Last night someone told me today is suicide awareness day, so I’ve been lying awake thinking about suicide and what to say. Suicide is a difficult topic: many avoid discussing suicide and its more respectable sibling Euthanasia. If someone attempts suicide and doesn’t succeed, there’s a perception that it’s just ‘attention-seeking behaviour’, but often failed attempts are part of a downward spiral. If someone commits suicide, relatives have a cloud hanging over them, a cloud of social stigma born of a taboo or social solecism. Relatives of a suicide are more likely to suicide themselves. Media reporting of suicide is dodgy at best because often a reported suicide, especially of someone famous, will be followed by a string of copycats.
Suicide is often preceded by a sense of hopelessness, of futility, often caused by depression, which can be either chemical (fixed by a drug) or reactive depression (caused by life events such as learned helplessness). Sometimes a life-changing event such as Wall Street crashing in the thirties or an accident causing disability is the trigger for suicide: suicide is often seen as a way out when all seems lost.
Many years ago I went to a small country school. My best friend was Shona (not her real name), a gawky ranga with coke bottle glasses who loved Doctor Who as much as I. We found each other in grade 4 after I changed schools mid-year; before then I think she hung around with her younger cousins. Shona was very proud of her family, and made sure I met them all, even when this meant getting her older cousin, Gary (not his real name), to come to the invisible boundary in the playground between grades 3/4 and 5/6 to say hi.
As an adult I used to visit Shona, and one time ended up at a party in Scamander where Gary and his fiancée were the centre of attention. Gary was a good-looking young man with a job at Telstra or Telecom or whatever the phone company was called in the late 1980s. Gary’s girlfriend Lydia (not her real name) was a bitch. Lydia made a point of telling Shona and I that we weren’t welcome. Gary hugged and kissed Lydia, gently reminding her that Shona was his cousin and I was Shona’s friend. Even so, with aroma of ‘fucking bitch’ in the air I headed out to hang out elsewhere until it was time to leave. When daylight dawned, Lydia made it clear that Shona and I would not be given a lift back; I set out to hitch-hike back and Shona, fearing that Lydia would win this battle, came with me.
One day I received a phone call from Shona who was deeply distressed. Gary had been taken to hospital in Launceston because he’d shot himself. He was still alive but Shona, being a cousin and not immediate family, was only receiving delayed updates. Shona went to Launceston, but I was in Hobart with my toddler (from a teen pregnancy) and my job in the Department of Community Services and Health (Australian Public Service) so I had no means of being in Launceston for her.
Later Shona told me Gary worked long hours doing sometimes dangerous tasks on the phone lines but he was heading up the foodchain; Gary’s boss had chosen him for a promotion. Shona also told me that Gary’s father made his life hell. Gary was another pregnancy that ‘forced’ a marriage back in the 1960s, just like with my parents. Gary’s dad ‘did the right thing’ and married his pregnant girlfriend but he hated Gary and singled him out for abuse, while he loved – or at least tolerated – his younger kids.
Lydia cheated on Gary and gave him a hard time. One night Gary and Lydia had a fight then Gary headed home. On the way home Gary had a car accident. He got out and walked away, leaving the car behind. I think there was another car involved but everyone was ok, it was just vehicular damage. Gary walked home, got a gun and put it to his head to escape what felt like a disaster.
Gary survived. He was in intensive care for months before he started to make some improvements. Gary was learning to move, to feed himself and to talk after months of therapy. Gary’s father refused to see him, but his mum was there as often as possible. Lydia didn’t leave for the hospital for a while – late the next day or maybe even a few days later. Lydia, who wanted more than Gary could provide, who cheated and broke up with Gary, was pressured by their community into playing the loving girlfriend. Lydia visited Gary regularly and helped with his rehabilitation, earning the stern approval of their community.
One day at work the office trainee who bullied me and treated me like a subordinate walked up to my desk after I’d been absent briefly. He told me to sit down. I looked at him belligerently and told him I was fine standing, although I’d been about to lower myself onto my chair. He told me that he’d taken a call from Shona and that Gary had died suddenly. I sat with a thump.
It’s been close to 13 years since that phone call and the follow-up conversations with Shona about WTF happened when Gary was getting better. I’m vague about the details, why Gary died so suddenly after so long and improving so much.
Nearly the entire rural community turned out for the funeral.
Family and friends felt Gary’s loss the most, firstly his attempt, his survival as a severely disabled man and then his second death. Shona told me later that Lydia moved away, pretty much severing ties with a large part of the community.
I don’t know how much Gary suffered from depression. Gary’s father hating Gary hurt him deeply, shaping his world-view and self-image. Gary loved Lydia but she was high maintenance. When the relationship ended – or at the very least, became very unhealthy – Gary thought his world was coming to an end. A little alcohol and a minor car accident, then Gary destroyed himself. If only Gary had more resilience, more perspective, if only he had been able to hang on to thoughts of friends and family and career, maybe…
Other people aren’t as lucky as Gary and don’t have the family, friends and career that Gary had, leaving them even more vulnerable.
In Australia we have Lifeline (the crisis phone number is 13 11 14) and Beyond Blue (not a crisis service). If you’re depressed or thinking of self-harm, or you know someone who is, contact a local agency to seek help. If you don’t know where to go, talk to your local doctor.