World Suicide Prevention Day
For World Suicide Prevention Day. An extract from the book I’ve spent far too long writing, about my father’s suicide and life after it.
It’s a chunk about going to visit him at Runwell Hospital, the ‘loony bin’ we all used to laugh about when we were cruel kids who knew nothing about sadness, which I never envisaged having to visit one day. It’s shut now. Houses have been built there. People’s bedrooms occupy the same air as dormitories once did, people chop vegetables for their children where men played out their most depraved acts. The ghosts of broken minds are everywhere.
It occurred to me, in Runwell’s absence, and presumably the closure of other hospitals around the country, with people struggling to see counsellors quickly enough on the NHS, and not everyone able to take themselves off to places like the Priory, that there is going to be a growing chasm between our emotional intelligence and literacy on the subject of mental health, depression, and suicide, and our ability to seek or encourage professional help. The topic of depression has never been spoken about so candidly as it is today, too late for my father, but its free clinical treatment, due to cuts, may stop being an automatic kindness. Mental health, just as we get really get good at talking about it, might become a luxury item on the NHS’s brochure. A privatised habit. Having a therapist might be as unattainable to the normal person as buying Louis Vuitton luggage for all-occasions. People might not be able to afford to overcome their depression ahead of their suicidal urges. They will talk about it less. They will feel more alone. Things will happen.
We really are and will continue to be even more reliant on ourselves to feel able to speak up when we feel low. Reliant on the mental health climate on social media – a dangerous melting pot full of false experts as much as it is a common comfort – to foster a place for us to be able to express or to read things which may be helpful. Reliant on loved ones to somehow find a way to see through the opaque strangeness of depression to the possible risks of suicide, and to feel compelled, strong, and equipped enough to reach out. It can be a scary subject to broach with someone. So big; so few concrete answers. The fear of risking further harm by talking. But it really could make the difference between someone living and dying.
My father phoned me a few days before he took his own life. Left a voicemail. I was busy, and we’d had problems the few months before which left me less quick to respond than usual. I was tired and sad. He was a difficult controlling man, who never spoke about being bi-polar (manic depressive as it was called then) because it was shameful to him. He hid it very well. I never listened to the voicemail, a weekend passed, and then he was gone, and so was the voicemail. They didn’t hang around long in those days; they got bumped off the phone as new stuff came in. I will never know what he said, it may have just been a seemingly meaningless hello, his way of saying goodbye without stirring suspicion. I will never know whether my response, even if just a cheery hello, could have stopped him doing what he did. I don’t blame myself, I believe after years of analysing every tiny detail he left behind that he wanted to go and would have done it anyway. But at times, at night, the what ifs are mountains to be trekked over before I can carry on the next day.
I don’t know how you stop someone from ending their own life. I didn’t get a chance to try and I don’t know what I would have done if my father had felt able to voice his thoughts feelings and fears to me. I like to think an inner wisdom would have kicked in simply because I loved him and surely that should be enough. I like to think I would have made a difference. I like to think he would have stayed.
Talk. Let people talk. Never think that the more demonstrable behaviours of depression are needy, attention-seeking, or inconvenient. Sometimes they are the precursors to quiet and private behaviour, the more dangerous times, when people get lost down the cracks.
I’ll be honest – I’d never, even in my maddest dreams, imagined ever having to help my father escape from a loony bin.
It was perhaps that day, there in the mental hospital now playing home to the man I most admired, that I began to suspect something had gone seriously amiss. Perhaps I should have noticed it sooner, but reality cracks open slowly in some people like an egg left to boil, firming up unseen on the inside before breaking the shell apart. And so it was only as we were scurrying like runaway rats through the carpark to his Volvo, (me with the added image of being wrestled to the ground into a straitjacket, screaming “I’m just visiting, you bastards – it’s him that’s bonkers”), that I thought to myself: “Crumbs. It’s all gone a bit…odd; Life.” Yes, sometimes it takes a while to realise these things, and sometimes you only get around to it when you’re summoned to an asylum on a Sunday afternoon.
I remember the particulars of my visit in random snatches of varying degrees of import. Non-existent is the memory of the news he’d admitted himself a few days before. Blurry is the telephone call Dad made to get me there. Blurrier the journey there. Less blurry is standing in the hospital conservatory, surveying his face for change. Less blurry still is waiting for him to somehow reassure me that despite this unexpected new development, everything was going to be okay.
Dad wanted to go to the pub. It seemed churlish to deny him. He suggested the plan in a low voice and then steered me to the glass doors, all the time talking like we might just be going for a stroll around the grounds. We kept going, his eyes down at his feet, out and round to the car park, to the Volvo. I asked no questions, just matched his gathering pace. He unlocked the car and we slid in, slammed quietly. I fastened my seatbelt, aware of the irony that we had just scarpered rather gracelessly out of a place called Runwell.
I didn’t ask him any questions. They always come too late as a rule, don’t they?
I don’t suppose Dad would ever have allowed me to visit him there at all, but he’d needed some things. I’d turned up at the hospital with a box hastily cobbled together to satisfy his list. My eyes bored into that box as I was led to the visitor’s lounge where he was waiting, and saw the tiled floor passing in squares. Ordered coolness. I lined up my feet with the grouting so I knew I was walking straight, because I wasn’t sure if I should look around me. I didn’t know the etiquette of this strange new place, and – more so than anything, I suppose – I was scared. I feel guilty for that. I guessed it was a safe ward as Dad wasn’t in there for psychotic sex murders or believing he was Satan’s hand-puppet, so I hoped that logically that meant he was on a ward of similarly harmless cases, but I still wasn’t sure. I was scared of what it all was, but more so, what it all meant.
I’d brought books (the diaries of Noel Coward I’d bought him one Christmas – I thought the charm might be a nice escape from communal farting), toiletries, and “something that smells nice, please”, which in this case was the Jean-Paul Gaultier he’d taken to wearing as an eccentric alternative to his Boots cologne.
Did Jean-Paul ever imagine, as he was climbing the ranks of the fashion industry – from his earliest days pricking his finger sewing his first rubber corset, through his catwalk debut to scandalous success, through then to the glory of Paris, France, the World – un range du parfum! – his iconic glass busts moving like unstoppable de Miloesque chess pieces, shunting onto the fragrance counters of the world, all his smooth boob-or-bollocked atomisers poised so that were we all to spritz at the same delicious moment, wait for the convection of the air to flutter it aloft and, in an olfactory butterfly effect, might sneeze together in unison – did Jean-Paul ever picture in all this that one of his pretty little soldiers would be smuggled into a ward for the terminally sad, then squirted hurriedly onto the jacket of a man sneaking away for a stolen lunch?
Though my heart was thundering, Dad pulled away with a stubborn slowness given the fact he was now classified AWOL. I wondered if he was safe to be driving on whatever drugs they’d been giving him. Especially now we were going to be whacking beer into the mix. Oh well, I had to think. Oh well. What else can you think? I’d want booze too if I was shuffling around in slippers with men who talked to their own shit.
We went into Wickford close by. An uninspiring town, its mood perhaps overshadowed by the dark lore of the local madhouse. We parked up and went to a pub called The Hawk – a traditional boozer that might once have been nice, but now was a bit shit. Sat down, surrounded by the wood and the brass and the fake plush and the hardy swirling carpet, I began to breathe normally. This was what we did; pubs, not hospitals. This was us. I remember him dragging deeply on a constant succession of fags and me being unsportingly cross that I would go home stinking. Funny how you can still be cross with your Dad’s old bad habits while at the same time you’re craving normal service to resume.
Dad had steak pie. I think I had scampi. He had two pints of bitter and said he’d better not have any more what with having to drive. Inside I smiled at the thought that if we got stopped by the cops I could just explain I was escorting an escaped nut-job back to the madhouse so it barely mattered if he was half-cut. I remember nothing of our conversation, but I felt the usual pressure to keep things light. I knew better than to question him, and I just wanted him to relax, to be normal, to have a nice time. Before he went back to Bedlam, which presumably wasn’t much of a hoot.
My words for the place are a little casual, I realise. It is easier to accept the strangeness of going on a daytrip to such a place if you front it out a bit; gather black humour like a cloak. Brash words can distract you from your own fragility. It isn’t quite bravery, but it’s close.
I suppose it comes with a prickle of fear too – of what could befall me, could befall anyone. My mother’s mother had been given electric shock therapy here in the 1950s because they didn’t understand her eclamptic fit, my mum had had group therapy at its sister hospital in Rochford close by, I would in time come to have therapy myself, though I never dreamed it then, and now my dad was here, skedaddling off for lunch with his eldest and most indulgent daughter. What the fuck was I doing?
We drove back in silence. I stared outside at the things passing by – green blurs, grey blurs, road. Road, green, grey. I kept hurling my eyes out further. Inside, the familiarity of the Volvo, the nearness of him, would only have clogged my throat with that hardness that kept welling there. I swallowed it down. As we passed through the gates, overhung by spring-green trees, I imagined he was simply one of the doctors there, and that I was just going to work with him for the day. He’d look good in a white coat. He’d suit the clipboard. Do psychiatrists have stethoscopes? He would look good with one of those too. He’d need to get a fucking haircut first though – he looked a right state. And probably not be…quite as mental.
We parked up in the same space and save for now facing the other way it was like we’d never left. I walked back in with him, not knowing quite when to sever the visit. We were wordless all this time, as though we had only just met and were struggling to think of smalltalk. The walls seemed to whisper “Don’t speak, don’t make a fuss. Go quickly and don’t look back.” But despite the unusual setting this was perhaps our most common mode. I had been accustomed to saying goodbye to him since I was five; every holiday, a big grin and a cheery wave for his benefit, knowing that when he was out of sight, down the road in his Volvo, both our smiles would falter. Kids of divorce seem to either instinctively act in a way that will make their parents happy, or in a way that demands happiness from their parents. Givers and receivers. I doubt that both instincts can exist in the same child. I was so bloody chipper all the time it was like I was permanently tap-dancing to make sure everyone was fucking happy. The world’s not fucked; look. Look at my fucking jazz hands.
And what did Dad feel, then, that day, during our two hour interlude in his month’s sojourn? What was he thinking as I arrived, uncertain and smiling, as I hugged him? What surged through his heart as I handed him over a box of his things? Love, or shame, or both? Was his decision to sneak out for lunch with his daughter a spontaneous one or had he planned it? Was it bravery or cowardice; thoughtful or selfish? Did he want to say more than he did; why did he fail? Was he fobbing me off or protecting me? How present was he in those moments? Could he see through my bravado? Was I his friend, or his daughter? Was every good thing in his life reduced or invalidated by this slump in proceedings? Did he have any idea what would come next? Could he taste his pie or was it all just one big nothing?
Somehow we said goodbye. I remember the smell of him – like bland biscuits soaked in the bileous precursor to sick. A warm acidic version of his natural odour. The staleness in the lambswool collar of his leather flying jacket, not quite sweat but deeper, something from out of the bones not the skin. Is this what unhappiness smelt like? I edged away, glancing guiltily through to the ward. Whatever part was still supplying me with humour had me half-expecting to see Sid James and Charles Hawtry sitting up in bed with boiled eggs, wide-eyed at Babs’ boobs. I listened for a Kenneth Williams “Ohh!” chastising a torpedo-titted Hattie Jacques. Carry On Cracking Up. How odd that cracking up can mean both laughing and going mad. How fine the line.
It was like – no, it was – a dormitory. A big school-style hall divided into tiny cubicles, pretending to be homely. Curtains and bedside tables and duvet covers brought in by family, from home. I had a stab in the guts that I had not thought to bring in some bedding. Dad was one of the men with standard issue pale green. The generic shade of pastoral bleakness. Unvisited. My numbness threatened to fall away. I wondered why it should be that a man in his fifties when reduced to a single bed should seem so undignified. That his sleep should be restricted by the dimensions of a bed for a child. He should be spread out on a kingsize, hogging the diagonal from a loved one, limbs overlapping, slumbering in memory of a life well lived, dreaming peacefully. He should rise to warm creaking radiators and a dog stretching and the papers. A kitchen table of toast and tea. He was not this. He was better than this. But. But he had earned this. I knew it then, though I would defend him to the death. I did defend him to the death, and do still. Loyalty is knowing someone is wrong, but not caring.
I wanted to stay with him. I didn’t want him to be alone. I wanted to sit on his bed and chat and feign that I was alright with it all. I wanted to eradicate the sadness of his surroundings by having a laugh about the man in the next bed, who had a toupee and sang ABBA songs to his socks. I wanted to absorb it all for him. I wanted to watch people and see into their lives and hope my thoughts reached them like a hand stroking their teeming minds.
How had they all come to be here, these poor sad fucks? All these diminished men who once were empty and ready for filling with fresh things, who all had had childhoods that could have led to something else, who all had laughed and loved and felt a sense of promise prickling their skin, once. How had they all come to be together in a dormitory, their histories mixed like a bad grey stew? It seared my insides. There were bodies bulking out the beds, solid mass under those sheets, real men, induced to sleep the day away with whatever unpronounceable drugs had been picked out for them. Is this their life now? Strangers watching them sleep? Ultimate vulnerability. They had their backs to the door. They were curled, their necks frail like dead birds. They looked like boys, these tired men. Why were there no lullabies? Why is there just this awful administrative mumbling? My eyes fly over their things. Books and a porcelain dog. Flowers. Papers from an outside world. If I see it all can I take it away, like a bedpan of piss? If I type it now, can I make it better? Flashes of their lives whoosh through me like the ghosts of their spirits, their biographies like bogus sprites wanting to wrest from me, what? Pity? Love? Smuggled-in forgiveness on behalf of a bigger thing for all that they are? I want to suck it all in. I want to siphon it all out, take it outside, and puke it into an unreachable sky.
God. People make you fucking hurt.