*Content warning, depression, attempted suicide. Written in 2005 about events mainly of 1993. My depression and self loathing defined me for so long, it’s only been the last four or five years I’ve become kinda sorta awesome. Strap in, it’s very long, but I still feel very necessary to share. When I initially blogged it the title was Gotterdammerung*
I don’t know when I first felt depressed.
I can, however, remember the circumstances where I was picked on as a kid enough for it to sear into my brain, as good a starting point for this essay as any. My family had moved to Australia, and I was short and funny accented. Easy pickings.
I had fought in school once, when I was eight years old, against six year olds, if I can remember correctly. I was defending my friends, or something, but the shame I felt when the teacher gave us a dressing down has stayed with me for the rest of my life.
So when I was teased at high school – I can’t remember being teased as much in the last two years of primary school, even though that was also in Australia – when I was teased at high school, I couldn’t lash out, even if I wasn’t the smallest boy in the year group. Instead, I took it, laughed at myself, made a joke of myself and thus pre-empted any verbal attacks.
Which was fine in high school, kids can be so cruel, but the more time flowed past, the harsher I became on myself, even when I had gotten beyond the pettiness of teenage years. When you are harsh on yourself it so easily leads to self-loathing.
As I said, I can’t remember when I first got depressed, but I can remember when I first thought of suicide. I was fifteen, and I took a knife into my room. For a week I flirted with the thought of using it, late at night, to plunge through my ribcage and pierce my heart. I don’t know what brought that thought process on, I was doing OK enough at school – by this time we had moved back to New Zealand, no more funny accent teasing.
I stopped flirting with the idea after my paternal grandfather died. I thought it would be unfair on my family to give a double blow in so short a time, but don’t ask me why I thought they could handle the possible single blow of me dying. The knife slipped back into the kitchen, unnoticed.
When I was sixteen, I missed a chemistry project at school. Completely. I hadn’t started it two days before it was due, and had a huge crisis of confidence. The day it was due in, I skipped school. The first time that I can remember doing that without being validly sick. I believe it was Melbourne Cup Day 2002, as I watched horse racing that day, and that is the only race that I watch ever.
I didn’t complete the project. I ‘convinced’ the teacher that I had handed it in, but it must have gotten lost. There was a practical part to the project where you gave a three-minute speech, but I refused to do it. I believe the teacher thought it better not to push me on the matter. The whole matter was the first major blow to my long-held belief that school grades were actually important in any sense.
On my seventeenth birthday I got a phone call from out of the clear blue sky. My birth family had found my family’s phone number in the directory.
I had known I was adopted for as long as I can remember, my parents never believed in hiding that away. My first memory is of a wishing well cake, with chocolate frogs and jelly for water, for my adoption party, when I was three and a half – I had been fostered since four or five months by the same couple, which led to my long held belief that all foster children should stay with the same family and is a natural progression to adoption. I am too cynical these days to believe that, and I was and have been very lucky with the family I found myself with.
My parents had kept all the correspondence from my birth family, waiting for me to be old enough to digest the information. I believe I was thirteen when I read it all. I then contacted my birth family, writing letters, sending photos perhaps every four to six months or so.
Being rung by my ‘brothers’ to be wished a happy birthday and to be told that I should visit them by the time I turned twenty one was not part of the overall contact plan. As the conversation progressed on the phone, I turned gray in complexion, and felt sick to the stomach. When I got off the phone I brushed the incident off, though told my parents as much as I could remember.
Less than a week after my seventeenth birthday, my self worth plunged precipitously.
I personally believe it was due to me suffering burn out towards my schoolwork. Ergo, I would not go to university. Ergo, I would not get an interesting and fulfilling job. Ergo, my life would be a waste. Ergo, why bother, and let’s just give up.
I had concentrated for four years on my high school grades, and had been getting more and more frustrated by the combination of my procrastination and the last minute efforts I had to put in to do projects and such like. Combined with a sense that even my best effort would not get me into university, a civil war broke out inside me.
This was fought with the sense of responsibility I have had throughout my life, opposing the desperation of helplessness that even my best would not be good enough to get me through. My helplessness was ably abetted by the chasm of the unknown that would be my life without grades, homework and the like. I just snapped and wanted OUT.
The silly, very silly thing is, I could have left high school the year before my breakdown, gone to a polytechnic institute and learnt a trade that I had a great degree of interest in. But I insisted that I could put it off for a year, join the herd mentality of final year of high school and THEN going separate ways after that. Boy, do I regret that decision every single time I think about it. And yes, my parents were right in that argument.
It was a Tuesday, maybe a week or two after my birthday, when things came to a head. I stayed home, with the intention of killing myself. Somehow, I can’t remember how, I managed to psych myself up to the point of cutting my wrists. The pain, bearable. The blood, beautiful, in its destructive way. But although I felt faint, I didn’t feel particularly close to death.
I cut deeper. The pain got more intense, yet still somehow bearable. This wasn’t going anywhere fast. I had lunch, and then worked at my wounds, almost like a craftsman, whittling a bit here, another bit there, deeper, always deeper. But the blood wasn’t flowing as I felt it should, and it started clotting as well.
Evening came. My family came home. Being winter, I put on a long sleeved woolen jersey, to hide my wounds, flirting desperately close to insanity with that decision. I was quieter than usual in my interactions, but still managed to make the effort to appear normal. My family not having an inkling of what was going on in my head, they took the acting at face value.
The above three paragraphs repeated over the next three days as well, Wednesday to Friday. I felt trapped. I couldn’t tell my family what was going on, I couldn’t just go back to school without a sick note and go cheerily on, all I felt I could do was cut deeper, even though by now I knew I wasn’t going to die because of this, and treat my wounds as if they were works of art, making them as ‘perfect’ as they could be.
Saturday was ordinary enough as well. Sunday, I went to a friend’s place, to play wargames – yes, I was in the geek section of the whole high school experience. Before I left, I penned a quick note about what was going on, and put it on my parents’ bed. And left it to fate, if they read it then it was meant to be, if not then I would battle on myself for a time yet.
I came home, and went to my room. Everything seemed normal. Five or ten minutes later, my mother knocked on the door, red rimmed eyes as she looked in and said we need to talk. We went into the lounge, where my father was also, and showed my wounds, everyone bursting into tears. The conversation after that is a blur.
The next day, Monday, my mother took me to see our GP. Who made an appointment with a psychiatrist at the hospital. After the initial psychiatric scan – no I am not gay is the only answer I can remember giving – I was enrolled into the children and young person’s programme, to see a psychiatrist once a week for the foreseeable future. I believe I was also prescribed anti-depressants at that stage.
The next couple of months are a blur. The first few weeks my mother took time off from work to keep an eye on me – when I had opened up about what was going on, and had seen the GP and psychiatrist initially, there was a week to go before the next round of school holidays. So obviously, I took that week off.
In my appointments with the shrink, I seethed. I can’t remember what I was so angry about now, but all I know is that I was very angry at the world. I had bottled my emotions so long that they all flowed out of me in a torrent. I remember the shrink saying that my note to the parents was almost poetic, but that is about the only positive thing I can remember being said in those sessions.
In the family group appointments – yes, they do happen, and yes, I know they are a cliché – I remember a sense of my parents and siblings recoiling from my flood of emotions, self-hatred, and anger. I can’t remember if they actually did recoil, but I can remember that sense. At home, knowing that I was under an uneasy combination of eagle eyed surveillance and the others walking gingerly, as if on glass, around me.
Of all the things that I regret about this time, one in particular is my sister hearing my parents talking about the note that I had left that Sunday. She was only eleven at the time, and yet to know how devastated and hopeless I was – yes, one of the many regrets.
Slowly, glacially it seemed to me at the time, the appointments got better, I was keeping my emotions better leashed, and school had removed itself from my list of worries. I had dropped out of the end of year exams, and I believe was bragging about it. Very fucked up way of thinking, yes I know.
And the School Ball was coming up. And I had asked a girl to go with, and amazingly she had said yes. Things were as positive as they could be, it seemed. My shrink said I was OK enough to go from weekly appointments to three monthly check ups, and I continued to take the meds.
The school ball was a disaster. Well, it wasn’t a disaster, but I had held it aloft for months as an answer to all my issues, that I would suddenly become popular, part of the alpha male group, that I would have the most fun of my life there. I had built up expectations to an unrealistic level.
When, on the night, I danced, I socialised, I wasn’t invited to any pre or post ball parties – it just didn’t seem enough. Also around this time, my year group deans convinced me to at least register for the end of year tests again, if I didn’t feel like doing it I could back out closer to the end of the year – that put extra pressure on me, as if I had to start trying to do something at school again, other than just float.
Although I didn’t fall as blackly as before, there was another touch of insanity about the subsequent decision to not take the anti-depressants, to stockpile them, in case of a ‘rainy day’. Yes, I did think in terms of that rainy day wording, as if I was not depressed or suicidal yet, but just in case it happened later, I would be able to put the correct plan in action.
Stockpiling the pills was harder than it may sound. I was rationed two pills a day, the actual full bottle was under the watchful eye of my parents, and they watched while I took the pills and water. However, I put the pills in my mouth, under my tongue, drank the water down, went to my room and took the pills out of my mouth. I continued to do this for just under a month.
I was still angry at the world. At the school ball not meeting my expectations. At my psychiatrist, whom I thought obviously could never understand me, signing me off as cured. At my teachers for twisting my arm to enrol back into the end of year tests. At myself even, for only trying to slit my wrists a few months earlier, that if I had really wanted to kill myself I would have done something ‘better’.
I convinced myself that taking pills would be a ‘real’ attempt, worthy of the whole suicide thought. That although scars on my wrist were nice and all, surviving that was easy – if I had a real attempt and I made it through I would have done my ‘best’ in the whole destructive process way. However, partly to raise my chances of survival, partly to show how much I was hating school, I decided to take the pills just before going to school and still wander in, see what happened.
After about three and a half weeks I think, I finally summoned up the courage to go through with the idea. And yes, even though it is the most destructive act one can do, it is still a matter of courage to go through with it – it is not a coward’s way out, in the sense that so many people think. It is not the most courageous decision one can make, but there is at least a sense of courage about it. That thought and belief has stuck with me even when all the other suicidal thoughts have been lost or discredited.
It was a Tuesday I believe. I soaked in the minutae of the morning, was it porridge or weetbix I had for breakfast, or perhaps toast. Drinking in the sights of my family, determined to crash and burn later on that day, saying goodbye to my mother as she headed to work. I went into my room, looked at the pills, got a big glass of water. And proceeded to take about thirty of them. For some reason, that was only about half, the others kept in case of another ‘rainy day’. Yes, I was insane at this stage.
Tears streaming down my face, listening to REM’s Losing My Religion, again, and again, and again. It was on tape, so play, rewind, play, rewind repeat. My favourite song of all time, and the lyrics meant so much. The mandolin solo at the end.
I put myself together as much as I could, wondering how this would all turn out, and walked to school. First period was Biology, and although I felt faint when I arrived at school, I was still OKish. About ten minutes into the period, which I was not taking any notice of at all, my heart beat quickened, and the teacher came over and asked what is wrong. I said I had overdosed.
Two classmates were quickly assigned to take me to the sick room. My body went limp under me as I was carried into the sunlight, one of the boys asking what I had taken. I remember slurring out the name of the drug, and I passed out – fade to black.
Muddled memories from the rest of that day. Coming in and out of consciousness, but only barely above a dream. Being wheelchaired around the hospital, moving around on the bed – or was it all part of that dream? It is all so fuzzy.
I remember waking up the next morning, in darkness, with my mother reading the paper beside me. I had taken the best attempt doing the worst thing I could do to myself, and seemed to have come through. All the tension of the past few months just drained out of me, no doubt flowing into those around me a hundred fold. But it was out of me – I was in no mood to try again. At least that day.
I was asked by the shrinks whether I wanted to admit myself into the psych ward in the region, for a week or two of observations – one of those moments where your life could go in one of two directions. I thought long and hard about it, consulted with my parents, and decided not to go into institutional care. I would of course see the shrink regularly again, for an unspecified time, but I was discharged that day.
I felt broken, completely torn apart, and needing to rebuild myself completely. And this time I was receptive to help, whereas in the interval between the first and second attempts I continued to be secretive. I still loathed the world and myself, but wanted to improve rather than destroy myself this time around.
I dropped out of trying at school again, which I feel was one of the best things for me. I should never have agreed to sign up for trying there again. Unsurprisingly, I had another two weeks off before the next set of school holidays. For the final term, I just turned up to attempt to start socialising again, although I felt a huge space around me, from staff, classmates and friends – I never wanted to confirm what the gossip was about me though. Our school was on the news while I was away from class as being hit by a suicide epidemic – there had been about four ‘successful’ suicides in a period of two years, with an unspecified number of attempts. Now I feel sympathy for what the staff were going through, but back then, I couldn’t care less.
The next four months are basically a blur. My self confidence and self esteem were in the cellar, I was NOT taking medication – it had done so well for me last time around, obviously – and was attending the psych clinic twice a week those first few months. My social life was going to school. What I had feared was about to come to pass – the end of school, the end of my social life, and feeling broken and useless for the impending workforce.
I got a job the next year through my mother’s work – another section, I wasn’t working with her thank goodness. My social life improved, and alcohol was finally included at parties I attended – I discovered the wonders of beer and spirits. The teenage stereotype is that this happens during high school, as part of a funny story which would make a brainless but entertaining movie, but as stated before I was so not part of the A-league there.
My self confidence improved, if not my self esteem. Is that understandable? My confidence in myself grew in incremental steps, bunnylike hops in their smallness, yet my confidence in how others saw me remained at rock bottom, and has remained that way most of the rest of my life thus far.
The cutover point where the crisis ended and the rest of my life began happened approximately two years after my two suicide attempts. The trigger point where my ‘hamster spinning in the wheel, merely waiting to drink on the weekend’ stage ended and where things could move forward again was the travel bug hitting, and starting to organise a European trip twelve months out from the actual trip. My self confidence and esteem were still very low, but for the first time since I had started attacking my wrists, and probably a lot longer before that actually, for the first time in a long time, things were steadily and consistently moving up.
I was not cured, but I was on my way.