The winner of the inaugural Horne Prize, awarded to an essay on Australian life, is Anna Spargo-Ryan, for her personal story of living with the inheritance of mental illness. By Anna Spargo-Ryan.
The Suicide Gene
When my grandfather died in 1980, he left me an inheritance, of sorts: permission.
I was born two years later, and didn’t know about his suicide until I was a teenager. I had been protected by all manner of half-truths before then: he was sick, he had been sick for ages, he’d had an accident. One Saturday morning, on our way to school sport, Dad said to me, “You know your grandpa killed himself?” and it shot out of him the way a secret often does, all at once: a relief and a burden.
At first, I was indignant. Didn’t they think I could handle the truth? But in reality, after I knew, I wore it like a cloak. It was as though I’d found the missing link that would explain my own self. I found comfort in the idea of a “suicide gene”. It took the onus away from me. It was almost soothing to imagine I could do nothing about it.
Dean Jeffries Ryan was born in Adelaide in 1924, son of a senator and the identical twin brother of John.
For thousands of years, many cultures have believed a doppelgänger to be a sign of impending doom – a person’s meeting their exact likeness was said to herald their imminent death.
A spiritual double is a bad omen in folklore, and maybe it is in this story, too.
The first time I had a panic attack, I was eight. I remember how it felt to flee my classroom in search of any kind of comfort – somewhere I could make myself very, very small. I remember not being able to find that place, wondering how I could fit my body back into itself again, the feeling of all of my insides pouring out onto the playground and trying to scoop them up while the other kids laughed at me. I can’t remember why it ended, though I know now it always does.
It would be years before I tried to explain this sensation. There are others like it: missing the last step; the hypnic jerk before sleep; an electric shock. But as an eight-year-old, I was sure it was just plain “dying” – the vice-gripped heart of a person in immediate mortal danger. No one had ever offered a conversation about it, and I knew nothing about what to expect. Maybe that was a missed opportunity. Perhaps knowing my grandfather had perched at the edge of the existential void and peered inside, they – my parents? teachers? – might have given me a heads-up.
Many mental illnesses often reveal themselves in childhood. The first time you crawl into the dark belly of the black dog, the first time you see the world sliding away from you. You have to learn to live with this kind of illness as you go, to identify the signs and work through the outcomes. I think about that girl who was me and I am heartbroken for her. Looking for the tiny box of comfort, her primitive instinct to hide. I think about that girl who was me, screaming in the schoolyard, and wonder if it might have been better to know what was coming. Even now, on a really hard day, I will curl into a ball under the table, as though waiting for an earthquake to pass.
Anxiety and depression are often comorbid. I remember lying on the couch on my 10th birthday, thinking about how little I had achieved in my life and the crushing despair of it all. It wasn’t circumstantial; I had kind parents, nice friends, half-a-dozen cats. I didn’t understand where these feelings had come from, only that they had. I knew them as part of myself, as real as the colour of my eyes or the sound of my voice.
I first considered suicide when I was 16. They call it “ideation” now, this fixation on taking one’s own life, but at the time it was as though I was locked in a glass box. I felt nothing, and everything. It was an existential sort of woe, a pointless and apathetic lowness, sad and terrified to the point of exhaustion. I can’t remember gathering the wherewithal to see the school counsellor, but I sat in his small brown room and he asked questions, in a way for which he’d never really trained, with hesitation and fear.
“How long have you felt like this?” he said, and I could only think to answer, “Always.”
It was not just the sense of my own melancholy but also a familial tie. I felt it in my blood.
In photos from their childhood, my grandfather and his brother are so similar even they could never tell themselves apart. Both have blond curls and nautical-themed pyjamas and lamb’s wool blankets. Both have an eerie thousand-yard stare – the crystal-eyed gaze into infinity meant for men much older.
Some of the photos have inscriptions on the back: John (left) and Dean (right), 8 months. In these, their identity is easily defined. But compare them with the non-inscribed versions and there’s nothing to distinguish them, nothing to find in the first photo and pick up in the second, nothing to give a definitive Yes! This is Dean! No freckle, no weird haircut, no initialled sweater. My grandfather is both boys, and neither boy. Dad says they were so alike as to be “interchangeable”.
Sometimes I look for them in the mirror. I have their same eyes, a glum blue-grey. None of my siblings have them – only me. I look into the mirror at these eyes that are my grandfather’s eyes and I think: Is he in there? Or worse: Am I in there?
Every time you visit a new mental health practitioner, they ask the same questions: are you eating? sleeping? exercising? They’re screening questions, the kind that identify symptoms and risk factors. Most people with depression tick at least five of these boxes: loss of appetite, loss of sex drive, reduced enthusiasm for hobbies and interests, general malaise, feeling stressed, tired, anxious, sad.
My first therapist, in 2001, was a psychiatrist named Dr Ebsen. I walked from my house to his serviced office – another small room. (Rooms for people like me are often small, to keep the world out.) He sat behind his desk, an oak piece with turned legs, and I sat in a leather chair opposite, as though it were a job interview.
“How are you feeling?” he said.
I was almost indignant: “I wish I was dead.”
Unlike the conversation with my school counsellor, who’d rushed me from his office in blind panic, Ebsen wanted to know more.
“What do you mean, you wish you were dead?”
What did I mean? “I want to die,” I said, but that wasn’t right, so I said, “I wish I didn’t exist.” That was closer. “I don’t want to be dying.” The distinction was confounding. “I want to have died.”
I want to have died. How could anyone have forewarned my eight-year-old self of that?
He wrote all of this on a yellow legal pad, bent down to tie the laces on his leather boat shoes. “And,” he said, in his quest to understand the details of my death, “do you have a plan to die?”
Last year, I went for a drive along the foreshore south of Melbourne, alone. I parked my car in a council-run car park, slipped my $2 into the meter, and let the engine idle. I was on a cliff top, in my stationary car. A few metres ahead was a sheer plummet into the sand, and then the cool and crushing relief of the water. I stayed in neutral but pushed the accelerator a little, to understand the feeling of it. I imagined the car heading over the cliff with me inside it. It would be the car’s death, the car’s fault. My own death, crushed by the folding metal, would be a side effect.
“No,” I said to Ebsen, that afternoon when I was 19. “I don’t have a plan.”
He prescribed me an SSRI for the depression, and diazepam for the anxiety. Five at a time, in capital letters at the top of the script. FIVE AT A TIME. Any more than five would be enough to overdose. An overdose, I learnt, was a plan.
Then he asked me: “Is there any family history of mental illness?”
I thought of the day with my dad in the car, the way the puzzle had locked together. “Yes,” I said, for the first time of many. “My grandfather killed himself.”
In 1980 my father sat in a room in Adelaide’s Flinders Medical Centre with my grandfather, who was recovering from carbon monoxide poisoning after a suicide attempt. His first plan: stick a hose through the car window.
“What should we do?” Dad said, and the doctor said, “Prepare yourself to be back here again. Probably soon.”
Six weeks later they were, this time to identify Dean’s body.
Two things happen when I share his suicide with practitioners: first, they write it on a piece of paper and draw a big circle around it. WARNING. FAMILY HISTORY. Sometimes they use a highlighter, to properly flag the magnitude of risk. Second – reluctantly – I feel grateful. I feel glad that my place in that room is justified, that they have to consider that I might have a plan. That I might die from my depression.
I ask my dad about this, in the best way you can ask. “Do you think it’s weird that your father killed himself and now I feel kind of cosmically energised by it?”
I can’t say this to anyone else. Society is not reconciled to the idea of predictable deaths from mental illness. Yet half of all people in Australia who die by suicide have previously been treated for or hospitalised with mental illness. Of people who make a serious attempt on their own life, up to 15 per cent will die by suicide within 90 days of their release from hospital.
Dean’s second plan: 10 seconds of household current in his veins.
My dad is an optimistic man, a kind and spiritually generous man. As a teenager, after I knew, I spent years worrying he would meet the same end. Every time he was sad, I imagined this outcome for him. But he is not depressed, and even in his worst moments he has never been suicidal. A 2010 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed children of paternal suicide have no increased risk of suicide-attempt hospitalisation themselves.
“Maybe it’s the mythology of it,” he says. “Maybe when you’re the grandchild and not the child, you’re left only with the legend.”
Herein lies the real risk: believing one’s suicide to be inevitable.
I have had plans. When my first daughter was a baby, I took her to the local council centre for her six-week check-up. She was perfect. I remember the shape of her on the weighing scales, the way her toes curled around the end of it, her bald head, her squat nose. I held her and waited for the nurse to mark the very perfection of my daughter in her little blue book. Then that nurse looked at me and said, apropos nothing, “Your heart hurts.”
My heart did hurt. My heart, and my body, and the soles of my feet, and the tips of my fingers, and all the bones inside my skin. If she had asked me then, about my plan, I would have told her about the Sandringham train line, the way it dipped between the overhanging trees before it reached Middle Brighton station, and the bridge there. But she didn’t. I took a tissue instead, and a biscuit, and walked the pram home along the canal.
As a person with a chronic illness, I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact on my family, about whether I give them happiness or frustration or sadness or all of these things. My grandfather and his brother were so alike they were almost one person. And one brother died, drained as he was of his spirit for life, while the other didn’t. Why?
Earlier this year, I drove my car to the local emergency ward and calmly told the triage nurse that I wanted to die. Sometimes it happens that way. Sometimes the suicidal ideation comes resolute and final, like a finish line. She looked me up and down, at my overwhelming doneness.
“Do you have any family history of mental illness?” she said.
I thought of him then, as I do each time, the burden and the privilege of the man who laid the path for me in that emergency room, and said, “My grandfather killed himself.”
She took me into a small room (by now I have come to respect and even welcome these small rooms) and I sat, as I have learnt to do in my years of distress, in a corner, on the floor. The hospital had no psychiatric facilities, she said, but I could wait in the small room for as long as I needed to, until the feeling had passed. And if I did manage to hang myself from the corded venetian blinds, there were doctors just outside the door. She didn’t ask me if I had a plan. “You don’t have to worry,” she said. “Don’t worry. Just for a little while.”
Men over 85 have the highest rate of suicide of any group. I watched John, after that morbid milestone birthday, for the genetic inevitability. Maybe it was, somehow, to release me from my own predisposition. Not the granddaughter of the man who killed himself but of the man whose specific double helix of data included death this way. Uninheritable.
My grandfather was 56 when he died. His twin brother died this year, of natural causes and in a nursing home, aged 91.
As an adult, I read Dean’s suicide note; it slipped from a notebook while we were moving house. It epitomised depression as I knew it – the apathy and the tiredness. It was stoic, matter-of-fact, offering instructions for his funeral and the management of his estate.
But there was more to it than that. The weight of what is lived and what is left behind. Dear David, he wrote, to my dad and his son, please retain very very happy memories of me.
What I knew about John is what I knew of both of them. John was kind and generous, and so in my created memory, Dean was as well. John served neapolitan ice-cream in soggy homebrand cones and so, too, did Dean. John was a man with a great deep laugh, a man with a singsong doorbell, a man who grew pumpkins in his garden, a man who padded around his house in soft slippers. And so, in my mind, was Dean.
I never met my grandfather. I’m told he was serious, devoutly religious, dedicated to providing for his family. But there are things I know about him – things no one else has known, not even his genetic duplicate; things no one could have proffered to me as a “heads-up”. The great dark edges of the ravine. The near-unnoticeable moments when the light breaks through. The tremendous, overwhelming nothingness.
I never met my grandfather, but he walks beside me every day, offering his permission.
Lifeline 13 11 14
Anna Spargo-Ryan is the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize, a competion founded by Aesop and The Saturday Paper, for an essay on Australian life. This is her winning entry, for which she receives $15,000. Alexandra O’Sullivan was highly commended for her essay “Losing Teeth”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 24, 2016 as "The suicide gene".
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