Trigger warning: This post contains details about suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression and anxiety.
In September of last year my dad and I were out walking when a car went past, and a sly version of my own inner voice crackled in my ear: Just step out. It could be over in a second. Just do it.
And for just a second, I let my foot hang over the edge of the pavement.
To understand why this happened, we have to go further back. In February of 2013, I had a severe work-related panic attack. It was among the most vivid I’ve ever experienced. I lay in bed unable to sleep, my teeth chattering, my face and limbs twitching, unable to catch my breath. I began to curl up on myself, my fingernails cutting into my hands, my jaw squeezing so tight that I could feel a strange whine in the bone that said any further and something might snap.
The day after I saw a doctor and I was advised to take some (rare) time off from my writing work. The message was that I should take care of myself, and so I did. Within a week I felt mended, and in two I felt strong again. I thought that after that much needed recuperation time, the spell of bad mental health would have resolved itself. I duly went back to work, but as the days went by I was aware of a certain ebb. Things were harder than before. It felt like I was constantly running to catch up with everything and everyone. I resolved to work more, to try harder. Of course that was bad medicine, but at the time it seemed logical. Don’t be weak, I thought. Don’t let people down.
Then came the happy scenario of moving in with my partner. We’d been talking about it for nearly six months and, off the back of his getting a well-deserved pay rise, alongside a better housing market, life events seemed to arrange themselves just right for that all important move. As such, we began searching for a house that August and, after exhaustive efforts on my part, we quickly narrowed down our selection to a house that would be a good fit for us. I did have a few reservations, though.
The move meant me relocating to a new city not that far away from where I used to live, and indeed where I had spent nearly all my life, but far enough away to spike a hint of anxiety. Would I be able to cope as a homeowner, away from the safety-net of my family? The logical part of my mind said, yes, of course. But anxiety seems to wall itself up in my gut and it doesn’t listen to what the brain says. It shouts over it: You’ll find some way to f*** it up. You always do.
I dug deep, admonishing myself: don’t be childish. I pushed those thoughts away and for a time all was well.
Then came applying for a mortgage and the subsequent financial review. I have to rely on my partner’s account of what happened during those meetings, because all I can really remember was a blur of panic and a feeling of, and I am not exaggerating when I say this is how I felt, utter doom. By the by, I’m told everything went absolutely wonderfully.
While the lovely, professional consultant talked us through our earnings and how that translated to what the bank might offer us in the way of our mortgage, my anxiety surrounding this meeting began to spiral. All the weight of the past few months came crashing down. I needed to find this document, and would I check that life insurance policy, and then there was house insurance to worry about, and there were solicitor fees to pay, and I had to take calls from the estate agent — me, someone who hates phone calls — and my partner had more money to put toward the down-payment than I had and I felt like I had let him down by not saving as much (though I had saved just as earnestly). This run on sentence gives you a clue to how pervasive those thoughts were.
There were other factors, too. Longstanding things. My feelings of failure at work, my inability to complete a novel I’ve been working on for the past five years because I was (and still am) just too much of a damned perfectionist, all of them were chattering in my head, pressing into me all the more.
The best analogy I can make is if you can imagine being in a large, sheer dark room where you are crammed in with thousands of other people so you cannot breathe, and they are all talking as one, at you, about every single thing you have ever done wrong in your life, about every inadequacy and flaw you have; if you can imagine hearing that day and night constantly, even while you smile and laugh and say everything is just fine, then you can fathom what I was feeling.
I remember coming out of the bank after that meeting, into the mild September weather and, with my partner having kissed me goodbye to rush back to work, I sat down on a bench in the middle of my soon-to-be new city and called my doctor’s office. It was actually to book an appointment relating to a completely different matter: a ganglion cyst was developing on my right wrist and it was causing sharp, shooting pains when it came to typing, gripping things and even turning door handles. It would have to go. But as I sat there after that phone call, watching people milling in and out of shops, that sneaky little voice came: You don’t deserve this house. You don’t deserve love. You don’t deserve to live.
Imagine standing in that room of wall to wall people. You can’t breathe. You can’t even think for all their noise. And then someone shows you the green, good light of the exit there on the wall. And you detect just a little room open up, the promise of having that pressure gone. It’s an effort, but if you can just do it, if you can just push your way through that final barrier, there would be peace.
Save everyone the pain of having you around. You are useless. You are worthless. Why even bother living one more day? Just end it.
The doctor’s appointment was in a week’s time. I was aware that these thoughts weren’t normal. I resolved to ignore those thoughts, to just hunker down until then. A week wasn’t that long, after all, and the thoughts would probably go away as soon as I’d finished everything I needed to do.
As it happened, I’d had suicidal thoughts before when I was about 17, but they were usually far more passive. It was more that I wanted to fade away rather than actively kill myself. Except for once and one particular night that sticks in my memory. I’d had quite a lot to drink and I was alone in the house. At that age I felt the pressure of school exams and people expecting good things from me that I was sure I could not deliver, as well as processing general anxiety about my sexuality in a world that at the time wasn’t all that forgiving of non-heterosexuals.
With that as a backdrop, and not realizing I was depressed, I quite unexpectedly found myself in front of our cutlery drawer. I withdrew a large bread knife and slid it once, twice, three, four times over the top of my left forearm. I know the precise number because I can count the scars that are still there today. I waited for the blood that swelled, and it came thick and fast, rolling down my arm as hot waves of hurt shot through me. I found I was panicked and crying, but there was some relief in that. I washed the wound and stuck a bandage on it. Looking back, I think I’d intended to do more than that, to go further, but evolution’s aversion to pain kicked in and saved me that night.
Last year, like then, I found myself unexpectedly sitting in my bathroom with a razor blade from our bathroom cabinet hovering over my arm.
You won’t get those forms the bank needs in time. You’ll let everyone down. You’ll end up alone. They’ll hate you. You’re a burden to everyone. You’re pathetic. You’re a waste of breath.
I scratched a few etchings into my skin, but I still had control enough to not let the blade go too deep. It’s a careful balance, provoking just enough fear, just enough hurt, to stop those voices for a while. Again, this is very bad medicine and I don’t write this to suggest that self-harm is effective at stopping such thoughts, because it isn’t. It felt like a test though, that I could still stand, that I could still put the blade back in the cabinet, shut that door and stop thinking about it.
However, even just a few hours later my mood had darkened more. That night I was going to a musical, Cabaret, with my aunt and my cousins. It was fortuitous, I thought, because I don’t get to see them as often as I might like and this, then, would be a way to say goodbye. During the second act I sat there in absolute certainty that before my next bank meeting the following week, I would no longer be alive.
I was due to spend time with my significant other that weekend and I’m pleased to say that there are a few people who can put out the fire of those awful voices in my head, and he is one of them. From Saturday to Sunday we shared our time together and I felt a measure of my strength return. But once back at home, and staring at my files of paperwork, my long list of unfinished creative endeavors, and everything that was wrong with me, the misery track returned.
That was when I started to plan how it might happen. Just stepping out in front of a car. I couldn’t do that with my Dad next to me. That would be terrible. And the driver would be forever scarred. I couldn’t do that to them, either. No, I would have to die alone. So I began thinking how to best do that. Cuts to the wrist seemed efficient. Entombing myself in a plastic bag with a letter on it explaining the contents would perhaps save some poor bystander the worst of it when my body was found. Letters would need to be written. And I did. I did write a letter to my dad whom I was living with at the time, saying how sorry I was for being such a disappointment. I still have that letter somewhere today, and I take it out and read it sometimes. I vow to myself to never write a letter like that again.
I stood in our living room on the day before my doctor’s appointment. I like to work standing, ironically because it’s supposed to be healthier for you, when Dad brought me a bit of lunch. I ate it in silence.
The people in the room in my head were shouting their absolute loudest, louder than they ever had before. I wanted everything to end. I just wanted everything to stop.
“I think I should go to the doctor’s now,” I said, quite spontaneously. I wasn’t aware of wanting to say it. It just burst from my mouth. And I started to cry. My dad, of course, had known there was something wrong. “I have to go,” I said. “Because I need it to stop. Please, I need to go.”
He made me talk. He made me tell him everything. And when it was done, I sat on the floor in our living room thoroughly shame-faced for my perceived weakness and apologetic. He comforted me that it wasn’t my fault, that I was ill and that tomorrow he’d drive me to our doctor and I would be able to get help. Even so, there’s a rare kind of hurt that you can inflict on other people, and it’s when they can see you breaking but they can’t do a thing about it. My dad stayed with me the entire evening, talking and, yes, even laughing with me. Imagine someone had knocked out a gap in the wall in that tightly packed dark room and some, though not all, of the people had left. There was some room at last, a chance to breathe.
The next morning Dad drove me to the doctor, though my pride insisted that I go in alone. To cut to the end of it, my doctor was wonderful and immediately booked in several more sessions for me so that we could talk and explore the issues I was dealing with. I was started on anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, and slowly I began to feel better. The issue with the bank resolved itself quite neatly and I’m happy to say that I’m now writing this in the house that I and my partner bought with no more trouble or fuss at all.
Moreover, I can honestly say that while there are difficult days, I am in good health both mentally and physically. I’m no longer on medication, but continue to work at my own mental well-being.
I will not lie. The suicidal thoughts I’d had, they occasionally return on my very low days, but the people around me are always ready to talk if I need it, and that has been a massive salve. I have never felt more loved or valued, and it was opening up, in showing people what I thought were my weaknesses that I could allow them in and draw on their readily offered strength when I hadn’t any of my own left.
So what is the point of telling this story? Well, I’ve heard and read a great deal these past few days about the actor and comedian Robin Williams and his apparent suicide. Many of the comments that I’ve glanced at — and I do glance because these are difficult topics for me — have been careful and considered. But, a lot have not. The main, disdainful and ignorant thread I’ve found, one that angers me most of all, is that Williams was “selfish” for what he did, that he was a “coward.”
I feel the need to say in the strongest terms: that is not the case.
The act of taking your own life is committed, in circumstances relating to depression at least, as a last resort, a desperate end. It is done because you are squeezed in the dark confines of that room I described with all those shadow people talking incessantly about how evil and sick and worthless you are. It feels like the only possible escape, that greenlight exit. In fact, it feels like the only good thing you can do for the people around you.
I can’t speak to the specifics of Robin Williams’ situation, and I can’t speak for all suicidal people and all people with mental health issues, nor would I want to, but I feel confident in saying this: that when I thought about killing myself it was both to stop the hurt I felt, and to prevent me hurting other people more than I thought I already had. That’s not selfish, that’s desperation. It’s an extreme situation in which my own brain chemistry had given me only a limited set of options. I was lucky that my brain had ready a mechanism that caused me to ask for help. Others do not have this, or may not feel they can ask anyone. To judge them as selfish is, therefore, incredibly callous.
In addition to this, I take strong exception to the implication that suicide is a self-contained moment of cowardice — a quick act that was an “easy way out.” When we speak of someone’s suicide, we’re really talking about the conclusion of what was likely a long, drawn out battle. Imagine going to war and fighting every day for the rest of your life. Imagine that you can’t even sleep but must toil in this battle day and night, week on week, year on year, all the while leading a double-life: being a good son or daughter, a caring partner, an attentive parent, a dedicated employee, and juggling all that those titles mean for us.
When we charge someone like Robin Williams with the label “cowardly,” we do so forgetting every single time they put down the knife, put away the sleeping tablets, let go the rope of their noose, and tried. I don’t say this to lionize myself, for my depressions are barely blips compared to what some people go through, and I cannot imagine the strength it takes to climb out of those deep pits. I say this because it’s only through understanding that suicide relating to mental health problems is the culmination of a long, bloody fight, not a solitary act, that we can properly empathize and and improve both our approach and outreach to people with mental health problems.
Sadly, that’s something that the misinformation and lurid tabloid gossip about Robin Williams’ death shows we still desperately need.
If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, please click here to find information and resources on how to seek help.
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