SuicideTuesday, Feb 17, 2015 · 1500 words · approx 7 mins to read
I’m given the confidence to talk about this by Matt Gemmell, one of my most favourite wordsmiths. He recently wrote about his experience with it, so I’m finally having a go at mine. Please read his work. Warning: contains a handful of swears and discusses suicide in-depth, including my own attempt.
Suicide is the biggest taboo I can think of, which is pretty ridiculous if you think about it. It’s easier to strike up a serious conversation about, I dunno, murder, rape and child abuse — and probably even all three happening at the same time — than it is to have a discussion about suicide.
The reasons why have always seemed obvious to me, I guess, even if they’re maddening. Murder, rape and child abuse are things that statistically happen to other people, not you. That makes it easy to distance yourself from it. The topics are so abhorrent that it’s easy to have a strong opinion that everyone else is statistically likely to agree with. Conversations about murder, rape and child abuse therefore become, easy, full of agreement and trivially curtailed as a result.
It’s also easy to get angry about it when it happens, and anger is a very convenient tool which to express a very simple emotion about complex topics you can’t, and don’t want to, come close to understanding.
Suicide is different. Even though most people are statistically likely to agree with you that suicide is terrible, which I’m sure you believe is true right now as you read this, if you try to talk about it, even to affirm that probably-shared position, it’s likely those you try and discuss it with immediately start to wonder why you’re talking about it. “Do you want to kill yourself?”, is about as powerful a conversation stopper as I can imagine, and it’s almost inevitable. And yeah, if you do, things just got even more awkward than they already were.
Nobody wonders why a conversation about rape, murder or child abuse started. Nobody questions whether talking about those things means you want to rape someone, kill someone or abuse a child. They just want to agree with you that it’s terrible and carry on. Talk about suicide, however, and you’re guaranteed a brow furrow rather than a nodding head.
So if you do want to talk about it, nobody wants to hear about it. Might as well talk about rape, murder and child abuse, right?
Because of that, I found myself sitting on Cruden Bay beach on Christmas Day, over a decade ago now, staring at the North Sea. It’s a stark yet beautiful stretch of sand on the north east coast of Scotland. I grew up in Cruden Bay, a tiny little village between Peterhead and Aberdeen, and had moved away in my late teens. Despite that, I can still imagine the exact layout and features of the place as if I was there earlier this morning. I went there again almost a couple of years ago and it was as it was when I was younger. I could go there in 10 years and I strongly wager it’d be the same old Cruden Bay I’ve always remembered.
The sea has always terrified me, especially the North Sea just off Cruden Bay. I vividly remember the day a family of whales beached themselves there. There’s no way to shield the approach to that beach from onlookers, and they didn’t seem to want to anyway, so going to see those immense, vulnerable animals die because they lost their way was easy. I’ve often wondered why watching it happen didn’t give me a deep respect for the maintenance of life regardless of circumstance.
I sat on the beach by myself for a long time, and then tried to die by walking into that thing I was most terrified of. The main reason I didn’t is reasonably comic. I can’t swim, and I couldn’t get myself far enough out in the conditions to, you know, be able to drown without my survival instinct saving me. I hope you laugh at that, because I’m laughing while I press the keys to type this out.
Not sure why I chose that way out, other than misguided sentimentality because it’s where I grew up. It’d be almost bottom of the candidate list of methods if I wanted to do it now. I still can’t swim.
I’d been exposed to suicide before, too. My mum killed herself in December 1998, crashing her car into a stationary mechanical digger. She was the most depressed I’ve ever known a human being to be, before, during or after. Single, broke and deeply alcoholic, trapped by having to bring up kids by herself. She split up from my dad a few years before because he had a near-fatal brain tumour that molested his personality too much. Her last boyfriend before she killed herself was riddled with cancer and left her to go and die at home in America. The last thing I ever said to her was a loud, angry, “fuck off”.
If I was her I’d have driven the car into the digger too. Trying to say goodbye to her kids, probably the hardest thing she ever did, and the two youngest ignored her and her eldest told her to fuck off. I’m sorry, mum.
Between my mum doing it and my attempt, a bipolar friend nearly checked out by hanging himself from a tree using a motorcycle chain. A few years ago, one of my closest friends killed himself with a drug overdose. I’ve had other, incredibly-personal-but-not-my-own, brushes with suicide in the last couple of years, too.
And I’ve also wanted to do it myself a handful of times since Cruden Bay beach that time. Not so recently that you need to turn up and talk me out of anything. As Matt Gemmell so personally puts it, if you’ve experienced that stone-cold certainty that you’re going to kill yourself, the feelings never leave you and they make it easier to explore again. You’ve already been OK with it once, so it’s easier each subsequent time to head back there and reacquaint yourself with the reasoning and rationale.
I find suicide really easy to reason about.
Being here in the first place is nothing to do with you. You don’t get a say in being born. You don’t get a say about your early life circumstances, upbringing and experiences. Nobody can get into a time machine to check how it goes in your future, to make sure it’s worth it. People really do just fuck and hope for the best. Those people make all of your initial choices and steer you through life until you’re able to take the wheel yourself. All of the key formative things you’re supposed to experience before you emerge a self-sustainable adult are guided by the people that made that most primal of choices for you, before your first cell ever divided.
So if I had no choice over being here, I have every single choice over not. Cancer-ridden old age, unable to remember who I am or what I love, rotting in some care home while my family rightfully try and forget me as much as they can while I’m still alive, to make it easier when I die; yeah, I’m not dreadfully interested in any of that. Other people put me here but it’s definitely up to me when I go.
I see pain and suffering in life almost everywhere I look. Life is difficult. Thriving as a human, whatever that means, even as a white cisgendered man in a rich Western country with a great job, free health care and almost everything I could ever want, is really difficult. We’d all do well to remember that. Just because life is much harder over there doesn’t diminish how hard it is for someone, right here and now, no matter their circumstance. Don’t ever try and talk a suicidal person out of it by pointing out that someone else has it worse. No they don’t. Not at that moment.
My experiences with suicide always leave me sad. Writing about them now has me sad. But not because of the loss of life or suicide itself. I’m at peace with that and have been for a long time. Loss of life is inevitable anyway.
What I’m not at peace with is that it’s still easier to talk about murder, rape and child abuse. If we want to truly understand suicide and help those affected, we have to be able to talk about it properly, openly and without the crippling taboo. This is my contribution to us being able to do that.