Thursday, 19 November 2015

Some notes on suicide

I often contemplate commiting suicide. I think about how I would do it with alarming regularity. At my worst, I have a recurring image in my head of stabbing myself in the stomach, like a mental GIF if you like, over and over. Different knives, different techniques, sometimes someone else doing it. But the same idea. Over and over.

I often ponder a (real-life) story I read recently about a British man who, after two failed suicide attempts – jumping off a building, which paralysed him from the waste down, and an overdose on pills – joined a gun club in Las Vegas, flew over, spent the day doing the induction course and then shot himself dead that evening. You've gotta love 'Murica,

About a year ago I visited the local Homebase. I'd gone in to buy some picture hooks. They didn't have the type I needed so I turned around to see if there was any more choice. Behind me there was a wide selection of rope. All the different types of rope you could imagine. More than enough to hang yourself with. Something clicked into place for me: that's how I would do it. I began to think about what rope would be best. Images of my nephews flickered in my mind. I pushed them away. I thought about buying the rope, realised I would be buying nothing else, no hooks. Paranoia flushed through me: the cashier would know. She would know what I was up to and call the manager. I rushed out the store as quickly as I could.

Is that shocking to read? That I sometimes want to kill myself? I expect it is, we just don't talk about this kind of stuff, you and I. It's taboo, and terrifying to think of. Easier done than said. And so those 800,000 or so people a year who do actually commit suicide, those 20 million or so people a year who attempt suicide, and those probably 160 million people a year who have suicidal thoughts are mostly going through that experience alone.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists stigma and taboo as the top challenge, or obstacle, in tackling the problem of suicide. And it is very much a problem, particularly among men. In the UK alone "13 men a day kill themselves, nearly 5,000 men a year, accounting for 78% of all suicides in the country". This year male suicides hit their highest rate in more than a decade.

The astonishing numbers have prompted a coalition of charities, including Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and The Samaritans, to call for the government to treat male suicide as a public health issue and debate in the Commons the proposal that local authorities should develop and implement a suicide prevention plan and spend more money on research into the subject. Despite stigma raising its ugly head in the form of Labour MP Jess Phillips' incredulous snigger at the proposal, the debate took place in Westminster Hall today, International Men's Day.

So there's the social context. And I'm sure the statistics make you go 'ooh' and the seeming paralysis of the authorities in doing much about it makes you go 'blimey'. But really, unless you've been directly affected by suicide, this information is as abstract to you and your real life as the Beirut bombings were to Westerners in comparison to the Paris attacks. To feel empathy to a social or global problem, we need to put a face on it. A familiar face, if possible.

I first dabbled in suicide when I was 17. Pills and beer. It was a naive attempt, that resulted merely in me being ill for a couple of days. I remember waking up the next day quite distraught I was still alive. I was gay in a community where it was considered abhorrent to be so. I was desperately in love with my clearly heterosexual best friend. I didn't know what else to do. The thought of going on was too much. The thought of killing myself in any other way too terrifying. I buried my head under the pillow.

I had another wave of depression in my mid-20s. I had suicidal thoughts, but the closest I came to acting on them was contemplating the likelihood of death while standing on the edge of London tube platforms, something I've done many times since and read about often with macabre curiosity. They never report the details of those "fatalities on the line" that often delay our London travel. Or even name it suicide. These "train deaths" are usually "not being treated as suspicious". The Australians are the same, while the Americans are a little more liberal with the s word

In my mid 20s I lived with a loving group of friends. In my mid 20s there was still potential in my life, it was still early doors. Now in my late 30s that potential feels like it's fast waning. I've seen my peers travel the world, find their life partners, buy houses, have children, start businesses, get divorced, marry again. I've done only one of these things (although I really did the hell out of it) and as such I feel like I've been left behind, trailing at the back as I usually was in the races on school sports day. 

Every gathering of peers now features conversation about relationships, house renovation, career decisions. I feel the stigma of having been single for 5 years. I feel the stigma of not owning my own property. I feel the stigma of having been in my job for three years and not being ready to move on. All this life stuff is too hard, I think. I don't know how to achieve any of it. Maybe that death stuff would be easier, for all involved. But then I feel the stigma of that, and keep that to myself as well.

I think I've always been depressive, and I've never really learnt how to talk about myself or the things I've been through. The British part of me has been taught it's not the done thing, that it's self-indulgent. The male part of me has been taught that talking about your feelings and things that are affecting you is weak, laughable. The gay part of me has been taught that being open about it is abhorrent, disgusting. Even today I find it rare to meet people, gay or straight, for whom homosexuality is normalised. I can count on one hand the friends I have that I know homosexuality itself won't be a point of conversation when we meet.

Basically, men talking about their feelings, or talking about the traumas we've been through, is wrong. According to Professor Rory O'Connor of the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, we're a 'buffer' generation caught between fathers for whom dealing with life meant keeping a stiff upper lip and that chin firmly up, and sons who are growing up more able and used to talking about how they're feeling. We don't know how to do that, so we don't. And it's killing us.

UK rapper Professor Green, real name Stephen Manderson, made a bold attempt to counteract that social stigma in his recent BBC Three documentary Suicide and Me. In it he attempts to make sense of the suicide of his estranged father, who killed himself seven years ago, aged 43. It's a hard watch, not least because it focuses an unflinching gaze on (in this case British) men's inability to talk about themselves. The interview with Manderson's father's best friend of 30 years is heartbreaking. He just had no idea what was going on in his friend's head. The suicide was baffling to him.

It's the interviews with those left behind that stayed with me. While suicide is mostly not a selfish act – on the contrary, most suicidal people genuinely believe the world would be a better place without them; I've certainly thought that often – it does leave a dark hole in the lives of loved ones. The pain of their loss, and not having any understanding of why their father, brother or son did it, is etched clearly on their faces. It's this horrible, inevitable result – the grief-stricken, confused look on my sister's face – that has stayed my hand in recent months, that made me neck just that bottle of wine, without the codeine chaser.

Manderson doesn't really get to the bottom of why his father killed himself, but he does get plenty of hints: an insecure childhood, inability to face up to his many responsibilities, the suicide of his brother, the death from cancer of his sister. In Manderson's interview with the aforementioned Professor O'Connor of Glasgow University, O'Connor describes the rapper's father's situation as a "perfect storm".

"What your story highlights is that it's never, or very rarely, just a single factor, but a complex set of factors which come together. And sadly for too many men in our country... that perfect storm of factors comes together and leads to suicide." 

I won't delve into the numerous factors that cause me to have suicidal thoughts. I have touched on some here, kept others to myself, as I am wont to do. I just want you to know that I do wrestle with those thoughts, as do many men, and women, around you. I have been wrestling with those thoughts more intensely for the past two days and now, having spoken to you, I'm feeling the fog clear a little.

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