down, but this was so hard, and she needed my cooperation. Her words tugged at my heart, but I would not budge. I must have been on speakerphone, because as I spoke I heard Papa screaming, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” at me.
His screams were an uprising; a deranged, feral, guttural yell of an animal trying to escape from within the body of a man. Then Papa grabbed the phone and roared, “I don’t want to see you! Don’t come home!” I hung up on them both again.
I could have obliged. I have thought many times about why that felt impossible. In that moment, Papa wanted me to react not to his literal words but to his anger. Even as I felt pathetic and childlike, I knew that something larger was at stake. Had I retreated, I would have validated Papa’s belief that bullying me was an appropriate way to get what he wanted. If I buckled now, I would be inviting into adulthood the very treatment that I had tried so hard to escape as a girl. I would be setting a precedent that I was still his to control.
Mummy called the next morning to say that Papa was up all night, really hurting, and said that I didn’t respect him and that if he couldn’t be a father to me then he would have to cut me out of his life. She said that she didn’t want to cut me out of her life, but she would do that if things didn’t change. I didn’t understand where any of this was coming from.
His screams were an uprising; a deranged, feral, guttural yell of an animal trying to escape from within the body of a man.I learned later that Papa had rammed his head through the bathroom wall that night, repeatedly, leaving a gaping hole. The next day Mummy had to find someone to patch up the drywall. She must have been so angry with me: I had the power to stop this, and I chose not to.
A routine phone call had opened a tenth circle of hell in mere seconds, and now an indestructible tie had somehow been severed. Yet I had never been so sure that I didn’t deserve to be treated like this. I was a good kid now. My current success gave Papa so much to brag about. I was far from perfect, but I was indisputably the sort of daughter that you both could finally be proud of in the Indian American community.
Looking back, I realize that this was the incident where I began to wonder if Papa’s temper and controlling nature were indicative of something extreme, a potential sign of an illness that none of us knew how to address. It was the first time I questioned if something else was at play, far beyond the image of strict Indian fathers that people around me had dismissed as cultural or the anger that Yush and I assumed was a byproduct of the stress of a sole breadwinner.
I wrote Papa a letter to try to reason with him. Papa emailed me a response, saying that I would never understand him. Mummy called to tell me my letter was horrible.
I told her I wasn’t coming home. Any empowerment I felt from hanging up the phone on my parents had disappeared. All I felt now was deep shame, confusion, and sadness. I had followed the rules. I had done everything I was expected to do. Why was this happening?
Every morning from Prague, I called home to say that I was safe. Papa would answer, say, “Okay,” and then hang up. He didn’t speak of our fight, and neither did I.
When I came home ten days later, Papa didn’t acknowledge me. When I entered a room, he drifted past without a word. It almost felt worse than the yelling. At least when he yelled at me or called me stupid, he acknowledged my existence. Now I felt like I didn’t matter to him at all. I took a Greyhound bus back to Pittsburgh the next morning. I don’t remember much about the following weeks, except that what should have been the most exciting summer of my life now felt like the worst summer, and I didn’t understand why.
That July, Papa sent me an email. There was no trace of the enraged man who seemingly hated me. Instead, I recognized my other father, the loving father who doted on me. “I go to bed every night thinking of you and wake up every morning thinking of you and whenever I get a free moment, I turn to you,” it read. “I’m sure that the last month has been more stressful for you. Perhaps it is time for a new beginning. Let me know what you think.”
When we spoke on the phone, he said he was sorry. Then I said I was sorry, reflexively, because I thought I was expected to apologize to him, too. I chalked up the incident to stress and believed his rage was a thing of the past. I knew that, going forward, Papa would treat me with respect, recognizing that I was finally the daughter that he had needed me to be. I flew back the following weekend, and we sat as a family, flipping through my slideshow of photos of Prague.
I was home.
I don’t know how much time passed after I hung up with Gabe, but Yush called me back.
I had never cried so hard, and I hoped to never cry like that again. Yush was laughing maniacally, like a cartoon villain. There was something so off and so distant about his voice. Dark, sinister, twisted. He kept laughing. “I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t worry, Prach, I’m fine.”
Hours earlier, Yush had visited the top of the Cathedral of Learning, the tall tower on Pitt’s college campus, where I’d sat in class two years before. He had planned to jump from the top, but the windows were barred shut. He then drove to a gas station and filled up a carton with gasoline. He poured the gasoline over his body somewhere in the woods behind Carnegie Mellon, among the trails we had run through together countless times. When I was calling him, he was debating whether to light himself on fire.
The campus police found him and took him to the emergency room, where he was treated for gasoline contact burns. Yush later told me that he had purposefully not reached out to me that day. He knew if he heard my voice, he wouldn’t be able to go through with it. My voicemail saved his life. If my phone hadn’t been charged, if it had been on silent, if it had been in my bag, if cellphones hadn’t existed, my little brother, my only sibling, my best friend, would have been dead.
The next twelve hours were hell for all of us. I was shaking all over. I was crying, but my face was too weak to move, and I emitted these almost choking sounds. I needed to wait out the time but didn’t know what to do. I took a long hot shower and stood there, my tears melding with the water, trying to understand what happened to a boy I thought I knew everything about.
Yush was not dead, but he was not really alive, either. At least, not in my mind. Something seismic had shifted for all of us, and I didn’t know what it meant or why it happened or what came next, but I understood that nothing in our world would ever be the same. When sunlight returned, I went to the airport. It would be another six excruciating hours before I was in Pittsburgh with Yush. On the plane, tears poured down my face, and my nose ran, and my whole body shook. An older white woman sitting next to me asked if I was okay. I shook my head no and she asked me if I wanted to talk and I said no. My friend Nancy, who was Catholic, had once said she believed suicide was selfish, and in that moment I worried that if I told people my brother tried to kill himself, would they think less of him—or of me? I didn’t understand anything about suicide, but I knew that Yush was not selfish, and I could not bear the thought of anyone thinking that he was.
They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us
They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us
Credit: Penguin Random HouseWhen I got to Pittsburgh, I collapsed on the bed in my parents’s hotel room. I sobbed into the comforter as Mummy sat next to me with her hand on my back. It was strange how calm Papa was, and it bothered me. Show some emotion; this is not the time to repress it, I thought. Papa told me that it was important that when I saw Yush, I did not cry. Yush should not know how sad I was, because it would make him feel guilty, and Yush needed us to be strong.
Mummy and Papa had arrived as Yush was admitted to the psychiatric center that morning. Yush later told me that when he saw Papa, the father we both related to through intellect, Yush had little reaction. But when he saw Mummy, the mother who made room for our self-expression, he cried in her arms, his first emotional release. And when Yush saw me that afternoon, he crumbled. Our bodies folded into each other. He shook wildly, sobbing into the side of my head, and I held on to him with such force that he could feel, in his bones, that I would never, ever let him go.
It took everything I had to not lose my composure, but I didn’t let myself cry in front of my brother, as Papa had commanded.
Now I wish that I had sobbed and let my tears funnel into a stream that carried Yush ashore. I needed Yush to know that he was my world. I needed Yush to know that I would crumble without him, too. I needed Yush to know that crying was not weakness. I needed Yush to know that around me, he never had to pretend to not be sad. And I, too, needed to know that my sadness was not a burden on my brother, that it was an outpouring of the love we shared.
Yush stayed at the ward for the next two weeks. I planned my entire life around the two brief windows of time during which I could see him: once in the morning, and once in the afternoon. I had walked by the drab building countless times on the way to Thomas’s apartment but never really noticed it before. The women at the front desk began to recognize me. “No one comes by to see the family this often,” they said. “You’re a really good sister,” they said. If I were such a good sister, I thought, none of this would have happened.
Before entering the ward, we had to place most of our belongings in lockers. This included anything that could be used as a weapon, like pencils, shoelaces, keys, and coins. One of the few things allowed inside were books. But what kind of book do you buy someone who maybe wants to kill himself when he’s stuck in a place where he defi- nitely can’t kill himself? I spent hours at Barnes & Noble trying to pick something, but nothing felt right. I bought six books, settling on a haphazard collection that included Through the Looking-Glass and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I knew that Yush probably didn’t feel like reading much, but I needed him to know that I cared.
Yush slept in a small room with a twin-size bed. He wore sweatpants and sweatshirts without laces, and socks but no shoes, because he didn’t leave the floor for two weeks. It seemed like a prison, but Yush said that the staff was kind, and he seemed to be relieved to have a break from the real world. I wanted to cocoon myself around my little brother and wrap him with warmth and keep him safe forever.
I think Yush would have been happy with a simple life. What I think he didn’t feel sure about was whether, if he chose that simple life, he’d still be loved and respected.Yush didn’t want to think of the people in the ward as friends, exactly. The more he talked to them, the more he wondered how he could have ended up there—with people who came from horrendously abusive families and had real problems, he said. Yush took some assessment test, and the psychiatrist told him that he was prob- ably the smartest patient he’d ever tested, another fact that made us feel like Yush was an anomaly, as if his intelligence meant that he should have been able to logic himself back to sanity.
At first, Papa felt guilty. He told us, for the first time ever, that he believed his family had a history of depression. Maybe that’s what caused Yush’s unhappiness, he said. Papa’s façade of omniscience cracked and he broke down, asking me if he’d been too hard on Yush. I had never seen Papa doubt himself before, and it made him finally seem human to me. As he confided his fears, I cried and I said, “No, Papa, you’ve given us everything, you’re a perfect dad.”
Over the next two weeks, Yush told me how he gradually lost touch with reality. All summer he had been working long hours to make sure everything was correct for his part in a capsule that would be launched to the International Space Station. But when he ran his code, some- thing failed. He hunted for the bug for weeks, he told me, breaking apart his code and putting it back together again and again, unable to find the error. At the end of the summer, he learned that the mistake was not in his code but in someone else’s, causing Yush’s to fail upon execution. He realized this only after a colleague had fixed their code, after which Yush’s software suddenly ran smoothly. Yush had beaten himself up over a mistake he assumed was his, literally breaking him- self to fix something that was never broken. He believed that the stress triggered psychosis. Yush knew that success wasn’t worth his sanity. When he was offered a job at the end of the internship, he turned it down without hesitation. He lost his mind and almost his life, but his flawless code ended up in the International Space Station.
He had known that he needed help. A few weeks before the suicide attempt, when he returned to Pittsburgh to begin his senior year, Yush made a series of appointments with the college therapist. Unbeknownst to me or Thomas, he swiped a few of Thomas’s antidepressant pills from a bottle in Thomas’s car. But none of us—including Yush’s therapist—had picked up on how unwell Yush was or that he was on the verge of a psychotic break. That is how good Yush was at meeting the expectations of others.
He began to imagine that he was a vigilante meant to fight for justice. He walked through neighborhoods with high crime rates in the middle of the night and tried to intervene in fights. He concocted a plan to fly to South Africa, which had one of the highest murder rates in the world. He struggled with violent, intrusive thoughts. Eventually, his delusions turned against him, and he believed that he was the true evil in the world. He thought that the world would be a safer and better place without him in it, and so, that fall, he decided he had to end his life. To him, it was all very logical.
I don’t have access to Yush’s medical records, but according to my journal entry, Yush was diagnosed with psychotic depression and medicated with an antipsychotic and an antidepressant. On one emotional- assessment test, he scored high for repressed anger. This meant that he didn’t know how to express his anger, so he became an expert at holding it in and directed his rage at himself instead. He laughed at inappropriate times, often at very dark, morbid things that were not meant to be jokes. He felt antisocial and disconnected from others. Life wasn’t meaningless, he said, but he just didn’t fit in; he was not connected to the world, while everyone around him seemed to be.
He slept in odd increments, no more than four hours at a time. Silence made him uncomfortable. He was changing, but I didn’t know to what extent the change revealed a true self that he had always repressed or a self that was buried under severe depression.
Yush told me that high school was the last time he had felt truly happy—a time before he found computers, when he had a full life, with hobbies like drumming and cross-country and reading fiction and dating girls. He had been naturally good at this thing that society rewarded him for, but I’m not sure that he ever really wanted to compete or excel. I remember when Papa pushed him to apply to one of the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding schools, but Yush didn’t want to. Papa was adamant, because the school was an entryway to the Ivy League. Yush reluctantly interviewed. I remember that when a letter arrived securing a spot on the waitlist for Yush, Mummy intercepted it and showed Yush in private. He told her he didn’t want to go, and she agreed. She threw it out, and none of us told Papa. At the time, I scolded Yush for passing on an opportunity for success that I would never have, a chance to be among the truly elite. But Yush was happier at home. I think Yush would have been happy with a simple life. What I think he didn’t feel sure about was whether, if he chose that simple life, he’d still be loved and respected.
In the fragile months that followed, my parents and I worked as a team. Papa rented an apartment down the street from mine, close to the Carnegie Mellon campus, which we furnished with a glass-top dining room table and large sofa that I found on Craigslist. They spent every weekend in Pittsburgh to be with Yush. I reached out to Yush’s friends regularly to keep tabs on him. I called home every week, sometimes multiple times. Yush probably resented that we treated him like fine china that could break at any moment, but we didn’t care, so long as he was alive.
For the first time ever, I felt that my parents needed me. The following months cemented my deep belief that there was nothing more important than family and that the four of us, despite our differences in the past, were committed fiercely to one another’s well-being. I knew then that I never wanted to be too far from Mummy, Papa, or Yush. I left the project in Boston and asked to be placed on something in Pennsylvania, so that I was never more than half a day’s drive from them.
But a part of Yush had closed off, even to me. I didn’t know how to express concern or show care for him without poking at an insecurity. I sensed, for the first time ever, a distance between us: each of us sizing up the other to assess whether this person was telling the truth or hiding something, because each of us feared that if we admitted how we really felt, the other might withdraw.
As dedicated as we were to one another, we were bound by shame. Days after Yush’s attempt, Chachiji, Papa’s sister-in-law, had called to ask me about my new job.
“Hey, Chachiji!” I answered cheerfully, as Papa drove.
He mouthed, Don’t say anything. I nodded, already knowing that whatever was happening to Yush was to be kept a secret. I happily recounted my new job, splitting myself from the pain of something I didn’t yet understand. We didn’t know how to control the stories that others would tell about Yush or us, and so it was best not to say anything at all. We put up a wall between ourselves and everyone else while pretending there was no wall at all.
Success was supposed to make one immune to struggle, I thought. I had long understood that mental illness didn’t happen in high-achieving Indian American families like ours. In fact, both Yush and I had believed that part of what made us so successful was our ability to clamp down on our feelings and not let them out all the time, the way white people did so gratuitously. In my simplistic understanding of the world, it was this unfiltered outpouring of feelings that caused white families so much strife, and it was our emotional discipline that enabled us to work hard and succeed.
None of us knew then that what Yush dealt with was not an anomaly but a tragically common symptom of the pressures he faced. We didn’t know that Asian American college students are more likely to deal with suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide than white students— straddling multiple cultures, experiencing racism, and living up to narrow expectations of achievement exerts extreme stress on the mind and body. To navigate those pressures, Yush and I learned to repress our feelings and forge onward, as my grandfather did, as Papa did, as Mummy did. None of us knew that this very survival tactic compounded our pain.
There was no way for us to talk about any of this, because we did not know these problems even existed. We found out about a problem like most families do, when it became so big that it exploded in front of us and we could no longer avoid dealing with it. And we dealt with it the way most families do: quickly and quietly. We swept up the mess, put things back as best we could, and continued to live in the same way, as if nothing had ever happened. We didn’t know that by trying to forget, we were more deeply committing ourselves to the very circumstances and problems that had caused the explosion in the first place. We didn’t know that we were teaching Yush not to resolve his pain but to find more-creative ways to hide it. Now I wonder what decisions Yush would later have made if he had been encouraged to talk about his mental health, rather than feel pressured to stay quiet.
Despite having missed a full semester of college, Yush would graduate on time, with honors. But as our family struggled to find some sense of normalcy, I began to question the idea of normal. I wondered why I had not noticed that Yush needed help. I began to wonder what else I had failed to see because I had blocked it from view.
Prachi Gupta is an award-winning journalist and former senior reporter at Jezebel. She won a Writers Guild Award for her investigative essay “Stories About My Brother.” Her work was featured in The Best American Magazine Writing 2021 and has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post Magazine, Marie Claire, Salon, Elle, and elsewhere. PrachiGupta lives in New York City.