What strikes you most about that day was her impatience for the final moment: the jump, the plunge, the cracking into water.
After she had everything ready--had dropped off her brother, gathered $2.50 for the toll, put the goodbye letter on the seat beside her--she hit the traffic on the bridge. It was maddening.
A walkathon, of all things. A walkathon--thousands of people--blocking up one whole span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Below, a boat race was gearing up. So she waited, playing the radio to distract herself, smothering a wild urge to plow her van through that massive clot of cars. She'd been waiting all day, all junior year, really, since she'd come to the conclusion that life held no sanctuary for her. At 17, Brandi Care was desperate for death.
On that busy day, with spectators and cameras all around, Brandi finally made it onto the bridge and parked her dad's white van. She took three steps up the railing and flung herself into the bay--legs splayed, hurtling 104 feet in 2 1/2 seconds--thinking, "THIS IS IT."
Except it wasn't.
Somehow she survived, because of physics or trained swimmer's instincts or God's outstretched hand. She survived to confront the gratitude and shame that many of her peers do not when they slash or swallow or shoot or leap their way to oblivion. She survived, although seven months later, another girl from her school jumped and died.
For 30,000 people a year, there is no epilogue. Suicide, more common than homicide, has become the third-leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, and the second for college students.
The scourge is generating attention. In July, Surgeon General David Satcher proclaimed suicide "a serious public health problem." The Senate Appropriations Committee will hold hearings after January. And eminent psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison has just released a riveting book on suicide--including her own attempt--calling for communities, schools and homes to do more to prevent it.
Brandi Care had been a pageant girl, a National Honor Society member and a devoted field hockey player. She was junior class president and slated to be senior class president. Why, on May 3, 1998, did she so urgently want to kill herself?
"I want to do it without thought," Brandi wrote in a spiral-bound notebook that day. "Off I go without anybody able to ask me questions."
But she was given a second chance, and in a sense, so are we.
We are given the one thing that teen suicides, in their youth and impulsiveness, have so little of: time. Time to ask questions.
A 'Special Gift'
One day in 1980, in a small church in Reading, Pa., Ron Care placed his hand on his wife's pregnant belly and proclaimed before the rest of the congregation, I know that God will give me a daughter.
And when, indeed, a daughter was born on April 30, 1981, the auto parts salesman and his wife, Cheryl, named her Brandi and told her she was a "special gift." She was born a year and a half after the death of her infant sister, Crystal, a twin with a three-chambered heart. For the grieving parents, Brandi's birth seemed nothing less than proof of God's wisdom and kindness.
Brandi grew into vivaciousness, a warm, confident girl with three older brothers who acquired friends easily. She entered state-level pageants in junior high school and was president of the student government association in seventh and eighth grades. Sophomore year, she was captain of her field hockey team, was voted homecoming princess and won a leadership award for her school.
"She just always took on a lot even when it wasn't asked of her," says close friend Sharon Molofsky, who has lived near Brandi since the Cares moved to Severna Park in 1991.
Brandi was the one to whom friends turned for advice, the one with "a solid head on her shoulders," in the words of friend Casey Hepburn. They called her "Dr. B.C." for her therapeutic powers.
She "took on more responsibility than she ever should have," her father says now. "Never wanted any help."
"I always felt that I was a step ahead, intelligence-wise, experience-wise," Brandi says. "I always had advice. I never felt stumped."
Symptoms, Not Fate
It rolled in gradually, thick and noxious, so by the time the cloud of depression surrounded her, she had forgotten the sight of a blue sky.
Perhaps it was simply a matter of time. Cheryl Care had taken the antidepressant Zoloft for years. Her own mother, Cheryl says, had been hospitalized for depression. In any case, Brandi's depression was not dramatic, not punctuated by wrist scars or hot-line calls. By many accounts--her own, her family's, her friends'--it was almost without any outward cries for help. It was deeply insidious.
Brandi was a junior when she began to feel an incessant desire to sleep. Some days she came home from school, fell heavily into bed, woke for dinner, then went to bed again. More than once, she fell asleep in class. Her mother thought this was little more than the biorhythms of an active teenager.
Sometimes she forgot things. A friend would say, Hey Bran, turn into that 7-Eleven up ahead, and right afterward, she would roll right past it. She'd be reading a textbook, and by the time she got to the bottom of the page, she'd have no idea what she'd just read. Then, certain thoughts would crowd in.
"I just started feeling--I started feeling lonely, empty and just overwhelmed."
From Brandi's perspective now, a number of things conspired to trigger the depression. Friends who had depended on her seemed to move into their own and need her less. Math and biology became hard for her, and she became convinced her hockey skills had deteriorated. She had always felt like a special gift, and now that conviction was fading.
"I started feeling like I wasn't pleasing people as much," she says. "The accomplishments didn't feel like enough."
Like a bird beating against a windowpane, she could think of only one way out. Once optimistic, she came to feel that, just as God had a careful hand in her birth, he was now telling her, "Brandi, you've reached your full potential. It's time for you to go."
The reasons might sound like minor impetus for such a drastic conclusion, but distortion is a trick of the depressive mind. The disease upends hope and self-reliance, leading to what once-suicidal author William Styron calls a "crumbling away of identity." To Brandi, it was like reaching out to measure the substance of her life and watching it run like sand through her fingers.
Depression is not the only cause of suicidal thinking, though it is the most common. As Jamison documents in her book "Night Falls Fast," the vast majority of those who commit suicide suffer from an array of psychiatric illnesses like manic depression or schizophrenia, or from addiction problems.
While the elderly, and particularly white males, are most likely to commit suicide, in certain groups the growth rate has reached what the surgeon general calls "epidemic proportions." The suicide rate for those between 15 and 19 rose precipitously after the mid-'50s, though it--like suicides on the whole--leveled off in recent years. And between 1980 and 1996, the rates rose 100 percent among those 10 to 14, and 105 percent for black male teenagers, though those numbers are relatively small.
Why? What is pushing the young to the breaking point?
As Jamison writes, it's many factors. Guns, the most common method, are easier to get. The age when children reach puberty has dropped, making the young more vulnerable to mental illness. Kids drink and use drugs younger these days. And it may also be that medical examiners are increasingly accurate about reporting suicide for what it is.
Brandi says that if she had realized that what was besieging her was a diagnosable illness that's treatable "80 to 90 percent of the time," according to the surgeon general, she might have reached out for help. But she didn't see the symptoms as symptoms. They felt more like fate. "I just felt so helpless," she says. "Why go and spill all these problems out when they're not going to be able to be solved?"
"I don't think people expect to get sick that way," says Surgeon General Satcher. "When it comes to getting ill, people don't look at depression and mood disorders the same way they look at blood sugar."
"What you want to do," says Jamison, "is create a climate in a school system and in a home where people talk openly in advance of symptoms."
Instead, for Brandi, there came those thoughts, fleeting imaginations of suicide that turned into earnest dialogues over when and how. One day in biology class in January or February, "that's all I thought about . . . how convenient it would be if I had a gun."
It was a Sunday. Oh, how she hated Sundays, the way they warned of the week ahead, more of the same dreariness.
The night before, there had been a party to celebrate Brandi's 17th birthday, and the final performance of the school play, "Alice in Wonderland," in which she played the Four of Spades.
"She seemed happy to have us all there," says her friend Molofsky.
But inside, Brandi was feeling a profound sense of loss, as if she had "no excitement left in me."
Alone in her mother's bed on Sunday morning, trying to read, she could not block out a sense of doom. Marriage, children, the future that had always been a promising beacon, seemed utterly blank. She thought, "I just don't care if I have kids anymore."
She went to her room and grabbed her notebook to write out her feelings. And as she wrote, laying out the dimensions of despair and the possible methods of her own destruction, the Bay Bridge presented itself. It seemed easy, final, within reach. All her thoughts converged into: Do it now.
Brian, the youngest of her three older brothers, had asked her for a ride to the marina, and she agreed. Twenty minutes in the van. Brian, can I borrow a few bucks for lunch? He gave them to her, and she had her toll money.
"I love you, Brian," she told him as he got out of the van. She sobbed after he closed the door.
"I love you" was not the sort of thing he and his sister normally said. Those words would stick in his mind after his dad called him with the news, after he felt so sick he couldn't stand up.
After the Attempt
She was going 56 mph when she hit. The water was cold but not wintry cold, and seemed so deep she thought, "I guess I'll die down here." But her strong swimmer's body rose back to the top, her socks and sandals still on. Around her, she could see only water, and panic and pain set in. "I felt totally alone and helpless."
It wasn't a question of whether she wanted to live or die--pure instinct took over. She screamed, a scream so high-pitched she can still hear it in her head.
A boater picked her up and she was flown to a shock trauma center.
She had a tear in her pelvic area that had to be sewn up, and bruises up and down the backs of her thighs so bad she could barely sit for weeks. The physician in chief, Thomas Scalea, was amazed. Others have died jumping from lesser heights.
"It would be very, very, very unusual for her to fall that distance and essentially end up with just some cuts and bruises," he says.
Her family got the news. Those moments of shock and bafflement are etched in their minds.
Her father was home when the police called. He was the first to reach her hospital bed. "I remember crying. . . . I remember saying, Brandi, if there's something I did or didn't do, please let me know so I can help you."
Brandi's brother Michael made a 90-minute trip home from college in 52 minutes. After seeing Brandi, he walked out of the hospital, sagged to the curb and wept.
Her brother Brian felt so angry he couldn't visit her. He thought, "I have not even a fraction or a half a fraction of what she has, and she wants to give it all away. . . . I'd a gladly had her life."
In the aftermath, there was suspicion, and fear. One day during the summer after the attempt, Brandi and her mother had a fight. This is how Brandi remembers what her mother said: "I know that you jumped off that bridge to get away from me."
Brandi and Brian, once "so tight," are not as close anymore. Brian says he's no longer angry at his sister, but she's changed. She's tougher somehow.
"I'm almost drawn away from her now," Brian says.
Yet this is not even a whisper of what would have happened if Brandi had died. Suicide spreads guilt and destruction like spilled ink.
Seven months after Brandi jumped, a 16-year-old junior from Severna Park leapt off the Bay Bridge. Like Brandi, Barbie Morgan was gregarious and academically successful. She jumped from the bridge's other span at almost the highest point and fell about 182 feet. Her body was found a month later.
When the news broke, it inevitably raised the question of copycat suicides. Many researchers believe there is a link between highly publicized suicides and subsequent attempts. For fear of suicide contagion, the Maryland Transportation Authority no longer reports the number of people who have leapt off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge since it was built in 1952.
Experts caution against glorifying suicide, but anyone who has caught a glimpse of survivors' pain doesn't need to be told this. Sifting through the remnants of a half-lived life is not glorious.
Barbie Morgan's parents did not want to participate in this article. Their pain is too great. Their daughter does not have a lifetime to look back on the night of her attempt as the lowest point of her young life, which she, thankfully, survived.
Recovery's Slow Road
There is sadness still.
After she returned home from a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Brandi spent days lying on the couch. She entered therapy for a year and started a regimen of 30 milligrams a day of Paxil, an antidepressant. She got a job as a waitress in Baltimore, trudging through each day. In the fall, she tried to return to school, but in physics class she could only recall hours spent in biology thinking up ways to die. She decided on home schooling.
Recovery was slow and painful, an almost Sisyphean effort marked by small realizations.
Here's one: She is lying in a hospital bed a few days after the attempt, reading some magazine article about depression. She scans a list of telltale signs (sleeping too much, eating too much, short-term memory loss). She recognizes them, and it dawns on her: The hopelessness was not God trying to tell her something, but the symptom of an illness.
"It's almost like if I had seen that before all of this," she says, "if I had made the self-realization, then I most likely would have reached out."
Perhaps. Hindsight is painfully clear. In any case, no one says getting through depression is easy. At first, Brandi says, one of the things that kept her from having suicidal thoughts was a fear of failing again.
But the waitressing gave her an ambition: to be a restaurant manager. She applied to Virginia Tech. Now, halfway into her freshman year, she lives in a small dorm room with a roommate, her desk plastered with photographs of friends and parents, a huge calendar by her bedside reminding her of things to look forward to--friends' visits, a vacation in Aruba. She has a boyfriend now, John Scheckells. She asked him out when they met 10 months ago at the restaurant where they both worked. She is in many ways her old self, friends say--funny, feisty, nurturing.
Brandi and her parents see her survival through the lens of their belief.
Ron Care talks of the biblical Job, who lost everything but faith. He talks of how he lost Crystal as an infant, and how he could not understand why God was taking his only daughter. He believes it was God's hand that pulled Brandi out of the water, but why?
"I wish that I had the words of encouragement to share with the families that weren't that blessed," he says.
"Obviously I was saved for some reason and I belong here on Earth," Brandi says. Then, minutes later, "How could I have ever possibly thought in the time that I was making that decision, 'No, I don't care if I have kids, I don't care if I go to college'?"
Once, she wanted to have answers for everyone's problems, and the burden weighed her down. "All through my life, I was trying to save people," she says.
Now, a year and a half later, she tries to answer her own needs. Though the dark moods still come, they are not nearly as horrifying or frequent. She talks to close friends, and sometimes they, too, express feelings of frustration and despair, and she feels buffered by the shared experience.
"She's more willing to ask for help," says her friend Hepburn.
Brandi is, after all, just one person--fallible, needy. She has learned she does not have all the answers, and she does not need to.
One night, when they had been dating several months, John woke in the night to find Brandi crying. He asked her what was wrong, but she just left the room and called a friend to talk it out.
Later, "she crawled back in bed, and all she wanted was just to be held."
CAPTION: At 17, an "empty and just overwhelmed" Brandi Care flung herself off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. She survived to find that her symptoms have a name--depression--and a cure.
CAPTION: Her recovery was slow, but today Care can laugh during an English class at Virginia Tech, where she is a freshman.
CAPTION: Parents Cheryl and Ron Care in their Severna Park home. Brandi, her father says, "never wanted any help."
CAPTION: Brandi Care, grateful to be alive, chats on the phone in her dorm room at Virginia Tech.