He talks about what he knows.
“I had a traumatic childhood,” William shares.
It is an understatement. At the age of 6, William Kellibrew was violently sexually assaulted. His body violated by someone he knew — his mother’s friend, a trusted neighbor. To keep William quiet, his attacker gave him one hundred pennies. Hush money.
“That dollar bought eight years worth of silence,” reflects William. “He probably hoped it would buy a lifetime.”
Four years later, William’s childhood would be permanently disfigured when his mother, Jacqueline, age 30, and brother, Anthony, age 12, were murdered before his eyes by his mother’s ex-boyfriend. The next day, his grandfather was triggered to violence over a parking space and shot the offending neighbor. Two shootings in two days, and William was only 10. He went to school that fall to attend 5th grade; he lacked focus, concentration, and most importantly, his innocence.
William was 13 when he decided to end it all. The pain of silence, grief, humiliation and shame flooded his mind, and he awoke one morning with a decision made: he would take himself, the carrier of pain, out of the equation.
Walking toward the bridge, his soon to-be accomplice, William felt like a no-body. He wasn’t in his body, or his mind. He had no coping strategies to help address the violent deaths of his mother and brother, or with the murder of his own innocence at the hands of his attacker. Ending this life – this no good life – would be an escape from it, right? He debated heaven and hell; he wondered if he would see his mother and brother again.
But William paused. He felt strangely compelled to go to school. He rationalized that he would go to school, and come back to the bridge later that day. The jump could wait just a while longer.
William never returned to the bridge. Instead, a bridge of people saved his life. His assistant principle, concerned for the distraught youth sitting in his office, called William’s grandmother. She in turn called Children’s Hospital, and after a 30-day hospitalization in an adult program, William was referred to outpatient therapy. There, he was introduced to a therapist named Christine Pierre. Instead of the day marking the end of William’s life on a gravestone, it marked the first day his fractured emotional and mental bodies were put back together again. He was alive, and he would recover.
Christine opened William’s heart to the mental healthcare system through his stomach. She walked the 13 year old to the cafeteria and told him he could have anything he wanted. It sounded simple. But to William, a child whose youth had been consistently stripped from him, this was a profound gesture. She was offering something special, something no one else had ever offered him – a voice, and a choice.
William chose ice cream.
The cone lasted what seemed like an eternity – five months. In that time, Christine taught William how to connect with the places where he felt broken inside. And he learned a powerful lesson. “Trauma strips a sense of control and meaning, but being given back these components with such compassion, truly was my saving grace. It was a start.”
William continued therapy after graduating from Christine’s care; but the road ahead was not a paved Candyland. During his teenage years, William dabbled with drugs, alcohol, got his hands on guns and hung out with friends who thought stealing cars was fun. “I really had a rough patch.”
He did not talk much to his friends about his childhood. “The feeling of being victimized really perpetuates silence. Who wants to talk about what happened and feel embarrassed? If you express yourself and you get embarrassed, or get bullied for expressing yourself – it can really silence you. And I felt that growing up. Why would I talk about it? It’s embarrassing to say your family was destroyed.”
With demons not fully exorcised, William stared into another face of violence: His own. It was reflected when he saw himself bullying his brother, and his sister. It was reflected when he saw himself in a fight; felt it when his fist punched another human being. “In households, we learn from our environment. And we did that – we watched my mom in domestic violence situations. And when I got into relationships as I got older, I always had to have control. I’d get into fights. I’ve hit people. I’ve been in relationships where there was hitting back and forth. I know what it’s like.”
At 27, William hit a moment. Awareness did not punch back, instead, it revealed. Behind every act of violence is a humiliation. He began to understand that the man who took his mother and brother’s lives, must have felt humiliated when William’s mother broke up with him, saying she wanted to spend her time with her children. That man not only killed them, but killed himself too later that day. “When I stopped to think about it, I realized I learned from him, I learned that you kill yourself to escape.” And there at the bridge was 13 year-old William, at the same place as the man with the gun. But the 27-year old William knew something his 13-year old self didn’t know: “That man with the gun killed a family and took his own life because he didn’t have a coping strategy. He didn’t know how to cope with loss, with fury, with humiliation. Did he really escape? No. He didn’t. He died with a sense of humiliation. Looking back on my life and that near-final decision on the bridge, I realized I needed a healthy coping strategy — actually, strategies.”
With this epiphany came the thirst for education. William’s deepest desire was to go back to school and get an education. He had tried a few times previously, but never made it through the admissions process. This time, his focus was different – he was applying to go to school to get an education; his intention was strong and clear.
William was accepted to University of the District of Columbia (UDC). There, he studied business administration and was elected president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association. But more importantly, it set the stage for William to address the issues that had plagued him all his life, and to make his full recovery.
Since enrolling, William’s path has been filled with opportunities to share his story.
And he shares it with classmates, with communities, with television audiences, including Oprah’s; he shares it with whomever his voice reaches. “What I do is build awareness and share knowledge. And I continue to learn, so I can share what I’ve learned.”
Little did he know, or could ever imagine as that traumatized teenager walking to the bridge, that sharing his story would become his life’s work. As a consultant with the William Kellibrew Foundation, his namesake organization that provides advocacy and community strengthening tools to break the cycles of violence, he’s passionate about connecting with people and helping others realize they are not alone, and that intervention, prevention and therapy, work.
“Violence doesn’t’ have a boundary. My hope is that what I’m doing is helping the broader community, our nation, and the world.”
Recently, William was presented the Consumer/Peer Leadership Award by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), for sharing his personal story and educating the public on mental and behavioral health.
William is no longer silent.
It may be one of the most powerful lessons he has learned: Telling our story empowers others to tell theirs. And this — the chorus of voices and choices — is what breaks the deadly silence.
Essay written by Alivia Tagliaferri (@AuthorAlivia) as part of Power of One: Preventing Suicide in America. Follow our project on Facebook and Twitter, share with others, and support our work. Together, we make a difference.