TW: This article describes the loss of my friend to suicide. It’s an intense read – so please take care of yourself and only read it if you feel in the right place to do so.
Today marks the 18-year anniversary of the suicide of one of my closest friends – Susan. As I type these words my eyes sting and my heart feels heavy. I was walking my dog earlier and found my heart beating in two times. In the first I am walking in 2020, noticing the crunch of the autumn leaves beneath my feet. In the second it is 2002. The leaves are different – they crunch underneath my feet as I’m walking to her flat. There’s a chill in the air and I’m enjoying the feel of the sunshine on my skin. It feels more beautiful than summer. Clearer. That day is etched in my memory – I can return there with the crunch of a leaf or a ray of sunlight.
The clarity of the air was at odds with the worry clouding my head. Susan sometimes needed her space and I was OK with that. Yet I knew, deep inside, that something was profoundly ‘off’. It was in that gut feeling gnawing at my insides. It was in me continually worrying at the edges of the absence of an inconsequential memory. A few days before we’d spoken, briefly, when I dropped off some groceries. As I searched my memories for some reassurance, something to hold on to, I found nothing. I couldn’t remember what she’d said – I couldn’t even remember what I said. There was a gap. That gap weirded me out, but I didn’t know why. It felt significant. A sign. It was enough for me to alter my route and pay close enough attention that I saw her lights had been left on. Not much in itself, but it added fuel to my fears.
So, filled with worry and the hope that I was overreacting, I walked to her door. Knowing some of her history, the fact she’d entrusted her key with me was an honour I did not take lightly. I’d never been in her home – it was a private space. We always met in coffee shops or in town. It was only in the last 6 months that she’d began to be a regular in my own flat. She guarded her space intensely – and with good cause. The key was a symbol of trust and I didn’t want to violate that. Yet I didn’t know what else to do. I was stuck with a worry that I couldn’t hold any longer.
I remember standing at her door – calling her, texting her and even speaking through the letterbox (being as discrete as I could as I didn’t want her neighbours to pick up on my worry). I felt like my very presence there was breaking an unspoken agreement. I was trying to do everything I could not to open that door. Years before, after a psychologist was worried about her, the police had entered her home and sectioned her. She spoke of that as a betrayal, and yet here I was – invading her space.
I let her know (in as many ways as possible) that if she texted me or asked me to leave her alone I would back off. Still, no answer. I put the key in the lock and tried to turn it. It didn’t work. I tried again. Had she locked it from the inside? I tried to rationalise it – speaking to myself in firm and gentle tones underneath my breath. I gathered myself and, standing there in the sun and the cold, I knew I was going to do the unthinkable. I was going to call the police. I chose to betray her.
I steadied myself, finding a voice inside that could sound calm and ‘professional’. I didn’t want the police to feel worried enough to storm into her place, so I tried to shield her by seeming credible. I stretched the truth a little so they might defer to me. I said something about being a volunteer for a mental health charity, inferring that Susan was my client. I didn’t say those words, but I knew that they’d jump to that conclusion – placing me alongside them in this situation.
It worked. I explained my worries as calmly as I could. The sent some officers and I was able to take some form of charge. I explained that she had PTSD (that wasn’t her official diagnosis, but I didn’t want to use any of the other words) and that it was important that I went in to speak with her. I just needed them to help with the door. An officer put the key in the door and, to my confusion, it opened with ease. I steadied myself, checked that the police were staying outside and walked up her stairs.
As I reached the top I noticed a chair out of place on the landing. I kept speaking, trying to reach Susan with my words so she knew who I was and what was happening. As I saw her, sitting on her sofa, time fractured. My body responded to the smell and the sights – it knew instinctively that she wasn’t there. I stepped back. My mind raced and I found myself stepping forward to try and reach her. The different parts of me couldn’t reconcile what I’d found and I knew she was dead, and yet I didn’t. The rest of my time with her exists in fragments – sense memory, thoughts, feelings. It’s as incoherent now as it was then.
At some point the police came up and ushered me into her kitchen. I stood there, finding it hard to breathe. Even 18 years later I can feel it in my body – the shock, the pain, the disbelief, the scream building up in my soul that couldn’t find a space to be uttered. I remember feeling protective – wanting to get the police out of there as they checked the apartment. They spoke to me as you might speak to a peer – kindly, but with an acceptance of the situation that I was so not ready to accept. They asked questions, reasonable questions, but I was left there wanting to shout at them that they need to stop touching her stuff. He wouldn’t have wanted them to touch her stuff.
On the counter I saw a keyring I’d given her a few weeks before – a token of gratitude for the weekend she took care of my cat (Oz). It’s irrational, maybe, but I couldn’t let them have that. I took it, quickly, and put it in my pocket. I felt like it was the one thing I could do – something I could protect. Looking back I know it was nothing, really. But I’m glad I have that keyring – it’s all I have left aside from my memories (which, aside from the day I found her, are losing their clarity as the years pass by).
At some point I managed to explain that I was Susan’s friend. The police’s manner changed and, at some point, they drove me back to my parents. A journey of deafening silence and choked back tears. I was reeling.
In the weeks and months that followed, I was consumed by grief. It was as if her death had ripped my heart into shreds. Each one of those shreds tore my soul. I cried so hard that I exhausted the well of tears inside. It hurt to cry without tears and, instead of being a relief, it was simply an expression of the pain I was stuck in. The absence. A loss. As the months passed I began to fear the good memories of our friendship – our exploits. Each recollection was chased into insignificance beneath the crushing weight of her death and the sense-memories of finding her. At times I hated her. I’d tried to kill myself many times before, yet I felt as if she had stole that option from me. It felt like she lit a fire and blocked the exist. Even when I was surrounded by others, I felt alone in my grief. I remember wanting to scream at the world – to tell it to stop. It was as if I had lived through an apocalypse – one of my worlds had ended – and yet this other world was full of people who were just getting on with it. It felt wrong.
For a time I lived in both worlds – a frozen post-apocalyptic nightmare and a world in which almost nothing had changed. It was crazymaking (and, for a time, I did go crazy). I carried with me an invisible wound, a gaping wound filled with grief, guilt and numbness. It was a wound that few people seemed able to acknowledge – and as time passed it began to be pathologized in and of itself. Malignant grief. Pathological grief. Rather than acknowledge that it was all fucked up and it was understandable that my grief had barely dissipated I remember my psychiatrist focusing his gaze on my vulnerabilities. My friends and family were supportive – but it is was a lonely kind of grief, much more than other experiences I’ve had. It was mine to walk with. I was grateful to find some sense of community in a Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) group.
Susan guarded herself well – it was rare for her to open parts of her life to others. As the years pass I find myself feeling a weight of responsibility to keep her memory alive in some way. I began to worry that the details of our time together were fading. I find myself tending to them, every now and then, as if my attention will give them sufficient sustenance to keep blooming. My heart warms when I think of the time we went to a Coffee Shop in Leicester before our Hearing Voices Group … it spoke volumes that we were both so shocked at the size of the mugs they served us coffee in. We joked that we could swim in them. I think I have a photo of it somewhere – we’d both missed so much time, keeping to ourselves in our madness and not hanging out in coffee shops. I smile when I remember when she came round ot my parent’s house and my dog jumped up on to her lap (he wasn’t a small dog, and left muddy paw prints on her white jeans).
I ruefully remember the time we sang Meatloaf together at our local Biker’s pub Karaoke. She had terrible taste in music. I even sang Celine Dion for her once (which is saying something as I was a metalhead back then). These are the kinds of things we do for mates, sometimes, when they’re struggling. I remember when she told me how Halloween terrorised her, bringing back memories that made it hard to keep living. We listened to Eva Cassidy as the fireworks tried to claim the night – riding out the panic and creating some sense of safety in my flat. I remember being glad that she found my home a sanctuary of sorts – that she could go there, even when I was out, to find comfort. I remember the plans we made, the things we were trying to change about the system that messed us both up. I remember she liked a pint of Mild. At the time I didn’t even know what Mild was.
These memories still break my heart, in a way, but I hang on to them as these are all I have left … aside from the keyring, ofcourse.
So, here I am 18 years later. My life is unrecognisable. I’m doing the things we talked about (and much more). Yet there is still a hole in my soul and all the love, connection and dialogue in the world will never fill it. And I’m OK with that. I can live with that. I don’t want to romanticise Susan in my memory. She was prickly, funny, private, caring, strong and stubborn. She was a survivor (even though she didn’t survive). It sucks beyond words that I cannot introduce you to her – that she isn’t here with me. It sucks beyond words that – like so many of my friends and allies – she was failed by a mental health system that lacked basic compassion and a social care system that didn’t seem to care.
Suicide feels like a form of violence … yet Susan was not the perpetrator. Yes, she killed herself – but she was managing stuff that was too big for one person to hold along with such minimal support. Sometimes people say suicide is a choice. For some, that rings true – the idea that we can choose our time of exit. It has an edge of human rights to it when I think of it in that way. Yet, in Susan’s case I think I know that she – ultimately – wanted to live. She had plans and hopes, for the first time in years. I hate that my friendship wasn’t an anchor enough to sustain her through the terror of Autumn – but I get it. She had good reason to feel like asking for help would not be helpful. She had learnt that she wouldn’t be heard, believed or responded to in a way that would ease her suffering or help her feel worthy of life. The perpetrator of the violence we live through is the cumulative effect of a system that is set up to not respond – a system that contains, sometimes, but is not so good at seeing people and validating them. It took the trauma Susan survived and wrapped it in a paper made of malignant neglect and – at times – active harm.
So, here I am. Fresh out of a ‘Town Hall’ on Open Dialogue and still carrying the heaviness in my heart. Part of me wants to hide away – to build a wall around my heart and stop trying to connect with others. Part wants to tear this all down – to build something new or dance in the (metaphorical) ashes, I’m not sure which. There a big part of me that feels an increasing sense of urgency to do something generative – something that creates the options that Susan, and so many of others, did not have. I need a sense of hope, of possibility. A sense that we can use these painful and overwhelming experiences for something. That it matters. That she matters. I want to do something to make sure services are responsive. That they hear those of us in distress and do not simply silence or ignore us.
But, for now, I’m going to spend the final hours of her anniversary with Joel (my husband). If I have the energy, I’ll share some memories with him so he can – vicariously – get to know one of the people who have helped me become myself. I’m sharing this – warts and all – to help me remember why I’m still here. I’m going to resist the urge to pretend that it’s all OK – it isn’t. I’ll resist the urge to turn this into a lesson or an infomercial – it’s not. This is just me processing where I’m at and putting it out there with the hope that it connects. There is so much we keep silent about. Taboo by taboo, I kind of find myself drawn to speaking mine.
With warmth and solidarity to all x