I woke up with a banging headache that morning. My head hurt but my mind was calm. As I looked around the messy bedroom littered with old joints, underwear and cigarette papers I suddenly understood what had to happen. I had to die.
This might sound like the first chapter of a depressing new novel (it’ll probably win a Booker or something, the really depressing ones always win awards) but it actually describes the opening scenes to the morning my seventeen year old self decided to take her life. I use the third person because it feels like another lifetime ago. It also shows how I had detached from myself, from the reality. The whole experience felt like I had stepped outside my own body, an impartial observer in the corner of the room.
In the weeks leading up to that moment I had isolated myself from my support network. I was overwhelmed with fear, anger, and I now understand, shame. Thanks to Brene Brown and others, we now have a greater understanding of how a person carrying unspoken shame is more prone to depression, addiction and suicide.
Guilt says ‘I did a bad thing. Shame says ‘I am bad.’ Brene Brown in a Call to Courage, Netflix
I had been drowning this shame in alcohol, sex, cannabis and LSD but to no avail. With each sobering up, each morning after, each chemical come down the pain just came rushing back, always stronger than before. But this morning, this morning it was different. I woke calm. Pain free. Clear on what I had to do next. In that moment as you move from sleep to awake and the thoughts of the day come flooding in the first words that I heard were “I am going to die.”
I got out of bed, dressed, didn’t wash. I may have brushed my hair. I remember thinking that I had to look okay, it was important that people couldn’t tell. The other tenants of the shared house were out at work so there was no-one home to disturb my train of thought. The day seemed bright as I walked to the corner shop in the next street. I probably hadn’t been outside in the fresh air for days.
I’ve often wondered how I looked to the middle-aged shop assistant at the till. As I walked to the counter with nothing but boxes of paracetamol, paying with handfuls of change, knackered and unkempt. Nowadays you can only buy two boxes of pain relief in any one transaction, something I am convinced would have stopped me in my tracks.
I’m not going to describe my attempted overdose, except to say that by some miracle of human resilience I suddenly woke up to what I was doing and made myself vomit more times than I can count. This probably saved my life. Within days I had returned home to my parents. But I told no-one about the suicide attempt until a medical emergency forced me to admit that I may have inadvertently damaged my liver with paracetamol. It would take another 27 years for me to tell anyone why I was in so much pain. Another story that needs to be told, but not today.
My life has gone on to hold many more challenges, but has also been filled with love, family and enduring friendships. I have cried a lot, occasionally thrown things and have certainly used up my fair share of swear words. But I have also laughed until I couldn’t breath, felt a pride that I never thought I could, tasted food that made me cry with joy and been filled with awe at the natural world around us. I am forever grateful. Life isn’t always easy, but it is almost always worth living.
Why am I writing about this? I’m not entirely sure. Partly because I have learnt that many of us are living with depression, anxiety and self-hatred but are too embarrassed and ashamed to speak out. And as we have already established, shame kills. Particularly in the case of male mental health. So many times I have stood silently by while someone declares suicide a cowards way out, unable to form the words I need to show them otherwise. This then, is my response.
But I think that my main motivation is to give a voice to those who have survived suicide, and perhaps, a voice to those who have not. In the telling of our stories, as distressing as they are, maybe we can shine a light on how to tackle this issue going forward. After all, shame thrives in the darkness of silence. All we can do is keep talking and believe that we can find a way back.