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.


Shortly after my discharge from hospital, I agreed to meet a couple of friends for a playdate with our kids at the local swimming pool, rue Denoyez.  (Note to French speakers: sadly, no, the pool has not been named after the street.)

I will admit that standing nipple-high in lukewarm water in a kiddy pool for an hour (or longer if I can bear it) is not high on my list of “Fun Things to do on a Weekend”. Approximately once every five minutes I screw up my eyes – laser-surgery left me with not-quite-perfect vision – to reduce the haloes around the red numbers on the digital clock at the far end of the adult pool. The high-pitched shrieking of delighted children shreds my nerves.

But the parent-friends in question are very good company – litmus test: we have drunk alcohol together – and they have graduated beyond a listing as “Mother of A” or “Father of B” in my phone, which is a testament to that.

After being cooped up for so long, I craved normalcy. Even the kind that requires you to wear a compulsory swimming hat and leaves you with wrinkled fingertips.

A couple of hours from RDV time I suddenly realised that a month of trouser and pyjama wearing hadn’t exactly left me bikini-ready. One of my favourite songs at the moment contains the lyric “I wanna shave my legs for you.” There is no-one in my life just now for whom I need or want to shave my legs, particularly during the autumn or winter months. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that long, chilly walk from changing rooms to pool looking quite so unkempt, so I started rooting around in the bathroom cupboard for a disposable razor which was neither blunt nor rusty.

A text message arrived, enquiring whether I had any spare swimming hats.  I began typing my response with one thumb. Sad but true: I can touch-type at 100 wpm on a computer keyboard, yet I text like a grandma.


I was about to hit send, when I realized my message could be construed as a threat to cause myself physical harm. And while the friend knew that no razors had been involved in my hospitalisation, my usually twisted sense of humour faltered for a moment and I couldn’t follow through.  I wound up deleting all but the first sentence.

Next stop was the bag where I keep our swimming towels, my son’s goggles, those infernal swimming hats and our swimwear. I don’t own a sensible, one-piece swimsuit, as I’ve never crossed paths with one which didn’t seriously exaggerate my pear-shape. I usually opt for an old, blue, geometric-print bikini often worn on holiday.

It was not in the bag.

Then my brain treated me to a little flashback montage. Me, wearing my blue bikini while nonsense-texting from the bathtub. Me, recording a video, long-since deleted, because nobody ever needs to view it (including me). Me, answering the door to two firemen, who gently suggested I might want to wear some clothes and put a few essential items into a bag. Me, wearing my blue bikini under the paper gown in casualty.

I opted for alternative swimwear. I wasn’t quite blue bikini-ready yet.