Content Warning: Suicide
There’s no easy way for me to broach this topic; no snappy introduction or reference point I could use to make the landing a bit softer. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time but have never really known how to approach it. It was only after watching a particular video last night that I decided it was time to just get it out of me, put it out there and move on, so that’s what I’m doing.
Chester Bennington’s death didn’t hit me as hard as it did others. I was a fan of the band when I was younger, and can remember buying Hybrid Theory at an airport in Spain when I was about 8 years old, but it’s been a long time since I actively listened to them. Regardless, Hybrid Theory, Meteora, Reanimation and Collision Course were great records and definitely on heavy rotation during my younger years.
Anyway, I was scrolling through Twitter last night and there was a video where Chester talks about his depression:
‘I don’t say nice things to myself. There’s another Chester in there that wants to take me down. […] If I’m not actively getting out of myself and being with other people […] If I’m out of myself, I’m great. If I’m inside, I’m horrible. […] This is that moment of enlightenment, where you go, “I could do something about this, and by doing it, I could move forward and get unstuck from this.” It’s like I can live with life on life’s terms. I can experience the entire spectrum of humanity without wanting to get out of it.’
It was something that resonated with me very heavily, and shook me up a lot. The few times I’ve tried to talk to people about my mental state, I’ve talked about having a voice inside my head that is constantly shouting me down. If I think too long about certain things, there’ll be an involuntary spasm in my head, and a second voice will kick in talking about what a piece of shit I am.
On some occasions, it actually goes one step further into a vocal reaction. I can remember, one time, being stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes, and I suddenly blurted out, ‘I want to kill myself’ to an empty room. Or walking down the street on my own, and suddenly saying, ‘I’m such a piece of shit’.
The other way these thoughts manifest, is a case of perception. The first time I thought about suicide, I was around 15-years old. I used to get the train to Brighton almost every weekend, and there would always be fast trains going past on the platform, and every time I would think about stepping in front of them.
It still happens, every so often, that I have to push myself against the back wall or sit down as a sort of security against standing on the edge. I have a bad thing with heights also; if I ever stand too close to the edge of a high drop, I can start feeling myself tilting over. If I’m leaning over a wall or railing, I start thinking about myself climbing over the edge. One way to describe it would be like an almost childlike curiosity, or the way a dog looks when it encounters snow for the first time. Whenever I’m in a new place with a high drop or something that might offer a quick and destructive end, my mind is drawn to it. You develop an eye for windows in tall buildings that don’t have rails or mechanisms to stop the window from opening too far. They become possibilities.
It’s persisted, and persisted, and persisted. I’ve done a few different kinds of therapy over the years, and fortunately I’ve found a few techniques that seem to have helped me find a balance, but for the most part it’s never a case of the thoughts going away. It’s more about finding responses and rationalisations that help me to regain composure. I still think about my own death all the time, but instead of thinking, ‘If I step in front of that train, it’s going to create such a mess for so many people,’ I now think, ‘Well, that means that I care about other people, so I must be a good person, so maybe I shouldn’t.’
I’m fortunate enough to be an intelligent person, which has given me a lot of tools and skills to be able to combat these things. But one of the downsides of this, in my experience, is that medical professionals, therapists, counsellors and so on, will try very hard to convince you that all the answers and solutions are already within your grasp. I’ve always been very adverse to medications and antidepressants. I don’t like the idea of something permanently altering my mental state. But I’ve been very frank with those people in the past, that I don’t think I am mentally well, and so often received responses along the lines of, ‘Well, hey, you’re a smart guy, you’ll figure it out.’ And I appreciate that. On the good days, I think about that and feel more capable. But it’s not much use on the bad days at all.
I’m a very introverted person a lot of the time. I have a tendency to spend days at a time on my own, doing things on my own, or walking around. Ironically, this then brings with it a certain sense of isolation. Being around people is hard, so I have to spend time alone; being alone means I get up in my head; being up in my head makes me think about death and suicide; thinking like that makes me feel like I can’t be around other people; so I spend time alone, and so on. It’s a strange combination; struggling with being sociable a lot of the time on the one hand, but on the other knowing that you badly need it when things start to spiral. It’s one of the reasons I have a tendency to thrust myself into people’s presence, showing up unexpectedly or pushing to meet up and hang out even in the most inconvenient circumstances.
A lot of my closer friends, if they read this, might even find this surprising, as I can really bounce back in their presence. But I think it’s easy to forget that people with mental health issues are usually the most adept at hiding those types of things. Of course we are – when you spend every day living with any mental illness or compulsion, you necessarily develop techniques to mask it from others. I’ve told people before that socialising, going out and being bubbly and entertaining, that’s “dancing” to me. I’m not even necessarily all there. I’m just dancing, performing an idea of a regular Gregk that will hopefully stop people from worrying too much. And the nicest part is that sometimes you really can fall into that role, and it feels totally normal, and for a short time it’s the best thing in the world. But seriously, at the end of the evening, when you’re sitting on the train home or in the back of the cab, you feel yourself slipping out of it again. The whole thing feels fake.
Something that Chester said in that video helped me to make sense of this; that idea that, as a depressive or whatever you call it, the time that we spend “being” something for somebody else gives us the opportunity to get out of our own heads. And I’ve noticed that I am at my best when I’m being a friend for someone, or a brother, or a colleague, or a funny new acquaintance, or whatever else.
A friend came over to Berlin to visit recently and we hung out for a few days, and at the end of it I said to them, ‘I’ve been thinking about death and ending things a lot lately. It always happens, but it’s been extra bad at the moment, but having you here and hanging out and having that friendship has really helped me, and I owe you for that.’
I was really worried how they would react, but they just said, ‘That’s really good to hear, and I’m glad you felt comfortable enough to tell me.’ And that was a big relief. No bullshit, no performative sympathy, no dancing, just an ‘I understand’ and a ‘thanks’.
Needless to say, a few days after they left, I swung back down again. I sometimes wonder if I am maybe manic, at least to some degree, but it doesn’t feel “erratic” enough, in that sense. My moods follow some sort of a pattern – generally, I’m up as long as I’m keeping myself busy or stimulating myself, and then down for long, extended periods of time, often coupled by, and creating, isolation – they’re just very extreme. But fortunately over the past few weeks I’ve been flying back to London quite regularly for one thing or another and I’ve been fortunate to bump into a lot of really decent people who’ve helped me to find value in myself and keep in balance.
It’s just tough. I work very hard, all the time, and I try to constantly keep myself busy, writing, or working, or going to shows, or art galleries, or flying around, doing whatever. And I’ve spoken to a few people lately who’ve expressed their admiration for me and how much I’ve achieved over the past few years. And it’s so nice, and I’m so grateful for it. But I sometimes wish I could explain to people that most of the time, the only reason I’m doing it is to keep myself busy enough that I can’t find the time to think about throwing myself in front of a fucking train.
In my experience, it’s a common misconception that being suicidal means wanting to die. For me, it’s anything but. It’s a constant fight to stay alive. There’s just this unwelcome voice in your head that is doing everything in its power to try and end things. And having the intelligence and rationale to argue against it often just complicates further, because then that voice just calls you out as a fraud or a faker; ‘You don’t even really want to kill yourself. You’re just pretending.’ I often worry that, if I ever do end up taking my own life, it’ll just be to prove that I can to that voice. I’m certain that’s the case for a large proportion of people who choose to exit.
And I think this is something that all of us need to remember, especially in an age when social media has us all convinced (and trying to convince each other) that everybody else’s lives are amazing, and we’re all being our best selves and living the Instagram-perfect existence. I love VSCO cam as much as the next person. I get joy from having a nicely-curated feed. It feels good to put a new post up on the blog, or do some work with some cool people, or see my name printed in a magazine.
But it doesn’t change the fact that probably at least 20-30 times every day I wonder how much easier everything would be if I just killed myself right there and then. And I really do. I think about it all fucking day. And sometimes I even laugh about it, or joke about it on Twitter, or write it in text messages to myself. But fuck it, at least it’s out there now and if you ever send me an email and I don’t reply, or we make plans and I drop off the face of the earth, that’s what’s going on.
And if you ask me how I am and I tell you, ‘Yeah, good’, there’s a 90% chance that I’m lying to you, but that’s fine, because it probably means I care about you enough to not want to scare you off by talking about dying. And if I ever show up at your workplace uninvited, or maybe hang out a bit longer than everybody else, or ask you what the plan is next, just understand that I know I’m being fucking insufferable, but I’m just looking for a bit more time before I have to go back to being “just me” again.
And please remember something I read shortly after Robin Williams’ death; these people do not die of suicide. That is a single symptom, the final symptom, in a long list of ailments and sufferings that constitute depression. Sure, the killing blow might be whatever the choice of exit happens to be, but they start dying long before that. If you make these deaths about suicide, you’ll never find the solution. We have to talk about depression and alienation. The illness itself.
And lastly, I’ll make the joke I always make to help myself to feel better. Don’t worry about it too much, guys. I do think about killing myself a lot of the time. But that’s okay. The rest of the time, I’m just think about killing all of you instead.
R.I.P. Chester, thanks for making this easier.