A great friend of mine wrote a suicide note the other day. It was heart-wrenching to read. Yet another bloke who had deemed himself broken beyond repair, hence a failure, and thus worthless.
Thankfully, he did not manage to end his life due to some fast intervention, but I’m sure part of him only added that “failure” to his other list of perceived failures.
I have written about anxiety and depression before – and you can read those pieces HERE and HERE – and how I deal with them, but that all comes from a personal perspective and is certainly no catch-all remedy.
What I wish to explore here are the words that re-occur in instances where men choose to end their lives – words they appear to use to justify their suicide, and what, if anything, can be done to stop these pointless and catastrophic suicides.
Men, by their genetic programming, are problem-solvers. If the problem can be solved with their brain, they use that. If the problem requires brute strength, then that’s why we’re built the way we are. If it requires both brains and brawn – then we’re prefect for that.
The problems arise when we encounter a problem we cannot solve. In my case, my wife was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer and its attendant metastases – and this was an issue I could not solve. So I started screaming inside my head. I was screaming about my sheer helplessness in the face of an insoluble and terrible problem. I quickly became a creature of only two emotions – terror and rage, and I would remorselessly oscillate between the two.
Did I contemplate suicide? Sure. But only as part of the checklist of possible responses my whirling brain offered up to the question: “So what are you gonna do now, dickhead?”
Because your brain does tend to whirl when it’s confronted with problems you deem insoluble – it’s going through every conceivable and inconceivable means to a possible solution. You see, you’ve told it the problem is insoluble. Your brain (well, you) will nonetheless try and solve it. Because it doesn’t accept insoluble.
And it’s very hard to stop it doing its thing, and then it becomes this maelstrom of cascading thought – one leading to another leading to another, and so on.
In my case, it got to the point where I was unable to function. Not being able to function was not an option. I had a 10-year-old son, my wife was in hospital fighting a fight I still cannot fathom – though I have seen the appalling price she paid – and here I was, not functioning.
I was not eating properly, I could not work, I was not looking after myself, I was behaving in a vile and reckless manner (far more so than was normal in my case), and I was either psychotic with mindless rage (very bad), or helpless with blinding fear (also very bad).
Did I do what the brochures and all those bullshit male mental health advisors say you have to do and go and talk it out with a good mate? Fuck no. Fuck that. We just don’t do that, do we? We chew our own bones in our own way because that’s how we’re wired. And our male friends are wired in exactly the same way. And while each and every one of them would eagerly lend an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on, it’s not what I needed or wanted.
What I wanted was someone to tell me how I could fix this fucken problem. And if you couldn’t tell me that, then me baring my soul to you was altogether pointless.
I sure as shit did not want advice. I wanted solutions. And none presented themselves. And so I went on chewing myself while my brain began to offer ever more bizarre thoughts.
So what did I do? I went and sought professional help from a psychologist. I had nothing to lose, because I was on the verge of losing everything, so I got a referral from my GP and off I went.
Out of my mouth came the words “failure” and “worthlessness”. Over and over. And I told him I was “broken”.
I had deemed myself thus – and as it was explained to me, you can virtually self-hypnotise yourself to be exactly that – a worthless and broken failure – often riddled with guilt. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because your subconscious mind will then work towards fulfilling your vision of yourself.
In short, you have told yourself the solution to your problem is to consider yourself a broken, worthless failure. So your brain kinda shrugs, and says to itself “Well, if that’s what you really want…” and sets about making you just that.
My friend’s trauma was not like mine – and do understand that every trauma is different and unique to that bloke, because we all have different breaking points. I had found mine, and my mate had found his.
In his case, it was the end of a relationship that “broke” him. It was a problem he could not solve, and therefore, he told himself he was a “failure” and “worthless”.
It didn’t matter that he had kids. It didn’t matter he had any number of great mates who were available to listen to him 24/7. It didn’t matter to him she was entirely unworthy of him, and that the sea has many fish in it. And I get that. My wife is also my soul-mate and I have no idea how I could or would ever get over losing her. My sea only has one fish in it. It’s her.
And in my darkest and most awful moments, while trying and failing to deal with her illness, my mind went to places it had never been before and it horrified me. I buried her in my imagination. I played the whole fucken scenario of her passing and the subsequent service out in my head. What the fuck was even going on in my head for that to happen?
“Be positive, think positive, don’t be negative, etc…” yes, I was, as we all are, aware of the hippie-idiot mantra of how to get on in life. It’s bullshit. There’s nothing positive about getting cancer, or losing someone. That kinda shit has to be confronted, chewed on, and you must come, eventually, to terms with it. Somehow. But how is the issue, is it not?
It’s not easy – especially when your brain is offering you “solutions” which range from “Chuck the rope over that beam” to “Buy $10,000 of coke!” to “The whole mortgage into Five Dragons? Sure!”.
And it is shit.
All sorts of shit, as my psychologist explained. And all of it perfectly normal. It’s how your brain works. It will offer solutions which are not solutions. It will offer outcomes which are not outcomes. It will tell you things which are not true or real.
But remember, he said to me, your brain is not a separate thing to you. It is you. Don’t think it’s some separate creature working its will independent of yours.
“So what do I do about it?” I demanded, ironically noting that I was insisting he solve this particular problem for me.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s OK to think those thoughts. It’s normal to think all kinds of thoughts. Do not recoil from them and do not try and bury them. Let them go until they run out of steam or reach an end. And do away with the emotion of guilt while you’re at it. A totally pointless emotion since you can do nothing about what you feel guilty about – it is in the past and the past is unchangeable. Deal with the now. And only the now. The future is unknowable. The past is unchangeable. Only the now is of concern.”
Easier said than done, I thought.
And it was. And it’s something I had to work at for a long time. And it’s something I still work at now and again. But rarely. Because what he told me worked for me – but like all flawed creatures, I remain a work in progress.
Will it work for my friend? No idea. He has a long and difficult time ahead of him. The sheer effort it takes to grasp that you are not a failure or worthless is huge. You can state that you’re broken, and you might well be, but you’re not a fragile pane of porcelain that cannot be mended. You’re more like a fancy Italian motorcycle that can always be repaired, no matter how many pistons it fires through its cases and into the sky.
And there are people who can help. They are not your friends, just as the surgeon who pins your bones is not your friend. But he will do a better job fixing your broken arm than your mate who likes to drink schooners with you.
And what you’ll find is you can tell these people things you cannot tell your friends. That is why they exist. It is their calling, as it were. They do not judge – and I would not care if they did. I just want them to help me because I need help – and it’s fine as fuck to need help. Why is it not? How is it not?
I am not a failure because I need help. I am not worthless because I need help. I just need a fucken hand to get me through this rough spot and my brain is being a weird arsehole, I can’t/won’t talk to my mates, and so here I am on your soft chair. Please take notes. There’s a lot going on.
Needing help is not a declaration of failure or worthlessness. If your spleen explodes on the gak one big night, you’re not going to go home and sleep it off. You’ll fight your way into the nearest ambo and demand they use the lights and sirens all the way to the nearest Emergency unit. Your brain is an organ just like your spleen (albeit somewhat more complex…but having said that, what the spleen does is pretty splendid too) – and sometimes, when your brain explodes, it needs to be seen to by a professional.
The human animal, male or female, is the most adaptable sentient life-form on earth. It is able to face seemingly impossible hardship, loss, and trauma – and yet somehow carry on – and even thrive. History has shown this to us time and again.
The words “failure” and “worthlessness” must have no place in our view of ourselves as men. We are never those things for keeps, and thus we cannot be defined by them.
We may fail at stuff and we may feel pretty worthless now and again. But that in no way means that is all that we are, does it?
I have failed at more stuff than I can count. I have felt so utterly worthless at times, going on with my life appeared entirely pointless. But it was only an appearance – a mirage, if you will. It was my mind talking shit and offering options that were not options, but which my mind felt it should offer up because that’s what it, what I, was in desperate need of – a solution, no matter how bizarre.
But it is never pointless to carry on. It is never pointless to get the fuck off your knees and take another damn step. And then another. And then you’re two whole steps away from where you were two steps ago. And that was on your knees, wasn’t it? And look at you now. You’re no longer on your knees. You may be swaying a bit, but you’re not on your knees with your head bowed. That is the position one adopts when waiting for the headman’s axe, is it not?
Life is a sonofabitch. Ruthless, relentless, wondrous, and terrible. It goes up and it goes down. Sometimes the peaks are astonishing, and sometimes the troughs are crushing. But it is not an endless low, just as it’s not an endless high. Only the insane are always happy. And normal people – those of us who battle life’s vagaries – or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as Shakespeare so brilliantly termed it in Hamlet (the bit where Prince Hamlet contemplates suicide) – will and must know both great happiness and great sadness.
You must know despair to know joy. There’s no way around that. And I don’t know of any man who has not walked in darkness so profound he wondered if the light would ever come.
But it does come. It always comes. Except when you kill yourself. Then it doesn’t come. And then you have failed.
Because while yet you still breathe, there is no failure. There can not be. Failure cannot exist except in an absolute – an absolute such as death.
To me, failure is what happens when I give up on myself. Not on my family or friends, but on me. Then I have failed myself. But I am a stubborn and cussed thing. As a wog, my emotions and passions govern me. My highs are very high and my lows are very low. I have no truck at all with that stiff-upper-lip bullshit the Poms cloak themselves with. I shall cry and I shall rage and I shall trample the living and hurdle the dead if the occasion calls for it. And I will laugh, and sing, and dance, if that’s what I am moved to do. I would choose passion over dignity without a thought – just as I would choose strength over weakness without a thought.
And I will fucken live – failure after failure – I will live. And so the Hell should each and every one of you, because the only true failure is not to.
And we are all better than that.
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Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.