I am sitting on my good friend’s couch as I write this, with a glass of pink champagne in front of me. Our bellies are full of custard and fruit and chocolate. There is retro telly on the flat screen – we are watching Buffy with the sound turned down, for the sole purpose of looking at Eliza Dushku and fantasising about when she finally decides to move in with us and wander around in a towel kicking butt and dusting things. I am slightly creeped out by Buffy herself. She looks exactly like my mother at the same age, and like my mother as a younger woman is prone to dramatic outbursts in public. So I keep my eyes down until Dushku reappears, preferably in tight red leather pants and a 1990s crop top, to take me to a happier, pervier place.
I am not yet game to pick up my glass for another sip. It has been fifteen minutes since the last one. My fine motor skills are taking longer than usual to return; over the last three days I have spilled glasses of water all over the house with a steady regularity, drenching both the carpet and myself with an even hand. I have stopped losing consciousness for five minute naps, and I have regained the ability to stand straight. But at this rate it will take a few more days for my hands to stop shaking. The last and most delicate step in neural rewiring, it seems, is regaining the ability to hold a pen.
Three days ago, I stopped walking in the middle of the street because I physically could not move my legs. I don’t mean by that that I didn’t want to, or I somehow forgot to. I mean the ability to move was temporarily lost. Pain messages had flooded the brain beyond its capacity to process.
The brain is a very straightforward organ at its base. Too much pain shuts down the body’s capacity to move, a natural response to minimise further physical damage. Whether or not there is any actual physical damage in the equation is academic. The pain/pleasure centres in the hypothalamus and the most ancient parts of the organ cannot differentiate between physical, emotional or psychic harm. As far as your brain is concerned, a punch to the face and a punch to the soul are exactly the same thing.
And so three days ago, I got off the bus to visit my friend. I started walking to her house while the inside of my skull churned with the impact of one too many hits. I found myself stopped in the middle of the pavement like a remote control toy left out of range. Not yet stopped dead, but getting there. And I realised, quite simply, that I no longer wished to live.
It was not a dramatic realisation – by no means a shock to me, or some embroidered poetic gesture in the face of unhappiness. The ability to create or to play with thoughts and language is utterly lost in this state, and the self stripped back to the barest possible truth. I was in more agony than I was mentally or physically able to handle. I could no longer generate the will to stay alive.
Fiction writers are particularly bad liars – comedic writers, most of all. Comedy deals almost obsessively in the truth. If you’re looking for honesty, watch Ricky Gervais; if it’s lies your after, see your accountant.
I am not writing this in a fucked up tradition of romanticising the suicidal urge. I am not writing this to shock or to outrage. I am writing this to get the data down; to provide the raw material; to find the punch line in the darkness, I suppose. I am writing this to think it through, and hopefully perhaps to help another person who needs to do the same.
So I’d better warn you, dear reader, that while my mind is still disjointed as it rebuilds itself – memories floating on the surface of consciousness, experiences past and present playing out simultaneously, all illusions of linear time dissolved – I plan to come back to my topic as I sift through things. And I plan to tell the truth.
But don’t worry. Bits of it are funny.
The Way of the Samuri
People born and raised in cities spend most of their lives thinking about other people who were born and raised in cities. The details of rural life remain closed to them – the types of work involved, the intricate conventions of etiquette and polite distance without which the world would explode, the struggle to avoid revealing the most intimate details of your life in your grocery shopping, the long term social repercussions of wearing the wrong clothes to a barbeque.
When city people do think about country people, the result is a peculiar mix of elements picked up from the telly – a strange hybrid of twee charm and slasher film, shaken with a dash of agoraphobia. Venture into a country town, this assumption goes, and you will either be forced to bake scones for the local women’s auxiliary to a quaintly disgusting local recipe involving sheep’s urine, or you will be driven out into the middle of the desert, spiked on the end of a metal fence post, and gang raped by a multi generational family of pig shooters and crazed scone enthusiasts.
Country people, then, are either living their lives in a nauseating imitation of The Good Life – spending their time calling livestock by name, having hilarious accidents with the home brew, and irritating their pesky middle class neighbours with their adorable wacky ways – or are rabidly violent sociopaths intent on fucking and killing anything with a hole (not necessarily in that order).
I am not entirely sure, but I suspect that a lot of this unease about country life comes from the work that cattle and sheep farmers do. Farmers raise animals to be slaughtered. They are in control of the entire life cycle of a beast, from conception to birth to milking to killing.
How can they do this, especially in the bareness of all that land? In a country as physically large and sparse as Australia, away from the cities the land can stretch from one horizon to another without a building in sight. We have cattle farms the size of France here. All that death, and all that distance – how can anyone bear it, without cutting off all empathy? How can any person routinely kill helpless animals they’ve raised, who trust them and depend on them for food and well-being, without rating a perfect forty on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist?
It’s a logical question, coming from someone raised in a city. But nonetheless, it is the wrong sort of question. The city dweller is using the common sense of their own upbringing, and ‘common sense’ is only common to your home culture.
The physical distances of country life are not agoraphobic. The community is at times profoundly claustrophobic. Every move outside the boundaries of your home or farm must be taken with care; a certain line of conversation must be kept to, a certain sensitivity shown towards other people’s passions and problems, and a certain amount of compartmentalisation applied to your own.
I remember the primary school excursion my prep class was taken on. I was five. I had to hold hands with my cousin Thomas, the wart on his hand scratched into my grip and I kept wiggling my fingers trying to avoid it. We were loaded two by two onto a bus, and driven around the corner to the local butcher’s. Of course we all knew the family who ran the butcher’s shop, and each of the apprentices was someone’s older brother. Yet we behaved as if these people were strangers, out of respect for the more formal setting.
The school wanted us to learn more about how a carcass is taken from its hook, laid out on a slab and carved into cuts of meat. We were also shown how a pig intestine is cleaned out with one long stripping motion of fingers and thumb – much like milking – to make the casing for sausages. On the way out, we were each given a freshly cut slice of Devon.
Death is a fact for country people. Not an abstract problem that would have to be dealt with someday. Anyone who has grown up in a farming community knows birth and death on intimate terms well before reaching adolescence. Our own impending deaths, too, are facts to us. So there is no thrill, nothing exotic in killing for a farmer. No pleasure buzz from cruelty. No superiority, or vicarious feeling of a transference of power.
Every year, my grandfather would raise a baconer. This rather cute little piglet, with all of a dog’s intelligence and often a lot more affability, would follow him around and affectionately headbut him seeking pats. After a month or two, this pig would have inadvertently transgressed the number one rule of farming and gained a name. Months would pass while the now-named piglet grew into an adult. Man and pig would grow closer in their bond as time ticked by.
On the appointed day, my grandfather would shoot his pet. He’d put its body in an old bathtub to scorch the hair off with boiling water. Then, he’d hang its carcass from a meat hook in the shed.
You have to hang a large carcass for a long time before you can butcher it, so the blood drains completely and the meat is tender. While this process played itself out, my grandfather lost himself in bottles of whiskey and cried his heart out.
The next year, in full knowledge of what was inevitably to come, he’d do it all again.
And so you see, it’s not that country people aren’t sad about killing these animals. It’s just that they taste delicious.
Farmers are not sociopaths. We are far, far scarier than that.
Walking Into Punches
My mother’s friend tells us that her son is a ‘wave rider’. This came up at a recent parent teacher night, during which a teacher described two types of students: wave ‘riders’, and wave ‘crashers’. Riders keep moving; crashers break bones, have dramatic accidents, attract strange enemies, pick fights with the local Goliaths and lose, struggle with what should be simple decisions. Kicking against the pricks. She seems pleased with her son’s ease at negotiating difficulties, of skimming over the surface of life.
My mother and I do not look at each other. We do not say anything. We both know I am an inveterate crasher.
My psychologist explains to me, years later, that my pain tolerance is too high. So I keep walking into punches, coming back again and again, not registering the hits until the damage is critical. ‘A trusting soul,’ he describes me as.
No one has ever described me that way before.
Inner City Living
I am walking up Spencer Street outside my flat. I look like a bag lady. I may even be muttering to myself in public. The air has been kicked out of my abdomen. I walk hunched, almost feeling like I’ve been whipped.
Despite the symptoms, I am not on my way to Centrelink.
The problem, I think, is how to go about it.
I remember the psychologist who once saved my life in this moment, and the one failure of understanding he ever demonstrated.
I am back in his office, sitting on a comfortable couch with the colourful bowl of Skittles at my elbow on the side table. I have never eaten one. I wonder if anyone ever has.
‘What do you think suicide is about?’ he asks me.
‘It’s a natural urge,’ I answer.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, as only someone at war with their own nature can.
There are worse things in life than death, and there is a point when ending life peacefully is the better option. There is death by torture. There is starvation. There are the horrors of war, of ritualistic sexual and corporal violence and public execution. There are diseases that rob a person of their sanity, their dignity and their hope.
I have plumbed the nature of my own illness, and I have decided that what I am suffering from is a profound lack of hope. I am not under threat of physical torture, or starvation, or any real and present horror. What I am is battle weary. I have run out of fight. I can no longer be bothered. I wish to stop.
This feeling is chemical, a sustained injury from trauma – not an experience based in the present reality. But it is still, for now, real.
‘I have a client who says he thinks about death to reassure himself,’ he says. ‘It’s a way of thinking, “Things aren’t that bad yet. I’m not ready to do that yet.”‘
He cannot understand what I have said, because no healthy mind can. A healthy mind is wired up to survive.
I let it pass.
Back on the street, in the now, I am still just thinking about methods. Thinking through the options, nothing serious yet. I believe that, anyway – of course by any psychiatric measure this kind of ideation is critically serious, but everything seems to makes sense in this state.
Each option I consider has a problem. I am too chicken to use a razor. I am too clumsy to use a rope. I find myself scanning buildings, looking for something with balcony access. How humiliating, though, to be caught; knowing my luck, I will simply land on the balcony below with some kind of embarrassing injury and feel profoundly stupid.
I will jump under a train, I decide. But then there’s the driver to think about. People always say that, don’t they?
I hit on a plan. I will score a whopping great lethal amount of smack. I don’t know how to score smack anymore even at a conceptual level, but I have friends who do.
Mentally, I weed through the list. Who would help me? Who would have the balls, the sufficient combination of callousness and regard, to hit me up? I can’t do it myself. I would totally fuck it up, or end up being arrested, and someone would tell my family, and I’d have to invent some lie to protect them, and possibly end up in a sheltered workshop making swizzle sticks for the blind out of matches or something.
I arrive at a name. Satisfied, I go home. My brain blanks out for two hours. I wake up on the bed with the cat licking my face. I creak out to the fridge and eat every carb I can lay my hands on.
The elevation in mood is instant, and is actually a very bad sign. It is not a measure of how much things have improved; it is a measure of how terrible things were before.
I text a few friends to joke about it.
This thing is playing merry hell with my diet.
The Courtly Business of Mourning
It is the week before my carb frenzy, and my parents and I are travelling to the La Trobe Valley. We are making the same drive we’ve been making since we moved to Melbourne in 1987. Green country rolls by outside the car, the kind of landscape that features in ads for dairy spreads. This is not the country my brother and I grew up in – we are going the other way, to the coal mining town my father’s parents lived in.
My grandmother died a week ago. There is a common notion that grandparents should cease to matter after you’ve reached a certain age. They are supposed to fall away after childhood, a skin outgrown by the snake.
Guess what. People aren’t snakes.
It would be churlish to expect an elderly woman in pain to live beyond her own limits. I wish she’d had a better end to her life, though. I wish I’d seen her. I wish I hadn’t, in classic wave-crasher fashion, managed to lose her and knock myself around horribly emotionally in other extreme ways in the same week.
I don’t believe in any kind of God, but my grandmother did. I don’t know how devoutly – she seemed to have had no interest at all in religion before my grandfather died, and showed few signs of having been raised with it. I suppose she had the same casual trust in a higher power that most people have. There is the sun, there is the moon, there is a God. Beyond that, all bets are off.
She was a practical woman. Her funeral is perfectly planned, to save us all trouble. She was always an anxious, yet meticulous hostess.
The last thing we do for our grandmother is to bear her coffin to the hearse. My brother, my two cousins, my uncle, my father, and me. It occurs to me to wonder how we would’ve done this had there been one more of us. Would they have added an extra handle somewhere?
My grandmother did not hold with the concept of hell. ‘You have your hell on earth,’ she said firmly, and I believed her. Sometimes, when people die, there is a communal notion of their presence amongst the mourners. People need the ceremony to say goodbye and let their own idea of the person go. There is none of her energy, imagined or otherwise, hanging around this funeral. She has done enough. She is gone.
At the reception after the cremation – a rather ghastly ceremony involving watching her coffin being mechanically lowered into flames – we begin the courtly art of mourning. The family chats to friends who have come to support us, to elderly ladies who remembered meeting me when my head was shaved and are still taking pills for the shock.
My nephew is overwhelmed, and needs comforting. We take him outside to show him the garden where our grandfather’s ashes are laid. Our grandmother will be next to him, we explain. A cat comes to check us all out, and allows itself to be patted. Back inside, my nephew needs a final hug before we all get in our cars and leave for Melbourne. He has an honest emotional response to a present situation. I know mine will come later.
It comes when I am back at home in my flat the next day. I sit on the floor of the shower, hugging my knees and vomiting up grief. The cat is banging on the shower screen, meowing urgently.
Under the grief there is another persistent pain wishing to make itself known. Other messy matters needing urgent attention.
I’ll deal with you lot later, I tell my stupid emotions.
But emotions don’t make appointments. If you push them down, they eat you alive.
My beautiful friend and I call each other Scraggie. This is a practical choice of moniker as well as a mark of our mutual affection – it’s to save confusion around the high number of our friends who answer to ‘Scrag’.
‘Hey Scraggie!’ She opens the door and hugs me. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m can’t stop thinking about killing myself,’ I answer. ‘It took me twenty minutes to walk here from the bus.’
This type of conversation is kind of normal in our friendship circle.
‘You’d better stay here, then,’ says Scraggie, ever sensible and kind.
We open the champagne I’ve brought – the same bottle she gave me recently for looking after her cats. I have trouble holding the glass. I use two hands on the stem.
Scraggie’s lovely housemate is wearing a sharp suit. He looks positively dapper. ‘I dress like this to cheer myself up,’ he explains. He has gone through a horrible time lately, his own tale to tell.
None of us is doing very well at the moment, it seems.
We sit on the couch together drinking champagne and watching movies.
Two days later, Scraggie drops me back at the flat to shower and feed the cat while she drives to her girlfriend’s place. They are moving interstate and going through their own dramas. I am hideously embarrassed about the time I’ve taken up in their lives – about having to stay physically close to other people, about infesting another person’s couch.
Yet, ten minutes alone in the flat and I am thinking again. She is picking me up again in an hour. I wonder if I’ll make the hour. I am not ready yet, it seems, to be alone. A hint of humiliation is a small price for survival. Sometimes, you have to swallow your considerable pride and let people look after you.
Back at her home, on the couch, we drink champagne and watch Wentworth.
I once worked in a phone survey place that employed kind hearted freaks. People freshly released from jail, alcoholics, junkies, PhD students; queer boys and girls of every stripe. My friend I got jobs there together, and experienced for the first and possibly last time the peculiar sensation of fitting in in a workplace.
The place was sort of a queer brains trust. We were each messed up in our own way, despite or perhaps because of the mean IQ in the building. You had to beat your way through a cloud of dope smoke to get to the door after break time. There was a Lief Garrett album in pride of place on the phone room wall, the contribution of a hilarious, charming, intelligent lad who was destined for great things.
One of the more dominant personalities in the place was a bone-thin androgynous junkie with soulful eyes and an intermittent grasp on reality. I liked him, despite the grandiose nonsense that inevitably comes out of that kind of person. He reminded me of a young Iggy Pop. My friend was less enthusiastic, annoyed by all the bullshit. He told me the story of when this boy had claimed to be featured on a float at Mardi Gras:
‘What kind of dancing did you do?’ my friend asked.
‘I don’t dance,’ was the snapped reply. ‘I do movement.’
Somewhat taken aback, my friend asked further: ‘What kind of movement?’
‘Full-on movement,’ came the answer.
From then on, we called the boy Movement.
Movement lived life precariously hanging onto the edge of things, waiting to lose his grip at any second. It was none of my business, of course, and God knows none of us was in any position to judge anybody else for their life decisions. Looking at him, though, I couldn’t understand how he found enough flesh on his bones for a needle to enter.
This worried me. I didn’t realise this worry had progressed to monitoring his health and bringing food in for him until he wryly started calling me Bea Smith.
‘Feeding me up again, Bea?’ Movement would ask over rice paper rolls, his intelligent eyes flashing with amusement through the opium haze. He ate them, though.
‘I worry about you Bea,’ he said one day. I stopped unwrapping sandwiches and looked at him, mildly perplexed. Movement was worried about me?
He shook his head.
‘What’s going to happen to you?’ Then he bit into his sandwich.
After lunch, Movement disappeared into the toilets to shoot up and didn’t come back. My new good friend, the owner of the Lief Garrett album, and I exchanged worried glances over our headset microphones. He’d clearly passed out in there. What if he was comatose? What if he’d died? Most likely though he’d just nodded off, and if we raised the alarm he’d be fired. That would be a disaster. What the hell were we going to do?
‘Hello, I’m ringing on the behalf of your gas provider . . .’ I intoned on automatic pilot as a call dropped through. Suddenly, Movement came crashing into the room, limbs flying everywhere and hitting the doorframe. He rebounded from the blow like a demented muppet, collapsed in a chair, shoved a headset somewhere near the top of his head and started drooling.
In that moment, the tension in the room reached 100% saturation.
‘Movement,’ said my friend, taking off his headset. ‘Every time you take drugs, the Baby Jesus cries.’
Movement looked at us. We looked at him. Then we all collapsed helplessly into raucous, hooting fits of laughter that brought supervisors running.
We were never allowed to sit in the same room together again.
I am more like the Wentworth Bea Smith than the brutal Top Dog-with-a-heart in Prisoner. I am softer. I am still taking hits I should know by now how to duck. And I am becoming something else. Someone else. Again.
‘I wonder what happened to Movement?’ I ask aloud.
‘To what?’ asks Scraggie.
I’d like Movement to know, if he is still alive, if he ever reads this, that I am going to be OK. And I hope he is doing OK too.
I guess we’re all doing our best.
For 24/7 help and support in times of crisis, call SuicideLine Vic on 1300 651 251 (Victoria only), or Lifeline on 13 11 14 (nationally). For help in an emergency, call 000.