On September 30 2013, I tried to kill myself by setting fire to my car, with me firmly inside. I did this, wanted my death, for many complex reasons including a long history of addiction, depression and chronic self-loathing. I survived, but did not know that I had for seven weeks. The first words that I can remember a Nurse saying to me were, “you must be glad that you are alive.” At that time I was not glad to be alive. I felt ashamed that I had survived and embarrassed that I could not even get killing myself right. However, those words stuck with me. There must be a better way of responding to people like me.
As my wounds healed and my physical health grew, I was able to start to make a little sense of what I had done, why I had done it and how I felt about still being alive. I was discharged from being an inpatient at the Burns Unit towards the end of January 2014, but remained an outpatient ‘frequent flier’ for many months. I was drawn into the world of Mental Health services, psychiatry and a range of Talking Therapies. I did not feel that any of these even attempted to understand my desire to die; indeed they were averse to even discussing it. Throughout this time I felt completely alone, not physically but alone in the sense that I never felt that anyone else understood the overwhelming desire to permanently remove myself from the world.
Surviving an attempt to kill yourself is in and of itself a trauma. Everything I did or had to relearn how to do felt traumatic, not just for the first time after surviving but for many, each and every time after. I was not alone; I had the support of family and even of the professionals. I still felt alone, isolated and terrified. At this time, I had not met another person who I knew had tried to kill themselves. The support for managing my addiction was there but there was nothing to help manage the complex and often contradictory feelings of wanting to be dead but surviving.
From early in my post-survival life I made the decision to be open and honest about what I had done, partly because I was an obvious physical mess. The closest I can get by way of description is “a leaky Tutankhamen”, raw skin, raw grafts, leaky and loosening dressings. Not a good look or one that went unnoticed or uncommented on! Conversations initiated by complete strangers when I was in a queue to pay for cigarettes and my paper soon assumed a predictable course:
Stranger: “Your hands/head look sore”
Tut: “No, they are fine thanks”
Stranger: “No, they do look sore”
Tut: “No, really they are fine”
Stranger: “Is it psoriasis/eczema/lupus?” (Insert condition of choice based on experience of stranger)
Tut: “No, none of the above, honestly”
Stranger: “Are you sure?”
Tut: “Perfectly sure, thank you” (Patience really starting to wear thin now)
Stranger: “What is it, then?”
Tut: “Scar tissue”
Stranger: “It must be painful!”
Tut: “Not really, not at all” (Not as painful as this fecking conversation!)
Stranger: “What sort of scar tissue?”
Tut: “Skin grafts”
Stranger: “Why did you need skin grafts?”
Tut: “Wounds” (Getting bored now…)
Stranger: “What sort of wounds?”
Tut: “Burns” (Exasperated now.)
Stranger: “Burns? How did you get burned?”
Tut: “In a fire”
Stranger: “What sort of a fire?”
Tut: (Counting to ten) “A hot and burny fire”
Stranger: “How did you get in the fire?”
Tut: (Two options now available) “I ran into a burning building to save a soft white kitten”, or “I set fire to myself” (Surely this must end the conversation!)
Stranger: (now looking disgusted and offended) “Why?”
Tut: “Because I wanted to die”
Stranger: exit stage left with air of revulsion.
Lessons for me: Be quicker to tell the truth. Its nothing to be ashamed of.
Lesson for stranger: Don’t ask the question if you do not want to hear the answer!
120 men and women a week are given a verdict of suicide in Coroner’s Courts in the UK. Many who kill themselves do not get this verdict, instead getting open or narrative verdicts. For every recorded death by suicide, between 25 and 30 attempts are made. That is 3,000 attempts a week; 12,000 attempts a month; 144,000 a year. I am not alone in surviving. No one is alone in surviving the trauma of surviving. No one should have to feel that they are alone in surviving surviving. Man about a Dog can help survivors to survive surviving. Surviving is not and never will be easy. It is possible, it is achievable and it is possible not only to survive but to manage and enjoy life