It’s a curious feeling, not wanting to be alive, but not having the motivation to do anything about it. It’s the lazy younger brother of suicide. It’s emo ennui. The ultimate duke out for the passive aggressive.
Fortunately, the flatline that follows profound grief can be a lifeline too. The gulf between listlessness and lifelessness is all it takes for you to arrive at Dorothy Parker’s assessment of the situation: ‘you might as well live’.
Death is a state. Killing an action. And, as I have to summon up the last dregs of determination to firm down the coffee grinds in my mocha pot, I think I’m gonna be here a while.
But last night, it was too close to call. I wandered the house in an agitated state of arousal: a feedback loop of fear and fatalism set in motion, as it often is, by the most innocent of triggers: the gas bill.
This week I lost my job. It’s all gone very Eastenders, I know. All I need now is to move house and I’ve got a royal flush of stress.
I’ve not worked, really, since I took unpaid leave at the end of last summer, to care full time for Mark. But, starved of cash, and seeking some semblance of a routine, I settled on a gradual return to work. A couple of days a week writing about jewellery isn’t going to kill me, is it? It might rot my brain, but hey, so’s the Highland Park and Laughing Cow chasers at three in the morning.
But the world had turned since I last clocked on. And no-one wants to pay writers any more. Why should they? Everyone’s a writer these days.
So when George Osborne’s piggy little fingers start stimulating the economy, we’re first against the wall. Mind you, better out of work than being stimulated by George Osborne’s magic fingers.
Friends breezily tried to take the heat out of the situation when I told them my news. ‘Oh you’ll be fine. You always find work. You won’t starve’ they trilled, nonchalantly. But their ministrations sounded clunky and insensitive. ‘Let me be fucking angry!’ I wanted to scream. “Let me feel sorry for myself. You don’t understand!”
When you lose someone after a long illness, you’ve nothing left in your bucket. You’re all spent. So, should another careless loss catch you unawares, I’d recommend you stand well back.
I lost my favourite notebook last month. I tore the house apart like an addict searching for grains of crack. Separation – from anything – is just not an option.
If you’re not going through it, this all must seem an impossible and irrational business. But that’s the deal.
So I’m standing in the middle of the living room – my favourite spot. And the palpitations start. I’m left holding the bank balance: my happily coupled friends just don’t get it. I am the only one. I can’t rely on Mark’s Disability Allowance (such as it was), or his sickness pay. I have a house, a loan, a car, credit cards. Two Bloody Cats and a hole in my bucket. And I have no fight left. As the old joke goes, ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here.’
I need cash. I need a job. But I can’t go back to work. What am I going to do?
Then I am struck by a creeping, and thrilling thought: What if I don’t do anything? What, now, is the worst that can happen?
What would I work for? To pay bills? To go on holiday alone? To churn out words for brands I cared less about: to help grease the wheels of an industry as distant and disconnected from my life as God was from the tented village in St Pauls? What does Marks and Spencer care if some other faceless word monkey churned out pap about their Plan A Environment campaign (to be printed out on all those glossy leaves of varnished paper?)
If I don’t work, I don’t have to identify myself as that person who wrenched himself away from Mark, in the last few failing months of his life, to bash out copy no one wants to read, for companies no one cares for.
For what? Cash to stock up on wine still corked and stacked? A new iPod dock? Egyptian cotton sheets? To place Mark in the care of a minimum-wage girl with an Aldi bag of chick lit, tapping away on her iPhone while he dozed the remains of his days away, alone, in the front room. On a rented plastic mattress.
How much did I make that day? A few hundred quid? How valuable would it have been to sit, to hold his hand? To watch an episode of Stargate on iPlayer? To share milky coffee and digestives. And for him to say, at the end of it all: ‘We’ve had a lovely day today, haven’t we? Thank you Diddy.”
Suddenly, the secrets of the universe – the ones you don’t see when, Truman Show-like, you sleepwalk through the nondescript seasons of the hump years – were revealed to me. The myth of careers, the lies of possessions. The self-improvement, control and contentedness that comes with getting on.
I’ve done it. And I’ve seen how Egyptian cotton can’t sooth away the sleepless nights – no matter how high the thread count.
I could never know more or want more than I’ve experienced over the past six years. My work is done. And now the rupture of grief has torn a tiny hole in the set, like Truman’s prow piercing the horizon.
So where do you go from here?
Moving voluntarily from life to death involves, above all, action, motivation and scheduling. It’s more than just casually opening the bottle of sleeping tablets to discover you’re two days short of an overdose. Of midnight Googling for ‘painless ways to die’ to be found wanting because you don’t own a garage, let alone a length of plastic tubing. Nor the tweezers to set free the glistening innards of a new Mach 3.
Suicide. It may be painless; but it takes a hell of a lot of planning.
Still, it’s a tenacious little bastard. It skulks around like a charity mugger on a high street, ready to pounce when, sucked dry of sanity, it knows you’ll succumb.
Curiously, crowd sourcing doesn’t offer any group therapy.
I punch ‘Suicidal thoughts after…’ into the Google search bar and its auto-correct algorithm which, I assume, is based on a suicide catalyst query, offers:
I might have misread the last one. But still, I’d have thought there’d have been room in that sorry and sobering top ten for ‘…after bereavement’.
There are powers greater than Google.
Colin Murray Parkes – the Godfather of grieving, and my new bedtime companion (well, I was getting nowhere with Wolf Hall. All that pacing about in antechambers. Get on with it Henry, don’t you know how persuasive you can be if you put your mind to it?). Murray Parkes’ comprehensive studies on bereavement point convincingly in one direction. To my head. With a Smith and Wesson.
Page after deathly page, Murray Parkes shortens the odds. I’m circling entire paragraphs in red ink, underlining key phrases and feverishly scribbling notes in the margin, like Woody Allen speed reading The A to Z of Neuroses in an East Village garret, while Dianne Wiest tells him it’s not a heart attack, it’s the Veal carpaccio he had at Sarties. Or something like that.
Still, bereavement mortality is no joke. Younger bereaved people are, surveys show, much more likely to die following the death of someone close. Younger people, bereaved of a companion of the same sex are even more likely (society doesn’t quite rate these partnerships as anything more than mutually convenient hook ups. The Odd Couple in number 5. Why wouldn’t he have bounced back now? It’s not like they shared a bedroom or anything…)
Younger people prone to stress-related symptoms are ’exponentially more’ at risk. Why a heavenly, finger-pointy hand doesn’t break the firmament and say ‘David Lloyd, it could be you’ is beyond me.
And you might say this is selfish. And I might say you should try pacing a night in my slippers.
I flick further into other books. There are tables and graphs. Mathematics. It’s death by statporn, and this only serves to seduce me more. Two years ago I was surrounded by Caledonian MacBrayne timetables and routes: tracing out dotted lines over the Atlantic, to plan a holiday for us. Now I’m comparing the timetables of yearning, anger, disbelief and depression. And they’re even more deadly than planning a route from Coll to Tiree via Barra.
Time is overrated.
If I had a quid for everyone who told me of its great healing properties I’d have enough for a set of gallows.
In time, tumours seep and leak. In time, remission turns to regrowth. In time, as Professor Brian Cox never tires of telling us, from some far flung desert, we’re all fucked.
Don’t tell me about time. I’ve seen what it can do.
I think this, and I look at the tables splayed out in front of me. Graphs charting vectors of time and bereavement indicators. Of grief curves surging towards a peak at six months.
Six months? Three more months of feeling like this?
Sorry, time, but I’m not waiting around.
Depression and ‘emotional disturbance’, lack of self care and increasing dependence on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol are, says Murray Parkes, the fallout classically observed in the first six months. They’re also, save for the words ‘Dear Diary’, the first 30 entries in my Boots Scribbler Journal, 2012.
More chilling still is the fact – I can see it now, underscored in crazed red Pilot finepoint – there is a ten fold increase in suicidal deaths among women, and a sixty fold increase in men (Bunch 1972) following the death of a spouse or close companion.
Men have it hardest in every conceivable way: their lack of attention leads to more life-threatening accidents at home, work or on the roads. More panic attacks. More nightmares. More coronary infarctions. Truly, we can tell you what becomes of the broken hearted.
The strain of grief (which is, I think, a more specific description than mere ‘stress’) can also be a precursor to other nasties. It pulls down our drawbridge and offers easy access for diseases known to lie in trauma’s wake – as swiftly and silently as parasites and bacteria cloud over a whale carcass on a sea bed.
Feelings of loss and helplessness have been shown to have a chilling correlation to the onset of certain cancers. Murray Parkes quotes one study in which women who were being re-examined for cervical cancers were, as well as being screened, interviewed separately by a psychiatrist (who knew nothing of their medical history).
Those admitting to having a recent loss in their life, and who felt helpless with grief were, the psychiatrist predicted, those likely to have the disease. In 71 per cent of the cases, his diagnosis was correct, and the cancer had moved in. Taking squatters rights in an empty bucket. Like the bastard it is.
Murray Parkes throws a final warning salvo my way “people with the highest caregiver burden also had the highest rates of mortality (Christakis and Allison 2006), and those with high levels of caregiver strain had a mortality rate over the first four years of bereavement that was 63% higher than that of those who were not responsible for care…”
Mark was never a burden, but his illness was needy and unforgiving of a moment’s idleness on my part. Latterly, when Mark finally stopped fighting after a superhuman and sublime six years as undefeated champion, I became his legs, his eyes, his valet, his envoy in the world. No sleep. Nothing but attention. No time for affection.
I’m actually surprised I passed the interview. I’d had no previous experience. But the on-the-job training was very intense.
What the studies can’t say – because they don’t know – is that ‘caregiver strain’ is a dress down Friday compared to the strain endured by those we care for.
Those who once drilled Rawlplugs into walls, scooped out the ashes and laid a fresh fire every evening, plumped up my pillows so that, when I returned home late and wobbly to bed, would sleep soundly. Those who did all this and who now meekly open their mouths to take a straw and sip at Ovaltine. Embarrassed to be the cause of so much trouble.
These are the pains of being a caregiver. Not positioning the slipsheets. Not guiding home the bedpans. It’s the pain of sitting and watching. The pain of being so utterly, numbingly useless.
After such pain, mortality could be seen as medicine.
Love, a friend of mine tells me, is a drug (Mark, the lifelong Roxy Music fan, would like this, I think).
Less lyrically, love actually releases calming opioids, and a cocktail of chemicals known to fire up our immune system. Blood taken from bereaved people is shown to be lacking in these health-boosting enzymes. I’m not surprised, I can hear Woody Allen saying, They’ve just lost their partner and now you’re bleeding them dry?
And if you survive the initial meltdown, grieving’s gonna get you in the end. The life expectancy of widowers is reduced by one and a half years, and that of widows by six months. (Mellstrom et al 1982).
Faced with all this evidence, options become severely limited.
It’s another long, silent night. A night like any other. Jupiter and Venus align like eyes above a crescent moon, casting a cold smile over my empty garden. I’ve taken five sleeping tablets. That’s either four too many, or ten too few depending on which end of the telescope you’re looking down.
And I think about the crap in my house. And of my friends and family having to come and empty it. Of them filling binbags in silence.
Of them left for dead.
And then I turn on the TV. Channel 740. QVC are selling a travel coffret of moisturizers and serums. Absentmindedly, I punch home the numbers.
I’m feeling suicidal. And I’m buying anti-aging creams.
Obviously, my heart isn’t totally convinced with the efficacy of one of them.
Let me sleep on it.
(Feeling suicidal, should you have reached this page because you too hit ‘easy ways to commit suicide’ in Google really does suck. I know this. And I know too that, if you have just one person who loves you, no matter how fucked you think you are, your parting gift to them would be too hideous to contemplate. I couldn’t gift that to anyone, and neither could you. See, I told you, it sucks. Try here or here for wiser words.)