Trigger Warning: Suicide is discussed at length here, so if you’re not feeling too well right now come back and read it later!
Suicide is undoubtedly older than Shakespeare’s famous proposition. Throughout history suicide has been an act shrouded in secrecy, shame and stigma. This can best be shown in its previously being a capital offence, with the corpses of the deceased often being dragged through the streets or being put on show to deter others from committing suicide.
I first attempted suicide when I was fourteen. Then I sat on a train track, which, an excellent example of black humour, I later found out was a decommissioned line. It wasn’t so much a longing for death than it was simply a longing not to be anymore. I remember little of this period or what may have caused me to do such a thing. Later I dismissed the event as an anomaly, something that didn’t warrant explanation and would not occur again. I was wrong.
When I was 17/18, as I’ve written about before, I had my first, big, catatonic depressive episode. Then I was too sapped of energy to make a serious suicide attempt. Suicide hung above me like tantalising fruit, within view but ultimately unreachable. I was staying with friends and would often sit in their kitchens with a knife on the table, waiting for my body to do what my brain wanted it to. Then, though, I never moved. I just stared blankly into space, wishing that I could either spontaneously combust or have a heart attack. Suicide presented itself everywhere, in every car that passed by and in every high ledge. Each day my friend gave me my medication as I couldn’t be trusted to not end my life with them.
Looking back on it, there were subtler means that I was trying out, too. I would walk to and from my sixth form without looking across any roads that I crossed, hoping to be squashed. I would stop eating. I isolated myself and could no longer remember what I used to be like, how I used to feel when I was healthy.
Eventually I was assessed by the local mental health team, however, or so I thought at the time, I was good at deceiving them. I figured that if I let on about how severe my suicidality was they would never let me out of the building. I felt like a caged animal, following its self-preservation instinct. So I often lied and subsequently slipped out of the local mental health teams net the minute I got the chance. Months passed, and I figured I was out of the woods. Here, and elsewhere, I would be proven wrong.
Before my second depressive episode well and truly began a student on campus hung himself in his room. The university wellbeing system that should have caught this person did not and now he was dead. I didn’t know this person at all, but when I heard the news I left my flat and cried my eyes out. I cried because I was aware of the unprecedented level of mental pain and anguish that precedes such an act. And I cried too, I can see now looking back on it, because I knew that if I didn’t act fast I would end up in the same position. In a body bag, as cold as a stone.
When I got back to university after Xmas I was drowning. It was a level of suffering that is wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. Quickly, and casually, my mind turned to suicide. After a while thinking of suicide became as casual to me as thinking about what I would eat for breakfast. It took on the familiarity of background noise. Initially I was unnerved by this, but later it became the only perverse thing I could count on, day in and day out.
Undeniably, suicide is linked to gender. (I’ll be writing about this in more detail tomorrow). Suicide is the biggest killer of men under thirty in the UK. Think about that for a second. That’s more than cancer, accidents, heart disease. Suicide.
Men make up 76% of suicides every year, that’s twelve people a day. 42% of men have contemplated suicide, yet a third never told anyone. I think this disproportionate rate is due to the fact that masculinity is defined by being an emotionless zombie, to say how you feel or to cry for instance is seen as ‘unmanly’ and thus something men cannot do. In many cases, this attitude, put simply, kills. Men are less able to talk to friends or loved ones about how they are feeling, and subsequently have a higher rate of suicide.
I can sympathise with this attitude. During my second depressive episode I was never the one that reached out for help. My flatmates did that for me. If I was left to my own devices I never would have taken this step and would probably be dead. Even with this help, however, things only got worse for me. I tried to hang myself in my bathroom, repeatedly. Eventually I handed anything remotely dangerous to my flatmates, giving them clear instructions to never give anything back to me under any circumstances, regardless of what excuses I gave.
My mood and mental landscape progressively worsened. When I was prescribed anti-depressants I acted as though I had been given a death sentence. When the doctor asked me if I could be trusted with a sizable amount of medication I answered honestly and said no, that I didn’t trust myself not to kill myself if I had them.
Some weeks later I was assessed by the local mental health team. My assessor was astute and cutting, and she was unsure about letting me go out on my own, she was unsure about trusting me to come back of my own accord. When I saw her the next day she told me that she thought she’d made a wrong decision as she watched me leave. The first thing she did when she got in that morning was check to see if I had popped up on her system, whether I had committed suicide or harmed myself in anyway.
One night, I was drunk and had an epiphany. My life would consist of nothing but appointments that didn’t help, medication that failed to work and continued suffering. When I saw this endless expanse of my future in front of me I decided to take action, I was going to take my life in my own hands. I was going to die and no longer bother anyone, I had decided. I sent what I considered to be final text messages to my flatmates and jumped in a small pond, intent on drowning myself. I failed, and was met with many an angry face. I couldn’t even do this right, I remember thinking. I could only see the rage my friends had toward me then, but now I can see the concern they had for their rapidly deteriorating friend too. After a while I was goaded into going to the nurse’s station on campus.
When I arrived, I was met with a less than stellar reception. I explained the situation to the nurse on duty, how I was a danger to myself. She replied “It’s kind of selfish, don’t you think?” Steam was coming out of my ears. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I came for help and I get given that. Needless to say, I left in a hurry.
Now let me just press pause here and say one thing. Suicide is often seen as a selfish act, however the person committing the act often sees it very differently, often believing that what they’re doing is altruistic, to the benefit of others. I don’t think suicide should be seen this way. It’s a sad and undeniably tragic act, yes, but not a selfish one. When you cannot think clearly, cannot concentrate, and cannot feel, it is no wonder that the sufferer begins to think ceaselessly of their own death and destruction.
If you ask me, those who commit suicide should be seen in the same vain as someone that dies from cancer. They’ve simply died from an illness that’s been allowed to go on for too long, an illness that they could no longer bear to suffer.
Weeks progressed and things got much, much worse. I went to an A&E one night, stayed the night, and was sent packing with some leaflets on depression despite making my suicidality clear. I felt as though I’d made a last gasp for help and had been rejected. There was simply nothing left to do.
Like most mornings then, I was sad to have woken up. I got up and put my dressing gown on. It had been raining and I didn’t bother to put shoes on. As far as I was concerned my senses were dead anyway, it didn’t matter. I walked out of my flat with no intention of coming back. I had drunkenly noted the night before that a certain college had a ledge high enough to harm myself from. I walked to it slowly but surely in my dressing gown. As I was going through the last set of double doors I heard my name.
It was campus security. Someone had called them, evidently worried for my wellbeing. I turned slowly, and was seething with anger. The only possibility of relief had been taken away from me. It was one security guard with a walkie talkie. He started talking to me, telling me that there was an open day and that he didn’t want visiting parents to see me. This, I found out later, was a lie. I can remember thinking how ridiculous it was that this guy was more concerned with the universities appearance than my mental health. He was also concerned that I may get glass in my bare feet, he said.
I was beyond angry. The one plan I had and this guy had completely soiled it. I was seething to say the least. I challenged this guy, what was he going to do, get his cronies and carry me away by force? He was silent. This, we both knew, was a yes. Begrudgingly I went with him, dejected and anxious.
Eventually, I caused a drunken scene at a university bar. Campus security arrived and escorted me off the premises. When I’d been drunkenly raving to them for a while, the police arrived. I was mortified. They detained me under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act. They were going to take me somewhere to get well, they said. As they put me in the back of their car like a common criminal, I was terrified.
I was detained at a local psychiatric hospital. Days later I was assessed and told that I should go into hospital. I wasn’t too sure. I was wary of being trapped in any way. However, I knew if I left then I would die, and never escape the cycle I was stuck at that time, so I said yes. There was no guarantees about where in England I would end up as there was (and still is) a bed shortage.
I ended up in a hospital in Brighton, a few hours away from me. I was lucky, in that I wasn’t on the other side of England as so many people I had read about were. When I was in hospital suicidality peaked and dipped sporadically. I often reported on my suicidality to my consultant with the glassy eyes of a war reporter. Eventually I was granted unescorted leave. I often left the hospital with no intention of coming back. However, one way or another, I always did.
One incident stands out though. I can’t recall what triggered it but I was pacing in the hospital lounge. And suddenly the opportunity flickered in my brain, quickly and with brute force. I had plastic bags upstairs in my room, I could suffocate myself. Luckily, a nurse passed by the door in that second and I flagged her down, asking her if she could do a favour for me. Could she get rid of the bags upstairs? She asked if I has actively suicidal and I said yes. She advised me to make myself a hot chocolate and have a seat and not move while she got rid anything dangerous in my room.
I often felt like I couldn’t win. If I lied to staff I felt bad about it, but if I told the truth as to the extent of my suicidality then I risked my unescorted leave being taken away. We compromised. I would be escorted half the way and then left alone, after which point I would have to check in by phone every half hour. That was fine with me.
Eventually, after endless medication cocktails, we hit the nail on the head. My mood and outlook, very slowly but surely began to improve. The early days of recovery were rickety, as I was sure that my feeling good must have been an illusion, ready to be taken away at a moment’s notice. I simply didn’t trust the feeling at all and thus couldn’t truly enjoy it.
After some weeks, I was transferred to a local hospital closer to my university. I’ve blogged about this hospital in detail below (in an article called “Patient B14A”) but to give you a short overview it was not a nice place. The violent and volatile patients were placed randomly with the depressives, and thus we couldn’t ever relax for fear of a violent outburst. I still maintain that if a majority of the work had not been done in my previous hospital I never would have had any chance of getting well within this environment. After some weeks I was discharged and I arrived back at university, which is where I’m writing this from.
One remark that a nurse made when I was in hospital stands out to me now. A group of us had gone to the local beach on escorted leave. The nurse escorting us said that she could have just as easily been in our position. Then, I doubted her statement, but now I think she was right. She could have just as easily ended up in my position, anyone could have ended up in my position. It can happen to anybody, which is why we need to talk about it desperately. If we talk about it and it does occur to someone then action can be taken to help them get treatment much quicker, and possibly, without ending in suicide.
I, however, am in a rare position. A suicide attempt survivor myself multiple times over, I also know how it feels to be the on the other side of the coin. Friends of mine have attempted suicide and on odd occasions I’ve had to look for them. It is a state of panic that I simply cannot convey.
If someone is successful is committing suicide, however, there life is often seen very differently. Suicide has an event gravity, in that all events in a sufferer’s life are seen in the context of their final act. To do this, I think, is to do a disservice to the life. If I had died at aged fourteen every event in my life up to that point would be touched by the way that my life had ended. Every minor sadness would be interpreted as pointing towards suicide. To do this, I think, is to now see the life in its own terms and ultimately does the life a disservice.
For those that commit suicide posthumous judgement is rife. A key example of this is the case of the great writer Primo Levi. Levi, a holocaust survivor, wrote extensively about his experiences as a survivor, cataloging it with hard eyes that were then unprecedented in literature at that time.
When Levi committed suicide, William Styron reported, at a symposium held for the writer’s work the suicide was not spoken of, it was as though Levi’s final act was “tinged with a delinquency that somehow lessened the man and his character”. It was as though, Styron writes, by his suicide Levi “demonstrated a frailty, a crumbling of character.” Levi’s suicide was seen as diminishing the message of his work, his suicide was seen as a flouting of the essential human drive of perseverance. Often people who say things like this have had no experience with depression or suicidal thoughts and inclinations, and if they’re lucky they will avoid it.
There were 3, 889 suicides last year. However at the rate that people talk about it you would think that suicide is next to non-existent. Depression specifically affects over seventeen million people at any point – that’s eleven percent of the UK population!
Mental illness is very common. You’d be hard pressed to look around you and not see someone effected by depression or who has been touched by suicide. After all, one in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in their lifetime.
I’m not going to pretend that talking about this is easy, it isn’t, and probably will not be for some time. But in this mental health awareness week I hope that this can change just a tiny bit.
As the nurse said to me in hospital, she could have just as easily ended up in my position. We need to make it so that if these things do happen to someone they must be able to get help swiftly and without fuss, without stigma. I don’t know how far away we might be from this but I hope it happens soon, as people are dying from an illness that is ultimately treatable. So, let’s start a conversation that urgently to happen, in this mental health awareness week!
Darkness Visible – William Styron
Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide – Kay Redfield Jamison
No Time to Say Goodbye – Carla Fine
Professor Green’s Suicide and Me – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VFZZdWlOyM
Life After Suicide – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEULUv1OWNY
Stephen Fry’s The Secret Life of a Manic-Depressive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yT_F0dMZRU