This is not a funny bit of writing, it is deadly serious and serious about being deadly. Do not read this if you need the lighter side of life; read it if you knew someone who decided to take their own life and you can’t get round the fact, or if it seems like a good idea to you.
The topic of suicide has forcibly presented itself in my life several times; if you’ve read this far it’s probably happened to you too. When it does the questions: why? and: what could I have done to stop it? feel as if they are written everywhere you look.
Last night I was stuck on the toilet still with the upset stomach thing when the phone rang persistently. I knew it was the other half at the pub and guessed, wrongly, he was ringing to say he’d gone on somewhere. When he finally got back about midnight he got me out of bed for a debriefing. He was late because he’d been trying to give CPR to a chap who had hung himself and had been discovered by his girlfriend.
Fortunately the other half is a trained first aider, had a career in first the health service and then emergency planning and has done courses on the occurrence of shocking things and what to do about them but, as he had a few whiskeys out of the dusty old bottle, he still asked the question: why? and: could he have saved him?
We were first obliged to ask these questions when a friend took himself off in his twenties. He had been a fellow we met at the local pub about a week after we married and moved into our new home. We were in our twenties, he was just finishing higher education and leaving home. He was probably one of the brightest people I have met. He was an epileptic with an immigrant father living out his ambitions through his son, to a certain extent. For quite a while after his suicide I blamed his father. I also blamed the concrete jungle he’d gone to live in, because that’s where the work was for someone so bright. I also blamed the pressure of the job on someone so young and inexperienced. Miracles were expected and produced. We were the last people to leave the grave; the sky looked grey and raw, the future felt bitterly pointless. Only a week before, freshly out of a mental hospital where he was being treated for depression, he had phoned us on what I now realise was a goodbye call. At the time I didn’t know that it was; I was just so pleased to hear from him. I blamed myself endlessly for not recognising the call for what it was.
In time and in a different town we got to the terrible year that was 1997. It was not just the year Princess Diana died; it was the year my cousin’s son lost his fight with the brain tumour that had evidenced itself five years before as he sat his law exams. I had never experienced the death of someone who, such an apparent moment before, I had run along the hall for, shouting: It’s a boy!
In that year he was only one of 12 people we lost. One funeral was a family of three, gassed by the central heating, two were old friends, one was a two year old who posted a knife into a live toaster and the rest were untimely medical. Diana came at the end of a long string of deaths. An acquaintance said: One by one He is calling them in. It was only three years to the millennium and I wondered what was happening. Over the course of that summer we became increasingly aware of another friend in and out of mental hospital, who talked of suicide every time he came out or changed medication. He was a drinking buddy of the other half who gave uncounted hours at the evenings and weekends, when he wasn’t at work, to talk the friend out of it. In the end we did succeed, though there were a few close calls. We felt we had snatched one from the jaws of 1997. Perhaps he was the lucky thirteenth.
In all these I did the debriefing for the good reason that I had tried suicide myself several times when I was a teenager. I had become mentally ill when, in an attempt to eradicate puppy, fat my parents had had me locked up in a geriatric ward and starved for a fortnight while they went on holiday. The second time I discharged myself and got into trouble over it but it was too late. I was already a maelstrom of hormones, adding starvation to a developing, massively changing teenage brain was too much; it tipped me over the edge and I didn’t speak for a year. Instead I regularly wrote poetry and attempted suicide.
Thus I was in a good position last night to know what things to say. Suicide is not a cry for help, as several nurses have told me. It is not attention seeking. It is not an attempt to punish relatives or make them suffer. It is not selfish. It is not a sacrilegious act. It may seem to be the only possible answer to overwhelming problems in addition to what it really appears to be from the inside. Suicide, to the perpetrator, seems completely logical. It seems sensible. It feels as if the world and everyone you know in it will be better off without you. You are not evading your problems; you feel as if you are ending the problem you have become for others. Suicide is an act of faith and love, you feel.
Naturally none of this is apparent from the outside. This is for the good reason that the mind that will produce this as a solution, unless it belongs to a person who is terminally ill with an incurable disease, is not working properly. It is for this reason that bystanders should not blame themselves for preventing the tragedy; how would they know what another mind is thinking? If the mind is working in a different and completely illogical way from normal, how would they spot it? You might as well say that if a person dies of a heart attack their family and friends should have looked inside them and seen the heart muscle dying or the clot romping along their arteries. Whilst a person attempting suicide may have signalled their intention, many do not. Moreover stopping them is unlikely if they have given many hours of thought to the method and the timing.
When a coroner files a report on suicide it may conclude with the words: while the balance of his mind was disturbed. This is accurate wording. If someone with a broken leg walked around on it until they fell into the road and got run over, no one would be surprised. One would be a consequence of the other. A person feeling suicidal because their mind is not working correctly because of a chemical imbalance is no more to blame for dying than a person running out of oxygen with fluid in their lungs. It is an illness. That’s so important I’ll say it again. Suicide is an illness. If someone you knew did that; they were ill. You could not have reasoned them out of it any more than you could reason someone out of a heart attack. Very occasionally you can hang on to someone until their mental condition improves; you can be the splint for their leg until they can walk again.
This is rare; we only managed it once. Hats off to the Samaritans who do it on a regular basis.
If you are feeling suicidal yourself you need to know that this is not normal or logical. Speak to someone who knows about it and hang on in there because you will get better. I do not say this lightly having had more time spent in the bathroom over the last 19 days than anyone would ever wish. I am now on antibiotics and slowly improving. However, in the midst of illness of any kind, it is hard to believe you will get better and see things differently. At present I can’t remember what it is like to have a colon that works properly and doesn’t hurt. When I was mentally ill I remember watching the carpet go up and down like sea waves and wondering if it would ever be flat again.
The wonder is not that we break down; the wonder is that so many of us repair perfectly. The wonder is that so many survive and grow and go on to help others in their hour of need. The flipside of this is that some people can’t be helped, they have already gone when we get there. In such a case, if the disaster has occurred, what you’re into in Emergency Services terms is a damage limitation exercise. This means making sure that only the people who were lost suffered loss and the rest were saved. If this is you and you lost someone you should know that you don’t ‘get over it’. What really happens is that you adjust slowly to the new conditions of your life and eventually accept the truth of being human, which is that we will not live for ever. People we love will come and go in our lives and we are unlikely to have them there all at once. Some lives are long and some are short. Occasionally we can intervene to lengthen the short ones but not always.
If you are the one who is not thinking well, please remember that every day has only 24 hours, tomorrow will be different and could be good but you have to get there, to find out. You may need several kinds of help to make it; in addition to assistance with mental illness you may need help to sort out financial problems, relationship difficulties, employment problems or any other of a range of difficulties. The first stage to tackling a problem is to acknowledge it exists and to be able to say to another human being: I have a problem, I need help with………. If you manage to say this make sure you say it to the right person who knows what to do. There’s a link at the foot of this article to the Samaritans who have had that said to them so many times they already have an array of answers.
I am so glad I did not succeed in my attempts. From my vantage point then I could not see the beautiful flowers growing right now in my garden. I could not know the hundreds upon hundreds of creative, inventive artists and hobbyists I would meet and delight in. I could not see my only real relative, my son, our web manager. Before any troubled soul lies the future, do not let the real loss or projected loss blind you to all the possibilities that lie ahead. Be assured the foggy future will contain things to bump into and things to trip you up but when the fog clears and the sun comes out there will also be joy, laughter and great beauty, if you have the courage to be there, one day at a time.
I have often thought what a blessing it is that we live forwards in time and do not know what is coming because if we lived in the other direction and knew exactly how bad some days would be…..and yet we lived through them. You are a survivor of everything you have experienced so far; they are accomplishments and life lessons, one of which is to know that the future is not linear.
Sometimes it turns a corner.
JaneLaverick.com- always hopeful