I had an unusual conversation yesterday with a guy who described himself – with his signature wry smile – as my penpal. There was a little more to it than that but, as we were studying in different cities, in a pre-email world, we wrote each other long, involved letters for a time. His were so witty and elegantly written that they are still in the drawer with my photos and other important keepsakes, twenty-five years later. In my opinion, he is the one who should have gone on to write novels, not me.
We reconnected, many years later, as he still lives in my hometown. After reading my memoir, he messaged me on Facebook with a mini review, and was the only person who ever read between the lines and told me this: “…as some of it was so sad and revealed an introspective person with probable depressive tendencies (which I can relate to) I sincerely hope you’re feeling well and happy…” He’s very perceptive, see, this penpal of mine.
In recent years, Penpal’s understanding of mental health issues really cemented our bond. Not only is he dealing with demons of his own, but he works in social care. I saw him in 2017, and again yesterday. Not in between, because I wasn’t feeling sociable on my interim visits home. Timing is everything, with me: if I’m not on the right place on the curve, socialising can be more difficult.
Our conversation was about our suicide attempts, and believe it or not, we were laughing and joking about it. I was only halfway into my first pint of beer at the time. But being able to have that conversation, being able to joke and laugh while having it? This is a positive thing, I am sure of it.
I’ve touched on my bikini-firemen-sloe gin-sleeping pills-bathtub situation here before. I keep revisiting it here, probably because I need to.
As a prelude to that, I spent maybe a week of mostly lying on my bed, staring at my eyelids. Suicidal ideation was not something I had ever come even close to experiencing before, and I have difficulty spiriting myself back there, even to write about it. I know that in that warped version of reality I inhabited then, I was somehow becoming increasingly convinced that my children and everyone around me would be better off if I was no longer part of the equation. The only solution I could conceive of was slipping gently into a deep sleep, in a warm bath. Because I hadn’t been sleeping – not for several weeks, which was a huge part of the problem – I’d managed to wheedle some pretty strong sleeping pills out of a doctor.
I think it is important to note that I was still vain enough – even in the depths of this sinkhole – to give thought to which bikini I wanted to be wearing when I was found. I have a new favourite swimsuit now. Let the record show that I wouldn’t go with the same choice today. I look better in my new red one piece and I’d happily be buried in it.
Penpal has more than one aborted attempt under his belt and we talked about what he had imagined doing to exit this world: totalling his (really not fast enough) car; jumping in front of a train. I described that powerful feeling I get on the métro platform sometimes when I wonder – for a moment – how it would feel to jump in front of an oncoming train (which I assume everyone gets – at least I hope they do?) But he got as far as obtaining timetables and deciding upon the most suitable place to jump from, so it really was quite a detailed plan.
What really stood out, in both instances, was the thing that saved our lives: a text message.
In his case, a text message from his wife, at a crucial moment, which thankfully brought him to his senses.
In mine, a text from my ex-husband, on holiday with my son, to which I attempted to reply. The result looked more like a teenaged keyboard smash than an adult writing a sentence. My ex knew immediately that something was very wrong, and messaged me further to find out what in the actual fuck I’d done, then sent help.
We joked, Penpal and I, that however far gone you think you are, it is impossible to resist picking up your mobile phone when you hear that little vibration, that little beep, announcing a new message.
Irritating as that can be sometimes, one day that sound might just save your life. Although if the message had been spam, trying to sell me something? Well, that might have been the final straw.