Monday, 13 August 2012

The Edge

There is nothing funny about suicide, for friends of the corpse. Well, almost nothing. An acquaintance of my parents killed himself with a shotgun blast to the head, when I was a schoolboy. I distinctly remember overhearing a conversation about the incident between my mother and a friend of hers. Friend: 'How did you hear?' Mother: 'God told me.' 'God' was Godfrey, a mutual friend of the dead man and my mother. There was a pause and then howls of laughter. Ours is a cruel species.

I have flirted mentally with the idea of suicide since childhood. As I have explained to countless exponents of the dark arts of mental health medicine, these flirtations have almost always taken the form of fantasies. I imagine myself, post-painless-suicide, breathing a sigh of relief and getting on with life after death, freed of the burdens of a perfectly ordinary life.

The gulf between suicide fantasies and suicide attempts is a vast and yawning chasm, precisely because, if it weren't, our ancestors would have reacted to the unrelenting misery of their prehistoric lives by ending them, as early as possible. Homo sapiens is not extinct because the dawn of consciousness gave birth to a capacity for enduring suffering without precedent in the history of life.

I tried to commit suicide a few days ago. For present purposes, the reasons don't matter. Because I was diagnosed years ago with clinical depression I consume a daily cocktail of more-or-less toxic pychotropic drugs and, for a few days after collecting my monthly prescription, I have the means in my medicine bag to kill myself painlessly. Once before I'd taken a handful of pills, knowing that I'd be very unlikely to die, but eager to put my life on the line. It wasn't so much a cry for help as a squeak and I fluffed it by failing to tell anyone until after I'd woken up. This time I really meant it and I swallowed most of the sleeping pills that I had to hand (amusingly enough, the reason I didn't swallow all of them is that I wanted to have a few left, in case I failed in my attempt to die). Just before I went to bed, not expecting to wake up, I lost courage. Cowardice is surely the most under-rated of human virtues. I sent an email to four friends, telling them what I'd done.

I woke up to find a policeman tickling me. 'Fuck off.' I said. 'Can't do that.' He replied and continued tickling. It is impossible to sleep while being tickled by a policeman, even when your brain is bathed in chemicals designed to shut it down. When you think about it, that fact puts medical technology in its place. After a while the tickling policeman announced that an ambulance had arrived and that it was going to take me to hospital. 'I don't want to go to hospital.' I said. 'I want to stay here and die.' Warming to my theme I added (I remember all this quite clearly) 'Do you have the right to take me to hospital, against my will?' 'Yes.' He said. 'If you don't agree to come, we'll section you.' I stood up.

The few hours I spent in hospital passed in a blur. A friend got through on the phone to the ward and I chatted to him for a while. I cannot remember anything about the conversation. Another friend arrived a few minutes later and sat by my bed for the rest of the morning, while I drifted in and out of consciousness. Later my brother and sister arrived, separately, and I will remember the gentle, loving smiles on their faces, as they looked down at me, for the rest of my life.

I spent the following days in a room that is a cross between a monastic cell and the Sandy Lane. Enveloped between crisp linen sheets, on a bed as yielding as a cloud, I slept and slept and slept. When eventually I emerged, I was plied with delicious food and wine, the latter administered in quantities carefully calculated to minimise the risk of brain damage while maximising the chances I'd think twice before having another go. For the record, I think 'two glasses' is a figure of speech.

A week or so has passed and I am back to what doctors refer to as 'normal for Norfolk'. I don't come from Norfolk but you'd never know. In the interim I've spent two days with my wife and children, on the astonishingly (to me) lovely beach north of the Hague. We played catch, built sandcastles and tried to engineer a channel between our deckchairs and the sea, which was about 5,000m away. I read stories from 'The Magic Faraway Tree' to Elsje and Pieter, while they curled up beside me in bed, and it was quite hard for a while to imagine wanting to be dead. I have, however, a good imagination.

The trials of life are hard. Some people (how I envy them) seem to confront life as a surfer does, punching through the breakers to reach the big waves that make life worth living. Others (like me) wallow in the shallow water, fearful of sharks. This is going to end only one way. Not today.

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