CONTENT NOTE: I talk about suicide and depression in this episode. Seriously: please don’t listen to this if you think it might be at all triggering. Also, I should stress that this is a very personal account. You may find my ambivalence troubling and unhelpful.
I have marked this episode as explicit on Apple Podcasts because of the subject matter.
Here are some links to accompany this episode:
The Samaritans online
An article on Wikipedia about Émile Durkheim’s book Suicide (last accessed on 26th October, 2020)
Andrew Solomon’s Ted Talk about depression from October 2013
An excellent article by Guilaine Kinouani on Media Diversified on the experience of black women accessing mental health services in the UK
Another excellent resource for anybody trying to understand or articulate the experience of depression is the second of the posts Ali Brosh wrote and drew about it on her blog Hyperbole And A Half.
My story A Tiny Rose Jewel is now part of Museling 30, where it is listed as number 12 in the transcript.
A transcript of this episode is below.
You can find this podcast and subscribe on Apple Podcasts here.
OK, before I start, CONTENT NOTE again: I talk about suicide and depression in this episode. Seriously: please don’t listen to this if you think it might be at all triggering. Also, I should stress that this is a very personal account. You may find my ambivalence troubling and unhelpful.
When I was 18, I wrote in a notebook: “What if the vital part of the chain broke down and I forgot why I should not let myself die?”
I’d just come out of boarding school and I was living in Florence, Italy. I was having a wonderful time. And I was very depressed. I was tired most of the time and, sometimes, I would fantasize about jumping off one of the bridges over the Arno, just above the weir. Occasionally, while I was crossing the road, I would think about stopping to let a bus hit me. And I didn’t tell anybody.
I’ve never actually been suicidal. I remember wondering, at about the age of 13 or 14, how bad I would have to feel before the idea of suicide started to seem attractive. And so far, it never has done. From time to time, as I’ve just described, I suffer from what I suppose I would call mild suicidal ideation but I’m tempted to put suffer in imaginary quotation marks because, actually, it can be a pleasant sensation. It might grow out of despair but it tastes of release. And, so far, it hasn’t led to suicidality in me. Don’t get me wrong: As somebody who suffers from depression and who has these thoughts, I’m aware that I am at risk of suicide and I take that very seriously. But it has occurred to me that these vague thoughts of suicide, while they are so vague, might even protect me from suicidality. When I’m tired of feeling anxious or of feeling depressed – and sometimes I really am so tired – I can flirt with the idea of laying it all down. And that makes me feel a little better. Perhaps for long enough that the tiredness can pass.
So: Depression, suicidal ideation, suicide. Perhaps it seems strange to separate those things. But they are separate. One might lead to the next but they can all exist separately and independently. And I’ve started to learn to talk about them, to name them and identify them. I see a therapist regularly at the moment and, although there is a lot of other stuff for us to talk about, we do talk about depression and, very occasionally, we have talked about suicide and about suicidal ideation.
Because I’ve realised that I have to find some kind of treatment if I want to stay healthy.
I can’t help but be aware of the fact that depression is a disease with a high mortality rate. Every now and then some very famous person kills him or herself and the subject fills the news media for a while. But it’s also something that’s always interested me for its own sake and, a few years ago, I read Émile Durkheim’s study, Suicide, in which he points out, among other things, that the rate of suicide in a population – in other words the number of suicides per 100,000 people – goes up as the population gets older and it rises sharply from the age of 40 onwards.
He also found – and I’m quoting from Wikipedia now because it provides a nice summary (as I say, it’s a while since I read the book) – that: suicide rates are higher in men than in women, higher for those who are single than for those who are married, higher for people without children than for people with children, higher for Protestants than for Catholics or Jews, higher among soldiers than civilians, higher in times of peace than in times of war, higher in Scandinavian countries than in other parts of Europe and that the higher the level of education, the more likely it is that an individual will choose suicide.
I should probably say that he’s using patchy data from 19th century Europe, and that his findings have been questioned and his conclusions contested – and, let’s be honest, the situation as we view it today, is a little more complex – but, as I read that, and realised that I tick quite a few of those boxes, I started to feel as though it would be sensible, at least, for me to pay attention to the risk.
Because, even when I’m feeling good – and I do feel good quite a lot of the time – I’m aware that these feelings and these thoughts don’t go away forever. My experience – and I want to stress that I can only talk about my experience of these things – is that more serious depression visits me, not regularly or predictably, but certainly periodically. And that, as strange as this might sound, in the past I’ve not always been aware that it is visiting. In case you’re not familiar with the experience of the kind of depression that I am talking about, the difference that I would make between less and more serious depression is like the difference between a noise in the background that you can ignore with a little effort and a noise that makes it almost impossible to hear anything else. And sometimes, when this noise is at its most insistent, it becomes so familiar that I’m no longer aware that I’m hearing it, or that it’s the reason why it’s so difficult to hear anything else. Until it fades away again and suddenly I think: ‘Oh! This is what it’s like when the noise isn’t there.’
Ten years ago or so, while I was in Paris, I used to think from time to time about jumping out of the window of the flat I lived in. A beautiful, big window on the fourth floor above a wide pavement. If you’d asked, I wouldn’t have told you that I was depressed; just that, sometimes, if I hadn’t spent enough time with people who I could really talk to for a while, and if I had the window open in the evening, I might get a little nervous of standing too close to it. Earlier this year, I was staying by the seaside and I found myself thinking about how easy it might be to swim until I was too tired to come back. And, although I’d forgotten this, it turns out that it’s not the first time I’ve had that particular thought. In 2007, I wrote something I’ve called Tiny Rose Jewel, which ends: “I walk along a grey beach, where worms have pooed effigies of themselves onto the wet sand to demonstrate that they once existed, and I imagine walking into the sea as night falls. The sun sets behind me and, in front, away across the forth, a window catches the light: a tiny rose jewel against a blue vanishing shoreline. I could make for that. It is far enough away that I would never know that I had not reached it.”
I remember that beach and I could tell you where it is. But, again, in 2007, I wouldn’t have told you that I was depressed. This year, though, when I caught myself imagining a similar swim to the horizon, I could see what was happening and I realised that I should probably take it easy for a bit. Just… be nice to myself, I mean. Rest. Allow myself to fail. Because, as I say, I’m seeing a therapist now and I think it’s helping. And here’s what I think I’m getting from my therapy, in case you’re interested: I think I’m learning to forgive myself for failing to be perfect, I think I’m learning to forgive myself for being tired sometimes, and I think I’m learning that I can wait and that it will feel better in a while. And that a lot of this noise that I’m talking about is just made up of a stream of negative voices that only have the power that I give them. And inasmuch as I am learning those things, I think I’m very lucky.
There are many, many reasons why people feel uncontrollably anxious or depressed and there are many, many reasons why people feel suicidal. And there are many, many ways in which people react to the idea of suicide both as it relates to themselves and as it relates to others. The effect of suicide on others, on loved ones, family, friends, is devastating and, in some cases, irreparable.
I know all of this and yet I remember, when I first read Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, being powerfully struck by the question that I think she poses: If you’re in that much pain, and if you cannot see how people can possibly love you, or why they should; if all of this is the case, and if it continues, and if you have no reason to believe that it’s ever going to change, is suicide not a reasonable response? Are you not most sane in those moments when you can see your way clear to killing yourself?
And that’s a frightening question. Particularly because, after writing what is, as I read it, a profoundly funny, angry, life-filled play, Sarah Kane did kill herself.
And, if I’m honest, I don’t have an answer to that question. All I can say is that, so far, it seems that the pain that I experience isn’t so strong that I can’t learn to sit with it and to notice that, in itself, it does not have the power to destroy me. And it isn’t so strong that, while I practise my Vipassana meditation, which I’ve been doing for a year or so now, I can’t learn to notice that pain is not a continuous sensation. That it fragments; it pulses. That it’s stronger at some times and weaker at others. And it isn’t so strong that I can’t learn to view it sometimes with detachment, as a thing that is happening but not a thing that I have to react to.
So, as I say, that isn’t an answer to the question that I think Sarah Kane poses. It’s a way of avoiding the question. But, right now, speaking only for myself, which is all that I can do, I can tell you that it’s helpful.
Also helpful recently has been the work of Andrew Solomon, who writes wonderful things about depression, and who says that love – connection with other human beings – is one of the best prophylactics against depression and suicidality. He also recommends finding medication that works but he doesn’t dismiss other paths to relief from depression. And this is interesting, I think. Because, he points out that, although depression seems to affect people of all cultures, genders, ages, socioeconomic groupings, effective treatments vary enormously. In his book The Noonday Demon, which I’m making my very slow way through, he points out that depression tends to be chronic and cyclical and I understand him to say that a symptomatic cure for depression is a cure. He says that, unlike with other diseases, the test of whether a treatment for depression is working is very simple: if it makes you feel better, it’s working. And, of course, it may only be working for now. But here’s something that I’ve noticed about depression: when I’m depressed, it’s difficult to talk about the future; it’s also not particularly helpful to try; at a certain point, I can only talk about what is happening right now.
In those moments, the only questions that make any real sense are: Is this bearable? Do I think it will last forever? Am I able to wait until it changes? Recently, the answers to those questions have been yes, no, yes. And so I feel very lucky.
OK. A last thought: While I was looking for shortcuts to information about Émile Durkheim online, I found this quotation attributed to him on brainyquote.com: “Sadness does not inhere in things; it does not reach us from the world and through mere contemplation of the world. It is a product of our own thought. We create it out of whole cloth.” I don’t know how useful anybody else will find that but I find it curiously helpful to remember that the way I experience the world is, to some extent, in my own hands. I am the agent of my own distress, when it comes and, perhaps, hopefully, with other people’s help, I can learn to be the agent of my own comfort.
Thank you for listening to the 6th of my Muselings. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please do think about looking for help. In the UK or the Republic Of Ireland, you can call the Samaritans for anonymous, non-judgemental support on 116 123 or you can contact them online via samaritans.org, or you can write to them through the post. You can also visit them for a one-to-one meeting and, in connection with Cruise Bereavement Care, they offer free support groups for people bereaved by suicide. As I say, their website is samaritans.org.
If you want to know more about this podcast – and this is, I suppose, the darkest episode so you shouldn’t expect too much more of the same – you can go to muselings.uk. There are two episodes left in this series. My name is Charles Adrian and I’m on twitter as @charldrian.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020