Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Help: Talking mum out of suicide when I was twelve

It was a sunny day, sometime in 1987. My mum was waiting outside my middle school in her skyblue 1970's-tastic Volvo, which had definitely lived through it's best days, preferring to steadily rumble along like a middle-aged Labrador through the mostly angst-ridden, short runs through town it was used for.
I knew mum was having a very difficult time of things. We'd been placed into a homeless, temporary B&B accommodation the year before, my parents had separated, and mum was finding things very difficult to manage generally. She had been taking to drinking miniature bottles of bacardi and vodka, which was all she could afford to buy, but as I recall often mixed them with the Temazepam she kept on her bedside table or in her handbag, which resulted in a mixture of a sleepy but rouseable mother at the wheel, and the sickly sweet smell of alcohol that greeted me when I climbed into the front seat (the privilege of being the older, 12 year old sibling).
On this particular day, she seemed agitated. She was more short with me than normal, and her driving seemed more erratic. She also wasn't crossing her fingers, which is what she did for every drive she took us on, for "good luck" - she was always anxious that we would have a car accident, but keeping her fingers crossed would evidently prevent this incident from occurring.
As we pulled away, and headed away from the school, it became apparent that we weren't going on our normal route back to the B&B. I asked where we were going, a sense of trepidation building within me. We never went anywhere. Mum just didn't plan fun stuff. We had nowhere to go. Mum didn't reply, but continued on our unplanned route.
After a while, we found ourselves in the back roads between Corfe Castle and Studland, which are winding little B-roads with a number of blind bends, but some very beautiful scenery to look at along the way. Mum's driving became more uncharacteristically faster (though not fast, by any means). A glance at mum revealed to me that she was crying: I distinctly remember her black mascara running down her cheeks, her breathing was fast, she looked angry and distant. I felt my anxiety growing, but felt too scared to say a word. I looked into the back seat to see my brother, who was looking out of his window, oblivious to what was happening in the front. I asked him if he was OK. "Yeah" came his quiet reply. I decided he was probably thinking about football. That's what he thought about a lot, at the age of 8.
I returned my attention to the road in front of us. We were steadily climbing up a hill, and there was a South Dorset coach just a short way ahead of us. Mum was accelerating towards it, rather than slowing down. Suddenly, her voice thick with sadness, she shouted above the revs of the engine, "how would you like to go to heaven, kids?".
Those words. That sentence. I was filled with terror. My brother and I both started screaming as the coach appeared closer and closer. There was no way that the driver could see us in his mirrors, we were far too close. We both began shouting at her to slow down. "No, we don't want to go to heaven!" we shouted. "we don't want to die!" But mum couldn't, or wouldn't hear us. I remember that I tried to imagine I was a grown-up, and what I should say to mum, what people she knew and loved would say to her to help her feel better and change her mind. "There are people who can help you" I told her. "We don't want to die. We don't want you to die. We need you. I want to live. Please stop the car, please slow down". But mum carried on. We were now so close to the coach that even a little nudge of the coach driver's brakes would have meant we would have gone into the back of it. I could hear my brother screaming, and he had curled himself up onto the back seat. I grabbed his hand and told him it was OK. I frantically grabbed mum's arm, to try to get her to hear me, and vaguely remember pulling at the gear stick to see if that might slow the car down. "I have had enough" mum continued. "I don't want to be here anymore, the world is better off without me, and you're coming with me." My brother and I begged her to stop. What followed was an interminably long pause in the world of Me: it really did feel as though life had stopped. We were in a state of nothingness, the world seemed desolate, empty, silent. Nobody, but nobody could save us from this situation. We were helpless. That, in a nutshell, was how mum felt at that very moment, and I was experiencing it vicariously as we were threatened with impending destruction and death. I began to cry. "I love you, we both love you. We need you. We don't want you to die. Don't do this". Another interminable silence followed, before mum braked, backed away from the coach, and drove at a distance to the coach. Nobody said anything as she turned off the road, back towards town and towards the B&B again. After a while, mum told me "It's your fault that I'm alive, I'm only here because of you two, not because I want to be here, but because you are making me, and I blame you for making me miserable". The emptiness in the world of me became just a little bit bigger, at those words. I realised that there was nothing I could say that would ever make things OK for mum. I realised that no matter what, she would always hold that deep level of resentment towards me. She wanted to kill herself, yet she wanted to hear that she was needed, if only to counter that with her own self-pity and her despising attitude towards me.

My whole body began to relax again as the adrenalin wore off, and the shock set in. Mum drove into the parking space at the front of the B&B we were staying at for a week before moving back into the accommodation next door.
Before we got out of the car, mum lit herself a cigarette, took a couple of puffs, and said, "don't tell ANYBODY about this. I don't want anyone to know. If you do, you'll get taken away from me."

I desperately wanted someone to know - someone to help mum, someone grown-up who could listen to her, help her get through this terrible time she was having. I wanted to feel protected and safe. The void of loneliness opened up just a little bit wider, and I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.
I opened the passenger door, and tried to get out: my legs felt like jelly and my hands were tingling, like I had a bad case of pins and needles. I knelt down on the ground, to feel the warm earth beneath both sides of my hands. I needed to feel that I was safe, so this felt like a good thing to be doing. My brother and I went into the garden, whilst my mum went up to our room. I wanted to cry and be hugged and to feel safe and loved. I wanted mum to feel better, to feel loved and safe, too. I just couldn't reach her, because she was in her own void of sadness, sitting in the dark shadows of depression, alcohol and benzodiazepines, a dysmorphic haze of helplessness, self-pity, inaccurate feelings of worthlessness and a massive portion of dissolution of parental responsibility.

In that moment along those back roads, my childhood ended. I became the parent. I took on the role of reasoning, but it resulted in me being hyper-vigilant: always watching how much mum was drinking, smoking, counting the tablets in the brown medicine bottle to see how many she was taking each day; asking her how she was, if she was OK, if I could help her. Worrying that something would happen to her whilst I was at school, worrying that she wouldn't be there to pick us up from school at the end of the day. My anxiety levels increased; I wasn't sleeping well. I became more withdrawn at school; I took on an air of moroseness which was difficult to shake off. My school work suffered. I didn't know how to explain what was happening without betraying my mum's request to not talk about what had happened. It was already hard enough to not speak about my parent's splitting up - moving from our lovely 6-bedroomed Victorian sea-side house, to a rundown B&B sharing a room with a depressed and disengaged parent, a dad who we saw every 6 weeks or so, and barely had an opportunity to say hello to, let alone explain how difficult things were. I didn't want dad to worry about us, so I didn't tell him how bad things were. I just wanted mum to be OK.

It took another year or so before mum got herself into an even footing, again, by which point I was at my lowest ebb. We moved to a flat which meant we had our own space, but it also meant mum retreated even further into her own world, with a very lonely summer holiday spent entertaining ourselves however we could, whilst mum lived in her own world, separate from ours. Mum's depression sank even deeper, resulting in her leaving us in the flat, with her parting words being "I'm going out and I'm never coming back", which created a whirlwind of panic and fear. I had no idea what to do. My brother hadn't heard her saying this, as he'd been in his room at the time. I tried to be calm, and pretended she'd gone to the shops when he came out to ask where mum had gone. A few hours later she returned, angry and withdrawn, before going back to the lounge where the curtains were always drawn, and it was dark and stuffy all the time. My jelly-legs returned, my anxiety went skyrocketing. A few days later, when I felt that my world was caving in around me, I used the phonebox across the road to speak to Childline . They couldn't directly do anything to help me, they said, but they were always there to chat to me, whenever things got too difficult, so long as it was safe for me to call them. The void of desolation opened wider still.

Things did get better. It's always hard to imagine that, when that void is so wide it is all that is visible, tangible, palpable, to ever believe that things will get better. "things will improve" is a platitude that people use when they really don't know what to say, other than things will change, life moves forwards, stuff happens to change a situation. For me, what got better is my ability to cope, my empathy, my understanding of the fragility and strength of what it is to be human. I experienced the most crippling form of loneliness imaginable at that time in my life. There was nobody I could turn to in order to get help. There was nobody I could call upon for a hug, nobody to listen to my mum, which is what she needed so desperately, but was so unable to access because she was in her own void of desperation. So I understood perfectly how my mum felt, because I was living it, too. I remember living day-to-day, in my hyper-vigilance, trying to make Everything Alright. My mum was living as a child in a different form, in a state of fear, loneliness, isolation and desperation, but was locked into her grown-up body and mind, which chose to shut out everything and close the shutters on the world until such a time came that she was ready to let in the light and begin to grow, again.

This post is dedicated to all those children who are going through intensely difficult periods in their lives, for whatever reason. For any child living in the void of loneliness, the void of fear, the void of isolation, suffering of any kind. My heart aches for anyone, be it adult or child, who is going through the same feelings. Truly, though, the absolute, worst thing you can do is to pull the shutters down and block out the world. Try to allow even a little chink of light to permeate through the darkness, as that's where growth and change can begin. And it may even begin with the word, "Help".

Go Here if you are worried about a child

Contact The Samaritans if you are considering ending your life

You can watch me talk about the day I talked mum out of suicide here

Please consider donating to your local foodbank over the summer holidays, to help with increased demand whilst children are off school and not receiving their free school meals.