After a lifetime surrounded by suicide and drowning in suicidal thoughts, I just wanted the pain to stop.
I usually try and write my articles to be relevant to what is happening in the moment or associated to one of the many mental health action or awareness campaigns. I originally tried to pull this article together for National Suicide Prevention Month. I didn’t manage it because in this particular case this subject remains a trigger for my PTSD, and it took me too long to gather myself, and get these thoughts down on paper. This is because the impact of suicide has been an ever-present influence on my life, as have my own suicidal thoughts.
I won’t go into further details now, but if you want the background on my C-PTSD diagnosis or my recovery, then please read my other blogs, or my recent articles for The Book Of Man. This is because I want to solely focus on the singular influence that suicide has had throughout my life, and my experiences with suicidal thoughts.
I am painfully aware that this is a sensitive subject, and even discussion of suicide can be triggering, so please take care of yourself as you read as I'll give you fair warning that I intend to be as honest and direct as I know how.
In the beginning. The suicide of my grandfather.
I was 14, and out of the blue we got the call that my grandfather was dead, and we were driving down to Plymouth for his funeral. For many children that age, the passing of a grandparent would be the first time that death had entered into their world. It would be a formative time, where your parents take you in hand, talk you through some difficult lessons, and you first become aware of mortality, and loss.
My memories of that time, and in particular of the funeral, is of dignified, grey-haired men, all dressed in well-kept black suits. Solemn work and care-worn men, standing patiently in line to shake the hand of a teenage boy, each nodding their heads silently in turn, because that was what was done to show respect for one of their own.
However, the reason my grandfather’s death was out of the blue, was that my mother had cut my grandfather out of my life when I was 7, maybe just out of cruelty, or perhaps because of a fear that I would talk about what was happening at home. Initially, of course, I had no idea about why my grandfather was dead, but my mother soon saw to that.
In an act entirely in keeping with a callousness I had come to know all too well, she took me for a walk, and then told me how he had driven his car out on to Dartmoor, drunk a bottle of whiskey, then connected a hose to his car exhaust, climbed in and started the engine. I didn’t ask why he had done this, but my mother let me know anyway. My grandmother had walked in on him while he was having a bath, and found him masturbating. She then proceeded to relentlessly humiliate him until he couldn’t take any more.
Instead of the lessons I hope you were given when you first encountered death, it was here that I was taught that this is what happens when you show weakness, and that suicide is the selfish act of someone too weak inside to take the knocks that life will always give you.
Second time. A mother’s betrayal.
Looking back, it seems that one of her many justifications for her cruel and callous behaviour, that caused me so much pain and damage, was that she was trying to teach me to be strong. That if you let someone in, they will hurt you, that you must learn to never need anyone, and never have anything to lose, because it will inevitably be taken from you. It is of course ironic, that to teach me these lessons, she caused me so much hurt, and took so much from me.
So imagine, if you can, the shock to my system when my next experience with suicide, was my mother’s attempt to end her own life. Just like she had always done, it was a carefully, and logically planned affair, where she had stockpiled prescription painkillers over a number of months, as well as anti-nausea medication to ensure the pills stayed down. Indeed, the only reason she survived was a random act of faith that caused my father to turn back from his drive to work because he’d forgotten something.
After the shock of being told, I don’t remember much until I was in the hospital with my sister, and even then, all I remember is this tiny frail creature, surrounded by tubes and beeping machines.
Surely, this couldn’t be my mother. She was the dragon, a supernatural force of nature that was unstoppable and indestructible. The women who said, without irony, “In this house, I am God”. Yet there she was, hovering on the edges of life. There aren’t any words I have at my disposal that can possibly explain how this moment hit me.
…and not how you think.
What I felt was rage. After everything she had put me through, all the bullshit she had drowned me with, all the hurt she had caused, that she would choose to bail out. Of all the hypocritical, weak, and cowardly things to do.
I should probably point out that what I’m telling you here is what went through my young, troubled mind in this moment. This was a child in pain, and this is of course not what I know and feel today.
What I saw when she woke, was that all her shield and armour had been torn down. I saw her cry for the first time in my life, and I saw her apologise for the first and only time. It took only hours for her defences to be re-established, but the important thing is that the spell was broken. The indestructible aura had been shattered, but the twisted lessons my mother had herself taught at the time of my grandfather’s death had just been reinforced.
Life was an endless struggle, and maybe I should stop fighting it.
Of course, it didn’t end there, and my rage and disbelief, rapidly turned into hopelessness and depression. I’m honestly not sure if my own suicidal thoughts started before or after my mother’s attempted suicide, but I know it wasn’t long after that they began to overwhelm me on a daily basis. From just imagining what dying and death felt like, to having a video of my grandfather’s last moments running through my head over and over, to a pivotal moment when I started to think that maybe I should just die. At this time, this was unfortunately how I saw it. That life was an endless struggle, and suicide was a way out. All I had to do to stop how I was feeling, was to just give up.
I had been walking back from school, on a route I took every day. As I was about to cross a busy road, frequently used by 18-wheel trucks heading for the motorway, I started to imagine myself taking that one extra step in the road, and that in that one instant, it would be over. Day after day, I would stop in that same spot, and watch the oncoming trucks. Sometimes I would tense my muscles, and lift one foot like I was ready to take that final step. I imagined the brief instant of pain as my bones crunched, and then…nothing.
From then on, the suicidal thoughts were relentless, and my mind had gone on to other ideas like poisoning myself as my mother did, or taking my parents car keys and following my grandfather into death. I wasn’t afraid of pain, I didn’t for a moment think that anyone cared or would be devastated if I wasn’t there any more, and certainly didn’t care what impact finding my lifeless body would have on anyone.
I was drowning in despair, there was no way out, yet I never took that final step.
Life goes on, until it doesn’t
And so, it continued. It wasn’t long before I escaped that house, and was off to university. At first the freedom lifted me up from the torrent of depression and thoughts of death, and I learnt how to hide my pain behind my own set of shields and armour. A sharp wit, practised cynicism, and dark humour are useful tools to transform a broken, misfit child into an individualistic, stubborn and contrary young man who was intent on going his own way in life. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, driven sometimes by a dark intensity, said what I thought about anything and everything, and affected an air of not caring what others thought of me. So it was that I met a girl, fell in love in a whirlwind romance, and was married with a baby on the way, even before I’d finished my degree. I was free, I was in love, and I was building my own little family that couldn’t be further from what I had experienced growing up.
Then the illusion shattered, as despite the image I was projecting, I was still that broken, misfit child, plagued by abuse and trauma, and the unshakeable belief, buried deep, that I was cursed, and deserved none of this. After all, after my mother had convinced me I was capable of ruthless and cold-hearted murder at age 7, had she not told me “God put all the bastards in one family, so they could suffer together”.
My marriage had started to come apart at the seams, until the night when it shattered completely and brought everything down with it. I had found out that my wife had been seeing another man, and when I confronted her about it, she said she hadn’t decided whether she wanted to be with me or him. I told her that this wasn’t a competition I was willing to take part in, and I wanted a divorce.
She ran out of the apartment in tears and when she returned, she had swallowed several bottles of pills, and collapsed unconscious in my arms. In this moment all of my nightmares, and the relentless voice of my upbringing, telling me over and over that I would be the death of someone, all the horrors in my head, all came true. I had done this. I had killed the woman I loved. The evil that my mother told me I carried with me, and that I needed to protect the world from, had done its work and the mother of my child had paid the price.
Was it my fault for not ending my life sooner? Had my cowardice killed my wife?
The horror of these moments would play within my head in nightmarish colours, for years after. While my wife survived, the illusion I had woven around myself, that I could have any sort of normal life, didn’t.
Our divorce went through quickly, and not long after, I was cut out of my daughter’s life. In truth, I have asked myself many times whether I could have fought that, and found a way to still be a dad to my daughter, but ask yourself this question.
If you believed, as I did, that your very presence was a curse that could only lead to pain, misfortune, and even the death of those around you, how hard would you have fought?
The dark years, until then…
Of the next 13 years, the less said the better. Depression and suicidal thoughts were my constant companion, as was a relentlessly self-destructive streak that seemed to find endlessly inventive ways of hurting myself, but never to the point of ending it. Looking back, perhaps I felt I deserved to suffer and be punished, and if that’s true, then I was very successful in that goal. I pushed everything and everyone good out of my life, and wallowed in my addiction to self-destruction.
Then came a moment that I never dared to hope for. My daughter contacted me. The joy of this was indescribable, but then, slowly, came the undercurrent of that old, familiar fear. When I saw the tell-tale scars of self-harming, something I was unfortunately all too familiar with, I felt the first vibrations that foreshadow the coming avalanche. I managed to hold those fears at bay, or maybe I just blocked them out because my daughter was coming to stay with me for a while. I thought I had time to talk to her, share some of my own experiences, and perhaps we could work through this, and face our struggles together.
Then came the phone call and a sequence of events that changed everything…
I was working on a client site that day and was in a stairwell, running up several flights to get to my next meeting when the phone rang. I stopped, looked down and saw my daughter’s name displayed on the phone and answered, mostly to tell her “Hey darlin, I’m busy”, “is it urgent?” and “can I call you back?”. Even though this very moment has replayed in my head innumerable times as flashbacks and nightmares, what she said next, or how I replied is a complete blank. So I’ll just lay it out for you;
She had tried to take her own life.
She was lying on the floor of a bathroom at her college, waiting for the ambulance.
She needed me.
Unless you have been in a similar situation, and I sincerely hope you haven’t, then it’s impossible to describe this moment. For any parent, the idea that your child would be so full of despair and without hope, that not only did they want to end their life, but were willing to severely injure themselves to do so, would be an unimaginable nightmare.
For me, this was the culmination of a 40-year nightmare and was not only imaginable, but was a horror that had played through my head more times than I can count, particularly during the 13 years when I didn’t have contact and didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. It seemed later that everything was leading to this moment, like the inevitability of an approaching avalanche.
My mind didn’t collapse in on itself immediately, but the stone had been kicked off the top of the mountain and the process that would lead to the inevitable destruction had started.
What followed was a blur. I know there were taxis, trains, an aeroplane and a hire-car involved, but I remember little of the journey to the hospital where my daughter was being treated. At this point I must have been running on autopilot. I don’t remember much about the initial conversation as I rushed into the room. Just the tears, the hugging and the blood that was still in her hair. That visceral image of the blood in her hair was one that would replay itself in my head, over and over again during the next few years, always accompanied by the overwhelming emotions of horror and a painful desperation.
I had an exchange of messages with a friend over the next few days, where I explained to him that I knew something was happening inside me, and that in my head I was storing up a price that I was going to have to pay sooner rather than later. But I also explained that this was something I’d deal with another time and right now, the only thing that mattered was my daughter. Little did I know what was headed my way. I may have felt the tremors of the approaching avalanche, but I hadn’t yet comprehended the scale of what was coming.
The choice, live or die.
I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder shortly after. I had got myself into therapy after one final night of staring my own death in the face, and making a final decision. Did I die, or climb? It was really that simple. Continuing as I was, was no longer a viable option, if I was going to end my own life, then now would be the time, if not, then my only other choice was to change everything, and that would mean going back to the beginning and tackling my problems one at a time. In no way did I underestimate the scale of that challenge, or so I thought at the time, but I knew that if I did decide to climb then I would have to commit myself to doing anything and everything required, regardless of how much that idea horrified and terrified me in equal measure.
I’m sure it’s a lovely, romantic notion that I, as a father, saw that my daughter needed me and my friends and family would surely miss me. That I had a lot to live for and therefore I shouldn’t take my own life, but should find a way to start to heal for both myself and them.
This would be a lie…
When I made my choice, it was down to one reason and one reason only.
Fuck my family and every person who had hurt me and by whose actions or inaction I had ended up in this place!
Fuck the universe, fuck life and fuck death!
Fuck everyone who had a happy life and everyone who had turned their back and looked away while I was being hurt behind the doors of that house.
Fuck everything, everyone and fuck you!
I was furious and I wasn’t going to be beaten. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, whoever the hell “them” was. I would find a way back just to spite them, regardless of what it took.
Apologies for anyone who doesn’t appreciate the swearing, but that’s as close as I can come to what went through my thoughts at this moment. It was as quite literally as if I screamed out my rage at the world, and used that visceral energy to start a fight I had no idea how to win.
Then I stopped and grew calm as my choice had been made. Then I thought of my daughter and I knew that I could never do this to her. She needed me and I would somehow figure out how to be the father she needed, because what had happened to me should not hurt her any more than it already had.
Finding a way back, and coming to a new understanding
Working with my therapist, and also with my daughter and I supporting each other through our healing processes, we both came to a new understanding. Depression comes from a lack of hope. You are under a constant emotional, and sometimes physical, assault, and you can see no way out. With no end in sight, all you have to look forward to is more of the same.
Once this is your reality, having no hope for the future is not an unreasonable reaction. Neither is the thought that the only escape is to end your life. This in no way means that you want to die, just that you want the pain to stop.
Although this may seem a contradiction, I deeply believe in a person’s right to die. If I have an incurable, degenerative disease, and all I have to look forward to is more and more pain, or to slowly lose who I am, piece by piece, then I want the right to take a decision, together with my friends and family, that my life is my own and I have the right to end it.
But when people compare that with suicide, this makes me furious. With a disease such as Multi-Sclerosis, which in the end took my mother’s life, we currently do not have the medical answers that allow someone to live with an acceptable quality of life. It will get them in the end, and on the way it will slowly take them apart. I sat there for the final days of my mother’s life, and even considering everything evil that she had done to me, if I could have brought an end to her suffering, I would have done it, and with compassion, not with hate.
But with depression, regardless of the cause, there are almost always ways to come back. Complex PTSD is one of the most serious mental health diagnoses you can receive. At best it is life-altering, at worse life-threatening. I will live with the consequences of this for the rest of my days, yet with patient work, the right professional help, and the support of my family and friends, I have come back. Not because I am or did anything special. I don’t believe there is anything particularly remarkable about me, my resilience, or the work I put in during my treatment, that led to my survival.
What I did right, was I accepted that I could not do this on my own. I accepted help, and I stuck to it. I was fortunate to have my closest friends, my amazing daughter, and the dedication and skills of my therapist to get me through it.
So comparing suicide with the right to die, is ignoring the fact that for depression and suicidal thoughts, there are effective treatments out there.
Why so often people don’t get themselves this help is often due to the stigma, that mandates you smoother the struggles you’re going through in a veil of silence, that far too often turns into a funeral shroud.
I did not want to die, and neither did my daughter. We just wanted the hurting to stop.
Suicidal thoughts and suicide is not selfish. We wanted help but didn’t know how to ask for it. We wanted to talk, but didn’t have the words, and everything in the society around us, was telling us to shut-up, get tough, and just get on with it.
According to the latest World Health Organisation data, suicide accounts for nearly 800,000 deaths a year, which is one every 40 seconds. The indications are that for every person that successfully completes suicide, there are more than 20 who attempt it. Suicide can happen at any time of life and is globally the second leading cause of death amongst 15–29 year-olds.
Now put that in context with COVID-19. That would be like having the deaths we are having now from the virus, yet we actually have effective treatments and vaccines. But it was just people didn’t have access to them, didn’t know they were there, or couldn’t afford it. Meanwhile societal pressure kept us all from talking about it or admitting that we had a cough and a fever, as to suggest you might have the virus was to admit you were weak and selfish.
This article turned out a lot longer than I thought it would, but my hope is that if, like me, you’re having or have ever had depression and suicidal thoughts, that you’ll see from my story that if I can find a way back, then I know you can too.
So I hope you won’t wait for the next mental health event to think about how you can help, or the next suicide prevention day to reach out to someone who is in pain, and if you are struggling, please talk to someone, get professional help, and stay safe.
Story & Photos sent and written by 'Paul Fjelrad'.