Hey readers, just a heads up that this story talks about suicide and mental illness – some of you might want to save it for later.
Just say anything
It began, for us, with the screaming. Three in the morning and our flatmate was howling like a caught and tortured animal. After discussions, and tea, and phone calls to friends, and tea, we took the folk singer to the hospital. The sun had begun to rise when we reached emergency, and patches of clover held the attention of small, grey rabbits. Much to our surprise, our flatmate returned to himself in the waiting room. As we chatted, he got annoyed with hospital staff for taking so long.
“Good thing I’m not fucking suicidal!”
Which was pretty funny, given the circumstances. A couple of hours earlier he had been brandishing a kitchen knife. At something like nine, a doctor came to see him. We were tired, and all were relieved when the folk singer was given some mild sedatives and an appointment with the on-call shrink. Breakfast that morning was bacon baps on a street corner in Morningside. There was me, my girl, our flatmate and the friend that convinced him to go to hospital.
“Thanks for this,” our flatmate said, meaning the bacon roll.
“No problem,” I replied, meaning everything but.
Strange news from a foreign star
A friend of mine recently tried to kill herself. She’d been through a disastercoaster of medical ailments, high-school-level friend bullshit and lost her sweet job. To paraphrase from her email, she got some strong scripts, index cards to take notes, a bottle of red, and started divvying up her stuff. My favourite part of all this is that she bought index cards and then took notes. Self-oblivion, sure. But let’s make certain nothing’s going to be unaccounted for.
I was a world away and received the news with resignation. I looked around the bottom of a beer for an answer, but there was nothing but fear there. Is someone looking out for her? Can I do anything? Will I see her again? I wondered if I’d done enough for her, regretted every time I saw one of her novel-length SMSs and didn’t reply, pictured her headstone.
Something understandable but regrettable happens when someone close to us tries to die – we try to save them. It is a gut reflex, as feeble as shielding your face from a skidding truck. We learn in our relationships that love cannot save someone. Whatever love is (a battlefield, all I’ve got to give, in the air tonight), it doesn’t work like that. Your hugs are not prescription medication; your compliments not psychiatric evaluation. They can mean the world, and be a blessing, but compassion is not medicine.
Helping, not helping
Within a couple of days, our flatmate was screaming again. We repeated the phone calls, the tea, the walk to emergency. His chemistry was complicated, but the trigger was a melodrama so absurd I couldn’t believe he had allowed it to happen. He had a crush on a girl. One of his band members slept with her. The said band member was homeless, so our flatmate was letting him sleep on our couch. The band member slept with the girl on our couch. Then they asked our flatmate if they could borrow his bed to fuck. This was before we took him to emergency. After that, the band member and the girl stopped talking to him. They said he was too intense. The tea and mild sedatives didn’t help.
After a week of talking to him, trying to cheer him up, ignoring my own misery, I remember being frustrated – why wasn’t he getting better? He was clearly sick; he should seek help. My sense of indignation grew: he is just doing this for attention, he asks too much, he wants to be this way. In this logic you can recognise the madness of the sane. He doesn’t want my lifejacket? He must want to drown!
I tell you this not to mitigate my guilt but to explain my thinking – thinking I have seen repeated in others dealing with suicidal friends. The healthy person thinks, “I will save this person”. When the healthy person cannot, their only recourse is to believe that treatment has failed because the patient has sabotaged their actions. This helps justify the distance the healthy person puts between themselves and the sick: they are ‘too intense’, and the healthy person is pushed beyond their capacity to care.
The prettiest star
When I told my friend back home I was writing this story she said she was happy I didn’t depict her situation as one-sided. My friend the one-woman-whirligig can ask a lot of a person. How much is too much? What are we allowed to ask of another human being? The answer is, like truth, simple and dispiriting. We ask for what we can; we take what we can get.
But when a localised lady typhoon is in the rose bushes stabbing her thighs with a paring knife, can you shirk that responsibility? Again, the dispiriting truth: you can. If you can live with it. The difference between a self-destructive person and a suicidal one is commitment. The same goes for the cruel and the compassionate.
Something understandable but regrettable happens when someone close to us tries to die – we try to save them. It is a gut reflex, as feeble as shielding your face from a skidding truck.
Something very selfish and interesting happens to you when a friend attempts to kill themselves. You ask yourself, “Am I not enough?” At a time when we believe ourselves to be acting in good faith, part of us is asking, “Don’t you care about me?” So we need to correct this opinion of ourselves, either by fixing the sick person or by turning away. It is born of our nature.
Human behaviour is modelled on mimicry. We are good to others for as long as we see ourselves in them. When they reflect us poorly, we turn away from the mirror.
There was no narrative closure between myself and my flatmate. He left the house to move back in with his parents. Just after this, my relationship exploded. I was homeless, broke and looking for a place to stay. When I emailed, he said with things the way they were, he couldn’t have someone over. I think it was the right call on his part. He needed time to get well. We haven’t spoken since.
My friend back home is doing good, taking it slow, huggin’ on dogs. From time to time she sends the most amazing emails, beautiful things, alive in the way only the best writing is. I wish I could safeguard her health, build a fence around it and let it grow. But there’s only one person who can tend that garden and she’s literally on the other side of the world. We are rocketing through space around a blighted star and she’s huddled in an Australian winter as I sweat into a French heatwave.
We’re not alone; we’re marooned. Shipwrecked in bodies that belch and squirt and inflame, stuck with minds too full of this one chemical, too lacking in another.
Let’s be clear. Your friend trying to kill themselves totally sucks. It is nothing like ice cream or a trip to the zoo. Don’t be afraid of their pain, don’t vilify their illness, don’t mortify yourself. Just give them a call. Be like John Cusack, and just say anything.
Daniel East is an Australian writer living in Paris. His work has been published in Going Down Swinging, Cordite, SBS Comedy, Pantograph Punch and Contrappasso.
If you want to get informed about mental illness, Head Desk uses GIFs, comics and interviews to get the conversation started. If you need support, call Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) if you’re in Australia. And if someone close has died by suicide, the Australian Psychological Association recommends talking to friends and family for support.