There’s a lot of talk lately about mental health and trying to shake off the taboos that exist around dealing with depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and other things that plague people in increasing numbers. These topics are not the stuff of easy, happy, inspiring blogging. I’ve added my voice to the calls for more talk about suicide, but I haven’t really followed through by talking about my experiences around feeling like there was no reason to keep going.
I want to say upfront that I’m just writing from my experiences, I am not at all qualified on these topics outside of my humanity and what I’ve gone through and some things I’ve read and come to believe around how we need to break down the taboos that still keep a lot of people trapped in their pain.
I know that some people reading this will have lost close family members, dear friends, work colleagues or other people they’ve known, to suicide. Suicide is utterly tragic and incomprehensible to those left behind. I’ve got no answers to the burning, unending questions of why, no balm to soothe the gaping wounds left by losing someone this way… I just have my story and the hope that as more of us tell our stories, and break down the stigmas around depression and thoughts of suicide, we might somehow make a difference in the world. And I am truly, truly sorry for the losses you have suffered.
I can clearly recall, almost 20 years ago now, standing on the platform at one of Melbourne’s underground train stations and having the thought flash through my mind, just step off the platform. I don’t know where it came from, but it was a very strong and insistent voice, almost a command. It absolutely shook me to the core. I remember that I stepped back the other way, and after making it back to my car at the other end of the train line, I drove myself over to a friend’s place and spilled the story to them, in utter disbelief that I’d had that experience. I really needed to talk it out with someone right there and then, and I remember feeling a heavy, dark presence around me for quite some time in the weeks around that one instance. I have no real explanation for it, even now, but it scared the crap out of me.
Somewhere around the year 2000, I sank into a bit of a depressed state without realising it. I had one very close friend who saw that I was struggling, and who tried to prop me up, but we didn’t know then what we know now about depression and I think I defaulted, unsurprisingly, into not wanting to talk about it, and it certainly never occurred to me to visit the GP, or ask for any kind of professional help. When you’re a proud soul like me, help is a dirty word. How sad, and frankly, dangerous, that mindset is! But oh how strong, still!
I can clearly remember spending a lot of time sitting on the end of my bed, listlessly staring at the wall. I remember that I felt disinterested in the things that I usually enjoyed, I became quite anti-social and was definitely just going through the motions on a day-to-day basis. Though I wasn’t really mindful of needing help, I remember leaning very heavily on that one friend, who was going through their own crap, and probably needed someone to lean on themselves. I was not in a good place.
It was a season where things were changing for me, I was going from full-time work which I was deeply dissatisfied with, to studying at uni for the first time, I wasn’t really tied into one group of friends, though I knew, and was known by, loads of people… really, I had all the classic signs of being mildly depressed, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew that I felt disconnected, shit-house about things and alone.
It came to a head one Sunday morning, when I was out driving kind of aimlessly. I love driving, it’s something I do when I need to clear the cobwebs, think or just feel like exploring. I often set off with no particular destination in mind, as long as there’s dappled light and the hope of stopping for a coffee, I’m all set.
On that particular Sunday, I went out driving for quite a while, several hours maybe, feeling very black. The area I was in was rife with places that if your car went off the road, you’d be hurtling down a cliff in an instant. I can recall the almost overwhelming urge to just point my car into one of the barriers and accelerate. There was just blackness in my head, no reason to not just go with it and no thought of anything but the moment I was in.
Somehow, I can’t tell you why, I didn’t do what my black head was urging me to and I ended up back very close to home. I stopped at a local brunch spot, mostly so I wouldn’t be alone. I was shaken to the core by the thoughts going through my head that morning.
It was a local spot that plenty of people in my wider circle frequented, so I wasn’t surprised to see Dan there, having a meal with a group of people. From memory his group was sitting inside, and I was sitting outside on the balcony having a coffee and trying to calm myself down. I was black, black, black in my head. Hopeless. Lost.
Dan wasn’t a close friend, he and I mixed in the same circles, and we’d done some music stuff together, but we certainly didn’t know each other well. Usually, in that circumstance, you’d wave and smile, maybe say hi and that would be it. I think there was waving, but then I went and sat outside, as I was feeling utterly lost and shit.
After a while, Dan came out to where I was sitting, and he asked me how I was. Against all odds, I told him the truth – my words spilling out, punctuated by heaving sobs as I told him how I’d almost driven my car off the road that morning, how black I felt inside, how lost I felt. He was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. I don’t know why I drove there, or why he chose to go there that day, or whether there’s anything behind that or not, but I’m SO grateful he was there and had his eyes open to see that I needed someone to just ask me how I was.
I don’t think we talked for long, or maybe we did (it’s such a long time ago now, and my memory is utterly shit) but I do remember that I felt unburdened by our conversation, that I felt seen and heard for the first time in a long time, and that Dan didn’t really say much, but just listened, affirmed me and probably got a very wet shoulder.
I’m not sure where I went after that, maybe he left before I did, but when I got home (which was just around the corner from the cafe we were at) there was a big bunch of bright flowers on my doorstep and a small gift. I was so touched by that. When I opened the gift, I found this book.
What struck me most deeply on the day was that not only had Dan stopped to talk to me, encouraging me and showing absolutely genuine concern for me, but that he’d then taken the time to leave me a gift that he thought might help, even just a bit. Could it change things? No way. What it could, and did do was show me that someone cared, and that I wasn’t alone.
Those books were quite the thing at the time, I’m sure there were several in the series. More than the gorgeous photos and pithy text, more than the brightness and fragrance of those flowers on my doorstep, Dan reached out to me with compassion. That’s what helped me back from the brink that day.
Here’s some of what Dan wrote in the front of the book:
‘Someone gave me this book when I was going thru hell, and I wanted to chuck it through the wall, until I looked at the pictures inside.
I know you are battling much more than a blue day.’
He was so right! It’s a silly little book, it probably makes a lot of people want to rip it up when they’re feeling utterly lost and hopeless, but over a decade later, I still have that book. Today when I grabbed it off the shelf, I remembered his kindness and compassion before I remembered the horror of that day. I flipped through the book, and though the advice is mostly lighthearted and cliched, and matched with funny pictures of animals, it is a touchstone in my life of a day when I remember that Dan really stepped in, and in way, he saved my life. That seems an overly dramatic thing to say, but it’s what I believe about that day.
Not everyone has a Dan, and not all the Dans step in early enough in the blackness to make a difference. That’s utterly heartbreaking, and again, I’m only able to relay my story about days where I truly did feel that there was no reason to go on. What I now also recognise that those periods were quite short in duration, and that I don’t know anything about the terrifying, paralysing depths that depression and mental illness can take a person to, where there’s no way of seeing anything but blackness. How I WISH this post held the magic answer…. how I WISH there was a magic answer….
Even very recently, on one specific evening, I felt my mind wandering into a dark place, a place that set alarms bells off. I was able to tell myself that if I was still thinking that way in an hour, I would get up, and go and talk to someone. Luckily, thankfully, or by sheer fluke, those thoughts didn’t hang around, but I really, truly HOPE that I would have followed through on getting out of that room and finding someone to say, ‘hey, I’m thinking in a way that makes me feel unhinged and a bit scared, can I talk to you about that?’ As I said earlier, I’m ridiculously proud and asking for help isn’t something that comes easily to me… but if I think about how that could cost me more than I can even articulate, it makes me realise that I need to be shouting for help at the first sign of struggle.
Writing this post is kind of kicking me into that space of outing myself as someone who needs to learn to ask for help more.
I am fine now, totally fine. I’ve chosen to wait for a super sunny, bright day to write this, a day when I feel like I can stand well back from these moments and share them in a matter of fact way.
What I want to achieve today is just to tell my story, in the hope that if someone else has struggled with feeling not quite right, or right now is feeling lost, sad, hopeless, that my story might encourage them to reach out for help, or tell their story – heck, use this as an excuse to start the conversation…. I read this blog today and this girl talked about feeling like throwing herself in front of a train, sometimes I feel… or sometimes I wonder if you feel…. I’m happy to be your starting point. I hope I am!
I want to also mention that I have had the opportunity to do some training around suicide awareness, prevention and bereavement by suicide, just short online and face-to-face workshops, but they really, really challenged ideas I had in my head about how to try and TALK about suicide, let alone come to any understanding of the ways that losing someone to suicide makes grief an insurmountable tidal wave that people find it enormously difficult to discuss, let alone navigate.
A couple of links – the courses I have done are run by the Salvos, under the umbrella Hope For Life. If you’re in Australia, you can access the Question, Persuade, Refer course online here which is offered free of charge to anyone in Australia.
It’s a course that looks at the myths around suicide, talking about it, how to help someone that might be contemplating suicide, and it can be started and stopped online, go at your own pace. I found it really valuable. I’d highly recommend it to anyone at all, it isn’t for ‘professionals’, it is information that I think needs to be widely disseminated in our community. PLEASE look at this resource.
Please also click here to see information about the Salvos training in supporting those bereaved by suicide (again this is the Australian resource). I did this course in a small group setting and it was some of the most confronting yet empowering information I’ve ever accessed, and has changed the ways I think about grieving and how to show compassion to people.
Lifeline 13 11 14 – click here to get help. Lifeline now has an online chat facility, as well as their trained telephone counsellors you can call 24 hours a day.
The Salvo Care Line 1300 36 36 22
Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800
Mensline Australia 1300 789 978
This is a massively long blog post – I’m sure I could edit it down, craft it into something ‘better’, but I’m not going to do that.
I wanted to tell my story, and I have done that. I know this won’t bring any comfort to those of you who are in the throes of grief and loss, and it may not shine any light into the dark places some of you are in, I know that. I write anyway. I hope. I write with sincerity of intention, with compassion, with a touch of trepidation.
I send this blog post out into the ether, my message in a bottle. It’s not the whole story, it is my story.
I have felt utterly alone, but I wasn’t.
Thank you Dan.