The Nameless Horror

10 bonus years: depression and suicide

If I was American there’s a reasonable chance I’d have been dead ten years ago. That’s because relatively easy access to firearms poses a much lower barrier to entry to reliable, fast, and reasonably considerate suicide than the options on offer here in the UK.

Before we begin, let’s make a few things clear. Firstly that this isn’t a post with a clear structure, a host of crosslinks, and an easily quotable, uplifting message of hope at the end. It’s an undirected load of personal waffle I’ve been mulling over since a tragic spate of friend-of-a-friend suicides towards the end of last year, around the same time as a bunch of stuff appeared online on the subject (some of it very good indeed). Secondly that any kind of description of depression (or, I’d guess, most other mental illness) or talk thereon should come with an automatic prefix saying “IT CAN BE VERY DIFFERENT IN EACH CASE AND WHAT APPLIES IN ONE INSTANCE DOESN’T NECESSARILY FOLLOW IN ANOTHER”. Since that’s a mouthful to type each time, just mentally add it in there whenever I say anything. Thirdly that I know jack about actual mental health and I’m in no position to offer advice. Take anything here as personal biography/history and nothing more weighty than that, even when I’m trying to persuade you otherwise.

So. Onwards.

A decade ago, more or less at this time of year, something happened to me that triggered a bout of severe depression. The event isn’t really important - one of those things that happen in life to most of us now and then, generally without causing more than a few emotional scars that heal naturally with time - it just so happened that it was one I dealt with very badly. I was 26.

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced depression. I had a bout after leaving university bad enough to try St John’s wort on the quiet (I was back living with my parents and didn’t want anyone to know how I felt), which was very much not a success, and to talk to my doctor about it, which was.

I had a bout working for a major book wholesaler in my last uni summer break thanks to the company’s unpleasant working practices (particularly the forced overtime - “you work until we tell you you can go home, regardless of your shift, and you’ll find out when you can go five minutes before you can go”). When I was there the gates would have leafleters from two trade unions outside each morning trying to get enough members to organise a strike because of those working practices. Not long after I left they presumably achieved the numbers needed because they threatened the company with outright legal action if they didn’t change and the place was consequently a lot nicer to work at, at least according to friends employed there after me.

I had another a year or so before that when I was thinking about dropping out of my course to do… some undefined alternative instead.

And so on. Periodic episodes of bleurgh. None of those were anything like as bad as this one, though. This was the mother of all downers.

(If you want to place it in my professional chronology, it was the winter/spring before WINTER’S END came out in paperback and THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS in hardback. I was a third of the way through the next book. I hadn’t yet gone to Bouchercon for the first time (that was Toronto, the autumn of that year), and had only barely been to Harrogate (one night, the year before, for a Penguin party at which I got blind steaming drunk with Stav Sherez and some other reprobates and didn’t leave the hotel bar until nearly 5am). I hadn’t started blogging (that came in the June of that year, IIRC) and this was a long way before Facebook and Twitter. Ancient times.)

The healthy thing to do when something in life goes south on you is to be down, then be angry, possibly be drunk, and then get over it, fast or slow. Time rolls on and the intensity of our experiences fades as they retreat into the past. The unhealthy thing to do is to cycle through them time and again in your own head until the cause(s) itself is neither here nor there and all you’re left with is the misery feeding on its own tail. You can’t lift yourself because you feel bad and you feel bad because you can’t lift yourself and you should be able to.

I lost, as I recall, a stone in weight in just over a week, half of a second over the next month (which from only ten and half to begin with is quite a bit), and stopped routinely sleeping more than 4-5 rather broken and unhelpful hours a night. Insomnia’s miserable and frustrating at the best of times, but when you’re depressed the long, long stretch between 3am and dawn is very tough indeed.

Give it two, three months of this, maybe more, with no sign of improvement, and you start to look at any possible way out as worth considering. Worth embracing, even. This is how come you end up considering killing yourself. You just want out. It’s not because your dog dies/you’re in massive debt/your spouse leaves you/because you can’t see how you’re ever going to have control over your own life/whatever. It’s because of the misery spiral that arises out of that. A spiral you can’t seem to escape and you’re getting more and more tired of trying and failing to fight. Don’t equate x with z; it’s y, the crushing unhappiness in the middle, that’s the cause.

Which, incidentally (and for God’s sake remember my disclaimers here), is why if you ever find yourself talking to anyone suicidally depressed, you shouldn’t say “killing yourself doesn’t solve anything”. Because that argument - unless the person in question is hoping to save their family from the burden of their personal debts, which do get inherited after death and consequently aren’t solved by suicide - can be instantly shot down. It’s a terminal solution, it’s not necessarily a proportional or sensible solution, but if your main problem is “my life is a seemingly never-ending trudge through an internal swamp of horribly bad feelings about myself and I can’t cope with that any more”, ending that life is a solution. The thing to ask is probably, “Sure, but is that the only option? Depression’s extremely common. It’s also very rare for it to last forever. Many people find another way past it, so let’s explore some possibilities, huh?”

I put a lot of time into figuring out how, if I was going to do it, I would. It sounds odd, but doing so gave me something to hang on to and get through those long, wide awake hours in the early morning. In Craig Ferguson’s (well worth watching) monologue about alcoholism and Britney Spears he talks about the moment he decided to throw himself off Tower Bridge. “I thought by doing this: I’ll show them. I wasn’t sure exactly who ‘they’ were, but I was going to show them.”

And that’s the other thing which makes suicide seem a viable choice. It’s feeling like it’s one thing about your life that you can get a handle on. One thing that you can control and you can do when everything else is beyond you. It’s not a coward’s choice or a fool’s choice, and if you’re fond of saying that you might want to keep it to yourself because you’re sure as hell not helping anyone. It actually takes real guts to kill yourself, and very few make the decision lightly. No one’s an idiot or a selfish arsehole. It’s just that the data they’re basing that choice on is faulty.

If you’re depressed and you can find something else you can control or you can do, no matter how small (Matt Fraction’s post linked to above talks about deliberately making himself laugh by shaving off half his pubic hair because he realised he hadn’t found anything fun for a long time), killing yourself may no longer be the last available straw you can grasp. That’s worth bearing in mind too, should you encounter someone on the brink.

I was smart enough to know that overdose-by-pill only works in the movies or the distant past when doctors prescribed barbituates willy-nilly. Try pulling that stunt now, especially with everyday painkillers, and generally you’ll just end up with horrible liver damage, agony, and a long life afterwards to regret it. I was (and still am) far too squeamish about digging around in my own innards to even remotely consider slashing an artery. Both, in any case, leave you a long time to have second thoughts and have too much that can go wrong and leave you alive, but with problems. Hanging, too.

That left jumping off something tall enough onto something hard enough, which has the advantages of being quick, consequently usually painless, and so long as you plan ahead, pretty much guaranteed to work. But it’s also messy and I’m a considerate type, and while I’ve grown up by Beachy Head that also means I know collecting bodies is difficult and dangerous work for the coastguard, and that even from 600 feet it’s possible to survive because the cliff slopes outward. (I’ve since happened to meet someone who did just that; albeit with considerable brain damage and a jaw and various other bones held together only by massive numbers of steel pins.) That left one of the town’s multi-storey car parks as the best choice, ideally at 3-4am so no one would have to see the unpleasant results apart from the emergency services. (Which sucks badly too, but you can’t do it totally cleanly was what I figured at the time, and at least those guys have training.) Up top, phone a rather apologetic report to 999, jump, done.

Of course, to do that, you have to get into a locked multi-storey car park in the middle of the night without being spotted. That’s quite a high hassle barrier to overcome. It’s not impossible if you’re smart, but it’s certainly a challange (challenges not being something depressives are famous for overcoming, of course). If you’re going to go through all that, you need to be goddamn sure that that’s what you want to do. No backing out. No change of heart. Once you go, you’re committed, because you start off by breaking the law. That’s pretty daunting.

In the US, I could’ve bought a gun. I’ve got no criminal record, nothing to see me fail a background check. Hell, I could’ve rented a gun, as numerous people apparently do for precisely this purpose. It’s a lot, lot easier. Maybe I’d have been more inclined.

Because I didn’t do it, of course. Be hard to type all this if I had. I eventually figured if I was going to spend all that time failing to get out of the rut, not to mention wondering about ending it all but never being sure enough to try that very high barrier for entry, I might as well suck it up and go and talk to my doctor. I didn’t want to hassle my family or friends. My mates had been great early on and I didn’t want to load them down with heavy stuff they didn’t deserve and wouldn’t handle. (Generally whenever we’d meet up for gaming or the pub - both of which I’d generally enjoy at least a little right up until I got home again to the empty gulf of my own regular life - I’d put on the ol’ ‘everything’s great’ suit and try, probably not very convincingly, to act normal.)

Depression will tell you it’s a bad idea to speak to people about it because it’ll just make people want to avoid you. It’s a selfish illness and it wants you all to itself. Feeling guilty about dumping your emotional wreckage on those closest to you - those you really, really don’t want to drive away - is as far as I know a common reason not to want to talk about depression. It’s also why I’d modify the standard advice - “talk to someone, anyone” - with a caveat: “Talk to a professional if you can, someone you won’t have to feel bad about opening up to. You might think your regular GP/doctor doesn’t deal with depression but you’re wrong. Talk to them. If they’re unsympathetic, the hell with them; talk to another doctor. If you don’t have one, don’t know the number for a crisis line and can’t find anyone else, sure, talk to someone, whether a friend or a stranger, because you shouldn’t try to tough it out alone.”

I still felt like a total time-wasting fraud when I saw my doctor but to her lasting credit she was great. Very matter-of-fact. I explained what was happening (“Suicidal thoughts? I spent two hours last night unable to sleep, thinking who I’d leave notes to and what they’d say.”) and she said the two options were counselling or medication. I said I didn’t have any actual issues that needed working out, I just needed to get out of the self-feeding cycle of misery, to get a bit of a lift so I could break the habit of having my thoughts turn back in on themselves to make me feel worse for feeling bad (as per Hyperbole And A Half’s excellent account). If I did that I’d be able to shake it and pick myself up. “OK,” she said.

She prescribed me this stuff, then comparatively new in the world of serious antidepressants. If you’re not sleeping and not eating, something that knocks you out (12 hours straight on the night of the first dose which I still remember being astonished by) and gives you a bad case of the munchies is not to be sniffed at. She doubled the dose after a fortnight, and the depression did indeed lift over the next few weeks. I was able to start writing again, having done no work at all for five months because I just couldn’t concentrate worth a damn. With the slowdown period at the end to avoid withdrawal, I was on the pills for four months or so.

In the ten years since then, I’ve had two kids, I’ve gotten married, I’ve moved home more times than I can count. I’ve had good times and I’ve messed up and life’s not as simple as it might be (with those two kids coming from different relationships, the main source of stress I now have isn’t career or money or love-life based but now whether or not my oldest is happy and how well we work out the rota between me and his mother). And sometimes days are bad, and I can feel the old process tickle at the back of my head, though I know it for what it is now. I’ve got a lot more responsibility and more things to worry about and more pressure to put myself under. But I’ve never gone back there. Mostly, on a down day, I just have a couple of beers, shoot some zombies or watch a crappy movie, and forget about it come morning. Like any healthy person.

If things had been different, I do wonder sometimes if I’d ever have gotten out in the first place.