HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – The Brittney Dio that C.T. Pan and his wife, Michelle, had become so close to was a woman full of life.
She had a big, beautiful smile and boundless love for her college sweetheart, Taylor, and their daughter Anika. She was the product of a close-knit family, too. Her mother, Kim, was her best friend and matron of honor. Brittney’s parents and the Dios even lived next door to each other on the 18th hole of Woodforest Golf Club that her parents own in the Houston suburb of Montgomery, Texas.
Brittney was the kind of mother who went all out for holidays. There were Christmas decorations all over the house and themed cakes and signs and balloons in the front yard for birthdays. The 28-year-old Texan loved to dance the two-step to her favorite country-and-western songs, and she was consumed by fitness training and nutrition.
“She was extremely down-to-earth, like an angel,” Michelle says.
Yet Brittney, a woman so loved and loving, committed suicide in February.
The loss of their friend hit C.T. and Michelle hard. They knew she suffered from chronic pain, but they had no idea of the extent of the depression that accompanied it. Or that suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States for people aged 10 to 34.
C.T. wanted to honor his friend this week at the RBC Heritage. So he talked with Taylor, his friend, frequent golf partner and the general manager at Woodforest, where the Pans makes their home. C.T. said he’d like to wear a purple and turquoise ribbon pinned to his cap to promote suicide awareness and prevention.Brittney Dio, Taylor, and their daughter Anika. (Courtesy of Dio family)
A former champion at Harbour Town, C.T. knew the tournament supports two charities that advocate for mental wellness. In addition, the PGA TOUR is announcing this week several programs and alliances to help players and their families cope with mental health challenges.
“So I think all this is going to help people to know it's okay not to be okay,” Pan says. “We don't have to be perfect. But the most important thing is you need to seek help.
“If you have anxiety, if you're depressed, if you’re having a difficult time, if you are suffering pain, I think it's better to talk it out. We want to raise awareness that it’s okay not to be okay.”
Taylor wasn’t sure exactly when he and his family would be ready to start making a difference in the lives of people who were struggling like Brittney did. He only knew that they wanted to help, and C.T.’s initiative was an “amazing” opportunity.
For two years before her death, Taylor had basically talked his wife off a ledge daily. Her family knew. They’d see her lay crying on the couch as the pain escalated or in the depths of depression because she felt like she wasn’t being the perfect mother she always wanted to be. Social media didn’t help, either, when friends or relatives posted about their own kids and pregnancies.
Taylor knows most of their friends were taken by surprise when Brittney committed suicide. She was good at putting on a brave, happy face when they went out to dinner or a party. Michelle remembers her friend discretely sitting in a golf cart with an ice pack against her back so she could be part of the group during twilight rounds at the club. Pain patches helped, too.
“She always told me that the morning was the hardest part for her because she'd wake up and she had wished that she wouldn't wake up,” Taylor says. “I look at it and I believe that you can get to a place that's so dark that there's no coming back because she was always such a positive person.”
But there were signs early in their relationship. When the two were still in college Brittney told Taylor she had been molested at the age of 12 by a family friend, who at the time was dying of cancer. It was a secret she had kept for eight years.
“She never wanted to do therapy,” Taylor says. “She said she was fine.”
Brittney discovered weightlifting, which Taylor now understands gave her control over her body, a type of coping mechanism after the abuse. She traveled with him the year he played PGA TOUR Latinoamerica with current TOUR pros like Harry Higgs and Nate Lashley.
“A lot of the guys would always see her in the gym when they teed off in their practice round and they'd see her there when they got back,” Taylor says. “I remember walking by some guys and they're like, man, that chick's been in there all day. Brittany, when she went into something, she went like head-first, all in.”
After Anika was born, though, Brittney began to suffer from postpartum depression which she described to her husband as a “wave of sadness” that came over her body. She wanted and loved her baby dearly but still there was a cloud that lingered. Within 10 days after giving birth, she was dead-lifting weights again and soon the back pain began.
Massage therapists and physical therapists didn’t help. A neurosurgeon thought he could fix the problem, but the operation only made things worse and soon the pain was “controlling her life,” Taylor says. A woman who once ran triathlons eventually had to use a walker and even a wheelchair at times.
Taylor estimated the couple saw 50 different doctors last summer to no avail – and her physical restrictions only exacerbated the depression. So did the fact that the family had to hire a nanny to help with Anika because Brittney felt like a failure.
Brittney started a suicide note and told Taylor about it.
“She was scared of herself,” Taylor recalls. “We obviously cried together, talked about it together and found a (mental health facility).”
During the six weeks that Brittney spent at the clinic, the doctors diagnosed her with a psychosomatic pain disorder stemming from the postpartum depression combined with the abuse when she was younger.
“So, in essence your body finds a weak spot, whether it be a small injury that occurred when she was working out, and it stores the stress, anxiety and depression there,” Taylor says. “And so, it almost exaggerates an injury.
“Every doctor we saw, it was like, well, your back looks fine. It looks fine. But her body was telling her otherwise. It was burning, throbbing, swelling. I mean, there was pain there. You could feel her back when you hugged her.
“It's hard to tell someone who's in chronic pain that the source of it is in their head because it's almost like dismissive to say it's in your head. And that's how it comes across to her when she was told that.”
Brittney had a panic attack one day last fall when she attempted to take Anika to a cheer competition. Soon, her arms and legs began to shake and she had trouble walking and sleeping more than 3 or 4 hours a night.
She eventually was diagnosed with a functional neurological disorder that Taylor compared to a software malfunction in the brain that blocks the signals that control motor function. The doctors said it might take six months to a year to improve, and even then, Brittney might not be 100%.
“That was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Taylor says,
Brittney committed suicide on Feb. 17. Robert Marling thinks his daughter felt like she was trapped inside a burning building for a while and that morning, she just decided she had to jump rather than endure the pain any longer.
“We’re getting stronger every day, but it’d been pretty just devastating,” he says.
Last week, Hollis Cavner, a family friend and the CEO of ProLinks Sports, invited Taylor, Anika and Robert and Kim to come to the Masters for a few days. The change of scenery was good, and Robert says Sunday was the first day his wife hasn’t cried since Brittney died.
Taylor and Robert are coming to Hilton Head on Thursday to watch C.T. play. He won’t be the only player wearing the ribbons to honor Brittney, and if those gestures can help just one person battling mental illness to know they are not alone, then laying bare their emotions to tell her story will have been worth it for her husband and father.Anika Dio smiles with C.T. Pan. (Courtesy of Dio family)
“I think there's maybe two sides to suicide,” Robert says. “No. 1 is prevention, so people realize you're not alone. But then the other side is family members recognizing that, and if you do what is the next step? So that's some of the things we're learning, too.
“For example, we wake up with hope every morning, that's our mindset. But you're fighting something called hopelessness. And how does a dad or a mom or a brother or a sibling or a husband or whoever stop that from happening?”
Taylor and Robert may never have those answers. But asking the questions is sure to help others who struggle, as well as the people who care about them.
And C.T. is helping his friends start the conversation this week at the RBC Heritage.