Pictured: Probably not a nun.
CW for: Irreverent conversational discussion of suicide, death, self-harm, mental health, eating disorders, being a twat.
On the few occasions whenever I’ve gone to a doctor and told them I’m Depressed, one of the first things they’ve asked after the preliminaries is “Have you found yourself contemplating suicide?”. As they ask this, I imagine their fingers-tips sliding down to idle on a big red button, ready to push and summon a crack response team of mental health specialists. Of course, that big red button was installed in the 60s by a cheeky cowboy electrician who rigged the whole system up with chewing gum, string, and pluck. This is why only a fraction of button presses do anything, and why a large portion of those take over 6-8 months to trigger anything at the other end.
The doctor’s hands re-settle themselves somewhere more visible when I answer “no” and the conversation continues down more familiar paths of interrogation, huffing, and eventual diagnosis after looking over my notes. Oh, and don’t forget the lectures about how unengaged I’ve been with the healing process and how irresponsible it is of me to have not been regular with my meds or stuck with the 6+ month waiting lists to attend inappropriate and unhelpfully generic therapy sessions*. You know: despite the aforementioned mental health problems.
I understand why the suicide question has been asked, although I think in my more recent appointments they’ve steered more towards the self-harm route. Maybe someone realised that suicide is a bit cut and dry and it’s better to try and intervene at a less extreme level than that.
I don’t think I’ve ever answered “yes” to the suicide question. In all the years I’ve been like this, there was only one time when I thought “Yep, this is it. Time to fuck off with all this.”. Fortunately, I had a few-second window of clarity during which time I was able to post a cry for help online, and Good People came to talk me down.
When that urge came over me, it wasn’t because I was ‘just’ Depressed. It came at a point when I felt things too much. When everything seemed to be so utterly, profoundly hopeless and lost, when I felt like I had nothing to live for. The floodgates opened after so long of feeling nothing at all; I was a sobbing wreck of open wounds that had lost all capacity to control my emotions and what I felt wasn’t the familiar, numb blankness of Depression – it was despair. Despair brought about by a very specific set of circumstances that were largely external to me, but I obviously couldn’t handle all that well on account of already being mentally fucked.
I don’t know if I’ve been Depressed for so long that I’ve come to accept how I am as a natural resting state. Intellectually, I know I can be better than this. When I’m on my meds, for example, things don’t feel so muted and I can actually concentrate for long enough to make the hours I’m awake feel worthwhile.
Even when I’m ‘well’, however, I’m still stuck with this great yawning pit. Powered by meds, I surround it with planters and maybe a water feature or two. I give it a polite nod and maybe stop to chit-chat before going on with the day. It’s a constant, stable landmark on my mental terrain. I think I’ve become so familiar with it, that even at my lowest points (aside from the aforementioned) I’ve never been plagued by the overwhelming urge to tip myself in.
I was pretty young when I first wrestled with the inevitability of death. I remember it quite clearly, although I couldn’t tell you how old I was. Nothing specific triggered it. No one close to me had passed away and I consumed all the cheery, regular sort of media that a child in the 80s would consume. You know – The Land Before Time, Watership Down, The Neverending Story, an anime version of the Little Mermaid that was a blatant rip-off of Disney while also staying true to the Hans Christian Anderson story, that one time I saw part of Terminator 1, and that other time I saw the opening dream sequence from Aliens where Ripley has a nightmare that a chest burster is breaking through her ribs and all the attending medical staff need to pin her down.
All good, wholesome stuff.
Despite all this cheeriness, realising the finality of death and knowing that at some point in my life I would wake up and someone that I had always known would simply not be there absolutely shattered me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It didn’t make Sense.
For much of my life after that point, I tried to find ways of making what I thought was a huge logical inconsistency in the Universe work for me. I never dedicated myself to any religion, although I was always interested in such. I didn’t really jive with the idea of an old man in the clouds, and nor was I on board with his counterpart. I briefly poked other Abrahamic religions, I read widely about Buddhism and Hinduism, and have ultimately found some comfort in heathenry. The only thing I’ve really found myself liking at the end of it all is the idea of an afterlife. Maybe not a heaven per se, but that there is more than the brief time we have allocated to us.
What happens to our thoughts – to the universes in our minds? Where do our emotions go – those huge, terrifying, exhilarating things that envelope us, inspire us, simultaneously reduce and expand us?
They’re all so small – infinitesimally so – but clearly so tangible and massive, that they must mean something.
And what about memories, eh? How do you explain them, Mr Science Guy?
I don’t want answers in the replies, by the way.
I could talk here about all the different avenues I explored, but that’s not really what this post is about. Maybe that’s one for another time.
Now I’m older and wiser, I’d love to tell you I’ve reached some sort of happy realisation; that I’ve stumbled onto what is – for me – an ideal acceptance of my lack of/longevity and what does/not come after.
Instead, all I can really tell you is that I’ve come to rationalise why I don’t consider suicide and why it’s been such a minimal part of my adventures with Depression. It’s because of the heat death of the universe. I’ve decided that I don’t personally rate suicide as a viable response because in the end, everything is vitally meaningless and everything we’ve ever loved, built, hated and destroyed will be consumed by unrelenting entropy. You might as well keep living and make the most of what you can while you’re conscious of it. I’m exhausted by the whole thing, too tired, resigned and ultimately overwhelmed to consider it.
I believe this approach is called optimistic nihilism.
Anyway. About that convent.
Before I found something resembling uneasy acceptance – if not peace – with the vastness of the cosmos and the enormity of time, I remained fixated on this idea of Sense.
When I was going through an exceptionally rough patch – my eating disorders were at their worst, I’d scraped through my degree on a medical dispensation, I was back living at home without any idea of prospects or purpose, I’d slipped away from all my friends and hobbies and felt like I had precious little left – I had the amazing idea that I’d seek out other people who had found Sense.
It didn’t really matter to me who they were: I just Knew there had to be some great answer out there and I simply hadn’t found it. I felt Significant and Important and didn’t really know why, but I decided that maybe the people who knew Sense could help me out. You know – let me in on their secret. If I was so consumed by this, then surely that marked me out in some way. Surely no one else in the world was so utterly obsessed with questions about life and death and creation, and what it all meant.
I did the only thing any sane and reasonable person could under such circumstances: I called up a convent in Carlisle and told them I was stopping by for a visit. I wanted to talk to some nuns.
I wish I could remember more of what happened, but the dull truth is that it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting or entertaining as it could have been. In hindsight, it was a bit sad.
After being let in, I sat there for a while in a large and Christ-y front room and ranted at a sister for about an hour about, well, everything. About purpose and Sense, about belonging, about how I wanted some answers and how I thought me becoming a nun would totally solve all that.
She, in turn, listened patiently, nodded and made noise, and obviously asked if I was Christian.
I don’t know, I replied. Maybe? I mean, there’s got to be something behind it all, right?
I ranted some more. She maybe started to wonder if she needed to call for help.
When I’d run out of steam she gave me suggestions. Nun-y suggestions about quiet contemplation, about pursuing my faith and questioning whether or not a life of dedication and service would bring me what I needed. She also said something about maybe being a Christian, but I’d switched off by that point.
When it was clear she wasn’t going to give me a sticker for being such an earnest little pilgrim or slip me a wink and tell me I’d cracked the code and they actually kept The Meaning Of Everything in a room somewhere out back, I left.
When I thought back on that encounter in the days and weeks that followed, I became sure of only two things: 1. That she didn’t recognise how Special and Important I was and was therefore a charlatan, and 2. No one who was a charlatan saw Sense and therefore I needed to look elsewhere.
I definitely didn’t think I was an unhinged twat. That particular realisation wouldn’t come for a few years.
I still think that nun was holding out on me, though.
I never did join the convent.
*Yes, please don’t worry – I am acutely aware of how poorly funded and managed mental health services through the NHS are. My issues are not indicative of the whole and I am not criticising individuals who work above and beyond to help those who need it. It’s unfortunate, but the few times I’ve actually gone through with any sort of therapy referrals, they have been consistently damaging and harmful to me due to poor fit and lack of options. Not everyone’s experiences will be like this, and if you yourself have the opportunity to receive mental health support, I 100% encourage you to do so. I will actively march you to your appointments and drive you where you need. It’s always easier to support other people with this stuff than it is to look after yourself.