Berrow Beach, 1987

An old oak bench stood beyond the ruined pillbox, long forgotten and lost amid the marram. The old man sat there often, his regular perch a polished oval within the lichen-encrusted wood. Precious few ever noticed him, but that day I did. I saw him staring sadly across the bay, a faded photograph clutched tightly in his arthritic hands. I saw bright tears tracing a haphazard path down his weathered cheeks. I saw him silently talking to a companion unseen.

The tattered picture barely held together, glossy paper turned to fragile vellum by years of adoring study. The girl in the photo was beautiful, wide-eyed and happy. I asked him about her. They were in love, he said, long ago, before the bombs came. Nearly half a century past, and yet he still thought of her every day when he performed his lonely vigil. He never loved anyone as he had loved her. As he still loved her.

We exchanged the briefest of nods as he shuffled away. I took his place on the worn seat, continuing his solemn watch as I drifted into a reverie, mind filled with wistful notions of love, time and loss. Footprints in the undulating dunes were the only sign that the old man had ever been there, but the thoughts and feelings of that day still remain.

Warrior

Existing can be tough. Being a functioning human and getting through each day is a challenge, yet if you’re reading this you’ve succeeded. Every single day you’ve achieved a thousand tiny miracles that have made you the person that you are today. It’s one of those things that you’re programmed to take for granted, but it’s worth pausing to think about. You’ve made it, however much the odds were against you. However black some of those days and nights seemed, you’ve won.

You’ll win tomorrow too, whatever it brings.

Yellow Dog

A long drive west, chasing the sunset to the horizon. I blink back tears that blur my vision, red-faced and breathless. My heartbeat is ragged and broken, a chaotic oscillation on the cusp of ruin. I’ve driven this road many times, but this journey is different. I’ve left you behind.

The others thought that we were the perfect couple. Young. Beautiful. Fun. No, not fun. Not any more. I remember the beginning, the hand-holding, the way I could hear the rich timbre of love in your voice. The way our hearts and bones seemed locked together. I hid myself away from the slow dimming of the light, the fading of that fierce glow that once consumed us. You changed. We changed. The love went from your voice, replaced by cruel barbs amid a sea of disinterest. We exist, where once we lived. My hopes and dreams, once so real and tangible, now seem far-fetched and distant. I’m still in love with the idea of you, but it’s not enough. Not anymore.

Motorway gives way to minor road. Minor road gives way to the stony track to the coast. The yellow dog barks joyfully, his shiny eyes gazing at me in the rear view mirror. He’s excited by the sounds and smells of his favourite cove, but I like to think that he knows that things are changing. I park on the crunchy shingle, and we’re soon walking along the shoreline as the sun drips celestial fire on the darkening skyline. The dog bolts into the churning brine as I sink to my knees, overwhelmed. My fingers score the wet sand as my head sinks to my chest, body wracked with savage sobs. I never realised that freedom could hurt this much, or feel this beautiful.

Ode to an Island

Awoken by birdsong on midsummer day,
The solstice dawn mere moments away,
We walk from our cabin to the eastern bay,
To watch the sun rise over Vrångö.

Our burning star ignites the sky,
The light reflected in your eyes,
That dance in my mind like fireflies,
Two hearts entwined on Vrångö.

The winding path to our wooden shack,
You make us coffee, bitter and black,
I load treats into my canvas sack,
For today we explore Vrångö.

This pristine rock, this perfect island,
With its forest, reedswamp and coastal sands,
Our secret retreat from the crowded mainland,
Our paradise, our Vrångö.

You take the lead along the stony path,
I follow behind through the coastal flats,
We pause to rest amid the cotton-grass,
My naturalist’s heart beats for Vrångö.

We skirt the rocks where the eider call,
Where oystercatcher feed and the seals enthral,
Sea holly and aster bloom on the jetty wall,
A magical place, this Vrångö.

Our route emerges by the western road,
Into a cheerful hamlet of wooden abodes,
A bustling hub where the fishing boats unload,
Although it’s never really busy on Vrångö.

I’ve seldom known peace like this before,
Since we first stepped on this granite shore,
An island I love with the one I adore,
Twin souls cast away on Vrångö.

I know I’ll never forget this place,
This perfect moment, your perfect face,
Footprints in the sand were the only trace,
That we left, of ourselves, on Vrångö.

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.

Declaration of War

Depression is a fucking liar. If I could reach out to you, I’d tell you that. The sad thing is that you wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true.

The sly voice in your ear tells you that you’re worthless, but you’re not. It tells you that you’ve made bad choices and done bad things, but you haven’t. That you’re a fraud, an imposter, a chancer. You’re none of those things. Look around you. Look at the things you’ve achieved, the places you’ve been, the people that love you. When did depression last tell you that you’re amazing? You are. Depression hasn’t got a clue.

Depression is a fucking liar, but it’s also a fool. Its arguments are weak, falling apart at the merest hint of scrutiny and fact, yet we fall for it every time. Depression is Boris Johnson. Depression is Jacob Rees Mogg.

I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of people I love being lied to. I’ve had enough of beautiful souls being wounded by slander and deceit. We need to rebel, to look the black beast in the eye and let it know that it can never win.

We are many, yet we are one. Look out depression, we’re coming for you.

 

* The crow sketch on cardboard is by my lovely talented friend Sarah.  Check her out on instagram @sarahrussell_illustrates 

 

Delete?

I realised today that I still had Dad saved as a contact on my phone. We used to talk a lot, before he was sick. I try not to get too emotional about things these days, but pressing delete sent a jolt of sadness through me.

It’s strange how we attach sentiment to such things as a number in a phonebook, but sometimes they’re all we have to connect us to a vanished time. Today I resolved to be less afraid of emotion, and less reluctant to think about the past.

Here’s to loved ones that we’ve lost, and to all of our shining futures.

The Ballad of Bridge 34

He’d seen it all from his booth on the toll bridge.
From his crude wooden shack that held off the rain.
Beneath him ran the creek, a meandering blue streak.
Above, the rusted struts of a cantilevered frame.

From his worn leather chair he’d seen countless acts of romance.
The valley a stage for declarations of love.
Each illicit kiss, each secretive tryst.
Recalled to him his sweetheart, his Mary, his dove.

Through the sliding glass window he’d seen love turn to hatred.
A thousand wedding rings cast into the abyss.
Vicious verbal combat, tears and bitter words spat.
Were a mirror for his own loss of marital bliss.

Beyond love and hate, the bridge had seen tragedy.
He had 911 on speed dial on his old service phone.
Car smashes and suicides, jumpers and drowners.
He felt them more deeply now that he was alone.

He’d though he’d seen it all from his booth on the toll bridge.
But he didn’t see it coming when his dove flew away.
Whilst performing his duties, his Mary had been fruity.
With the jerk of a toll clerk from Bridge 38.

It’s hard to be normal when you live in a toll booth.
The bridge was his real love, and that’s the sad truth.

Casseopeia

The boy with the low voice sits hunched by the window, gazing up at the night sky. The girl who spreads happiness is out there somewhere, separated by time and distance, but beneath the same cloudless vista. Their minds are filled with the pain of another recent parting, the tedium of reality putting an ocean between them yet again. Each time the wound is more ragged, and every time they wonder whether the pain of separating is too much to bear, but the pull of love always wins out. The raw grief of parting is ever present, and each time the ache lingers yet more.

They could stop the pain easily if either was brave enough to punch through the inertia, but for now fear holds them rigid. Neither of them know yet, but two short years later she will make the bravest decision of her life. For now though, they exist in a sickening limbo of mutual adoration and suffering. If he wasn’t such a coward he would fly out there permanently and build a life for himself, but fear of change paralyses him. He’s a boy pretending to be a man and failing, or at least that’s how it feels. He’s never believed in himself enough to achieve anything, and perhaps he never will.

The nights are when it hurts him the most, and he knows that she’s suffering too. She’s a time traveller, living two hours in the future, but although kept apart by time and space they take comfort in sharing the same sky. They’ve taught each other the names of the familiar constellations that stretch out over the northern hemisphere, forming a celestial bridge between them. Her favourite is Cassiopeia. He likes Orion. The seven sisters look down on them both kindly, two lost souls both seeking the answer to an impossible question.

The clouds roll in, leaving the sky starless and obsidian. Their connection gone, for now.

“Until tomorrow, my love”.

Sand and Stars

The late evening sun is almost touching the horizon as they walk together on the beach. Fingertips entwined, leaving two fleeting lines of footprints in the soft caramel sand; the sinuous, lazy amble of two souls with infinite time and no destination. The act of sharing time and space is the only thing that matters.

They pick their way along the strand line, negotiating the thin band of natural jetsam carried to land by the encroaching tide. He watches her skip nimbly over a warped piece of sun-bleached driftwood and thinks that he could exist for millennia and not find anyone more perfect. The sunlight makes her hair gleam like burnished gold, a stark contrast to her porcelain skin. Her face is a poet’s dream, deep green eyes and a crooked, knowing smile framing a flawless button nose, faint freckles her reward for a day spent under the sun. She thinks her freckles are ugly, but they make his heart sing.

The sun dips below the horizon as a distant lighthouse oscillates slowly, warning ships of the perilous rocky outcrops obscured by the waves at high tide. The brilliant white beam appears to glimmer as photons refract through droplets of spray, creating ephemeral rainbows that they alone can see. They stop and sit together on the sand, watching the amaranth sky fade to black as the fleet of distant fishing boats become scattered points of light.

His dopamine-flooded mind is acutely aware of his surroundings, and he pays abnormal attention to the sand beneath his hands and feet. He scoops up a fistful and lets the grains slowly fall through his fingers, tiny fragments of ancient life. He tries and fails to imagine how many grains of sand there are, but he knows that the number is unimaginably huge. A fitting metaphor for the way he feels about her.

She pays no attention to the sand, instead gazing up into the darkening sky. She has been fascinated by the night sky since she was young, and as the stars slowly reveal themselves she can identify familiar constellations. She speaks the names of the galaxies, stars and planets out loud, her imagination travelling light years deep into endless space. She struggles to comprehend the vastness of the universe, but she thinks that her love for him might be comparatively vast.

They lay together on the warm sand, close enough to be aware of each other’s every subtle movement. Caught between the sand and the stars they marvel at the unlikeliness of their two souls sharing the same microscopic fragment of spacetime, and at the near impossibility of finding each other in the unending eons that stretch before and after that moment. Like Andromeda and the Milky Way, destined to collide since time began.

The sudden realisation of the impossibility of it all. That might just be what love is.