In 2015 a good friend killed himself. I’ll call him John. He would have been fifty the following month. The previous year he applied for a job he didn’t want as a courtesy to the people who thought he would be the perfect candidate. They were right and he got the unwanted promotion, to start the new job in January 2015.
The pressure of the unwanted job in an area he was unfamiliar with was instrumental in his mental breakdown. He admitted to having suicidal thoughts, of fantasising of hanging himself in the potting shed at the bottom of the garden. He also confided to a friend that it was at this time that he had researched how to tie a noose.
How to tie a Noose: Place rope on a flat surface in the shape of a letter ‘C’. Form an ‘S’ shape with the rope. Compress the ‘S’ until all three rows of rope are nearly on top of each other and pinch so the ends fan out like a bow tie. Take the top of the original ‘C’ and wrap it around the pinched space from right to left, leaving three to four inches of the rope unwrapped. You should be left with a loop and string on the left end. Put the end of the string through the loop and pull the loop on the opposite side to close the loop, this locks the end in place. Adjust the noose to the size required.
We met in the late 90s through a mutual friend. I had recently returned from travelling around India and they’d started going out together. Everyone that met him warmed to him immediately. He had a great way of finding the funny situation in anything. He would always be the instigator of conversation, asking questions about every part of your life, including highly inappropriate questions, which made people laugh even more. When I met him, he was quite a slim man but he decided to join a gym, as he wanted to be more muscular. He had quite an addictive personality so the gym became a daily obsession and within a few years his physique was incredible. For a ten year period it seemed there wasn’t a night out where he didn’t take his top off to dance on any dance floor or stage available, trying to get everyone else to follow suit. The dark secret of his history of depression was kept well from all of us.
He’d suffered from bouts of depression at various points throughout his life, but this time it was coupled with crippling anxiety. The depression combined with extreme anxiety meant he couldn’t leave the house. Following his admittance of having suicidal thoughts, his partner got the mental health crisis team involved. John started taking anti-depressants and attending regular counselling sessions. These helped reduce his suicidal thoughts but didn’t improve his depression or anxiety and he continued to be withdrawn and anxious about leaving the house. He wouldn’t even go into the garden to take in the washing, as he was afraid that if the sun touched his olive skin, he’d look too healthy at his next work review and they would think he was lying about his condition. He believed a common misconception at his place of work about mental health was – If you look healthy there can’t be much wrong with you.
Following a visit to the doctor’s in the morning, where they increased his medication over the next two weeks to double what it was, he asked his partner to buy sausages for his lunch. His partner then went to work. When he returned in the evening, he didn’t see the suicide note taped to the writing desk in the hall. He walked into the kitchen, and as he told the police,
“I first knew something was wrong when I noticed he hadn’t emptied the washing machine.”
John’s partner had given him small jobs to do in order to keep him busy and have less time to think. The shopping, including the sausages he had wanted for lunch, was still in the bags on the counter. His partner went into the hall and saw the envelope, which said not to go upstairs, and to call the police, as “they will cut me down.”
His partner ignored the note and ran upstairs to find John, his husband, my friend, hanging out of the loft hatch by his neck. He ran to the kitchen to get a knife to cut him down. It was a bread knife. He thinks he may have broken John’s nose as he fell to the floor. There was a small pool of blood on the cream carpet where he fell. A cushion that the cats sleep on had been placed over it. His partner remembers running down the street and screaming in a neighbours face for help. He can’t remember if he was still carrying the knife or not.
John had used a blue rope, which his partner had never seen before. The Police said he might have bought it specifically to do this, so one of the officers on the scene put on latex gloves and searched for the receipt. He looked in John’s pockets too and found a lottery ticket. My first thought when seeing the ticket was
“Why would someone who wanted to kill themselves buy a lottery ticket? You can’t think about the future and remove that future at the same time, it doesn’t make sense.”
Of course, logic doesn’t apply in this scenario.
When John was cut down his face was blue. The most common cause of death by hanging from the height he’d used is Cerebral Hypoxia, which is a restriction of blood to the brain. This restriction reduces the oxygen in the blood, turning it blue. It is called Cyanosis. A blue face to match the blue rope. John was always very stylish.
His suicide note went some way to explain why he did it. It said he couldn’t deal with the negative and dark thoughts in his head anymore. He apologised and asked for forgiveness for this “terrible thing”. He then went upstairs and, considering he’d never used a screwdriver or changed a light bulb before, managed to think through the logistics of hanging himself. The importance of rope strength, rope length, the correct type of knot on the wood across the loft hatch, tied so as not to come loose, a noose knot tied correctly to do its job, a stepladder to climb and then fall from. It was an execution plan, perfectly executed.
The suicide note gave a little comfort but opened another train of thought to those that read it; how could somebody who could write such a loving, lucid, beautiful letter, be the same person that moments later would walk up the stairs and carry out something so horrific?
A few weeks later a number of drafts of that letter were found in his work papers. Even his final letter had been planned to perfection.
In his essay on suicide, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1851) wrote,
“As a rule, it will be found that as soon as the terrors of life outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life.” He also makes the point that a man suffering physical pain will wish his body to get well, but “Great mental suffering makes un insensible to bodily suffering: we despise it.” (Schopenhauer, 1851)
Trying to see through the tears and think critically about ‘why’ is difficult to do. Difficult to imagine that someone’s own thought processes are so dark and out of control that the only way to obtain any relief is to end their own life.
One of the anti-depressants John was prescribed was called Mirtazapine. The literature on this drug is quite clear about the possible side effects, which state, “that it intensifies depression and suicidal feelings in the early stage of treatment” and the patient has “an increased risk of self harm or suicide.” (NHS UK, 2015) We will never know if this was a factor in his death. It will be one of the many unanswered questions that will continue to haunt everyone involved.
Looking for reasons and casting blame has been a recurring theme in the weeks following John’s death. Was it a spur of the moment decision or had it been planned for a while? Were the crisis team incompetent, with their blasé attitude, bad time keeping and inability to get his name right? Could his friends have visited more often to take his mind off things and distract him from his dark thoughts? Could the medication be implicated, with its many side effects? When his brother asked him to go into the loft a few days before, did that give him the inspiration to use the loft for the suicide? Too many question which will never be answered.
The Journalist Laurie Winer said in her article about the suicide of the writer David Foster Wallace,
“We feel ambivalence toward suicides because they have betrayed the pact of the living. They have said that when you see life without any of our illusions, or diversions, it is unacceptable. That means that the most beautiful experiences of existence — falling in love, taking care of someone, achieving something you strove for, pleasures aesthetic or physical, loving of any kind — are not worth what we think they are. The suicide places the ultimate bet that they won’t happen again tomorrow.” (Winer, 2012)
As a new writer who is continually learning about the danger of cliché, it occurred to me how atrocious we are at saying anything about death that isn’t cliché or platitude. “He was such a fun loving person, the life and soul of the party.” Together with the useless words people always say when confronted with grief, “it will get better in time, everything happens for a reason”. There are no words to heal this wound.
The weeks following the incident we have been there for his partner twenty-four hours a day, ensuring he wasn’t alone. A lot of wine is drunk and the same conversations happen in varying degrees. Looking for answers, trying and failing to say things that will give comfort. Reminiscing about good times had with John. There are snippets of time, small moments when we talk about everyday things or we’ll laugh and for that moment it’s almost as if everything will be all right. Then someone will remember and begin to cry, summoning the spectre of guilt. The guilt that arises because feeling better isn’t allowed so soon, and everyone will go quiet. Some will cry, some will smoke and all will think about John. On one of those occasions I sat in the kitchen and concentrated on the words to Billie Jean by Michael Jackson playing in the background as a way to blank out all other thought; a temporary diversionary tactic.
There were times when His partner was particularly upset and a person sitting either side of him will hug him. They in turn will be comforted and hugged by the person next to them, sometimes going three or four people deep. A message of love transmitted through each other, linking us all to him as he sits, crying.
Knowing that someone in your life is suffering so badly with an internal struggle that nobody can help with, is excruciating and almost impossible to accept. The removal of one vital human ingredient, the essence of hope, can make someone feel there is nothing they can do about the bad voices, the dark void, that they can’t go on anymore. Preferring an absence of self rather than prolonging the despair they have to deal with every day. Despite knowing, on an intellectual level, how this would affect those living through his actions, John still went ahead with it.
The conclusion is, with suicide, there is no conclusion. The important questions can never be answered to the satisfaction of the living. Even with an explanatory note, the tragedy is, the only people who will ever understand it are those that have already lost hope. You only realise that life goes on, just a little less bright than before.