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Reflecting on the limits of language around suicide, the author writes of his own experience of depression and the call for a more open discussion of mental health. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Changing the discourse on suicide

In the regional town of Albury, on the longest night of the year, the actor Samuel Johnson stood before a crowd hugging a large, glass frame. It was fireproof glass, he said, and it encased a poem written for him by his mother. Johnson’s mother, Merrill, killed herself when he was a one-year-old. His sister found her.

In Johnson’s other hand, he held a letter he had written for his mother, a letter originally published in this newspaper. “I have never blamed you for leaving,” he said. “Lots of people these days call suicide selfish. They say, what about the kids? What about the family? Not realising it’s not at all about them. I don’t miss you, for I never had you to miss. That bloke you had three kids with stepped up when you stepped out. He was effeminate and authoritative, so I had a two-in-one type of deal. I’m pretty much okay, except I have intimacy issues and I can’t share a bed for more than one night. I feel lucky that you didn’t stick around and fuck up my life like you did my sister’s. She found you dead when she was 12. She was late to see you. Ever since, she’s carried a swag of neuroses. She’s never once been late in the decades since. Thanks for making her so punctual.”

Johnson was a keynote speaker at Winter Solstice, a yearly community gathering that aims “to bring the subject of suicide and mental illness into the public forum to be addressed without shame or stigma”. It began in 2013, after the suicide of a local family’s teenage daughter. “The shockwaves are still radiating,” says David Astle, a Melbourne radio presenter and author who knows the girl’s family. He has hosted the event since its inception. “You can never be at peace with it. But one way to come to terms with that calamity is to turn grief and impotence into community action.”

Astle thinks a lot about language. He has written many books on the subject and is the much-admired compiler of Fairfax’s cryptic crossword. Astle thinks a lot about the language of suicide. “I believe the more we air the wound, the more likely it can heal,” he tells me. “One way to do that is to continue the conversation, even if that might err on the side of being imprecise or ill-advised at times in the language. If it’s coming from a compassionate place, that’s seeking remedy and redress. Because suicide thrives in taciturnity. I encourage more discussion.

“I think there’s an improvement at a grassroots level. The ‘S’ word was up there with the other ‘S’ word – it wasn’t mentioned in polite conversation. While it’s still a powerful subject, I think there’s a wider readiness to broach it. That’s encouraging. Myself, as someone who takes great care with language, I observe language and its evolution, and I can see in that narrow space of time the language has entered a more colloquial mode – that’s encouraging.

“While the dread of ideation and emulation were prevalent a decade ago, the more frank we are with suicide – both the word and topic – the more it loses its mystic juju. It has romantic, neo-goth, Byronic appeal – the more we treat it like cancer and dementia, the more it loses its mystique. The more we use ‘suicide’ as a verb, the better we are. We can’t load it up with euphemism.”

The name of the event itself – Winter Solstice – reflects the difficulties and anxieties about suicide and language that it is designed to dispel. It was originally called “Survivors of Suicide”, but organisers detected some community resistance. For some, the word was repelling.

“I think it speaks to the mindset of a rural community five or six years ago,” Astle says. “People were reluctant to put the poster up in windows ... There was a resistance to attend or support that, putting a dark and confronting word in the middle of the frame. It seemed a wise choice to call it by its metaphor or calendar date – not sure we’d do the same today. Perhaps we would. The event now is as much about depression, the preludes to suicide, and talking about mental illness in general. It’s become larger than suicide. And it’s a custom to seek out the metaphor – kites and red noses and Movember. The banner term brings us into the church.”

 

Professor Patrick McGorry, a psychiatrist and 2010 Australian of the Year, commends the increase in reporting on suicide. “The problem I have, actually, is with my profession, which is incredibly risk averse,” he tells me. “Mindframe, the group that work with journalists, have a latent fear – they emphasise the pitfalls of reporting, of any romanticising or glamorising of it … They operate with a slight thought-police mentality. This might be a bit unfair to them but journalists I’ve worked with have been amazing … We just had a conference today and I said there’s not many areas you can censor the press, but mental health is one area. Levels of reporting of suicide have gone up…

“I have a good relationship with Mindframe. We just have a different perspective, that’s all. I’ve tried to push the envelope. Tried to get it to shift.”

McGorry wants to confront the taboo. Suicide seems always at risk of being eclipsed by euphemism, or ignored entirely, in timid deference to its power. But when it is broached honestly, it reverberates.

Two years ago, Liberal MP Julian Leeser stood to give his first speech to parliament. It made national news. “Twenty years ago, this month, my mother approached my room to wake me,” he said. “Seared on my mind from that night was the speed of her approach and her scream as she flung open the door of my bedroom, sobbing, ‘Dad’s gone, Dad’s gone.’ I got up from my bed to comfort my mum, trying to calm her. I went down the hall to my father’s office, where he worked late into the night for his clients. There I found his pyjamas in a pile and on the glass-topped table in the hall was a note, like so many of the notes from my father, written in red pen on the back of a used envelope. It said simply: ‘I am sorry Sylvia, I just can’t cope. Love, John’.”

Leeser’s father’s body was found at the foot of The Gap at Watsons Bay in Sydney. Leeser spent much of this week, which included World Suicide Prevention Day and R U OK? Day, encouraging Australians to broach the issue.

“The importance of what we call the ‘second circle’ – family and friends – have a great responsibility,” McGorry told me. “Leaving it to the person themselves, especially for men, isn’t normally enough.”

This was on Samuel Johnson’s mind when he addressed the Albury crowd, and he chastised himself for his token connection to a friend in crisis.   

 

In 2009, I moved to Canberra to work as a departmental speechwriter. Kevin Rudd had been swept into power on the promise of enlightened policy and a respected bureaucracy. I arrived with a healthy but naive optimism. It was quickly punctured. The technocratic prime minister may have pledged to lead his fellow wonks to the Promised Land – a place of coherent and evidence-based reform – but it seemed to me that his indecision, caprice and micromanagement had constipated it.

Then there was my job. At best I was a jukebox of bromides; at worst a compiler of lists of expenditure. Theodore Sorensen I was not. And it was for this job specifically that I had moved to Canberra, precipitating a relationship break-up and my relative social isolation. None of this should elicit sympathy: these are very ordinary conditions, ones that might normally provoke frustration, sadness and regret. That would be the natural, proportionate response. But in my case, it was prelude to a depressive disorder, not unknown to me, but unprecedented in its severity.

Thoughts of suicide came unbidden. I would dispel them; they would return. I think for most of this period I retained the belief that I was incapable of self-annihilation – that for all my grotesque distortions of mind, I retained an immovable objection to the black dog’s suggestion. But in the midst of a depressive episode – when the anguish is as meaningless as it is painful – suicide has a terrible logic.

I could go days without eating. Breathing became taxing. I was astonished at my incapacity – simple chores became overwhelming. Reading was difficult and too often impossible. When I could, I returned to Lester Bangs’ essay on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks. It opens: “... the fall of 1968 was such a terrible time: I was a physical and mental wreck, nerves shredded and ghosts and spiders looming and squatting across the mind. My social contacts had dwindled almost to none; the presence of other people made me nervous and paranoid ... I had no idea how to improve the situation, and probably wouldn’t have done anything about it if I had.”

My pain – and this is strange to write now – was also intellectually repellent to me. It was boring, nihilistic. It represented nothing. I loathed my morbid introspection: the self-pity, the winnowing of curiosity. I binged on The Sopranos. It became a terrible friend.

In a mobster’s swimming pool, a family of ducks finds refuge – and becomes a source of tender pride and contemplation for its owner. Tony Soprano needs the comfort. Besieged by law, family and conscience, even the morning habit of claiming the newspaper from his driveway is fraught – likely as the paper is to bring news of a federal investigation or a colleague’s treachery. Death and indictment prevail, so at least in feeding bread to his proxy family Tony has found a daily ritual both innocent and uncomplicated. But the ducks depart, as they must, triggering a panic attack, the funk of depression and, ultimately, Tony’s secret subjection to psychoanalysis.   

The Sopranos’ pilot is a famous moment in television, and the mob-boss-in-therapy an enthusiastically emulated trope; but it’s not why I think the series is the most bleakly effective representation of depression I have seen on the small screen. That’s the least of it. The plot may concern itself with depression and anxiety, but the prevailing mood of the series drips with it. David Chase, the show’s depressive creator, accumulated so much nihilistic violence as to render a humid, claustrophobic gloom. Mob virtues are conspicuously professed, but privately remain contingent. After all the pretense to loyalty and honour have succumbed to flame, we’re left with a sickly residue: The Sopranos universe is polluted with its fumes.

I breathed them in. The deathly residue. The funk of nihilism. It was all there in The Sopranos. My attraction to the gloom wasn’t conscious, I think. Describing the show’s pull, I would’ve described the dark magnetism of James Gandolfini, or the richness of the plotting. But there was some subconscious communion with the gloom. Later, I read about Chase’s depression. Of course, I thought. The show stank of it.

What good did it do? None. In fact, it was aggravating. While I watched the Soprano family’s moral decay, I wondered, like Tony, how I might get out of bed. Then shower. And dress. Simple things – very simple things – became difficult. This would be humbling for anybody, but for someone who once vainly pegged their self-conception to ideas of grand achievements – achievements somewhat larger than clothing oneself – this was especially chastening.

 

I was surprised by my own paralysis. It was embarrassing and unprecedented. Worse, it was frightening. I couldn’t concentrate. My lucidity diminished. I wondered if I was going mad. That’s the word I thought about: “mad”. When interstate friends called, I didn’t answer. I wasn’t without help; I just diverted it to voicemail. It was pathetic. I’d been employed in the capital for a specific job: communication. But about my own health I was coyly deflective; about my visions of suicide I was mute.

One reason I didn’t answer the calls was a sense of futility about articulating the anguish. I was profoundly exhausted, but even if I hadn’t been, the alien form of the pain struck me as indescribable. I had no expectation that it could be understood by anyone. At the time, I read William Styron’s short account of his own major depressive illness, Darkness Visible. “Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self – to the mediating intellect – as to verge close to being beyond description,” he wrote. “It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, ‘the blues’ which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form.”   

In the seedy twilight of depression, perception is terribly altered. Irrevocably, it seems. Everything is glimpsed through the gloom. Everything becomes the gloom. There is a ghastly, temporal colonisation. Your connection to your environment is hijacked. Your city no longer arouses nostalgia or awe, belonging or comfort. The interplay is dead. Your city is now a canvas upon which you involuntarily splash your dread. The ordinary is invested with malice. Roads, buses and buildings become incongruously ugly. A dismal apartment block becomes an agent of your suffering. Light is intrusive; the familiarity of your neighbourhood oppressive. You find contempt in concrete. The city’s infinite exchanges are reduced to ash. You become a bitter solipsist.

And language dies. The tongue is buried. My vocabulary sank somewhere in Canberra’s false lake, and so, too, my interest in retrieving it. This may be the most perverse aspect of depression – its theft of motivation. For physical disorders, a symptom is not the inability to seek help. You are not robbed of the will to get better. With depression, you seemingly become beholden to an impotent delirium. Or as Bangs put it: “I had no idea how to improve the situation, and probably wouldn’t have done anything about it if I had.”

From prison, Oscar Wilde wrote to his lover: “Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain”.

Later in his letter, published as De Profundis, Wilde approvingly quotes Wordsworth: “Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark, And has the nature of infinity.”

There was a shock of recognition when I read this, but that feeling of infinity is illusory. It’s a cruel trick. I started talking to friends. I attempted to sketch the contours of The Beast. For the first time in my life, I went to a therapist. I focused hard on forging my will, sharpening my motivation to improve. I isolated aggravating material or environmental factors and changed them. Others wanted me better, and I became better. There has been no severe relapse thus far.

But in conversations this week – and in reading commentary around R U OK? Day – I thought again on how difficult I made it for friends to help me. How chameleonic I was, how gifted at deflection. It is ultimately for ourselves to get better, but to that second circle I would say: be direct, blunt; be forgiving and persevering. It’s a bastard of a thing, and euphemism only flatters it.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 15, 2018 as "In the seedy twilight". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.