(I am a survivor of a teenage suicide attempt – while on ERASMUS student exchange in Greece in 1994. Below is the text of a radio essay I wrote for RTE Arena reflecting on my experience two decades later. PS lots of people are asking my permission to share – if you think it’s worth sharing for any reason please do. )
Twenty-four years ago, at the age of 19, I attempted suicide for the first and last time. It wasn’t a cry for help. I’m alive because the East German student I was sharing a room with in a tower block in the Greek city of Salonica returned unexpectedly, an hour into an assumed 4 or 5 hour absence, having forgotten his tennis racket. A tennis racket saved my life. That’s what you call luck, or destiny. I was unconscious and remained so in hospital for a couple of days. I woke full of wires and drips in a ward for the dying, full of old people having their final snoozes and dreams.
Why did I want to die? Because I was weak, and I had learned, many times over, that, in our society, the weak are trampled upon, abandoned, cast out. Isn’t that the lesson the society we live in teaches us, above all else?
I remember the contemptuous indifference of most of the medical staff, but also the kindness and concern of one young trainee doctor. She held my hand and smiled searchingly down into my eyes and made me promise I would never try anything like that again. That simple bonding human contact, amidst all the machinic indifference, was enough to make me want to live again, a little bit. The promise she made me was there was more to life than hatred of self and others, than destruction by and of self and others, that, indeed, there was something holy, called human love, to be gained by living. This was, in the end, a powerful enough counter-attraction to the enormous, essentially blissful relief I had felt in the days leading up to my suicide, after having unburdened myself of the desire to live. “nothing whatever is by love debarred” writes Patrick Kavanagh in his poem The Hospital, and it was there, in that hospital, where I first felt that, whatever had happened, I would not be debarred from love.
Maybe there were many more out there like this fabulous young Doctor, I thought. What a hero she was. All the same, it’s a pity we have to go to such extremes to receive the compassion of the strangers, when it’s often all that’s needed to keep us going.
Back in West Cork I went to the Doctor and was told the good news and the bad news. The good news was I could be put on the list for a psychiatrist. The bad news was it would take 18 months to get to the top of the list. I could have as many pills as were necessary of course. But pills weren’t really working for me – I already knew that. I don’t blame the Doctor for the sadistic cruelty of forcing suicidally depressed people without substantial private means to wait absurd lengths of time for treatment. That’s the fault of a system which allocates resources according to means rather than need. Suicide affects all classes, but it’s only for the poor that ever get told by the state ‘sorry, but your life is too expensive to maintain’.
I wasn’t the only one of my friends to suffer from depression and other forms of mental illness. Except for the equally afflicted, most others avoided me. Sometimes, as Orwell warned, health is sickness, and sickness is health. Thankfully, where I lived, the afflicted were plentiful. Their sympathy, empathy, companionship and good craic kept me going and keeps me going still.
In 20 years I have had plenty of ups and downs, made enough mistakes for ten lifetimes. But I have also experienced friendship, love, and, above all, inspiration. I recall that young Greek doctor again, who breathed some of her own strong life into my weak one. Since then I’ve had the flame of a great life breathed into me by so many people who chose to fight back and won against the institutions and people that tried and threatened to make their life, our life, not worth living. I’m inspired to live by the proud survivors of institutional abuse. I’m inspired to live by those who struggle against illnesses of the body, mind, and soul, and win, or go down fighting. I’m inspired to live by courageous political activists who stay on the streets despite all attempts to demonise and divide them. I’m inspired to live by great artists who refuse to be commodified and sucked up into celebrity culture. I’m inspired to live, and to love, by the downtrodden, who keep going despite everything, because something glorious has been promised to them if they do.
These are the winners I study. These are the survivors I copy. These days I want to live, because maybe the good and the just will win out in the end. I too want to be a copy-cat survivor, not a copy-cat self-annihalator. I want to be around when the long night ends and the sun finally rises on us all.
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