Chang­ing the dis­course on sui­cide.

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

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Martin McKen­zie-Mur­ray

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-bossin-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.

Life­line 13 11 14

MARTIN McKENZIEMURRAY is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief correspondent.

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