I mentioned yesterday how knowing someone who’s been through one of life’s most tragic times (in this case attempted suicide), makes it all the more real and that today we’d be sharing it with you. I was asked by Mick Ward, Head of Commissioning at Adult Social Care what I thought to him sharing his story of attempted suicide. It’s a question I never thought I’d ever be asked nor that Mick would be the one asking it, but he did and my immediate response was why? Why would you want to bare your soul for all to see and potentially put yourself at risk of office chatter and people seeing you in such a different light? His bold and, in my eyes, brave response was that in telling his story, it might stop people from doing what he tried but failed to do. Suicide wasn’t the answer for squaring off life’s credits and debits and for those that think this is a way; is THE only way, it really doesn’t have to be as Mick will share. According to Mick, the greatest tragedies of all are the people you leave behind and not being able to ever tell your story or the many stories to come. Simply put, suicide to ‘square off’ and stop unbearable misery and torment isn’t the only option even if, at the time, it might seem so.
‘As some people may know, my role has recently expanded and now includes taking an overarching commissioning responsibility in Adult Social Care for mental health services. The length and breadth of mental health issues is huge and they range from the worries we all experience as part of everyday life to serious long-term conditions and, in my case, a few isolated ones that seemed inevitable at the time. The majority of people who experience mental health problems can recover or learn to live with them, especially if they get help early on. For me and at a time in my distant history, that wasn’t the case. I simply couldn’t see a way out other than taking an extreme action. I know that friends, family and some colleagues who would argue ‘Extreme? That’s you all over Mick!’ and I don’t think that they’re just referring to the gold shoes! No, my attempts at suicide seemed an almost normal response at the time even if it was retrospectively the polar opposite.
Why tell my story now? Because of my role, I have had the pleasure over the last couple of months of visiting some great services and even greater people who work with people who have mental health problems and, in some cases, have had suicidal thoughts. And with the recent high profile death of Robin Williams, backed with the knowledge that the ‘at risk’ group in Leeds has been identified as white middle aged men and that shockingly it’s the biggest killer of young men, well there are some things you can’t ignore. I’d be lying too if all of the above doesn’t remind me of what once was and, more importantly, what could have been – my own history of teenage suicide attempts. With this in mind and knowing that ‘it is good to talk’, and that I speak from experience I want to give people a couple of critical messages I wished I’d known at the time, why wouldn’t I? Killing yourself is not the best option; please take it from someone who so nearly got it so very badly wrong…
My first attempt at suicide was when I was 14. The trigger at the time seemed to have been a small and completely average row with my mum and dad. Of course, my skewed rationale towards suicide wasn’t the petty fight we’d had but a deeper, darker underlying reason; in my case it was simply the impact of late (or pretty non-existent) puberty. I felt utterly disjointed from all of my peers, and whilst my friends were having, or at least trying to get their first girlfriends, I was largely focused on the weekly fear of the showers after sports at school. Whatever the reason, that night I took an overdose of sleeping tablets that I had for childhood asthma.
I woke up around a day later in Jimmy’s hospital with no memory beyond taking the tablets and going to bed. It was my poor mum and dad who had experienced an extremely traumatic (and I don’t use that word lightly) night of seeing me hallucinating, the panicked 999 call, storming through A&E, and then hours of unconsciousness. I then spent a couple of days on some vague mental health ward, of which my memory is mostly of awkwardness as I avoided the staff’s questions of “what did you take?” and of course “why did you do it?”
I came home after those few days and like all good working class families we resolved the issue by never ever mentioning it again. No ‘trigger’ identified really, so no resolution and nothing for my parents to watch out for other than an isolated moment of teenage angst never understood. As a parent, I can’t imagine, no I’m scared of imagining and acknowledging what I did to my mum and dad and even worse, what would have happened to their lives had I been ‘successful’ in my attempt. Even the attempt itself must have damaged them. How can a parent not apportion blame (or friends and others you leave behind)? But when you’re in that ‘space’, you don’t think about anyone else or the devastating effect it can have. It’s not selfish or so you think; it was about me having control because I didn’t have control anywhere else in my life and here comes the first message. Of course it is about them even if you can convince yourself otherwise (which when you’re clouded by mental health problems or feeling overwhelmed by the situation you are in, you can so easily do). There’s no them without me and there’s no real recovery for them without me either. It really is something to consider even though it seems impossible at the time. Think of those you leave behind and what they’ll be left with. Sadly, this retrospective wisdom for me now wasn’t the case then as I tried again to take my own life at the still young age of seventeen.
At that time, I felt little had changed and although I had good friends, I still felt separated from ‘normal’ teenage life. Yes they were again ‘dark times’ and I really didn’t know how to let any light in. For me nothing would ever change so what was the point? Revert to what I’d done before, but better ‘luck’ this time?
By then I was working for the Council as a clerk in the Finance Section in the Civic Hall. The fact that I was working in the Civic Hall, which of course I now go to most weeks, gives it an odd resonance. This is because my fairly strange ‘method’ of killing myself was that whilst at work, I took small handfuls of Paracetamol every time anyone offered me a coffee. In contrast to my needing control in my first attempt, this time I think I was kidding myself that it was the opposite – out of my control. Maybe I didn’t have enough coffees because 20 or so Paracetamol later, it wasn’t working or so I thought.
By that time I was back home and intending to take my supply of tablets that I still used, but then it all went a bit strange as I simply couldn’t find them. My head was throbbing and I was feeling somewhat dizzy. I had also forgotten that my friends Jane and Phil were coming round before we were all trooped off to our friend’s Roz house; my head was not in a position to cancel it so off we went.
At Roz’s house, and only ten minutes into our gathering, I started to be violently sick. After doing this three or four times, my friends were somewhat concerned it was then that I called Phil to one side and started the conversation with “Now Phil, don’t panic, but I have done something really stupid…”
Not surprisingly he started to freak out when I told him and he insisted he tell the others and call an ambulance. I agreed he could tell the others, but I assured him I would be OK as I had reached the retching bile stage and there couldn’t be anything left in me. It turns out of course that was another stupid thing, especially with the additional bad effects of Paracetamol on liver function etc. There’s irony in saying you live and learn here…
I then spent the next hour with my friends, assuring them I was now fine, physically and mentally and mostly (in my head) trying to keep them calm. Crucially, that conversation was a hundred times better than anything that had taken place in the hospital or at home three years earlier. Why? Because if I’d thought hard enough, I’d have known deep down that I could talk to them. Something I wish I’d really thought about before my second attempt. We’re talking a matter of hours before the start of my attempt to sharing the ‘why’. As I popped the pills, I was blinkered yet again and realised that all I had to do was look at little further than the seeming black hole before my eyes of emptiness, loneliness and isolation to see that there were people there for me. They were my friends and they did understand. For Phil, Jane and Roz, I thank you.
Once it became a bit clearer that I was probably going to be alright, we all went home, with Phil (my best friend, whose family lived in the next street to mine) coming back to my house. At that point I was so tired I just went to bed, leaving Phil downstairs, who explained to my mum that I had ‘been a bit sick’ and she should just keep an eye on me.
I slept fine and got up the next morning to find Phil had come round to see if I was OK. He then got the bus into town with me. It was then that he told me what had happened after I went to bed.
He had sat with my dad for a bit having a cup of tea, still worrying that maybe he and Jane should have called an ambulance, but finally trusting me in what I had said when we had all talked (he was and remains my best friend remember). All seemed well as he got up to go. However, as he was leaving he saw my mum in the kitchen with a tray that she was about to take upstairs for me. He noticed that on the tray was a glass of water, a cup of tea, a sandwich and, oh yes, a new bottle of my sleeping tablets!
Now, this is where it helps if you can visualise our kitchen, but think council house with a small kitchen pretty much filled by the sink, washing machine, kitchen table and pantry. Phil quickly decided he needed to get past my mum, distract her and swipe the tablets. Unfortunately to achieve this required a move that would have combined limbo with a body swerve, and although Phil has many performance talents, modern jazz dance is not one of them! His attempt merely prompted my mum to ask – ‘What are you playing at?’, to which Phil simply responded by grabbing the tablets, muttering something about ‘he’s already had a couple at Roz’s ‘ and ‘he probably shouldn’t have any more’ and then shoving them away in a drawer before rushing out! Now, and this really is the point, Phil was telling me this story the next morning, and I was crying with laughter – just imagining him in the kitchen dancing around my Mum, and in all honesty, I have largely being laughing since.
Life after the ‘second time’, seemingly of its own accord, just got better and that’s probably one of the reasons I’m able to write this now. It’s also one of the reasons why my parents aren’t spending endless hours sitting in angst and surrounded by stabbing silences wondering what they could have done to change what could’ve been a very different outcome. Put quite simply, the world changes, you change, and your view of the world changes and I’m thankful it did. I’m thankful I took the time to pause; to share what I’d done with my friends and to reassess where I was as a person and who I could be.
I am sure there are many terrible Robin Williams jokes out there now, but you know who would be telling the best joke? Robin Williams. He would but he can’t. And here’s the last and most personal of my messages to share with those that want to and can listen. Apart from the impact on friends and loved ones, it is that if you do kill yourself, you don’t get to tell your story. That’s so important and that’s what keeps me ever thankful I failed because for the past 40 years, I’ve being involved in so many more stories that really are worth living and sharing. And there are plenty more for me and for you
If you, or someone you know, are feeling suicidal, the following organisations can provide support:
Leeds Survivor Led Crisis Service: www.lslcs.org.uk
Dial House, crisis house providing face to face support, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, 0113 260 9328
Dial House @ Touchstone, face to face crisis support for people from Black and Minority Ethnic Groups, Tuesday and Thursday, 0113 249 4675
Connect Helpline, every single night of the year. Freephone 0808 800 1212