Authors: Jay Griffiths
The publication date was put back, removing for a while my fear. But something else was coming: I felt dread, a sense of constant emergency. I'd reverted to waking at 3 a.m. and, in this frozen January, those night hours were still and quiet enough to hear the gods.
I live in a small town in the hills and in the summers I like walking, running, swimming, biking and horse riding. In the winters, I like tobogganing as well and, the height of my pleasure, skating on frozen lakes. In this illness, I was desperate to be outside: mania charges me with the electricity of intense vigour which seeks to be
discharged, to be spent. But this winter's weather prohibited everything. It was too icy to go running or even walking, let alone horse riding, as the stones and rocks were like wet glass and I'd nearly fallen badly twice and I didn't want to risk hurting my ankle again. There was ice everywhere but, really disappointingly, the ice on the lakes was not thick enough to skate on. There had been a slight snowfall, but not enough to toboggan. I was pacing like a wild cat, agitated, despairing, caged.
If I felt trapped physically with that unusual combination of weather factors, I also felt caged in time, in one trapped now. As if in one terrible tripping of the switches, there had been a massive signal failure in my brain and all the depressions I'd ever had were now shunted together like train carriages in a derailment, each previously separate carriage shoved into one compacted whole, a gargoyle of twisted metal.
I spoke to several friends about suicide and one said she believed people have a choice and no one should try to stop someone who wants to do it. I felt juddered, shaken into unsafety by this, for while I agree that if someone in their right mind (perhaps towards the end of life, with an incurable disease) chooses to walk out into the snow with a fistful of pills and a crate of champagne, that is their right, but I would want to be stopped by any means necessary.
My notebook at this point is littered with the word âsuicide', and the statistics compilers, a benevolent force of cautious, serious understanding, seemed oddly helpful. Knowing that one in five people in this state commit suicide is sobering. Added to this, writing is a profession with a high suicide risk.
the facts seemed to say. Tread very, very carefully. I'd attempted (if that's the word) suicide when I was twenty, in a cack-handed, lackadaisical, be-drunken despair, swallowing a bottle of paracetamol in front of
my boyfriend, who then shoved a toothbrush down my throat till I spewed. Yuck: the vile indignity of the young drunk. I remember a nurse and a liver-function test.
Meanwhile, my friends were openly talking about hospitalization. I was frightened to talk about it with my doctor, because I dreaded bringing on myself the fearful necessity of dealing with unknown people (staff and patients) and I was frightened of being beyond his care, out of his hands. He said later that he thought hospitalization would make me worse, and that the other patients, in particular, would affect me badly. I'm sure he was right about that: at one point in this episode, I met a friend of a friend in the local cafÃ© who tried to talk to me about her madness in a psychiatric hospital. Her psyche played chords which set up resonances in mine, and in that comprehended cacophony I felt pure panic. I had to get up and leave, mid-conversation.
Being hospitalized, said my doctor, might mean being sent a long way away from home, away from my friends. He was, I could see, trying hard to assess just how suicidal I was. This is a merciless place for a doctor to be. If they don't get a patient hospitalized â sectioned, if necessary â and then a patient talking suicide actually goes and does it, there would be serious questions for a doctor to answer: should have â could have â done different. I think it would have been far easier for him to get me into hospital, but I felt he was putting my need above his and was therefore holding a heavy responsibility, and, since I'd refused to go back to the psychiatrist, he was, in terms of the medical system, holding this responsibility alone.
The trouble with trying to assess whether someone is suicidal is that sometimes they themselves do not know. I couldn't judge whether or not I would try it. My assessment was poor on every
count. What I could do, though, was be totally frank about it, day by day. In this state of mind, honesty feels life-saving and lies are killing machines. On the one hand it feels imperative not to cry wolf, even by accident, and on the other it feels utterly necessary never to understate how suicidal I was, because my safety depended on that.
In my mind, I was on a bare mountain, in winter. The weather was against me and my last shred of good judgement was to acknowledge that my judgement was very poor and that I needed to listen to people whose judgement I had previously known to be good. My fail-safe lifeline on this mountain was the rope which attached me to my doctor, like the lead climber, leading,
as a good doctor can. Without that rope, I would fall, possibly fatally.
And then the avalanche.
There was a sudden, enormously heavy snowfall on Friday 18th January. I had an appointment booked with my doctor for five. In the morning, feeling the snow to be a reprieve from my indoor jail, I gathered up my warmest gear and my sledge and went tobogganing in the hills with a friend. The dread was with me but it is hard not to feel at least a little health and invigoration sledging in deep snow. All day, the snow was piling in cornices and banks, and in the afternoon I tobogganed home, as the roads were perfect sledge-runs and empty of cars. Even a snow plough needed a snow plough ahead of it, and as the snow was falling so thickly it was impossible to keep the roads clear. Nothing could move on the roads, nothing. Except a sledge.
I got home to find several messages from the surgery saying they had to close early because of the snow, and that my doctor had been trying to rearrange an appointment with me for earlier in the day. But by the time I'd picked up the messages, he had left. The soonest
appointment I could make with him would be for the following Tuesday.
The metaphoric world is clandestine much of the time but on occasion it takes on the form of reality. The mythic werewolf or werejaguar crosses between realities; partly living in the human world, partly in the world of wolf or jaguar. Now, metaphor itself was shapeshifting into a kind of were-reality, if you will, but one so true I could almost mistake it for the real thing. I was on a mountain in deep snow and an avalanche had swept the lead climber away from me, out of sight, beyond hearing. There was an inward and near-fatal avalanche in my mind. Alone, with the accumulated dread of the last few days coursing through me, I felt pure panic shooting through my veins. The pulse in my head became unbearable. The inexorable drumming had begun again.
I had a choice. I could do the sensible thing on a mountain: stay calm, hunker down, scoop out a basic snow shelter, wait it out until I could find my lead climber again, and then, with clear skies and roped on, I would be safe. That was what the voice of reason would have said. But my reason had deserted me and other voices called, which I could hear. Not as some people literally hear voices but more like hearing the echoes of a dream. Instead of being sad, stuck and forced to wait out these dreadful days, I could move â in fact, I
to move, to go somewhere, somehow, my own way, and unharnessed if necessary. The allure lay that way.
So I did the worst thing you can do on a sheer rock face in heavy snow: I panicked. I got drunk and I didn't take that evening's medication â the equivalent of taking off the carabiner and safety harness and failing to use the safety rope. And then I tried a tricky traverse, alone.
Into suicide, black against the snow.
A death flit, a traverse at night on a bare, raw mountain, edged like a razor, like a knife, like scissor-points, like the blade of a Stanley knife. I went round the house, gathering them all up. And then I began this dangerous essay.
None of the scissors were sharp enough. I have never sharpened my kitchen knives. But the Stanley knife, pressed into my wrist, felt as if it could do the job. A knife must move to make cuts; it must slice. It is a horribly brutal sight to see a blade against human skin, and then I realized that, no matter what else, I didn't have the necessary violence.
I phoned the Samaritans. They were engaged. In a kind of gallows humour, I felt like laughing at this bitter joke.
Now. This night. When all my life was shrunk to a crucible, boiled down to pure, toxic pain: now. The Samaritans Are Engaged.
Suddenly, I heard a commotion downstairs in the kitchen. I went to see what it was, still holding the Stanley knife in my hand. One of my cats had killed a bird, a treecreeper, a very shy woodland bird and not one you'd ever normally see in town, but I suppose this snow had made it as desperate in its way as I was in mine. It jolted me: the violence of the cat's claws had raked cruel gouges of razor marks all down the bird's back. I felt sick and faint, reeling into real reality. This is Knife. This is Killing. This is Violence. This is Death, for real. It was as if this bird played the part of a sacrifice: its death shocked me out of my own.
I dropped the knife in the kitchen and, too shaken to do anything else, shut the cat into the kitchen with its kill. And the knife. And the alcohol.
And then I wished so keenly to be able to ring 999 and ask for an ambulance, to admit myself anywhere except here, this death-darkened house, to go into any kind of hospitality. I needed
other voices, more sensible than mine, voices which were wise and kind, which I could tune into.
I called Andy.
â Don't do anything stupid, she said bluntly: no ambulance would be able to get to you tonight.
I was crying and found it hard to speak but, as before, I needed to listen more than to talk.
â Have you taken your medication?
â Why not?
â I want to die.
â You can't really want to kill yourself or you wouldn't have phoned me.
(I can't fault the logic.)
â I want to die. And I don't. I'm trying not to.
â Go to bed: nothing terrible can happen if you go to bed. Make yourself a cup of tea and go to bed.
â I don't drink tea this late in the day. If I do, I won't sleep.
An absurdist playwright has been let loose in our dialogue. I had phoned her at very midnight, hysterically suicidal, and now I was explaining that I'm very sensitive to caffeine and a diddly cup of tea would keep me awake all night. Mind on parallel lines: the ordinary and the opera. But, somehow, hearing these words coming out of my mouth, no matter how bizarre under the circumstances, was like a first step towards normal. âOften, people want both to live and to die; ambivalence saturates the suicidal act,' writes Kay Redfield Jamison in
Night Falls Fast.
â Anyway, I can't get to the kitchen.
â Why not?
â There's a dead bird in there.
â I'm frightened of dead birds.
â Look, can you take the pills, and stay on the phone while you get into bed?
â I don't know.
â What don't you know?
(Again, absurdity strikes: maybe she thought I didn't know if I could make myself take the medication, or be able to go to bed. Maybe she thought I'd walk out into the snow.)
don't you know? she asked again.
â I don't know if the phone cord is long enough to reach into my bedroom.
It's heavenly-daft, looking back on that conversation from a very different place, but it surprises me still how the mind, when mad, can hold in the same moment ideas of terrible heft and also the desultory trivia of caffeine sensitivity and length of phone cords.
The phone line did stretch, and I did take the pills, in bed.
â Stay there, Andy said. I can't get to you till it's light.
Even her four-wheel drive hadn't been able to get up the hill to her house, so she'd have to wait till morning, walk to her vehicle, then drive down to me.
â Just stay in bed. I'll be there at eight.
She was. Thank all the gods. She was tactful, slow, sensitive. This seriously worried me: she is robust with the robust, kind to those off-kilter, but when she's this gentle, you know two things: one is that you're very ill and the other is that you're in good hands.
She called the duty psychiatrist to discuss what to do, and she spoke to me very carefully.
â Do you
to end up in hospital?
â Actually, at the moment, yes.
â I meant it as a rhetorical question.
â I wouldn't mind.
â What I mean is you're in danger of being sectioned if you carry on like this much longer.
I could see her point.
She drove me to stay with friends who live an hour away. Getting away completely from the place where you've been thinking about suicide is important, Andy said. I knew I would feel safe with these friends. More specifically, I knew that I wouldn't commit suicide in someone else's house because a feeling of politeness would stop me. Does this, too, seem absurd? The incongruence of an etiquette of suicide? It is very rude to kill yourself in someone else's house. It really is the height of bad manners to leave a bloodstained corpse in someone else's bathroom. And just because I didn't matter didn't mean that other people didn't either. So if I was in someone else's house, I'd be safe.
We got to the lane they live on, high in the Welsh hills, but I couldn't find their house, although I'd been there dozens of times. In this snow, everything was becoming everything else, there were no perspectives and I couldn't get my bearings. It mirrored my state of mind, and I'd lost my way; all my ways. The lane petered out into a bank of snow and it was clear we had gone past their house, so we turned round. I felt panicky and rolled a cigarette, as if, by seeing myself manage something actual and practical with my hands, my brain might take the cue and follow suit. It didn't. Andy asked a guy walking nearby, and the problem was solved: we were, in fact, all but opposite their house, but the world had become unrecognizable
to me â except as a reflection of my inner state: a white-out of the mind.