They say there’s nothing worse than burying a child. I wouldn’t know, as for two weeks after the suicide of my son Jack in 2015, I mysteriously lost the use of my legs and lay in bed sobbing and starving until I hallucinated — so I wasn’t even at his funeral. On the upside, I lost a quarter of my body weight. On the downside, I lost half of my heart.
Always somewhat detached, I wasn’t broken by the loss of the person I loved most in my life, as is the case with many parents in a similar situation. If anything, it had the effect of making me even more self-contained, or “sociopathic” as unhelpful husbands have invariably put it during domestic squabbles.
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I even tried it on for size a few times myself; the onset of tinnitus in the winter of 2017 seemed as good a reason as any, so I took too many sleeping pills before and after Christmas. Evidently, both attempts were unsuccessful. My fabled capacity for taking drugs saw me awaken both times with nothing worse than a mild headache, and a typically immature reaction: what a waste of good sleeping pills, which could have been abused with alcohol to lubricate a few fun nights.
During a Twitter spat a few weeks ago, a number of disturbed people sent me Photoshopped images of my son in various degrees of deathly contortion. In the photos, ranged in age from angelic toddler to the handsome young man he was when he died by hanging at the age of 29. Many of my friends were shocked and reported these people to Twitter. But I felt only mild curiosity at what kind of mind would mistake such a strange action for acceptable behaviour. I even “followed” a few of them in the hope of finding out
I am a robust soul, and not one to throw up my hands, clutch my smelling salts and fall down in a swoon when faced with discussion of suicide. And yet even my cold blood has flared up recently for it seems to me that suicide, the last refuge of the desperate, is becoming the currency of the scoundrel — and a fast way to shut down debate.
Only last week, Julian Assange was saved from the tender mercies of the American penal system when a judge concluded that subjecting him to incarceration in the US could result in his suicide. He has made no attempts on his life during his spell in Belmarsh. But the scourge of the Western war machine and seducer of Swedes has been spared the American system because he claims to have suicidal thoughts ‘hundreds’ of times a day.
Perhaps I’m being cynical. Perhaps Assange is in a bad way. I do know what that’s like, after all. But I can’t shake the feeling that this latest ruling is symbolic of a creeping tendency in society to allow suicide to be weaponised. Indeed, worse than Assange’s foot-stamping insistence that he could commit suicide if he’s made to go to America (which, of course, no one is allowed to contest), is the incredibly nasty way the threat of suicide is now being wielded by certain institutions charged with the care of fragile children.
I’m thinking of the transgender-affirming Tavistock Clinic and charity Mermaids. Last month, the BBC’s breathtakingly arrogant over-ruling of the Samaritans guide on responsibly reporting suicide was noted by James Kirkup. This holds that journalists should “steer clear of presenting suicidal behaviour as an understandable response to a crisis or adversity”. Yet when three High Court judges ruled last year that children aged under 16 will need court approval to access puberty blockers, the reliably biased state broadcaster saw fit to run an article — since edited — claiming that “Doctors and parents have told the BBC the ruling could cause distressed trans teens to self-harm or even take their own lives”.
The implication was clear: do you want to be the villain that makes a child want to kill themselves? Yet there’s something creepily unsettling about adults championing the idea that children can be driven to self-destruction by their genitalia. It seems strange to place death alongside sex in such an over-heated way — especially from professionals who have sworn to do no harm. “Let us mutilate these children or they’ll die” sits strangely alongside the Hippocratic oath.
To make it even more heartbreaking, the anxiety-signalling is a distraction from the reality of suicide, now the leading cause of death for men under 50; in part, I suspect, due to a growing sense of alienation and boredom — and the rise of super-strong skunk. Paradoxically, at the same time, there are calls in the West to liberalise restrictions on “voluntary” euthanasia — even though it could be used by waiting inheritors to urge the elderly to do “the decent thing” and die before they become a burden. Surely it’s no coincidence that in Belgium, where liberal euthanasia laws mean that even children can request a lethal injection, one national newspaper recently found that 40% of its citizens would consider reducing the country’s health costs “by no longer administering costly treatments that prolong the lives of over-85s”.
Before the pandemic, the UK was actually relatively jolly: currently 109th in the global suicide chart. (The Swedes used to be near the top, but turned it around in the 20th century, perhaps as a result of Abba winning the Eurovision Song Contest.) But now many of us sit alone, masked, muted and miserable. Those like me, free to work on a balcony overlooking the sea, are few and far between. Millions of my fellow citizens now feel incarcerated — and unlike Assange, they don’t get a round of applause from Pamela Anderson every time they dare to question their current situation. It’s a good job key workers don’t threaten suicide if their conditions don’t improve — but then, the rules for those in showbiz have always been different, and Assange is nothing if not a diva.
Either way, the reality is that calls to suicide helplines have risen by a third during lockdown, while half of people generally feel that their mental health has suffered. The Office for National Statistics also reported that rates of depression have doubled from around one in ten people before the pandemic to almost one in five. And I worry that in a society where suicide is increasingly evoked as a reasonable reaction to people not getting their own way, it will be increasingly hard to know who to take seriously. I’m pretty sure my son intended to kill himself, as he made such a good job of it with very limited resources. But even when you’ve stared suicide in the face, let alone attempted it yourself like I have, it’s still impossible to fully understand its meaning, especially when it looms over someone else. The balance of a mind needs to be quite seriously disturbed before the issue even arises, so it’s hard to know exactly what people who attempt it are feeling. Maybe, with ineffable sadness, they simply want to be seen.
With suicide, there is no certainty — its very nature calls out for examination. And because of this, we should still be free to question the veracity of the claims without being made to feel as though we have blood on our hands.
After my son killed himself, one of the first things I did was go to volunteer at my local MIND shop. Every day as I walked there, I felt him walk beside me. He sat with me in the alcove where I steamed hundreds of pounds worth of clothes a day, to be sent to the shop floor to raise funds which would hopefully encourage people like him not to lose all hope. The charity shops are all closed now, and the income which helped the likes of MIND to ease the burden of the burning house of mental illness has vanished. From this scorched earth, it’s all too easy to imagine how suicide could spring up to spirit away unknown numbers of our loved ones. In the meantime, we must not diminish its cruel impact by allowing it to be used as a bargaining chip when all rationality fails.