This is one of those pieces of writing I have kept away from you because of this incredible pull away from ‘exposing’ myself in public. But I have come to learn that when the writing bug has truly hit you, it will create a time and space for you to share even your most intimate thoughts. In the right context. I published this piece online on Medium in June, I got about six readers and was secretly pleased. It wasn’t time.
With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week I could not help but pull the piece from obscurity onto your world, with the hope that you will read and without judging contribute to the discussion on depression and suicide. I have close family and very dear friends whose lives have been altered permanently by suicide and depression and as I wrote this, I prayed that it would come out in just the right tone to allow them to read this and not have their pain made worse. Here goes:
I don’t know how I came across James Altucher, but I did. He’s one of those few people who’ve made millions of dollars, lost them all and still had the energy to make them all over again. And he had the courage and passion to write about his journey, in books and blogs.
One particular blog got my attention recently: “Seven things happen when you become completely honest”. He writes light-heartedly about anything. It’s not unusual to find a line in his work that says, “The last time I wanted to kill myself, I decided to….” Not many people can casually admit to ever having wanted to kill themselves, not on a public platform anyway. But he does, and he means it and he writes about it so others can learn from his experiences.
He says one of the seven things that happens when you become completely honest in your written work is people think you want to kill yourself because every blog or post is like a suicide note. That got me thinking. Why have I found it so difficult to put down on paper my struggle with suicide.
Wait, hang on a minute here. You haven’t let yourself fall into that trap have you? Thinking I want to kill myself? If you did, it’s ok, it’s a natural reaction, well almost because not many people bring up a subject like this in polite company.
James Altucher reckons suicide is treated like porn by most people. It’s not discussed often enough but when it is, there’s a lot of emotion and self-righteousness that comes to the fore. I mean, let’s face it: When was the last time you discussed porn. Almost never, because society frowns at people who treat porn as an everyday subject. Ditto suicide.
But sadly, we all know someone close to us who has taken their own life or attempted to. We all know the harrowing feelings that go with the guilt. Could I have done or said something to prevent this? Why didn’t they confide in me? Was I the reason?
I saw a little note on facebook recently that said “suicide is never the solution, it just gives the pain to someone else”. As someone who has fought this battle since I was about 10 I had an instant answer to that little note. Suicidal people are not rational, not in the normal sense anyway. Besides wanting to get rid of their own pain, they reason that they cause more pain to others alive than when they are gone. In other words suicide is chosen as a way out of what is perceived as an even bigger pain. Don’t try to reason it out, like I said, the rationality is not your normal straight forward kind.
Sadly, when the discussion of suicide comes up, there is always all-round condemnation of the person who did or attempted to. “I would never kill myself, life is just too good”. “It’s so stupid to kill yourself over a man/woman, I mean really? Just leave them?” “ There’s always a way out, all you need to do is talk about it”. “Suicide is the coward’s way out” and a whole lot more. Easier said than done. I’m certain the majority of people would be literally freaked out by a friend who comes up to them and says: “you know what, I’ve been thinking about taking my own life for a while now”.
“Please don’t talk crazy” you’d be tempted to respond. You would most probably be spurred into action by a lot of tears or some form of emotional breakdown. Not many people can manufacture an emotional breakdown so they can convince someone they really want to take their own life. So they normally just go ahead and do it, to spare themselves all the judgement and condemnation that society spews out.
Religion doesn’t help either. The condemnation there is double because one is regarded as having decided to play God. Worse still, heaven is supposedly not welcoming to suicide victims. So how does a well-meaning child of God raise such a matter and still feel holy?
I’m no psychologist so I will not try to talk for all people who have ever attempted suicide or even just thought about it. I just know what goes on within me and that’s what I’m sharing.
The intensity of the thoughts or ideation differs from person to person. Like I said above, I recall my first suicidal thoughts as having come about at age ten. I had done something I felt ashamed of and could see no way out of the situation. Yes, at ten. It all started as a silly feeling in my head. More like, would I feel all this shame if I was not here? And the idea grew. Like, honestly, if I wasn’t here, would I be feeling this shame and pain?.
The idea of not being ‘there’ stayed with me for a long time. Plus I was an emotionally fragile young person, I easily internalized pain. Whenever I was faced with a situation that seemed to offer no way out, I always reverted to thinking ‘not being there’ was the solution.
Somehow this idea of ending it all when pain surfaced got linked to my performance in life. And any perceived failure triggered the thoughts. I cannot remember the first time I actually thought an attempt through. Like think of a way to end it all and when. That only came later in life, in my late teens. I suppose it could be that by then I was exposed to things in life so even the ideation began to take form and shape. So I began to think of various ways in which I could end the pain. This is another thing that people get completely wrong in how they discuss suicide.
There are some bright sparks who like saying things like ‘If she was serious about taking her life she would have shot herself/thrown himself in front of a truck/drank stronger poison’ and some such nonsense like that. I know in my case it was important to me that I felt no pain. I’m generally averse to physical pain and whichever method I was to choose would include little or no pain.
And I constantly fretted over “what if I survive the attempt” question. The bright sparks above never consider that. Things always go wrong. Even in suicide. The one thought that I could never get out of my mind was how a certain girl ingested some poison and survived the attempt, but she went blind. I know it’s a completely irrational thing to ask you to imagine but try this: try imagining surviving a 10-storey fall or being hit by a truck and surviving or surviving a gunshot wound to the head. Highly unlikely but it could happen.
But the emotional pain from the depression grew stronger as I grew older. Pain stopped being a factor. So yes, even the painful methods were in consideration now. When the vortex of depression is swirling around you, escaping that constant pain becomes the only focal point. Funnily though, once decided, to end it all I mean, this calm came over me. It was like some pressure has been taken off. So you start thinking rationally but only as far as the attempt is concerned. Where am I going to do this? Do I leave a note?
I have always avoided going into how many times and when because I feel it detracts from the point I want to make. Whenever possible, wherever possible, don’t avoid talking about it. Also, either keep your silence or be kind when talking about recent suicide victims because you have no freaking idea who else is going through the pain as you senselessly declare: “only cowards take their own lives”.
The first time I sat down in a psychiatrist’s office and answered all her questions she looked at me and asked me: “Do you feel like taking your life right now?” I answered No because I didn’t. She said to me, “You are very lucky to be alive.” Medication and therapy followed. I’m still on the meds. Will be for as long as I live. The urge to go off them has been there before, but the knowledge of the pain that I went through without them is scary. So I take them like clockwork.
Do I still get the thoughts. Yes, but not as often as before, which was almost daily. Do I still get depressed, Yes, but I cope better now.
When I sat down to write this I had intended for it to be a light-hearted look at a difficult subject, and I could feel it getting away from me as I wrote. If it got you a little upset, believe me, that was not my intention.
As a caring friend you are probably thinking did this man ever attempt suicide for real. Did he get help? And just maybe, was it really necessary to share such a personal and maybe even shameful, embarrassing thing?
The answers to the three questions above are yes I did attempt suicide many times. And yes I did get help, and continue to get help. Which is the whole point of my sharing this with you. There are people like me who are born with a chemical imbalance that predisposes them to suicidal depression. And is it really necessary to share such a personal (and shameful secret), then you know it wasn’t meant for you, but for that one person who is going through a similar journey or knows someone who is. If just one of those people can read this and seek help, then I do not care about the shame( or your thoughts).
Lastly, should it be that you read this and were upset by how such a serious subject can be treated so light-heartedly, then my profound apologies to you. You obviously have been affected by suicide and are still dealing with it. My one lesson from all my attempts, nobody could have stopped me. It’s almost impossible to stop someone from committing suicide but I truly believe if we stop treating it like porn, a taboo subject, then we are well on our way to creating conditions where I could have just blurted out to my parents one day: “You know, I have always wanted to end my own life” and they would have sought help for me.
(PS When I read that Robin Williams was 63 when he passed I felt so proud that the man had fought this diabolical disease for 6 decades, and managed to entertain us along the way. Anyone whose thoughts are what a waste is selfish, imagine the pain he had to work through to entertain you.)
I’m very disappointed in humanity right now. Deeply disappointed. It’s very easy to look at the situation in the Middle East and conclude “None of My Business, what’s more, I don’t even understand the dynamics at play in that part of the world. Let me just carry on with my own life. What is it to me?” Shocking.
Let me take you down a road you’ve probably never thought of traveling.
My dad has always had some sort of small business or another. Whatever you can think of, he sold. Shoes, chickens, eggs, groceries, everything. This was in the townships in the eighties, at the height of apartheid. State of emergency and all that chaos. Back then he never really owned a shop, we sold these things out of the house we lived in or the garage or the back of the van he had. You are probably thinking, Oh poor them, they must have been squashed in their little township four-roomed house.
You are right, we were, but who wasn’t back then. But there was a certain pride that went with that. We were in business. Yes he didn’t have business cards embossed with golden letters but people looked at us and thought they are quite fortunate. They have a business. School holidays meant leaving the village to spend time selling something, anything in Johannesburg.
The business was not limited to our house only. A bit later, when I was 10 or 11 my dad acquired a Peugeot van. Wasn’t much to look at but it did the business. He’d carry the stock and place me and the wares by an entrance to an all-male hostel very close to where we lived.
These hostels were apartheid’s attempt at providing accommodation to black fathers who had left their loved ones back in the rural homelands, usually five to six hours(or more) away to come and build the urban economy that kept apartheid’s wheels turning. These men survived up to eleven months a year without seeing their loved ones.
My dad understood their material needs, so when he placed me and the goods by the entrance to the hostel we were an instant hit. These were hard men who did back breaking work during the day but never once did I feel threatened by them. In fact, there wasn’t a place safer to do business for an eleven-year-old left alone to look after large quantities of goods. Some of the men got to know me by name.
And then one day, a yellow police van with two white policemen parked some distance away from my selling point. With the exception of the usual dreaded feeling one got in the presence of the Afrikaner members of the force, I was ok. Nothing new. The men who were entering the hostel all cast a glance in the direction of the van and then muttered something that ended with some sort of profanity. After a while, the police car reversed back to where I was.
“Whose goods are these?”, the policeman driving the van asked.
“My father’s”, I replied. Proud to hold my own in a language I was still learning.
“Where is he?”
“How much are your Benson and Hedges Gold cigarettes?”, the policeman asked. After telling him the price he requested that I pass a pack onto him. I must admit I was wasn’t entirely comfortable just looking at these two bulky Afrikaner males both spotting thick mustaches. They kept looking around as if something was wrong. As soon as I handed the pack of twenty cigarettes to him, the police van took off racing away, without paying.
I was shocked. How was I going to explain this to my dad? How would he believe that men of the law could commit such a blatantly unlawful act?
When I related the story to my dad later, all he could say was “Bastards!”. I didn’t understand why the police acted in the way they did. Why they would target a defenseless little kid like me. Why they would choose to perform that act when no one was watching. They had waited till no one could see them. With all their might and power, they still needed to hide their defenseless acts.
Later, when I was older, I understood that even the mightiest of people felt ashamed when attacking the weak and defenseless. But more to the point, when I grew up I discovered that the actions of those policemen were like those of an occupying army. They were joined in their actions by the South African Defence Force in their day-and-night patrols of the townships. And they spread terror. What happened to me that day was nothing compared to the horrible deeds they carried out on others. It made me scared of them. I detested them too.
I was therefore heartened when I learned of the many friends we had internationally who helped us put pressure on the occupying force to “leave” us in peace.
In 1988 in London the British people put together a spectacle beyond measure to help us celebrate one of our own, Nelson Mandela, who was then in prison. They put together his 70th birthday celebration through a music concert that gladdened the heart of anyone watching. Freedom in our Lifetime was the demand, by people thousands of miles away. People we had never met. People who could only imagine what our daily lives must have been like.
No one wanted to know how we conducted ourselves in fighting the unjust actions of an occupying force. The system was declared a crime against humanity and could not be justified.
As the death toll in Palestine climbed above the 1000 mark this week I could not help but ask myself why people are asking a million questions about the way the Palestinian people defend themselves in the face of a mighty occupying force. It’s not a force that started occupying when the “war” started, it’s a force that is constantly there, everyday. Spreading fear.
When I think of the actions of those two policemen that day in the eighties I can’t help but think that there is a ten-year-old Palestinian boy somewhere, a boy wondering just like I did why grown men would act like that, attack a small, defenseless child when no one is watching. Why they feel no shame in doing that because it’s only natural to feel ashamed when taking advantage of the weak and helpless.
The child does not care one bit for the politics behind the occupation, the religions that keep being blamed and God’s supposed hand in all of this. That child, like me back then, is just wondering why other human beings would behave like that towards their own kind, unless they don’t see themselves as being of their kind.
That child is asking what kind of a war sees more than 300 children killed out of 1000 dead in a supposed war against terrorists. That child is asking how three four-year-old boys playing on a beach can be killed in a “war” against terrorists.
That child, when he discovers that the world once turned into an international army against another occupying force and staged the biggest birthday party for a jailed leader will ask, why is the same world so silent when that jailed leader had once declared “Our freedom will never be complete without the freedom of the Palestinian” people.
Like me, that child is disappointed in the response of the world because he thinks it’s not about politics, it’s about being human. It’s not about being anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas, it’s about being human. No other human being should be allowed to instill fear in another human being through the might of their weapons. That child hopes you read this and felt sorry for him and his people and not judged the author’s politics, religious beliefs or insensitivity to the plight of the Jewish people.
He asks himself the question, how is this a war when only one side is armed to the teeth and using its might to kill three hundred kids. Kids. And he wonders, could I be next?