Suicide and September. Two words that always go together on my calendar, whether or not there’s a highly promoted Suicide Prevention Day to seek help should you be depressed and suicidal. My family’s twenty-five years seemingly irrelevant, lost in the official and newsworthy yet still tightly bound together forever, regardless, for me, for my mother and for my brothers, one alive, one not.
I’m no expert on depression but I’ve got first-hand experience on the aftermath of suicide. Not unlike Chernobyl its affects are felt in ever-increasing circles as we’re reminded again and again of the finality of a death that no one likes to talk about. Not in detail, anyway. Suicide, it seems, is as socially awkward as sex, politics, religion, money and race. And then some.
It makes people uncomfortable as well as highly opinionated. Knowledgeable too, with numbers thrown around like unwelcome confetti though surely no one enjoys someone they love reduced to a statistic.
Oh, and the intrigue. Everyone always asks why.
As the sister of a boy who was within days a statistic of his sex, his age, his town, his school, even his country, to us he was and continues to be, so much more than that, the reasons as complex and huge and small and frustratingly as unknowable one moment as they are clear as day the next.
He was 15 years and 7 months.
I was 24 and thought I was unhappy. He was in Wellington and I was in Auckland ready to travel back to London again because Nobody Understood Me. The day before he died I’d spoken with mum at length on the phone, her frustration at getting information from the school, her worry tangible and heavy. We spoke of suicide, it being such a terrible statistic and all. We spoke of depression. And my heart ached and I worried along with her. Then I hung up and carried on.
I guard his death closely, jealously protecting it from thoughtless words and pity, the sideways head tilt, the sometimes depths of stupidity. I shy away from saying ‘committed suicide’ or ‘took his own life’. Both those statements sound like criminal acts to me. And they’re not. Unless you’re going all Old Testament or whatever else I’ve had quoted at me. If that’s the case it’s fair to say we’ll not find a common ground. Because as much as I think suicide is a desperately sad action, I think there is a terrible bravery involved too. To carry out such a finale has only ever lurked in the depths of my imagination, to summon the ability to act far, far beyond it.
Cards and flowers and asparagus casseroles left on the doorstep. Someone with the best of intentions gave my mother a dog. We were not dog people. We had no fence, no paraphernalia, nothing left to give. We did quickly love her but the asparagus was woefully undercooked. The flowers drooped and the words were often stilted yet these kind gestures kept coming, bringing moments of sweetness, of connection, reaching through the haze I inhabited, as if underwater, only able to see and hear indistinctly. We wrote thank you messages and I returned his library books after receiving a fine in the post.
His note told me everything and nothing.
He said he’d understand our being ashamed of him, of this final act. But it’s never been him I’m ashamed of; it’s us, all of us and our carelessness. For despite our sophistication, our so-called self-awareness we blunder our way through life missing cues, not quite reconciling our humanness.
There’s no rulebook that I know of but suicide brings with it a host of expectations on how to act, how to be, how to grieve and plays fast and loose with boundaries on what we shall receive. Maybe tragedy brings out the cruelty in people. Maybe that’s how we distance ourselves, afraid of contamination. I don’t know and it’s not till many years later that I realise how far that sense of failure can travel. Insidious little fucker.
How many brothers do you have?
I hesitate. I don’t trust the world enough. If I say one it’s as if he never existed. If I say two, then I must quickly summarise to make you feel comfortable. And I don’t care so much any more if you’re comfortable.
Being told that you too had often thought of topping yourself. Don’t say that. Don’t casually tell me as you wrap up a precious pencil sketch of his trumpet in the now defunct (good!) framing store on Lambton Quay how selfish he was. Don’t stop me in the street as I stand, unable to move, spittle gathering in the corners of your mouth as you implore me, literally wringing your hands like a bad pantomime actor, to forgive ourselves for letting him down so terribly. Don’t tell me he’s gone to hell. Don’t come out of the woodwork now and sit on the sofa next to my broken mother and explain why you didn’t contact us when he tried to get sleeping pills from her, or why you didn’t call us when his art folder was filled with distressing images and why you didn’t show us his beautifully written English essays examining his own death.
Don’t do those things.
And don’t ask how. It’s a conversation killer.
On a more proactive note you could say their name. Because as life continues the number of people who knew him will diminish, so saying that name, using it, acknowledging him brings him home to us. You can talk about him and remember him and ask if I could tell you about him and smile and not mind if my eyes well up.
My last visit home he’d got taller and more angular. He didn’t throw his arms around me for the first time ever. That hurt but he’s 15, I allowed. I’ll give him a little while before forcing him to hug me again. But he didn’t make our in-jokes; his eyes were darker and looking elsewhere. The knot in my stomach grew tighter. When I wake some nights I feel that anxiety again, I remember it as real. It was real. How do you know something but not know enough?
If he was here now, is something we drop into any conversation. Saying with certainty how much he’d love our children, how he’d be a brilliant partner and a beautiful father, just like my other brother, just like our dad. He’d have a menagerie of pets; play in a band, be an artist still. He’d charm his way out of trouble and create magic everywhere he went. Then we loose momentum. We don’t know anything because he’s still 15 and 7 months and he keeps getting younger and further away and we just don’t know.
His name is Nicholas. We called him Nicky and then Nick and just before he died he did that thing that boys do and turned it into Nic. When I apply the name to other people it doesn’t roll off my tongue. I have to do it carefully.
He was cheeky and naughty and hilariously funny. With nine years between us he made me laugh like no one else. After our dad died and I left home he’d come and stay in my flats around town. I’d steal Weetbix from the communal cupboard for his breakfast. He could eat 12 in one go.
I was looking after him when he sliced through his hand with a huge meat knife cutting slabs off the 1kg block of cheddar. He advised the doctor it would be best if his sister left the room when the stiches went in and then proceeded to tell me every detail on the way home. He held my hair back when I threw up.
I have a photo in my wallet of him as a little boy after he’d given himself a haircut. A wonky fringe and long lashes. My friend and I took him to school once. He was wearing red gumboots and his blue checked dressing gown and mum thought he was in the garage playing with his train set. I had to carry him all the way home. He was two and devastatingly cute but not enough to be allowed to stay for the day.
I started running late at night. Around 11 I’d pull on my trainers and run. Round and round the block, the same route, each night upping the laps. Just one more, then the next night, just one more. It was the only time I could think without interruption, without overwhelming anxiety. I’d go over and over things, backward, forwards and so far sideways there was more murk then clarity but I kept at it. I raged and ran and ran and raged. My face was always wet, though I don’t remember crying. One night a friend drove past in a hailstorm. He slowed down alongside me for a while, saying he’d wondered who this lunatic was and then thought, of course it’s you.
Have you been in touch with a counsellor, I was asked? I’d nod – because that’s what was expected – and drive to sit in car parks where I was free to hide my face on the steering wheel and cry.
How do you cope, we were asked? Some people join groups and talk about it a lot. I don’t think we were made for that sort of thing. At the funeral during the first hymn, in view of my family’s belief that I can’t sing, my mother leaned over to me and said in an exaggerated whisper, just mouth the words. We snorted. That’s how we do it.
After Nick more boys took their lives. The newspaper said it was an epidemic. One of the boys I had enough foresight to worry about. Would he do it, I wondered. Turns out he would. Turns out the depth of badness you can feel is endless.
My nana was so sad.
It’s changed my life. Funny that. Sounds pedestrian yet it’s true. It colours everything and although I don’t hold it up as a barometer of pain there has never been anything close to touching on this helplessness.
It stops you in your tracks, suicide. You form decisions and make choices based on fear. You second-guess your normal. There is no one who would call me a helicopter parent. Ask my daughter, I’ve forgotten to pick her up enough times, fed her lazy meals nights on end and watched her make decisions you can only learn from but when she turned 15 I held my breath. High, high, high in my chest and only exhaled long and shaky a year later with a private, unutterably delicious sigh of relief.
I don’t believe this is a selfish act. For us left behind though, it can grow a kind of selfishness. For the longest time I considered myself as someone who had experienced things on a whole other level, as someone who (and forgive the drama queen aspect) was older and wiser beyond her years when actually I was stunted. It leaves you floundering in your maturity and emotional awareness. It’s not a healthy way forward to be stuck on that loop. We weren’t offered help or therapy; we didn’t really have anyone looking out for us like that. It was the three of us against the world and it wasn’t till yoga came into my life that my breath, even if it was only for those 60-90 minutes, flowed without catching. It’s taken a while to grow up.
When had he stopped finding joy? This is the one thing I allow myself to wish I knew.
If I’ve learnt anything it’s that this isn’t an intellectual process I can understand any more. I’ve stopped trying to make sense of it and instead try to let it be. I miss him beyond words but I can’t fix what isn’t there to be repaired. That’s what I tell myself anyway.
Nick’s death has touched other people’s lives too. This is only some of my story, part of what I can share. It’s not the worst story in the world, I know. Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, you have no idea. I get that. But it’s what’s brought me here and as awful and beautiful and eventful as it’s been so far I would not change one thing if I could tell my brother that.
Below are links to helplines if you would like to talk to someone about depression or suicide. And while I’m very obviously not a professional I am always here if you simply want to chat.
© The Yoga Connection 2016