Don’t Give Up

Suicide has been in the news again this week. It seems that the number of well-known personalities lost to suicide in the past few of years has increased dramatically, and statistics on suicide rates in broader society correspond with this observation. We’ve all heard that it’s currently the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, but it’s also on the rise in almost every other demographic that you could name. It’s become an epidemic, and it’s something that is likely to touch all of our lives at some point.

I find it hugely heartening that people are increasingly willing to speak up about their experiences, as it’s only through learning from these experiences that we can hope to beat it. I’d normally prefer to dig a hole to the centre of the earth and hide in it than talk about what I’m going to talk about, but I think the time is right for the story to be told. I’m not claiming that any of my opinions are unique or provide any answers, but shared experience is ultimately the only way that we as a society can learn to process and deal with tragedy, and indeed try to tackle the underlying issues which ultimately lead someone to follow such a devastating and final path.

I’m going to start with one major plot spoiler – my mom killed herself. This is probably the only time I’ll write about this because it’s not a great deal of fun. If you think that reading about it may upset you then please feel free to bale out now. I understand that this is an uncomfortable subject, and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel bad. Go and do something better with your time, I know I would. Climb a tree, paint a picture, have a wank.

The second important point to make before I start is that this isn’t just my story. It’s my telling of some events that I was central to, but it’s equally the story of several others caught up in the shitty maelstrom, most notably my sister Ruth and my dad, but also other family members, in-laws and friends. I haven’t tried to speak for anyone else but I’d imagine their experiences don’t diverge greatly from my own. Right, here goes…

Prior to October 2011 I’d never really thought about suicide. It was certainly never something that had directly touched my life, and my only real contact with it had been through some of my teen heroes and anti-heroes, the likes of Kurt Cobain and Ernest Hemingway, who had found solace in the form of a bullet. To my naive mind these stories had an almost romantic mystique about them, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” and all that, but I’d soon learn how wrong I was. There’s nothing romantic about it, it’s horrific.

6th October 2011. I was sat at work pulling together a tedious report when my phone rang. Dad. It was strange for him to call me during the day. As two taciturn brummie men we generally confined our correspondence to brief weekly calls focused around car maintenance or garden tools. On this occasion he didn’t want to talk about either. In fact, he didn’t talk at all for some time. The first moment I heard his breathless whimper followed by “Thomas, it’s your dad” I knew something was very wrong. I don’t remember the exact words, but the line “your mom’s decided to take a load of tablets” has stayed with me vividly. Decided to. Not by accident. Intent. He then told me that he was at Selly Oak Hospital, which I should have realised had closed down some months before, but he was so frantic that he couldn’t remember where he was. I called my sister to break the news, and she subsequently spoke to Dad and managed to work out which hospital he was actually at.

I quickly made my excuses at work and jumped into my car, driving at breakneck speed to the Alexandra Hospital in Redditch. It was a surreal journey, I had no idea if mom was alive or dead and I was so full of adrenaline that I was on the verge of passing out. It’s a horrible, sickening feeling, I’m sure some of you know it. I was the first to arrive at the hospital and found dad outside, pacing back and forth in tears. I’d only ever seen him cry once before on the night that his own mom died, and throughout my childhood he’d always been a figure of steadfast stoicism. It was yet another surreal moment in a period full of them, and seeing my dad cry was something I would become painfully accustomed to.

Mom was alive. We walked into the Accident and Emergency department, into a small booth behind a curtain where she was on a bed wired up to a series of computers and monitors. I was stunned to find her awake and lucid, although her heart monitor showed 234 bpm as a result of the cocktail of drugs in her system. Dad had come home from work find her on the bed surrounded by empty medicine packages, including a variety of antidepressants and painkillers. It’s the painkillers that fuck you up, your body can’t deal with them in that quantity. I held her hand and we had a brief conversation before we were shepherded back out of the room by a nurse. Mom told me that she was sorry for being so selfish, which I took to be an admission of regret. I thought she was saying that she wanted to live, but then she asked the doctor why the overdose hadn’t worked yet, and when it would. In layman’s terms she was asking “will I die soon?”. That’s haunted me for a long time, it’s one of the few aspects of the whole period that I struggle to think about.

My sister arrived and spent some time with mom, presumably going through a similar experience to me. My next memory is myself and Ruth standing outside the hospital trying to call mom’s sister, Cate. Neither of us managed to keep it together on the phone, although strangely this was one of only two times that I remember crying during the whole incident. I’ve developed a strange relationship with my own emotions, to the point where I’ve built an imaginary wall between myself and the things that happen close to me. A sick puppy will have me in tears, but personal tragedy gets internalised into something ultimately much more unhealthy. I can’t remember whether I’ve always been that way or whether it was a response to that particular time, but I feel that it’s a key trigger behind some of my subsequent tribulations.

At some point mom was moved to a ward and we were advised to go home. I drove back, dad beside me, broken and weeping. At this point I felt reasonably optimistic that things would be alright, that mom had got through the worst and would get better. I told dad this, but he wasn’t listening. I dropped him off and asked if he wanted me to stay, but he said no. I then drove home and got undressed for bed. I lay back, still fizzing with sickening adrenaline, and glanced at my phone. Two missed calls from dad. Fuck. I called him back, and in a child’s voice he said “we’ve got to go back, mom’s very poorly”. Clothes back on and out the door, another mad dash to the hospital. Dad was crying all the way. I put my hand on his knee, I didn’t know what else to do.

Mom had gone into cardiac arrest after we left, and they were still trying to revive her when we arrived. For some reason we were put in a position where we could see them frantically trying to resuscitate her. Ruth also overheard a nurse joking on the phone about how she’d had a crap evening because someone (mom) had gone into cardiac arrest five times (how very inconvenient), something for which we received a piss-poor apology afterwards. They managed to stabilise her, but I think we all knew she’d been gone for too long. The nurse who came to apologise made some faintheartedly reassuring comments and asked if we had any questions. I was angry, and wanted to know why they hadn’t pumped her stomach as soon as she arrived at the hospital. I never got a satisfactory answer, and I still wonder whether they could have saved her. Who knows. I’m not a doctor, I’m sure they did the right thing, but it still niggles.

She was in an induced coma for seven days, kept alive by a machine. We’d visit every day hoping for some sign of improvement, but it never came. Occasionally her body would spasm involuntary, but we never got the miracle we hoped for. Eventually they removed the machines that kept her unconscious and she remained in natural coma for another week, but didn’t improve. My memory of these few days is vague, I’ve deliberately pushed it out of my head, but there is very little more depressing than repeatedly visiting a loved one when you know deep down that things are hopeless. You get to know the ward staff and engage in pointless small talk, and you get to spend time in the ‘family room’, AKA a cupboard with chairs where they put relatives who are waiting for their loved one to die. It’s soul-crushingly sad. The drab decor, the over friendly staff, the horrible attempts at wall art, all of it.

Mom did die, eventually. Fourteen days after the original overdose she finally got her wish. We were called to the hospital when the end was imminent, and I spent several hours in a family room with my sister whilst dad sat by mom’s bedside. I think Ruth went in to say goodbye, but I couldn’t do it. I’m weak in that regard, I hide from things that I know will hurt me. I also made the stupid decision of leaving the hospital for a while to buy some food, however I managed to crash my car due to my mind being broken. It was a fucking stupid decision, something I’m no stranger to. Fortunately nobody was hurt. Back to the hospital and another hour in the family room, before dad appeared. “Mom’s at peace now”. We sort of half hugged, and went home. It was an appalling experience, but it was a relief when it happened. We knew she was going, and I selfishly thought that a quick death would be a much better outcome than having to care for a vegetable. Cruel, but ultimately true. It’s amazing how selfish you can be even when things are at their worst.

I genuinely don’t remember much after that. I don’t remember the funeral, apart from the fact that it ended with an Everly Brothers song that I don’t like. I don’t remember the wake either, which stunned my sister a few years later when we went to the same hotel after my dad’s funeral. I had no recollection of ever going there before. Weird how the mind works huh? The only other thing that I remember is that we had to attend an inquest into the death at a court in Stourport a few weeks later. The coroner returned an open verdict, which is common in the case of suicides. It means that the death was non-natural, but there was insufficient evidence to provide whether the deceased intended to die or not. My dad found this whole procedure incredibly difficult. Once again I retreated into myself and just sat through it like a zombie. Not healthy.

The incident fundamentally changed all of us left behind, and I’m sure it had a profound impact on mom’s other friends and relations too. I’ve personally suffered from a number of bouts of depression since it happened. It’s hard to tell if this would have happened anyway, it’s certainly in the genes, but I personally feel that internalising everything and trying to be strong pushed me to breaking point. I’ve got it under control now, but mental illness is something I’ll always have to manage. I’m simply not the same person that I was before all of this happened.

Ruth went through a similar experience to me in the aftermath, although her story isn’t mine to tell. The fact that she’s had two awesome kids in the past few years and is clearly a brilliant mom is, however, testament to the fact that she’s also learning to cope with things. We both have our wobbles occasionally, but we’re getting there slowly.

Dad never really got over what happened. I never saw the old dad again after mom went, he became increasingly withdrawn and vulnerable. Myself and Ruth effectively became his carers, and he reverted back to being a child. It was heartbreaking to see, because he’d always been someone who could do things, and now he couldn’t do anything. Little more than five years after we lost mom, dad went too. His last couple of years were blighted by his own battle with mental illness, something that he tried to suppress with drink. It took a heavy toll on the rest of us as we tried our best to keep him going, but the end was painfully inevitable. He died in July 2016, and again I felt relief.

I try to avoid thinking of it, but the thing that hurts me most is that they were both so young (54 and 62) when they died, and they spend their whole lives striving for something better, something that never came. I suppose I’m just being a working class martyr, but they fact that they never got their happy ending fucks me up more than anything else. It’s shit, and it’s unfair, and I fucking hate it.

That’s the end of the story, congratulations if you made it this far. You’re probably wondering what the point of me telling it was, and you’re right to ask. Firstly I suppose it’s catharsis for me, it’s something I’ve never talked about and I probably should have. Secondly, we all need to be better at understanding what other people may be going through, and what could happen to them. In this case mom had suffered badly with depression for several years, as had many other members of the wider family, but I had never considered that it would end in the way that it did. I think back now and try to work out what I could have done differently, and whether I could have helped her to deal with things before it got this far. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I would have done anything that I could to have made things different.

A lot of those around us are struggling with things that we can’t see, and this example highlights that fact that we can’t just assume that people will be alright. Sometimes they won’t, but perhaps we can reach out and help divert them from taking such drastic steps? We can at least try.

Suicide isn’t quick. It isn’t painless, and it certainly isn’t romantic. People aren’t just bright lights that wink out of existence. Suicides change the fabric of the world around them, leaving a visceral, ragged wound that can never be fixed. The fact that some of us feel so desperate that that this seems to be the only way out needs to be addressed, now.

Traditionally mental illness has never been considered in the same bracket as diseases such as cancer, but that needs to change. Mental illness is a cancer, it’s just a cancer of the psyche rather than the body, and we have to think of it as such. The fact that many mental illnesses are less tangible than physical illnesses makes it difficult, but it’s up to all of us to reach out. Just the simple action of asking someone if they’re ok could save a life.

None of us are alone. None of us are experiencing things that have never been experienced before. There’s always an alternative path, and there’s always a way back from the precipice. Never give up, please.

The Park

This is a piece I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks. It was written as an entry to a competition for an anthology of stories by amateur writers to raise money for PTSD victims from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Sadly it wasn’t good enough, but hopefully you can find some pleasure in it.

The girl sat on the worn wooden bench, gazing out over the small parcel of green and brown that the council called ‘the park’. It paled in comparison to London’s other great parks, of course, but to the local community it was everything. It was Hyde Park, Green Park and Regent’s Park all rolled into one, and it was their little patch of urban wilderness. A garden for the gardenless.

She’d been coming here for as long as she could recall, but over the past five months she’d found herself drawn to the same spot almost daily. Early morning was her favourite time, when the park was empty and beads of dew glistened on the unmown grass. London was never truly silent of course, but at this hour the sounds of traffic and life were an unobtrusive hum, yet to reach the discordant crescendo that would last until nightfall. The hum of the waking city comforted her in her parkland sanctuary. It had been almost six months, and she thought about them every day.

A small number of regulars used the park at this time, and she’d come to recognise them all. The young man with the briefcase was usually first, dashing along the central footpath towards the bus stop on the main road. He never spoke, but they occasionally exchanged a friendly nod if eye contact was made. The elderly lady with the tubby beagle was an ever present, shuffling slowly through the east gate at around half past six before completing a slow lap around the small, unimpressive pond. The lady puffed, and the beagle panted, but they always made it round. She’d known of the lady for years, a local character, but they’d never spoken. Not until today.

It was the dog that stopped first, coming to a wheezing halt on the path in front of her. “Lazy sod” the old lady remarked cheerfully, gently lowering herself onto the bench beside the girl. They exchanged pleasantries, passing comment on the weather as all Londoners are duty bound to do. A brief lull in the nascent conversation followed, only ended with an excited whoop from the old lady. “Orange tip!” she cried, startling the girl and making her jump. The old lady’s eyes shone with delight. She seemed to be watching something, but the girl couldn’t see what.

The source of the excitement soon became obvious, as a small white butterfly took to the wing from a nearby mess of nettle and bramble and floated lazily over the concrete path past the bench. “Just look at that. Beautiful”. The girl had never paid any attention to the myriad of bugs and beasties that shared the park before but, enthused by the old lady, she looked at the butterfly. What had originally appeared to be a floppy white smudge was revealed as anything but. As it’s name suggested, the butterfly had vivid orange tips at the end of each wing, as if carefully dipped in paint by a skilled craftsman. The underside of the wings were equally beautiful, etched with a calligraphy of rich greens and yellows. The butterfly was a masterpiece, and the girl felt a knot of excitement in her stomach. It had been months since she last had that feeling.

“They’re common, you know. One of the first signs of spring”. The girl confessed that she had never noticed butterflies in the park before, in fact she’d never noticed anything beyond the ubiquitous pigeons that covered every inch of the city. Sensing that the girl was interested, the old lady began to talk. Clutching the girl’s arm she told of the wildlife that inhabited the park. Their park. She spoke of hedgehogs and house sparrows, of bees and blackbirds, of peregrines and parakeets. She described the old dog fox, a mange-eaten shadow that slunk around the park at dusk. She even described the trees, giving names to the vegetation that surrounded them. Faceless forms became oak, sycamore and rowan. The untidy hedge became hawthorn, masses of white buds preparing to burst into flower. Sensing that the old lady was in storytelling mode, the beagle lay spreadeagled and began to snore softly.

She had lived in the same part of London all of her life, born in the mid 1930s less than three miles from where they sat. The borough has been very different back then, of course, with factories and terraces occupying that land that the high-rises would later colonise. The war would change the landscape irreparably, and she described the sounds and smells of the blitz as remembered from the bedroom that she shared with a younger brother. The blitz had devastated the area, whole streets flattened in the blink of an eye, but she seemed to remember this period with an unexpected fondness. “We were like a family, everyone helping everyone else. There we no squabbles or divides, just a sense of togetherness”. She explained that it was during the years after the war that her life-long love of wildlife had taken hold. “The plants soon started to grow on the bomb sites you see, fireweed and poppy turning the ground mauve and crimson. Then the plants brought the insects and the birds back. They’ve been here all my life”.

A ring-necked parakeet, one of London’s newest and most beautiful arrivals, shot overhead like a noisy green firework as the lady got slowly to her feet. The beagle barked excitedly at the prospect of returning home for second breakfast, getting tangled in his lead as they bid the girl farewell. “It’s nice to have someone to share this place with. Nature has been a friend to me all my life, through bad times and good”. After a few steps she hesitated, turning back to look at the girl, still sat on the bench. “Things will be alright”.

The girl sat thinking, long after the old lady had gone. The old lady’s spirit was infectious, and her unexpected introduction to the healing power of nature filled her with an excited glow. The community would always remember, but she knew that they would heal in time. Old and young, black and white, united by a shared experience. She resolved to spend more time in the park, observing and enjoying, and she knew she would bring her friends here too. Love and nature would be her constants, just as they had been for the old lady.

A robin sang joyously from the top of a dog bin, and the girl felt happy.