A few weeks ago I joined the same exclusive club as Drew Barrymore, Eminem, Britney Spears and a host of other celebs. Like your average A-list party, there was plenty of booze and a few pills involved. There was a trip to casualty, too – again, not atypical. But this was a party of one. Mired in sadness, devoid of hope, and brooding on a stupid fight with my partner, I sat in my bedroom and necked anti-depressants (oh the irony) like Smarties, all washed down with a tidal wave of whisky. I barely remember what followed immediately afterwards. All I know is that I survived, thanks to the swift actions of said partner.
My friend G (full name withheld as her family still refuses to accept that she committed suicide) did the same thing seven years ago, at exactly the same age I am now. She was smart, vivacious, funny, bloody gorgeous – the last person you’d expect to ever feel unhappy. We’d been giggling over fancy dress plans just the day before it happened. But G died, drunk and emotional after storming out of the pub following an argument with her boyfriend. Later on, he tried to kill himself by starting a fire in his flat. He ended up in a prison psychiatric hospital. It was so, so sad.
Every year in the UK, 5,000 people succeed in committing suicide. As many as 100,000 are estimated to have attempted it. They shoot themselves, they overdose, they slash veins and they inhale gas. Most of the time, the people around them have no idea that this drastic final gesture is on the cards. Because part of the reason that so many take their own lives is the tremendous taboo surrounding depression and suicide. I first broke my silence over mental health issues when I came clean about my diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder on this very website. A lot of people warned me against it. “It will affect your whole career,” they said. “Your name will be out there, attached to that.” I won’t lie: I was terrified. But something inside me screamed that I had to write it regardless. That maybe that was the kind of thing my career should actually be about, above all else.
As it turned out, that article has now been shared almost 16,000 times and counting. For something born of such pain, such feelings of inadequacy and shame, reactions to it have made me feel pretty good about myself. But the day after I made my attempt, I was nevertheless terrified when I awoke to a barrage of Facebook message notifications. “Are you OK?” seemed to be the running theme. Filled with creeping dread, I checked out my last status update. Oh fuck. Turns out I’d drunkenly told the world exactly what had happened. As people often do when they + social media with booze and despair.
So what do you do when everyone knows what you did? How do you answer their questions? Clinical detail (“Yep, a pack of Citalopram and a spin on an ECG machine…”) or vague evasiveness (“Uh, yeah, just had a little accident, nothing serious!”)? There’s a lot of spite directed at people who overshare on Facebook. Hell, I’ve directed some of it myself. But I took a step back and thought of that common broken leg/depression analogy. I was in a good position to do so, having broken mine just over a month beforehand. I didn’t think twice about sharing those graphic x-rays and whining about the pain. I always think twice – at least – about sharing details of my mental state. I thought my BPD article was the furthest I’d go. I didn’t expect to be writing this.
But then I thought about another friend, who I will also refer to just by her initial. Which is also G, by coincidence. She published her intention to try and end her life on social media too. I’d met her only once but as someone else struggling with depression I heard her cry loud and clear. I picked up the phone and called police to her house to check on her. She is still alive. I’m fucking glad about that. I don’t consider her pathetic, attention-seeking, weak or unworthy of my friendship. I would never laugh about her behind her back or write her off as just someone that can’t and probably shouldn’t survive. Quite the reverse. She was sensible and human to let us know she was hurting and let us help her. I saw only dignity in her reaction to her pain.
The problem is, in this culture, people often only seem to be worthy of outward expressions of sympathy once they’ve actually managed their suicide attempt. I’m lucky that a lot of my friends managed to at the very least ask if I was OK, even if they were at a loss for words after that.
It’s all too easy to glamourise suicide once it’s happened. To pack out a funeral ceremony, dripping platitudes, telling everyone you “wish you’d known”. But if the potential suicide victim “fails”? They endure the shameful trip back from A&E. They endure the days afterwards when they feel utterly dreadful about how much they could have hurt the people close to them. They endure the nagging full-frontal reality of the fact that things must have got REALLY BAD for them to have tried to murder themselves. And most of all, they endure the fact that most people don’t fucking well want to talk about it. So what then? Personally, I felt Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts constantly at my heels for at least a week. What would the world have looked like without me? But I simultaneously felt like a nothing and a nobody. Maybe people like me were just a burden.
I’ve got a friend with Crohn’s disease who is quite understandably furious at how that particular “unsexy” disease is, like many other disorders involving unpleasant discharge, endlessly eclipsed by “sexy” breast cancer campaigns. Suicide straddles that gap in a very strange way. Survivors are advised to shut up, get over their emo phase and stop making everyone feel uncomfortable. Victims become idealised – people seem to get off on the gothic beauty of imagining them bloodstained, alabaster-skinned, illuminated by candlelight. When are we going to realise what a damaging dichotomy that really is?