I must’ve spent the first hour just anaesthetised by shock and alcohol…
After reading the email enough times to be sure it was real, I drank the first drink that was handed to me, unable to remember what I’d been told it was. It was some unidentifiable spirit from the cupboard. For all I cared, it could have been a tumbler of antifreeze. It’s one thing working out what to say or do or think when something sad hits you unexpectedly for the first time. It’s another when it’s something you never in your most hideously-stretched imagination expected to have to work out twice…
A couple of weeks ago, on my way to the Mind Awards, it occurred to me, and worried me, that a friend hadn’t tweeted for quite a while. I’ve had these sorts of horrible guilt premonitions since my close friend’s suicide in 2011, when his unusual two-day Twitter absence was the first inkling anyone had that anything was wrong, and it wasn’t me who noticed, because, for one of the few windows in my adulthood, I’d been busy enjoying life, focusing on my journalism and on researching an early version of my book. After three years, I’d gradually been learning to control the anxiety and paranoia, and realise that someone being away from Twitter is generally more likely to mean they’re too busy living, not dead. So, I told the premonition to proverbially sod off, reminding myself that my late friend and this friend were in very different boats: I was aware he had a history of depression, but he also, as far as I knew, had a wife and two young sons, he could afford the best therapy around and he’d specifically remarked to me (after I told him about my friend’s suicide) “I think I have it taped”. He wasn’t part of the identifiable mental health blogosphere/Twittersphere. He was more likely to be working abroad in the land of ropey mobile reception than ill. His descriptions of his depression were too eloquent and poetic for a man anywhere near a crisis. And if by any chance he was in a crisis, even if he didn’t want Twitter to know, someone would know, and he’d be getting help.
Two days after that premonition, I was flitting between writing my novel, Twitter and the telly, when an email arrived from a mutual friend. Subject: “So sorry…”
He took his own life earlier in November.
The next few days were horribly familiar. Numbness. A constant, thumping headache, this time, for over a week. Enough speculation for a minor religion. Sadness about the compliment that was on the tips of my typing fingers that I never paid because I was too embarrassed to say it and lightly taking the mickey out of him was easier… Long silences, alternated with long periods of frantically gabbling at anybody who’d listen, like someone reading aloud from Take A Break, the Durham degree edition. Expecting to see him on Twitter and then remembering. Sadness for his family, especially his poor boys, who must be traumatised beyond all comprehension. And a constant feeling of familiarity, where familiarity really shouldn’t be.
Two of everything. Two friends. Two lives. Two sets of whys.
I started thinking about how comfortably and uncomfortably similar he and my previous late friend were. They didn’t know each other, I met them at different stages of my life, and on paper they were as different as two people could ever be. One lefty, one Tory. One into smart suits and fine wines, one who wore cartoon t-shirts and joked about a dish of olive oil in Zizzi being a urine sample. One a school-leaver with an OU degree, a cast of woman friends who could have been more under innumerable different circumstances, and an overt desire not to conform to anything society expects of a bloke approaching 40 – especially parenthood. One a career high-flyer who managed to graduate, marry, have kids, make a lot of money in the City, run his own business and tick all the correct functional middle-class adult boxes. And yet, there was something alike about the desire to vent on social media, the love of psychedelic rock, the sense of being a law unto themselves, the selective openness, and the tendency to overthink. Although in one sense, it’s as daft to say two people with depression are similar as it is to say two people with cancer are similar, there are certain characteristics many of those affected share, whatever their views on the deficit might be. Depression doesn’t discriminate. It’s a cliche, but it bears remembering.
I call him a friend even though I spoke to him in person for about the equivalent of a long-haul flight, which suggests I’m either a bit potty, a journalist, or both, but is also a pretty big testament to him. Some experiences, and some people, are exceptional. If you read an article that moves you in the paper you don’t say you “only” read it once. Sometimes, once is all it takes. You often hear writers say, “It only takes a sentence to know you’re in the presence of someone who can write.” Equally, you can meet a person and very quickly know you’re in the presence of someone you won’t forget, even if you never see them again.
We had an absolutely eerie amount in common; more than we or anyone could ever have imagined. Not just in respect of mental health but much else besides. Talking to friends on email about it over the last few days, telling them some of the specifics and reading their utter astonishment brings it all back. (There were a good deal many things we didn’t have in common too, but, unusually, I made more of the similarities than the differences…). Unlike every other public-schooled forty something man I was meeting through work at the time, he didn’t talk down to me, ask me if I’d “just graduated” when I was in my late-20s, or keep looking over my shoulder in search of someone more important. And it seemed all the more significant because the person who I indirectly met him through is someone I spent years invested in, who basically never really cared and only responded to my eager writeups and coffee invites out of politeness. To meet someone out of that who treated me as though I was actually worth their time and friendship was really something. You probably don’t know him, but I wish you had.
As time went on, he was more elusive than in the beginning. His public tweets were mostly about politics, which he was very right about sometimes and very wrong about at other times (“silly wrong, but vivid right.” You’d think, after eighteen months writing a book about politics, I’d have something more profound to quote on the matter than an Elbow lyric, but there we are…). I never really knew what he thought about life, or me, or most other people, later on. He went from being incredibly open to being an enigma. His sporadic, often indirect communications could seem a bit like trying to converse with Act Two of a play at the Royal Court: one that somehow manages to stay compelling even though you stopped actually understanding what was happening ages ago. But he stayed in touch, which was enough to suggest some enduring belief I added something to his life. I’d always hoped that one day our paths would cross again over a coffee or two. We variously thought about arranging it, but never did.
And now never will.
It’s been a dark couple of weeks; darker than I can remember for a very long time despite being rained on quite consistently these last few years. When my other friend died, I was fairly philosophical and calm in the aftermath, and the really big what-ifs, guilt and dark stuff only set in gradually later, like a slow puncture. Immediately afterwards, I could think of others before myself, be satisfied I’d said most of what I ever wanted to him, and be glad of him being at peace. And I was part of a supportive community of mutual friends, who I knew would anticipate and identify with or at least be receptive to my way of dealing with it (i.e the way I deal with all adversity, by overthinking the utter eff out of everything across a cafe table, or in Dickens-length emails and blogposts…). This time around, I was just in horrible pain, irrational, and unable to look forward to anything other than comfort-eating. I had thoughts of destroying my MacBook, destroying my book, of leaving Twitter, and worse… (then realised I couldn’t leave Twitter because the likelihood of no-one noticing or caring would be too painful). I am a bit better now than I was, and am trying to see someone professionally (whether I will get to is another matter – I’ve been after long-term counselling for ages, all the funding for anything except short-term CBT has pretty much gone and to say the least I can’t afford to go private). To those of you who’ve sent things (goodwill messages, cute animal pictures or both), thank you very, very much. Especially to Roberta for the card. You’re all lovely.
The last time, I think I coped by harking back to happier times and sort of hoping those times would reappear at some point without specifically doing anything. Which is to say, I didn’t cope. Now I know I need specific, tangible things to do in order to make it through. And I have some idea what they might be; it is just a matter of managing my time to get them done. Right now feels a bit like living in Cardiff, where the weather would always change in a snap, so I would go for a walk in the streaming sunshine and suddenly feel rain on my neck. There is that feeling of ambling along normally, the realisation that something isn’t quite right followed by the momentary scramble to work out why, and then the sadness as you recall. Or those moments when your face and body utterly fail to reflect what’s going on in your head and you’re not sure whether to feel proud or frightened. I’d like to finish off on a profound note, but really, all I can say to pull all of this together is that a godawful illness has claimed the life of yet another lovely person I was fortunate enough to know, and I really, really wish it hadn’t.