Suicide. It scares people – both those who are not suicidal, and those who are. It’s almost impossible to talk about unless you are with somebody who understands, because they have been there themselves. When I am suicidal (or have suicidal ideation, as it is more benignly phrased by psychiatrists although it all comes down to the same thing; you want to die) I call a friend, who I met in the loony bin, ten years ago. We have been close ever since, not bound through mental illness, but simply because we love each other. Anyway, I call him, sobbing that I want to die. Most people panic, which simply makes me feel worse but his words are always,” What method are we choosing today, darling? Which makes me laugh. As black as it sounds, we discuss our various options. He is quite keen on cars, smashing into a wall, or driving off a cliff. I am vaguer in my options. All I know is that I want to die or, rather, that I don’t want to be here any longer. There is a difference as anybody who has ever looked into the black abyss of severe depression will understand. We do not want to be dead. We simply want to go to sleep for a very long time and, one day, wake up and feel the sunshine on our backs, and breathe the cool, still air and hold life in our hands.
When that moment comes, and it does, it is a moment of such pure, unadulterated joy it makes that moment so precious it is as if the world stands still. For normal people, it is normal. For some of us, it is a gift, an ordinary moment made extraordinary.
I know that moment well. I have been there ten twenty, thirty times. It does not, of course, mean that it will last but in the deep black winter of depression it is a sign that summer will, one day, appear. So even as we countenance death, in some small part of us we must always, always, believe that one day, spring must surely arrive. It is the law of the universe and who are we to argue with that?
It is, anyway, incredibly hard to kill yourself. I know. I’ve tried. Whenever I call my suicidal soul mate, we discuss the various options. And if you think that’s bleak, it is not. It’s more like swapping recipes; tips for a comfortable end. What we discuss most often is how to avoid making a mess and how not to inflict pain on the people who love us. Again, that sounds like madness. We will inflict pain however neat and composed our lifeless bodies may look. Death is painful for those we leave behind, but suicide is more painful still. It creates anger, guilt, hopelessness that somehow, somewhere, somebody should have wrestled the grim reaper to the ground. That they have failed and have failed us – which is rather like thinking that we should attack the tumours of cancer and if we do not succeed, we only have ourselves to blame. Comparisons are invidious but severe depression is an illness, a battle so harsh and drawn out that any ending deserves the same epitaph; “A long illness, bravely fought”
I would not, however, recommend it. Last year, I was fighting an episode so severe that for six long months all I could think of was death. I know, and god knows I have enough proof, that suicidal ideation is simply a clinical symptom of depression, as a fever is to pneumonia. A high fever makes you delirious, out of body and out of mind. Life slips away until the only reality is the cursed imaginations of your mind. And so it is with depression. It is real, but at the same time, it is not real but when you are caught in the middle of it, your mind can only see one thing: death. In any other normal time or place, your mind can only see one thing: life.
Last year, when I was trapped in the black wilderness, I would stay up late, in the long and empty hours of the night researching the most effective ways to kill myself, without, of course, making a mess. My great grandmother died by putting a plastic bag over her head. I have always rather admired her for that. She was very old, very frail, and wanted to go, but nobody would let her. So with the last strength that she could summon, she made possible the impossible. If you are stronger and younger it is not that simple. You need gas and pills and a combination so scientifically complex that, as Dorothy Parker famously said, you might as well live.
That was no good, so I drove up to Beachy Head. I live close by. I was stalking out the territory. What was the highest point at which you could guarantee death? How could you evade those brave Samaritans who want to talk you down from the edge? Which part of the cliffs is not patrolled? It was carefully planned. This was no spontaneous thought. I had to get it right. What nobody ever talks about is failed suicides and the horrible repercussions. It is as if every suicide attempt ends in death. It doesn’t.
Rehabilitation units are filled with people who failed to die. I have a friend who threw herself off the fifth floor of a multi-storey car park. She lives, if you can call it living. She is in a nursing home, her poor shattered legs so painful that they have to be protected by a cage covered in a blanket. Her face is turned to the wall. She does not speak and has not done so for eight years.
When I was contemplating death, there was my daughter. She also suffers from severe depression (a genetic, familial curse) and has, at times, said to me, “mum, this is not living: this is enduring.” I would comfort her, persuading her not to die. We have a pact. If one if us goes, the other goes too. The psychiatrist, who looks after both of us, said that his greatest fear is that we would go together. I told him that I would never allow that to happen but as he said, when you are in the midst of it, the senseless makes sense. And so it was. At my worst, last year, I began to imagine us, holding hands, lying on a bed and descending into a deep and never-ending sleep.
I even, and this is so brutally honest, that it shakes me to say it, began to resent my daughter for making me stay alive. Without her, I would surely have gone. I couldn’t do it before her 21st birthday. It would spoil the fun. I couldn’t do it before her final exams because she would get a crap grade. I couldn’t do it because she would kill herself too. Do you see how delirious the fevered mind of depression becomes?
And then there were the moments of day dreaming hell, when I would imagine myself, falling down the cliff, screaming my daughter’s name and saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I want to come back. I never want to leave you.”
It was then that I understood that I was not safe; that I was a danger to myself and went back to see my psychiatrist. I could see he was worried. There’s the classic understatement of the depressive. “No, really, I’m fine. I just want to die”. He said, how long has this been going on? I told him. He wanted to hospitalise me but I’ve been there before. I didn’t want to go back. And so we agreed to up my medication to a cocktail of five. It stopped the suicidal thoughts. The only disadvantage was that I couldn’t think at all, which is tricky if you are a writer.
It is eight months to the day when I haven’t had a suicidal thought, which is a day to celebrate. Last year seems like a dream, a terrifying delirious fever. Today, I can feel the sunshine on my back and hold life in my hands.
So, and I say this with all my heart, hold onto hope, because if we keep it grasped tight, then summer will surely come.