The only time I was ever happy – ever truly happy – was when I was daydreaming about killing myself.
I’d do this for hours. Days. My once productive school days were replaced with thoughts of dread and hopelessness. The few people who knew of my condition presumed it must be from the pressure of being a scholarship student.
I believed stress was a compounding factor but by no means the cause. My issues took root far deeper in an invisible and ethereal part of my mind that I couldn’t touch or see, far less understand.
I was 13.
And so I’d sit. I’d sit at my desk and while pretending to work I’d allow my eyes to glaze over and dart around the room, looking at various objects and envisioning how I could use them to harm myself. I’d fantasize this way until I lost the ability to choose what thoughts were mine.
By age 14 I was medicated and institutionalized in an adolescent psychiatric ward.
Reflecting back on this time now as a happy, productive, contented adult, two facts stand out in my mind as most alarming; one is that I thought this behavior was completely normal. The other is that everyone thought I was the happiest kid in school.
I was recently speaking at a suicide prevention forum and heard it aptly put by another speaker that “people who experience suicide ideation usually don’t want to die. They just don’t want to live the life they’re living anymore”. A subtle but important distinction. I can see now with the clarity gained from a long awaited accurate diagnosis and subsequent effective treatment that I was agitated and had lost hope of any possible recovery. I’d had my old life with a positive future torn from me and in its place handed a mental illness death sentence. To me it was just a matter of time.
People often ask what stopped me. What held me back?
I explain that much like mental illnesses, suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be nuanced and varied. It’s often complex. My depression, anxiety, and psychosis would undoubtedly be different if experienced by someone else and I no longer presume to know what someone is going through when they say “I have a mental illness.”
For me, depression was as much an absence of joy as it was a presence of sadness. I was numb and disconnected from the world. I would fake my laughter and feign interest in what we’re told we’re supposed to enjoy. My anxiety would paralyze me both emotionally and physically to the point I would sometimes spend therapy sessions lying on the floor in silence, staring at the ceiling, responding to nothing.
There was seemingly no cause of my condition. I thought it might be a test, a curse, and then simply who I was. Suicide seemed the only conceivable cure. I’m thrilled to say I’ve never been more wrong about something in my life.
The love of my family is what held me back.
My two brothers, Ben and Christopher were always supportive and non-judgmental. My parents, Jayne and Phil would lift me out of bed and take me to each appointment. They were relentless in finding a cure to ease my pain that would keep me alive with them. My pre-emptive guilt had trapped me here.
I was the youngest. A bright spark (nerd) and self-described creative (drama nerd) growing up in Australia in a culture hostile to discussing emotions, insecurities, or what I saw at the time as character flaws. It was a time before World Suicide Prevention Day, Movember, and the prevalence of mental health awareness campaigns.
Sports, toughness, and stoicism was stitched into the fabric of our culture with every ‘real’ man actively discouraged from breaking rank. In my eyes my brother Christopher was the epitome of that real man. At age 17 he was already showing great promise as a rising star in his game of rugby. He was athletic, handsome, popular, and bulletproof. I wanted to be just like him.
Christopher too was suffering but in more of a vacuum. Like me, he was getting help for his crippling anxiety and depression but in believing mental illness was a weakness he stayed silent for the most part. He had more to lose on the social ladder than I did.
Shortly after my 16th birthday he killed himself.
It was sudden and completely unexpected. I’d just had electro-convulsive (shock) therapy as a last ditch effort to cure me. I wasn’t even able to grieve.
I was forced to see the familial devastation I’d always feared my death would result in and I knew then my choice was taken from me. I had to get better or always live like this.
Talking. Listening. Sharing. These are the tenets that now drive me. Against many odds I made a full recovery and now spend most my time talking to audiences about my experiences in the hope it can help others and encourage helpful conversations. I moved to America three weeks ago to live with the love of my life. I’m unfathomably happy in a way I could never permit myself to foresee as a younger man.
I wish Christopher could have seen the possibility of a bright future for himself too. I’ve heard suicide described as “a long term solution to a short term problem”. I know his condition would eventually have been treated and his pain subsided.
I no longer use terms like “got over it” or “put it behind me”. Now I say that we’ve healed and grown. Our history is an important part of who we are and although we can’t change our past we can do our all to help make a difference to ourselves and others.
Communicating has helped us immensely. I’ve processed many thoughts through talking which would otherwise have been unavailable to me. Writing has helped my mom too, in her words, “remove the cancerous ball of guilt” inside her. She won a Human Rights Award for her book. She claims the judges were “just being nice.” I can’t say self-confidence is entirely restored just yet.
World Suicide Prevention Day encourages an essential global conversation. It teaches us through sharing that we’re not alone, help is available, and people will listen. It provides a forum of hope to acknowledge that we all have agency even when we feel most defeated. It reminds us that we can all be a part of this global change in whatever way we choose to.
It highlights messages of seemingly impossible better days to come.
I’m just one of many millions of living examples.
For more information on men’s mental health, please visit us.movember.com.