This post contains subject matter that is difficult to read. It includes discussion of suicidal ideation, suicide and a suicide pact.
Twenty years ago, I had a year that can best be described as hell. 1997, I was living in Wellington, New Zealand with my (then) husband Dave. I had already (privately) decided that my marriage was doomed, but 1997 saw things spiral down for Dave and me. It took me until mid-1998 (and six months of intensive residential therapy) before I actually left Dave but 1997 was tough, admittedly on both of us.
But it was the year I met Carol, and for that reason, it was a very good year. Weird really, such bad and good together.
Carol was one light in a very dark period. I met her near the beginning of the year when we were both patients at a local psychiatric hospital. We were both being re-admitted pretty much as soon as we were discharged. It was a policy issue, but that’s another story. I was admitted over twenty times that year. I wasn’t being discharged because I was well or even off the crisis list. I was being discharged because they needed the bed for someone else and, so they said, they didn’t want me to become institutionalised. I think it was a little late for that. As I’m sure you can imagine, I spent most of the year there. Carol, who had Bipolar Disorder, was in a similar traffic jam and we very quickly became very close friends.
Dave didn’t like our friendship. He was pretty conservative (putting it nicely because this story isn’t about him) and he objected to the friendship Carol and I had primarily because she was a lesbian and because she smoked (I hadn’t started smoking by then nor was she the catalyst to me starting). Actually, Dave wouldn’t ‘allow’ Carol in our house (at times when we were both discharged) for these reasons. I don’t know what he expected might happen if she did come to our home but I was furious and just didn’t tell him when she had been there. What he didn’t know…
I was going through a time of rebellion from my life. I had seen myself as a “nice Christian” and didn’t want to be that person anymore. That rebellion was perhaps part of the reason I had so many hospital admissions that year. As awful as hospital life was, I can now admit that in some ways it was great. I was away from my “nice Christian” marriage and with some like-minded people. I didn’t have to worry about anything, because someone else (usually a nurse) would worry for me. I had no responsibilities and the worst I might get is a night in isolation, but only if there was a bed available.
That said, I was terribly depressed and anorexic. I was recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and while I hadn’t been yet diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) I was very clearly showing symptoms. My psychiatrist had already declared that they simply didn’t have any staff equipped with the skills to help me. I was literally said to be beyond help. Perhaps a culmination of all these psychiatric issues was chronic suicidal ideation. At that point, I had thought about and acted on suicidal thinking constantly for about three years, including my biggest suicide attempt in 1996.
The next part of the story is difficult to tell, but I feel like I need to tell it. I didn’t even accurately tell what happened when I published my book, Infinite Sadness in 2009. I was ashamed and I feared reaction. Would what I had done be the final straw, particular for my family? Would they turn their backs on me?
Carol was also chronically suicidal, and while both in the hospital we eventually formed a pact to die by suicide together. It was planned for a specific date and our goal was to both be discharged so that we could carry out our plans. We would say whatever was needed to achieve discharge.
Carol managed to convince staff that she was ‘safe’ for discharge but I didn’t. I was kept in hospital. I was really angry, perhaps mostly with myself.
“I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
Saw my reflection in a window and didn’t know my own face.
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away
On the streets of Philadelphia.”
– Bruce Springsteen
This is a good place to stop this story because actually, this post is not so much about the story. I will continue the story in a later post but what is important to me is how the heck did I end up part of a suicide pact?
I was “unrecognizable to myself”. I was “unrecognizable” to my friends and family. They didn’t mean to leave me “wasting away” but they didn’t know how to help me. Even the health professionals didn’t know how to help. I can’t imagine what they all would have thought if they had known about our suicide pact. Well, now the truth is out and a song just won’t be enough.
Had you told me five years earlier that this is where I would be, I would never have believed you. It just wasn’t possible that I would slide so far down to consider not only my own death but also supporting my friend’s eventual suicide. But that’s what mental illness does. Not for everyone, but when you go down as far as I went down, anything is possible at the same time as nothing seems possible. There was no hope (in both my mind and apparently in that of the experts), and because of that I was prepared to consider both Carol’s and my own death. A completely foreign thought to the Cate I had been five years earlier.
I saw this meme this morning. I found it interesting:
That’s not who I was. I didn’t know I would be ok, I didn’t understand that people still loved me. I had already been told they couldn’t help me, just keep me safe! And I didn’t hope to be well anymore. I just wanted an end. I wanted an end for myself (and for Carol). Yet I was described as being depressed. I had depression.
My point is that depression looks different for different people. I hope that people who are depressed today can say each of the statements in that meme above. But it’s not where I was, and I need you to understand that I was a long way from that point when I considered our suicides.
To be part of another’s suicide plans is not right. I know that. And there are no “Buts…’
I had crossed a line. But whether I was aware of that or not, I can not tell you. I don’t remember the feelings attached to that time.
If you are to have any understanding of what I was doing, know this: I was severely and chronically mentally ill, and my thoughts were far distorted from whom I had previously been. This decision Carol and I made to die together was so badly distorted that perhaps there is no way for outsiders to understand. There are no other explanations. It just was, for both of us. It was perhaps a very clear ‘mark in the sand’ of hopelessness.
When we look at mental illness from the outside it is almost impossible to fully understand. I suggest the meme above offers a ‘nice’ image of depression and one easy for ‘outsiders’ to accept. For many, that will be how it is, but it’s not at all where I was at.
I was wrong to do what I did, but I really had little understanding of right and wrong at that time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I had no hope.
They say “love changes everything”. I say:
“mental illness changes everything”
It’s not an excuse for what I agreed to with Carol. Her life was worth more than that. So was mine. But it happened because we were both suffering from severe mental illness. You can have no idea how you would act in similar circumstances. So please, choose not to judge us.
Part Two of Carol and my story will continue in a future post. It’s too much to contain in one post. Certainly too much for me, and maybe too much for you. I don’t promise that it will be my next post, but it will be soon so please follow so that you can be sure to read it.
- Names have been changed to allow for privacy.
Thanks for reading