Twelve years ago, Jen Offord’s brother Stephen took his own life. Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow, she explains why talking about it has helped her own mental health.
At around the time it was happening, I had a weird fuzzy twinge in my left arm for a period of time. I remember that because I’d been working at the campus nightclub, and had worried I was having a stroke because my levels of fag-smoking and boozing in the run-up to my finals had been enough to give Keith Richards a run for his money.
Twelve years later, any kind of pins and needles in my arm – my anxiety arm, as it’s known to my friends – has me reaching for the phone to make sure everyone is OK. And the impact of Stephen’s suicide has run rather deeper than a misguided sense that I might actually have a psychic link to tragedy.
The thing about traumatic events is that they don’t go anywhere. It’s happened. It can’t be taken back. What happens next rather depends on how you deal with it. The problem with all bereavement is that the outlet for that trauma often doesn’t seem immediately available – but it’s always going to find a way.
Talking isn’t always easy. There are things you don’t want to admit, thoughts that worry you, thoughts that make you wonder if you’re losing it even. After all, who can you tell you’ve wondered which of his bones broke first? Puzzled over what the long sleeves – requested by the undertaker – were covering? I don’t really want anyone to know about that because, well, it’s a bit messed up, isn’t it?
I’ve worried that I’m being judged and I’ve felt ashamed, as if I let it happen or it’s a reflection on my own mental health. I have seen someone’s view of me change in an instant, because in that moment, in their eyes, I became damaged. How could anyone not be?
“Suicide remains taboo and, like other horrible things, sometimes it’s even a punchline. People don’t come to work complaining they’re late because some selfish fucker had a heart attack on the tube.”
And it’s sometimes felt like I don’t have the right to feel these feelings, because Stephen ‘chose’ it. Your friend’s parent has died of a disease that they didn’t choose to have? They can feel sad. Your brother kills himself? Well, he could have chosen not to. But that’s simply not true: no one chooses to have mental health problems as much as they don’t choose to have a fatal aneurysm.
Apart from anything else, talking about suicide is desperately sad, and I don’t want to ruin someone’s lunch. In fact, plenty of my friends, ex-boyfriends and colleagues reading this won’t actually know about Stephen. “How many brothers and sisters have you got?” is entry-level chat. It’s always just seemed easier to say I have one brother rather than, “Actually the other one jumped out of a window… How’s your linguine?”
Suicide remains taboo and, like other horrible things, sometimes it’s even a punchline. People don’t come to work complaining they’re late because some selfish fucker had a heart attack on the tube. No one recalls an embarrassing tale and ends it with, “Honestly, I might as well just go rupture my spleen.” It’s a crime against originality if nothing else. And so it conspires against you, this world, and this society that ignores the fundamental fact that suicide is quite literally killing us.
The stats sadly speak for themselves. Every 90 minutes, someone in the UK or Ireland dies by suicide. The annual figure for England alone (4,882) works out at more than one person taking their own life every two hours. Every six seconds, somebody contacts Samaritans for help. Suicide is the biggest killer of young people aged 20 to 34 and the biggest killer of men under 50, with less well-off men more likely to die by suicide than those with more income.
Death is sad, and grief is a bit like an abscess. You can leave it and the toxic mess will eventually explode (hopefully there will be some antibiotics to hand when it does), but you’re still going to have to change the dressing and deal with the pain. That feeling – that you need to let it out – is a bit like the feeling in your guts after a heavy weekend, and, similarly, you’re probably better off joining the queue before the need gets desperate.
Grief has put my life on hold. It took me 10 years to do the thing I really wanted to do and pursue a career as a writer. And it took me 37 sodding Olympic sports before I started to enjoy myself again and therefore realise how sad I’d been, and to give myself the confidence to do what I wanted to do.
My mental state around Stephen’s suicide is not always perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. That shitty abscess flares up from time to time. Quite recently in fact. I still have to talk to people about it when I realise that all is not well in my scarred brain. But by talking about it, it’s easier to control the explosions.
Samaritans provide emotional support for people in distress and can be contacted 24 hours a day on 116 123, or email [email protected]
Samaritans have also teamed up with Cruse Bereavement Care to launch Facing the Future, a support group for people bereaved by suicide. More information can be found here.
Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen