A TRICK WITH A KNIFE THAT I’M LEARNING TO..POSTPONE.
By Neal Drinnan 2016
‘To be or not to be.’ Overused, way out of copyright yet still very much the question! Recently a friend posted a lengthy paragraph on Facebook about suicide being ‘the silent killer of good people’. She appealed for everyone to post this on his or her ‘wall’. I didn’t comply. Even Socrates claimed that some men, perhaps the wisest are willing, and perhaps eager to die. Friedrich Nietzsche maintained, ‘the thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.’ Whichever side of the fence you choose, there is nothing silent about suicide and railing against it is like tilting at windmills or arguing with the weather. It is one of the ways we die.
Recently the Department of Health’s ‘ R U OK’ campaign took to the streets sponsored by Hungry Jacks and Virgin. People took to this brave new bon mot with bizarre, almost glee-club gusto (for a day) while those of us who suffer depression tried to keep a lid on it, keep it secret and out of sight. Upscale our approximations of levity to meet this bold new acronym with a firm handshake and a steely gaze.
As I write, the fourth anniversary of a precious friend’s suicide approaches. He was just thirty and used his extensive medical knowledge and stolen hospital supplies to dispatch himself. It remains a harrowing, grief filled event for all of those who loved him, especially his family. Like all of us at such times I wondered if I couldn’t have been more help to him but such speculations for all their noble intentions are impotent, vain and egotistical. Through all the grief that followed I never once denied that he had an inalienable right to take his own life and on many occasions I have wondered why I haven’t done exactly the same thing. I am fifty-something not thirty and certainly would have missed the key triumphs of my life had I departed it at the age he chose. Yet I, like him, battle with many of the same demons. Unlike him, I have deep spiritual beliefs. He was a lapsed Catholic who claimed to have turned from belief altogether. I’ll never know if he truly had.
The religious argument against suicide is a double sided one. On one hand traditional; dualistic Christian belief systems claim that God is our Creator and life is a gift from God – therefore only his to take. Like an office Kris Kringle , it’s a dicey handout. At best a grueling struggle with occasional triumphs, at worst a poisoned chalice. ‘Few are thy days and full of woe,’ according to the Bible. A more modern non-dualistic version of religion would argue that incarnating into life at all, is itself a departure from God’s kingdom. In the second scenario (which aligns itself in some ways with Buddhist and Hindu traditions) there will be the notion of many incarnations with the ultimate destination being a return to the very place we started out… Back safe in the arms of the God(ess).
The first idea with its accompanying notions of a fiery, fist-waving, angry God is a Gothic contrivance but strongly enough held that it has effectively kept many people shy of the razor blade or medicine cabinet. The second scenario may be loosely illustrated by the prodigal son parable in the Bible (Luke 15:11-32 ESV) in which having strayed from his father, squandered his wealth and fearful of Dad’s wrath, the wayward son is nonetheless, welcomed back into his father’s kingdom and arms. All is forgiven as it were. A more secular take might be T.S Eliot’s line ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ Clearly the God in the first instance does not allocate gifts equally to all his children so he needs to be looked at. Even a superficial glance would suggest He doesn’t love all his children just the same. In the second scenario human existence may be seen as an excursion or diversion. As much about miscreation as creation. If we follow it to its natural conclusion we end up becoming our own judges and it has been said, that to die by one’s own hand is as close to Godliness as we can come in this wicked, wicked world.
But back to the motivations one might have for committing suicide; they are myriad and it is not for me to assess their validity. Even if suicide were an act of vengeance, it is still within the remit of the vengeful person to do it. The issue I’d most like to look at however is depression. Short of a terminal illness or a diagnosis of dementia it would most likely be the reason I would take my own life and it has certainly been the motivating factor behind the act in those cases to which I have lived in close proximity.
My grandmother died six weeks before I was born in 1964. She was seventy-five and according to my mother – her daughter, she was a misery from morning to night. ‘No one knows what I suffer,’ was apparently her doleful refrain. She didn’t give birth to my own mother until she was forty-two and by all accounts she was a woman of great unhappiness and poor mental health for at least the last thirty-five years of her life. My mother never used the word ‘depression’ to describe her mother’s condition and it wasn’t even a formal clinical diagnosis until the 1980s. My grandmother certainly was never treated for it and aside from taking ‘powders’ (whatever they were) her depression was a cross she had to bear and a condition that only got worse as she grew older.
At the turn of the century I became profoundly aware of the clouds darkening on my own mental horizon, an almost chemical shift in my mind towards negativity and self -doubt. It was of course an actual chemical shift. At first I thought perhaps it was the ecstasy tablets I’d taken in my twenties but then it clicked. Depression had turned up in me like a bad sixpence in the family Christmas pudding. I’d had it there in the back pocket of my genes the whole time. Grandma certainly hadn’t got it from ecstasy tablets.
My journey was very different from my grandmother’s. While both she and I may have been guilty of self-medicating in different ways, the noughties were a vastly different time from the forties and fifties. I had treatment! The Age of Aquarius brought with it a tide of cures. Depression had become a gravy train for psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmaceutical companies, self-help gurus, clairvoyants, fortunetellers and diverse spiritual practitioners. It was an epidemic, a fashion almost. I now have shelves groaning with books, Everything from Russ Harris’s Happiness Trap and Marci Shimoff’s Happy For No Reason to transcendental works such as A Course in Miracles or Nouk Sanchez and Tomas Vieira’s Take Me to Truth. I have been to tens of thousands of dollars worth of workshops and tried at least a dozen different medications. Mine is the Prozac epoch where as Grandma didn’t even make it to the Valium-age.
SSRI’s (serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) are apparently the wonder drug of our time. Certainly I doubt I’ll ever get off them. As one depressive friend said to me, ‘they are simply the price I have to pay to live in this world.’ I would modify this to ‘the price I have to pay to live in my head.’ The world outside my head I understand is merely a reflection of what’s going on inside. This can be positive or negative, it just depends what is going on in there. I remember once the doctor tried me on a medication that made me feel like the two sphere’s of my brain had split and were each acting of their own accord. It was sickening, terrifying and fascinating all at the same time. I needed several days off work to adjust. I never did so I stopped taking them. Another caused akathisia and one caused dyskinesia (Google them) and one medication made my heart race, it turned me into someone else entirely after a few drinks.
No Matter how dark my depression has been or how shocking some of its attendant vices, I’m guessing it has been more of a grand quest, a pharmaceutical safari, than my poor old Grandma’s was. Mine has involved more Lions and Tigers and Bears (Oh My) whereas hers reduced her to an old woman with the blinds drawn; forever feeling drafts, clutching handkerchiefs and reaching for the Bex. Adventure aside, depression has been and remains the single greatest obstacle in my life. My own mother, who dodged the misery gene did not go untouched by it. She always said ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.’ She told me from an early age to always say you are ‘very well,’ when people ask how you are. ‘People aren’t interested in your problems, they’ve got enough of their own.’ She had a cheerful no-nonsense approach and said ‘you don’t want to end up like my mother, she’d list off all her woes to anyone who’d listen. People stop asking after a while’. It has also been said that ‘misery loves company.’ Well that sure isn’t true for me. Misery puts me into a private mental lockdown.
The burden of cheerfulness, of manufacturing good humor when one is in the depths of despair is beyond exhausting. I study the likes of Winston Churchill and Jeff Kennett and think how did they have the energy or confidence to do the jobs they did? I almost never watch the news but if I do and see floods of Syrian refugees, I think to myself I’d just lie down and die if I had to endure that, or, I envy them for the impossible optimism that somehow drives them on. For me to run a small bookshop in a sleepy country town is often more than I can manage so how did those famous figures scale great heights with the black dog at their heels? When someone like Ruby Wax finds herself in a luxury-nut shop for a few weeks and makes a show about depression in which she outs a whole lot of depressed people to their employers, it can send someone like me not only into depression but almost drive me nuts as well. The border or pivot from depression to insanity is a dizzying horror I have arrived at from time to time. It is really the point that terrifies me the most. The part of the journey I don’t want to be here to make.
Today I could not go to work in my shop. This is the third time this month and this is bad for me, worrying. (Yes it is possible to worry on top of being depressed LOL!) I have an assistant to work instead of me and have told him I am unwell which I suppose is true. The small town I live in has 12,000 people of which over a third are living on a pension: disability pensions, aged pensions, unemployment pensions. It seems an easier place for me to live with my depression because not as much is expected from me as would have where I still living in the city. My mental illness rendered me borderline incompetent for middle management even eight years ago when I left it. Here in my country town, I have more opportunities to be grateful that I can still sustain myself in a job of my own making. Grim as it sounds, here I can see how much worse off so many other people are, here I can be of some sort of service and count my blessings. But comparing ourselves to others is not helpful, not on the way up and certainly not on the slide down. I can list off all the things I am grateful for every day, and I do but depression can take the colour out of anything. On it’s worst days out of everything. Not all stories have happy endings and books on depression must end on a high note, offer hope or transformation. No one would buy them if they ended in suicide and that is where depression often leads.
Depression at its worst, I taste like a chemical at the back of my throat, in my neural cortex. I couldn’t absolutely describe it but it’s a medical, metallic taste and the 10 milligrams of Ciprimil I take each day to keep the worst of it at bay, still leaves me subject to cycles, to the ebb and flow of the black dog’s moods. After sixteen years, I thought I’d know his moods and cycles but they surprise and floor me in new ways each year. It is evident to me that depression erodes neural pathways over time. There are clinical papers that prove this but I’m living it. It is this process that CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) aims to change and which many other thoughtful, thought changing books can in fact help with. None of them can turn back the clock however and all the SSRI’s have their own little side effects. They all tend to diminish sexual functionality and genital sensitivity. In me they create short synapse breaches that leave momentary gaps in memory and all the while, depression’s own neural destruction contributes to a gradual, low level, dementia that I am beginning to see develop in myself.
I think once more of my friend’s suicide at thirty and how I was no where near contemplating such a deed at that age yet if I’m honest, there were signs even in my hip-to-be-miserable teens and frantic twenties. I have witnessed in myself and in others how long term thought patterns eventually create permanent mental states. I can see that beneath the black clothes and eyeliner of my youth, there lurked more than just the spirit of the age, as I played all my Cure, Smiths and Joni Mitchell albums, something melancholy was already unfurling. I hoped it would be all beauty, empathy and poetry but what all these things heralded was a darker, weightier package. I look at the faded sepia photo of my grandmother squinting into the sun on St Kilda beach a century ago. I regard her delicate beauty and cautious smile and I know she was no more depressed that day than I was at my twenty-first birthday party. I open the steamer trunk I keep in my lounge room with her initials on the side. The trunk she moved to Sydney with the day after after her marriage so no one would know she was already pregnant. Was she already depressed then?
I notice if I turn my mind to thoughts of ‘the deed’ I’m immediately assailed with other thoughts of what my suicide would mean for others. This comforts me because clearly, if I was approaching the final act, all thoughts of other people’s responses must necessarily take a back seat. The truth of the matter is that I, like everyone else will die. It’s just a case of when. Either I live on and mourn everyone else’s passing or I go, and they get to mourn me; moreover, am I not better to go leaving everyone with vibrant fond memories rather than becoming increasingly miserable, unstable, crazy even! Live on only to have people relieved at my ultimate departure. Who says the game must be played out until stumps? A person, like stocks or shares does not hold a constant value. Not to other people nor to his or herself. We go up and down in value throughout our lives. I for instance will never vibrate or calibrate at the levels of love and joy that I did in my late twenties and early thirties. If for no other reason than the experiences of those years, this was a worthwhile incarnation for me. Like the moon we wax and wane regardless of mental afflictions. Laugh and the world laughs with you, Cry and you cry alone. Not all stories have happy endings.
My spiritual beliefs offer me the comfort that I am already on the journey home, that I care no longer to be a part of this cycle of death and rebirth. The gift depression brings is that it allows me to relinquish my attachments to this world; it takes the shine off all things material and is gradually extinguishing all my worldly cravings. For someone with a broader spiritual outlook, these outcomes make depression a little more palatable…For those without such beliefs it would perhaps only increase despair but either way, if life becomes no more than constant mental suffering, some might even choose the Gothic notion of damnation to a continued mental Purgatory in this world. I guess in Hell your problems become someone else’s. If the suffering is to be eternal why not get the show on the road as it were and cut out the agony of waiting?
The question of suicide when one has neither parents living nor children borne becomes a little easier to contemplate. On reflection I am glad I don’t have children because I’d rather spare a soul the lottery of this depression and I suspect the black dog would have limited me as a parent. Already I can say it has limited me creatively, I have never fulfilled the promise I once showed as a writer, it has limited my ability to build wealth or maintain relationships and it has even limited my ability to enjoy the spirituality that awoke profoundly within me in my twenties. I wonder if I am the reincarnation of that sad grandmother of mine. Certainly I feel a link to her through this family legacy…This thread that weaves through the generations.
Yesterday another Facebook friend posted, apropos of nothing, ‘Suicide doesn’t take away the pain, it gives it to someone else’. It seems that every day there is some pithy new slogan on the web about suicide. There is an industry in suicide prevention but does it really work and if it does…to what end? In the book I’m reading at the moment, The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall, the protagonist’s suicidal mother constantly reminds her that ‘when you’re on the bus, remember to get off at your stop.’ The mother rather vindictively gets off at hers though the reader does wonder whether she oughtn’t to have alighted a few stops earlier. The suicidal naysayers are a tricky bunch to pin down. One assumes they are mostly those who have lost loved ones to it or perhaps people who have attempted it and had some sort of revelation when they didn’t succeed. Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York once asked one of his photographic studies what was the saddest moment in the subject’s life. The man said it was waking up after he had attempted to kill himself, to realize he had not succeeded.
I wonder had my friend not taken his life and instead descended further into a spiral of addiction and substance abuse whether the suffering to his loved ones might not have been worse? That was certainly the scenario he could see coming. As it is he shines as a beacon of untapped potential, of beautiful loss, vapors of what-might-have-been. ‘No one knows what I go through,’ echoes my grandmother’s voice from half a century ago. ‘Well I do Grandma, I do!’ I cry as I push on through the dark woods with a spoiling basket of goodies swinging from my arm, a dark wolf at my heels. I know the almost unfathomable sense of shame and grief that accompanies feelings of complete inadequacy and self-loathing. I know what it is to be gifted with a perfectly good body and abundant possibilities yet not be able to enjoy them or as one of my musical heroes David Sylvian wrote, ‘to shift between darkness and shadowy light’. I practice, daily, my meditation on gratitude. I know how blessed I have been. I snatch what memories I can, the cosy woodstove in Steve’s cottage in England with the snow outside. The moment I lay with Tim in our tiny terrace in Sydney and thought ‘yes I am happy’. The sun filled day George and I came to our new house in the Otways. The fax that came from Penguin Books with their offer to publish my first novel or dancing to Sunchyme by Dario G in a pub in Collingwood after my first book launch. But like Clarissa Vaughn in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours, I thought these moments were the start of something, the beginning of happiness when in fact they WERE happiness.
From a spiritual perspective, if spirit exists, we must assume that this life is not the main event. Anything that involves God and eternity presupposes that life must, by it’s inherent mortal nature, be a tiny drop in an unlimited ocean. Similarly the vast difference in each human’s experience, resources and circumstances certainly obliterates any notion of a democratic and even handed Creator. One must be prepared to look at each life, our own included, as part of some vast experiential framework. It’s ultimate goal – our greatest mystery. Certainly I reject any traditional notions of mortal sin in regard to suicide but I do admit to having some profound metaphysical fears associated with doing it myself. Central to this fear is the notion that if I do not resolve my suffering in this life, it will resurface in another, or, that my inability to reckon with it will thwart the possibility of enlightenment and enlightenment is what I believe to be my ticket out of this God-forsaken place, this cycle of death and rebirth. It’s all a bit Catch 22.
Albert Camus wrote that ‘in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.’ Still he managed to die at forty-six in a car accident, before the rot really set in. G.K Chesterton claimed ‘The man who kills a man kills a man. The man who kills himself kills all men’. As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.’ Much is made of suicide as an act of vengeance against others or the world as a whole. Certainly I have long thought the world a terrible place and I definitely don’t feel equipped with an adequate carapace to flourish in any broad reptilian sense but never would I consider my own suicide an act of hostility towards the world or others. At best it would be an act of self-compassion, at worst a final act of elimination. David Levithan has said ‘I am constantly torn between killing myself and killing everyone around me.’ This is the real Hemingway spirit I guess. I never think about killing anyone else but myself. I don’t have Hemingway’s alpha male fervour about it. If I had more rage directed outwards, perhaps I’d demand more of a stake in the world but as I’ve already stated, losing one’s attachment to this world is the one good thing that can ultimately come from depression. An attachment we must all relinquish in the end.
Over the past year I have volunteered as a storyteller at an aged care facility. I did this at the Director’s invitation and people often comment on my kindness or compassion for doing this when in point of fact it has been a great opportunity for me to be reminded, like the narrator in The Wolf Border, to get off at my bus stop. I have endured the emotional agony of watching loved ones slip into years of dementia and witnessed in the aged care centre where I read, dozens of gentle people sitting slack-jawed and drooling in front of a vast television screen, becoming agitated at the smell of dinner being cooked but already…gone. Captive somehow to the lurid pixilation of the TV screen, to the white teeth of presenters and hoop-de-do of infomercials.
It seems, in this world, the very worst thing a person can do is to welcome death or, long for it. Certainly, in modern First World countries life is the ultimate consumer product packed as it might be with desirable trinkets; glittering vehicles, glamorous getaways, endless sex, exquisite cocktails, delicious snacks and compelling core challenges. If one examines the marketing closely, it begins to look like a set-up for depression. Depression is, after all, the reason most people commit suicide. If I dare to look at just some of my heroes: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Hutchence, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, John Kennedy O’Toole, Spalding Gray, Charmaine Clift, Hunter S.Thompson (and of course suicide just wouldn’t be suicide without Virginia Woolf’s contribution.) If I do dare to look… I find the company not too bad. Not all stories have happy endings.
I used to joke with a partner of mine who lived with me through the writing of five novels, ‘How would you like it if we were like Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I’d have to have two nervous breakdowns; one suicide attempt and a whole packet of cigarettes before I could finally come up with the opening line Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself… The joke then extended because of course my partner, like Leonard, would need to publish my books because I’d be far to fragile and unstable to manage any of that fearsome business for myself. Well you only get one Leonard Woolf in your life if you are lucky and sometimes even that’s not enough to keep the rocks out of your cardigan pockets. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am George, I am.
People rage against suicide because they think the depressed must be able to fix them selves or that they should be as brave or as happy as they themselves are. People rail against those who choose their own point of departure as if it was ever anyone else’s choice. The reality is that the same attachments that keep people tethered to this world, keep them attached to those who have taken themselves from it. We do not know how long we will have anyone in this life nor whether we’ll remain as close to them as we’d like. Of course if we live long enough, we will lose them all anyway. We each have our purpose and if we are lucky our lives will have their sweet spots but I know myself, the world can only exist as I perceive it and the chemicals that govern that perception have degraded over the years.
I’ve often likened life to the experience of an ecstasy pill; the very substance I once feared may have caused depression. You take the tablet, it comes on strongly and gloriously for a time and then it begins to recede. There is a moment when the drug first begins to wane when one is overcome with a melancholy, a sense of loss, a sadness that the best is behind you. We are not encouraged, perhaps not even allowed to think this in a world fuelled by desires and appetites but it is true nonetheless. Everything waxes and wanes.
I’ve been blessed with a faith that informs me that this world is not the main event. I’ve always been a tourist here, kept my head down, watched with interest the maneuvers of others and the power of attachments. I’ve always liked the idea that life is far too important to be taken seriously but depression is a curve ball that raises the stakes on even the most guileless contestant. I’ve no children or parents and apart from the weight of my depression I feel light as a feather in a meteor shower. I can’t know what the karmic cost of suicide might be but if the parable of the prodigal son is anything to go by, it may be nothing at all. A Course in Miracles talks about this world as a world of illusions; that we come in mesmerized by the diamonds and rubies we think we see here but what we thought were diamonds, turn out to be tears. What we thought were rubies, turns out to be blood.
When I was young and foolish and vain I’d whine to my mother that my ears were too big, my skin too spotty, or my nose too pointy. She’d always say ‘if you had to put all your bits in a bucket with everyone else’s, you’d be happy to walk away with what you came in with. But you don’t always know what you came in with. After all, even if I could have Kurt Cobain’s looks, Robyn William’s sense of humour, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s acting skills and Charmaine Clift or David Foster Wallace’s writing ability, I still would have killed myself wouldn’t I?