The first time I ever entered a seriously suicidal space, it really shook me. Suddenly I had crossed a line that I never thought I would – contemplating taking my own life. Only other people did that – weaker people – not me. As with a lot of things in my system, feeling suicidal was wrapped in shame.
It was three years ago, I was holed up in my cabin, in the midst of a long re-traumatisation attack, and I just couldn’t cope with my levels of pain and suffering – I couldn’t cope with my experience of being alive. It was too much. I wanted a quick way out. Whether this was true or not – the ability to be realistic can take a real bashing when you’re retraumatised – I felt like I’d been suffering for hundreds and hundreds of days on end. My being felt saturated with a terrible dread and each and every thought process led me to utterly bleak conclusions. These words fail to describe the horror. I was no longer orbiting around an inner hell – I had entered into it.
Living by the coast, the obvious method of killing myself was to jump off a nearby cliff. I couldn’t believe that I was imagining these things. But I found myself wondering how I would go about it – although I wasn’t sure I would really go ahead with it. But I knew I had crossed a terrible line – an old Christian line, a line of shame, an inner spiritual line, I don’t know. Rather than provoke self-compassion, this line crossing just became fuel for the fires of self-attack.
There was a knock on the door.
Nobody ever knocked on my door. Hardly any one knew where I lived.
I climbed off my bed, in my underwear, tears and snot running down my face, almost in an altered state. If it was someone from the nearby stables, they were in for a big shock.
It was James. An old party buddy who lived twenty-five miles away. He had just decided to swing by on the off chance I was in.
I told him what was going on. He gave me a big hug and took me on a walk, and took me to the pub. He knew what inner suffering was like.
James was my human angel that day.
Last week, with a surfeit of energy in my being and a surplus of love in my heart, I decided to phone James and invite him round for dinner. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. I left message on his answer machine, and then another. It was a bit unlike him not to reply, so I went on Facebook and visited his page. Someone had posted a lovely photo of him from back in his early party days, and I clicked the heart response.
Then I read the caption – RIP James. Fuck, James was dead!
I didn’t doubt that he had taken his own life. And I wasn’t surprised. The first shock wave hit me later on that evening: this was not merely an unreal Facebook post; James was actually dead.
It took a while to piece together what had happened. He’d killed himself two weeks previously. And I’d only just found out. I got communicating with old party friends who knew James – and none of them knew. I think the news had just been circulating around James’s village, but hadn’t got out to his worldwide progressive trance tribe. I busied myself informing people – it was good to have a job to do.
The following morning I woke at five, wide awake. I could feel loss and grief moving through my being, and decided to go down to the sea. When I returned to the cabin, I sat down and wrote a poem – the first poem I’ve written in ages. It felt good to be channelling some of my grief and confusion and love into an act of creation. Sometimes ink acts like tears.
Yesterday I attended James’s funeral at Taunton Crematorium. Usually I don’t really like crematorium services – more precisely, I don’t like crem chapels – but the Taunton chapel is a strangely beautiful space, full of light.
I haven’t been to too many funerals: my grandparents’, my parents’, my auntie Doreen’s, the funeral of a friend’s child, a couple of others. James is my first close friend to die – give that I’m fifty-three, that’s quite late on in the friend-dying game.
The chapel was rammed – I counted a hundred people standing at the back. The bulk of them were people from his village, lots of them friends of his parents. There were a few party friends, but not as many as I thought there would be – I guess we all heard a bit late. Fuck, I’m glad I heard about his death before his funeral took place – I would have been gutted to have missed it.
Given the circumstances of his death, it was a good funeral. His suicide was addressed. One of his close village mates gave a tip top eulogy, and, instead of a hymn, ten minutes of progressive trance bounced out of the chapel speakers – what most of the congregation made of it, I don’t know. I shed a few tears. The reality of death takes a while to sink in. And grief has its own rhymes and reasons and rhythms. I realise that I know grief quite well – and seem to know how to let it flow through me when it arises.
After the funeral service, we were invited back to the village hall, where beer and wine and sandwiches were served. Some of James’s village friends had made a beautiful display of pictures of James, and there were pieces of his intricate artwork too. I’d inscribed a frisbee – James and I were keen frisbee buddies – and placed it next to another. Seems like he had a few frisbee buddies, the frisbee tart.
I got chatting to various of his village mates, and they invited me to the local, and many stories from their youthful days were shared. I learned a lot about teenage rural Devon village life last night, most of it unrepeatable in public. Cider, fags and snogs behind the village bus stop twoz not. They were quite a crazy and creative crew, and are already planning a big memorial party for James some time in the new year. We exchanged numbers and hugs, and I read out my poem to a group of them. I could see that it was going to turn into a boozing session, so I made my excuses and drove back to the cabin, along backcountry Devon lanes. I was exhausted when I got home.
Today I was meant to head to Oxford for Christmas, but at midday both my soul and nervous system said: chill, we ain’t going nowhere.
At the village hall wake, one of his friends told me how James had killed himself. I’d imagined that he’d done the old car-exhaust-and-hosepipe thing – he tried it once last year, but failed (and gave himself a hard time for not even being able to kill himself properly). I was shocked to learn that he’d hung himself in his own home – I won’t go into the details, but, fuck, he was obviously determined to kill himself that day. His mother discovered his body. I just can’t imagine.
Of course, we are all wondering whether or not we could have done anything to save himself from his suffering self. I learned that quite a few of his friends had exhausted themselves trying to accompany him in his deep pit of suffering.
For two years, James was my most regular friend. I can’t call him my best friend – because he was tricky, and his suffering dominated most visits. We did best when we were outdoors – walking the coast, visiting various pubs, chucking a frisbee back and forth. We were two buddies stuck in our own pits of pain – I was falling apart, and haphazardly trying to heal myself. But, even though I often felt in hell, it was obvious even to self-absorbed me that James was in a deeper hell. A fellow boarding school survivor, he didn’t seem to have any tools. He just wanted the pain to go away. A few years previously he’d gone travelling around New Zealand, and had really enjoyed himself – he kept on saying that he just wanted to feel like he had back then. James, I think, felt very unloved – and, weirdly, often made himself unloveable. It was easy not to take him seriously – sometimes we even talked about this. I found it difficult enough to listen to friends’ well-intentioned suggestions – James found it impossible. He knew he had to make some important changes in his life, but he just couldn’t muster whatever he needed to muster.
As the months went by, he became more and more harrowed, and more and more negative. I began noticing that my recovery time from his visits began to extend. His negativity and bitterness seemed to increase. Something inside him was turning rancid and toxic. Some of my friends thought I was a bit crazy to persevere in my friendship with James, given my own fragile state. But I really feared that if I withdrew my friendship, I would also withdraw a lifeline for him. I offered him a lot of love – as best as I could muster – and food, and was fairly non-judgmental (although you never once volunteered to do the washing up, mate). Every now and then we’d have an argument – sometimes he was harsh in his criticisms of me. Whenever I seemed to make any progress in my own healing journey, James confessed his envy. Whilst I admired his honesty, that’s not what you need from a friend.
A half-day visit from James would sometimes take me two days to recover from. In the end I had to have it out with him – I phrased it as responsibly as I could: I love you James, but I can’t cope with my reaction to your suffering and negativity any more – it affects me too much, and is affecting my own health. He took it well enough, but I could tell that I was giving him potential fuel for further self-attack. Wow, it’s hard writing this. Maybe I’m trying to justify myself? But I’m sure all this self-questioning, and replaying of past interaction is common to those who witness a friend committing suicide. Could I have done more? Could I have done anything differently?
We agreed – well, James didn’t really have a choice – to pause our friendship. I agreed to contact him around spring. I really had to accept that James might kill himself in the meantime. Alas, we never got to meet up – I’ve been through all my communications with him, and three times we tried to meet up this year, but never made it. If I’d been more peaceful in myself, I would have tried harder.
If I’d been a bit more together in myself, maybe I could have rallied some of his friends into some sort of emergency committee? I don’t know. I don’t know. None of us know. When I talked to his friends, they all said that in the last few weeks James had isolated himself more and more. As we all head into Christmas, I’m sure we’re all asking ourselves similar questions.
I don’t quite believe he’s dead. Because I think of him many times a day, he seems more real to me than he has for ages.
I found that once I’d seriously contemplated suicide once, it subsequently got easier to contemplate. I reckon I’ve been in a pre-suicidal state half a dozen times in the last three years. When I check in with close friends, several of them have said that at times they have had to “let go” of me – so determined did I seem to self-isolate, and so powerless did they feel.
During my second suicidal phase, I decided to explore the possibility in some detail – which cliff to jump off, and so on. If I jumped at night, on a low tide, then the sea would reclaim me. Still, some poor sod would find my body. I couldn’t get round that fact: someone would probably be traumatised by finding my smashed body. I imagined the jump, the falling through the air – but when I did this, I realised that, whilst falling, I would probably regret my decision. It must be awful falling through the air realising you’ve made the wrong move, and not having any cartoon powers. I researched another option: eating yew needles. Given my affinity for the yew tree, it had a tragic poetic feel to it, and in ancient days was a well-established method of taking your own life. I reckoned about a hundred needles would do it. But, I couldn’t find out if it’s a peaceful or tortuous way to die. And, again, someone would find my body. I’m always worrying about what other people may think. And then I heard a voice – the voice of a particular friend, howling out a “No!” of almost cosmic proportions. The voice of his animal grief and rage upon hearing that I had killed myself. It stopped me in my tracks. There was no way that I could put a friend through that. Still, I didn’t tell anyone that I had been contemplating suicide – I felt too ashamed. Only really weak and pitiful people contemplate suicide.
The third time I felt suicidal, I decided to let myself explore all the attendant fantasies – the reactions of my friends and family, my funeral, people’s recollections of me. I don’t know why I did this – part of me was interested to see if there was any useful information in these fantasies. The shock and consternation of my friends, the tributes paid, people wondering if they could have done more, the love, the heart-broken love... The good thing is, I realised how much I was loved. And I realised how much my friends would suffer, and how that heart-break would be carried for years. And I realised that there was no way I could put my friends through that suffering.
If I find myself entering suicidal fantasies nowadays, I try to remind myself that it’s just an indicator that I’m suffering a retraumatisation attack, and that I need to contact a friend and ask them to accompany me until the attack is over. I try to remind myself that I am very loved. And I still hear my friend’s voice, echoing through my bones: “No! Noooooooo!” I can’t quite explain the power of his voice and the power of his grief and the power of his love. Every one needs at least one friend who's prepared to argue with both God and the devil on their behalf.
But none of this writing brings James back. And I’m not surprised that he killed himself. The pit that he found himself in was so remorseless and so vicious, and he seemed so unable and so unwilling to make even tiny steps. I can’t judge him for that – I know these pit qualities in my own experience.
Ah, I’m suddenly exhausted. This is heavy writing. I had hoped to have something coherent and useful to say. But what can I say? A friend has taken his own life. And he ain’t never coming back – not in that unique, mortal James form that once I knew here on planet earth. It all got too much for him. And there but for the grace of Life and the love of friends go I.
Hopefully, the more we can talk about this stuff, the better – because already I’ve heard from several friends that friends of theirs have recently committed suicide. There’s so much unseen suffering going on. And so much love available, if only we knew how to ask for it, and how to let it in. And how to organise it, and how to communicate it to those we know are really suffering.
Ah, I miss you, James. And I’m sorry none of us could save you.
“I wish I could show you,
when you are lonely or in darkness,
the astonishing light of your own being.”
funny and faithful
(occasionally really annoying)
ever so human being:
it’s ages since we last saw one another
but I left you two messages this week
inviting you over for dinner
and you never replied
because you were already dead
What kind of excuse is that?
I woke this morning long before dawn
with your life and death and friendship and suffering beating within my heart
played “Another One Bites The Dust” in honour
of your dark sense of humour
and your love of a good tune
At the break of day
I walked down to the eerily mercurial sea
a bright waning moon hovered high above the cliffs
and on the edge of the shore
I let the incoming waves of your shocking departure
unburden my belly of grief
felt the absence of your presence
and the presence of your absence
and the nonsense of it all
let them salty tears fall
let them salty tears fall
with futile rage
across the oceans of time and space I roared
“James, you ******* twat!
James, you ******** twat!”
Because all of our love
and all of our grief
can never bring you back
can never bring you back
(peace to you, buddy