Shea’s Story

Shea McKenna was born in Marin County, CA, on July 12, 1986 and died by suicide, on June 8, 2014, just thirty-four days shy of his 28th  birthday. While difficult to write and very difficult to condense, we wanted to share more of Shea’s story in hopes of helping others remember him and for some to recognize a bond or a call to action.

Shea was an intense baby who was very alert and seemed to be constantly absorbing the world around him. From the beginning, Shea did things his own way, in his own time. He said very few words until he could speak full sentences. He wouldn’t read aloud until he had mastered the skill. As a preschooler, Shea was the only child who would visit every station; so curious to try everything. At three, Shea correctly noted that dad was being sarcastic and the development of his strong wit and unique sense of humor was off and running.

Shea was two when smiling and exuberant sister Caitlin came along.  Despite Caitlin’s adoration, Shea was not enamored and, like many big brothers, wielded his size and age to gain advantage in many, sometimes sneaky, ways. Youngest Cory came along three years after Caitlin.  The big brother alternately ignored, teased, hugged, protected, rough-housed, and taught his siblings.  Love and loyalty eventually prevailed and Shea felt very fortunate to have Caitlin and Cory as sister and brother.

Shea began first grade in Brussels. The move from California was hard on him and he missed his friends. Of course, as time went on new friendships were formed but given the nature of the community, each school year had friends moving on and new ones arriving.  It was in the third grade that Shea solidified his reputation as a class clown and his intense dislike of homework assignments. He never bought into the concept of homework. Shea continued to develop a keen sense of humor. He was very good with accents, a favorite tool in raising hilarity, not occasionally at inappropriate times. We would often find Shea sitting outside his classroom for his many antics.

Like many third graders, Shea was silly, goofy, disorganized and very impulsive, but to a higher degree.  Shea was tested and diagnosed with ADHD. At the time, it was more about recognition and orientation for his family and educators, rather than drug therapy. Overall, we had a wonderful three years in Belgium. We did a lot of traveling which Shea really seemed to enjoy. He was adventurous and liked to experience new and different things – and he was able to hone many of his funny accents.

When Shea had just turned nine we moved to Singapore, leaving great friends in Brussels.  Shea was older now and we think the transition was easier this time. Our family had so many unique experiences in this country and this is where we feel he learned to truly value a person for who he/she was on the inside. Shea had such a big heart for others but he was private with his feelings even in grammar school. He was always very hard to read.  Shea always acted as though everything was fine and that nothing bothered him.

Shea was 11 years old when we moved to Greensboro.  Shortly after Shea began middle school he started vomiting regularly after meals. When we were told it was gastritis caused by stress we were shocked. Shea had never seemed stressed to us.  In 7th grade Shea transferred to Greensboro Day School.  It was a wonderful change for him and where his unique and exceptional intellect began to be recognized.  He met a great group of boys and girls there, many friends to this day. Their parents were equally accepting and contributed to Shea’s comfort and appreciation of the close-knit community. He loved it at GDS even while half of his educators were alarmed by his indifference to homework requirements and other deadlines and the other half lauded his gifts and joined the team trying to help Shea find his passions and future, and socks that matched.

As graduation neared Shea became very unsettled. We are not sure he was ready for high school to end. His friends were leaving for various schools and he would have to start over again. In spite of a high SAT score and mostly good grades, (the combination of aced tests and missed assignments), Shea applied to just one school, the University of South Carolina (we believe it was because the school didn’t require any essays).  He was accepted and given a scholarship (and lucky to have a good friend go there with him).

Shea liked college and excelled immediately.  He was now willing to write an essay and apply to UNC. Shea attended UNC, Chapel Hill for the next three years.  Shea joined a fraternity where he made new friends while maintaining his GDS friendships. As in high school, Shea was a bit wild, but kind, generous, a lot of fun and just a good guy. He was also very loyal; to his family, friends, SAE and the Tar Heels. We believe he enjoyed it overall but he definitely had his ups and downs. There were times he seemed somewhat lost and confused about his priorities and future.

Shea majored in philosophy as preparation for law school. We really didn’t think he was serious. Law school didn’t seem to fit him but neither did being in a fraternity. Here was a young man so outside the box, so unique, but trying desperately to belong. It turns out he was very serious about law school, scored extremely high on his LSAT and went to Georgetown Law School on a scholarship. Shea became even more proficient at debate. He would out-debate or outlast contrary views. Shea was very engaged his first year at Georgetown Law but seemed to lose interest and focus over the next two years. During most of this time he was in a relationship with a lovely young woman and fortunate to have a partner in the same program who cared so much.

Shea graduated into a very difficult job market for new lawyers and it took five months to land a job in the emerging area of electronic discovery. It was a very difficult time for him. He was excited when he began the job but it turned out to be totally wrong for him. Shea lasted five months.

The stresses of losing a job and looking for another while self- medicating undermined what remained of his closest relationship and contributed to a downward spiral where Shea found it difficult to manage routine obligations. We went to D.C. and brought him home to Greensboro with us in April of 2012. Shea admitted and tried to address a drug (legal) habit that had gotten extreme. Shea continued to look for physical explanations for why he did not “feel right”.

Shea was very creative. In hindsight we think he was a very frustrated artist. He had a great deal of raw talent and had an endless stream of brilliant thoughts bombarding his brain. His problem was execution. He couldn’t get them from his mind onto paper. He wanted to draw. He wanted to write a novel. He wanted to write poetry (which he did but only one poem over his last year). He loved playing his guitar and wanted to write music. He had so many ideas that he would be excited about except that the ideas never saw fruition. Most of this frustration and energy went towards playing video games. In addition, the internet was an ocean of information and Shea immersed. It was an escape for him and he would spend hours in his room on his computer. His other favorite escape was reading; particularly David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy and the poet, Wallace Stevens.

For the majority of Shea’s adult life he was an absolute joy to be with. He was witty, charming and laughed hard and often. He was passionate and compassionate and loved to learn about anything and everything. He was very knowledgeable regarding world events but the chaos and the injustices he would read about affected him very deeply. There were occasions when Shea’s usual demeanor would give way to anger and resentment.  There were also times when concern about his physical health became acute enough to make trips to the ER or urgent care centers. These departures were infrequent and short-lived and after Shea would feel guilt and remorse.

It is very difficult to say when Shea’s struggles began. One summer when he came home from college he made an appointment with a psychiatrist because he couldn’t sleep. We had never known Shea to have a problem with sleep but the psychiatrist, after 15 minutes, prescribed sleeping pills to him; a 20 year old. Once back home, over two years of analysis, Shea fooled an inefficient and unconnected series of caregivers. The efforts of one caring and intuitive medical doctor to coordinate care with the psychological practitioners were rebuffed. For a variety of reasons, Shea did not receive effective treatment. He was prescribed so many different medications, one after another, mostly for depression, but also for nerve pain, sleep disorder and anxiety.

Despite the disappointment of varied diagnoses and inconclusive outcomes of physical tests, all outward evidence suggested Shea was excited to start a new job on June 16th.  The path forward seemed lit for the first time in over two years.  Shea began Sunday, June 8th, in a good mood. However, we had the impression that he had been up all night though he said he had slept. Later in the day, over a very minor incident, Shea’s mood flipped and he became enraged and irrational. He left the house and never returned. We were so sure he would call a friend to pick him up, and come back the next day. Even though his behavior was unlike any we had witnessed from him before, we never, ever, not in a million years, thought he would end his own life. But Shea climbed up the overpass onto Bryan Boulevard and walked into oncoming traffic. He died before he arrived at the hospital.

We had totally underestimated his level of despair and the pain his life was causing him. He was so successful in hiding his feelings from us. However desperate he was feeling we strongly believe it was the overprescribed and abused medication that caused his final actions to be so destructive and violent. We miss him so much and still cannot believe he is gone. He was a highly intellectual and wildly funny, handsome young man and, with the right care, had a bright future.

We now believe that Shea was probably bipolar but with very short or mixed cycles which makes it very hard to diagnose. But that is our lay diagnosis in hindsight and we really don’t know. He was so alone with his battle to understand what he was feeling and experiencing and didn’t know how to communicate it. We didn’t know what to do to help him. We supported him and loved him and listened to him but we couldn’t save him.

As heartbreaking as this is for us, we are sharing our story to raise awareness regarding the challenging aspects of having a loved one who is suffering.  We want anyone suffering from emotional stress or mental illness to please seek some of the many forms of help available.  We want health professionals to spend more time with their patients so they can make a better diagnosis. We want parents to continue to love, appreciate and hug their children every single day. We want to find ways to end the suffering of so many people before they see no choice but to end their life.

– The McKenna Family