The last seven days have been a blur. I have eaten and slept, but only because of the efforts of my nearest and dearest.
One week ago today, a kind man – a man I may never meet – was walking with his dog through an open green space in South London.
At first this man must have wondered why his dog, which had disappeared into the middle of a copse a few hundred yards ahead, was barking incessantly.
After a few minutes of calling and whistling, the man must have realised he could not bring his dog to heel and so went to see what the fuss was about.
Nothing could have prepared the man mentally or emotionally for what he was about to see.
For there, through a small opening into the copse in which the dog was barking, he saw a human body, hanging from a tree.
I never had the chance to tell my dear brother Steve how much I loved him.
I did not visit him daily in hospital.
I did not lock myself in a padded cell with him until his terrors were over.
I did not rugby tackle him to the ground.
I did not think up a master plan for his survival even more intricate and watertight than the far-fetched conspiracies he had built-up in his poor tortured mind over the years.
Why not? I was capable of doing these things. Because he didn’t let me close enough to see the signs? Was I simply not good enough to figure them out myself?
I have seen signs before in others. Like the dog with its killer sense of smell, you could not put me off that scent. I have called parents in the middle of the night to tell them to come to the hospital soon because their daughter may not make it – and please take a taxi.
I knew he was very ill; at Christmas time I tried to rally the troops around him to show a unified front of love and support. I failed.
I did not know he was that ill; since last week I have learned his family, my family, knew of his intentions. Since then I have heard his friends were party to the intimate details of his plans. Since then I have read diaries, letters, emails, text messages. Since then I have hacked his computer to find his final goodbye note.
Since then I have felt his darkness, hugged his children, reasoned with their mummy, cried uncontrollably.
Since then I have tried to reconcile this new Steve I did not know with the old Steve I grew up with.
My tears have turned to frustration at my parents’ inability to discern his truths from his lies. I have listened to every part in the play justify, defend, blame themselves, blame others, disagree, blame doctors, sob.
Since then I have identified the five stages of bereavement, related them to my own loss, tried to break free from them, in order to support my family, and failed. Like a rat stuck on a treadmill.
I considered myself enlightened and strong. I am neither enlightened nor strong.
Since then I have learned of his mantra over the last few months: better an end with terror than terror without end.
I have of course taken my mind to that dark place. Researched his hanging technique. Found out just how much planning was necessary. Walked through the procedure in my mind. Read medical accounts, reviewed statistics, and cried at the sheer terror of the fact that hanging was, for Steve, less painful than the mental torture he was suffering.
I understand mental illness this much: it is an entire mystery. I have not felt such terrifying depths of depression myself, but I have spent sleepless nights before Steve’s death trying to feel it. Trying to understand what it must mean to be unable to pull myself together.
I have heard hints in the past from Steve’s friends about how dark his thoughts had become. Nothing shocked me. I am not shocked by things which 99% of the rest of humanity would be shocked by. Why didn’t he talk to me? I am unshockable.
I imagine that Steve lost his battle with mental illness approximately twelve hours before the point he was found. Unbeknownst to me, this had a been a long battle lasting more than several years. How had I not known this?
Dear readers and friends, if you take just one thing from this, please contact a loved one, or even a distant friend, whom you know – or even suspect – struggles with depression or mental illness.
Go gently, but go. Ask questions until you are weary. Ask the difficult questions. Ask how bad it has been for them at its worst. Ask how they thought they might end it all. Go into the detail even if it does not seem appropriate. Just ask questions.
You may think they have people closer to them who are better placed to support them.
Forget that. Forget other people. Ask the questions yourself. Meet them in their darkest place, if you have the strength to do this. Of course, this can cause more harm than good if you are not prepared. But at least consider it. Consider opening up a dialogue.
Or if you have yourself battled, I would like to hear from you. Have the courage to share your mental state with someone you know can be trusted.
We live in a culture which has, in the most part, banished shame from mental illness, and so there are no excuses.
To my personal friends: I’m not taking calls right now. I need you to be there for me when I do, though.
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