This is a story about fear of death...
I had 3 major admissions to the Royal Free Hospital on the hills of Hampstead, overlooking central London. I snapped this shot after waking up with canulas in both my arms, 10 cables attaching me to an ECG machine, a motorised drip pump shoving fluid into me as fast as it could go. I was a pincushion from all the blood samples that had been taken.
Doing a quick body scan, my right leg was horrifically swollen. My right knee was damaged. The operation to reunite the two halves of my calf muscle, repair 4 severed tendons and reconnect 2 nerves, was still healing. I had a big burn on my lower abdomen. There was throbbing dull pain just under my ribcage at the front, and either side of my back, where my liver was torn and my kidneys were failing. There was fluid on my lungs. My chest was tight and constricted.
Was I scared? Did I call out for a loved one? Did it bother me that my prognosis was pretty grim? Do you think it even crossed my mind that I might die alone, except for one or two strangers in the mostly empty ward?
The photo captures the sun low in the sky, not long after dawn.
As long as I die in London, I know I tried my best to find my way back to the land of the living. I have no fear of death in London. Nobody dies of shame in London. If you can't find your will to live in London, you can slip away peacefully. You're never truly alone in London.
I had a 4 hour operation under general anaesthetic to fix the injury inflicted upon me by my parents. I travelled home on the bus on my own after a few days recovering in hospital. My leg was in plaster cast, held in severe dorsiflexion and was not weight bearing. I was as weak as a kitten. I let myself back into my friend's house, hopped up the stairs to the guest bedroom and collapsed in bed.
I had already spent several days in Oxford John Radcliffe Hospital in their high-dependency care unit, while they tried to stabilise my muscle damage and save me from kidney failure. I'd made my way back to London with a blood sodden bandage that was little better than the field dressing that I had improvised with sanitary towels and a dressing gown cord, before paramedics arrived. I had assumed that despite the wound being down to the bone, it was nothing that a couple of stitches at a minor injury clinic couldn't fix. It wasn't me who called 999. I was just trying to get back to London.
Back in London and finding myself with a spare evening before my operation, I had gone to a adventure sports film festival, hobbling along with my lame leg. The severed tendons meant that I was not even able to raise my foot any more, and it dragged and caught on kerbs and steps, causing great pain.
Having never experienced a general anaesthetic, I felt the same trepidation that I felt before my first skydive or another extreme leap into the unknown. However, there was never any doubt that it was something I couldn't face on my own. Just go along with it. Trust to fate, skilled professionals and technical equipment. Blind faith.
You should see the way I ride my bike. One slip and you're a goner, when you thread your way in-between the massive heavy goods vehicles, transporting steel beams for the construction of Crossrail. The double-decker bus drivers are amazingly skilled and seem to manage to not squash too many cyclists. However, when you mix together the debutanté Über drivers in their Toyota Priuses, hard-up black cab drivers, various small delivery vehicles, plus the unpredictable mix of abilities of people driving around central London, it's no wonder that paramedics call bike riders "organ donors".
When I hear that yet another of my fellow commuters has hurled themselves under a tube train, I burst into tears. It's too much to bear, thinking that some of my fellow Londoners have reached the end of their rope too. Perhaps those less personally affected by suicidal thoughts are the ones who tut about how selfish it is that a huge underground station has to be evacuated so that the human remains can be bagged and carted off to the coroner. The disruption to the capital's transportation network seem huge, but there are so many other veins and arteries in the heart of the nation, that people find alternative routes quite easily, with minor delays.
I'm not emotional when it comes to my own death.
I have fantasised about going on a scouting mission to a nearby tower block that has an open-air balcony with a 40 floor drop. My only concern would be landing on some poor unfortunate on the pavement below - hence the need to check the drop zone in advance.
I would never throw myself in front of a train. It would be too traumatic for the driver and the people on the platform. Even people on the train would feel a bump and judder as the wheels crushed bone and flesh. I know they would. People have described to me exactly what it's like for a tube train to run over a passenger, and I've had to run out of the office crying. Strangely, I don't cry for myself.
Jumping off a bridge in London would be pointless. None of the bridges are high enough, unless you were able to scale Tower Bridge.
Killing yourself in a public place is a bit selfish though. It's bound to leave a big mess to clean up and cause distress for an unpredictable number of people.
I didn't want to commit suicide while I was staying with friends. I felt that it might have been seen as some negative reflection on their hospitality, and would leave bad memories in the guest bedroom where I had been staying, which would tarnish their home.
I'm mindful that whoever I'm living with is burdened already with the uncertainty over whether my resolve to keep myself alive and well is not slipping.
When I am seized by the sudden urge to take myself and a sharp knife to the bathroom and open my radial arteries into the bath, I worry if I would cry out in pain as I dug into the joint on the inside of the joint of my arm, searching for the blood vessels with the sharp point of the blade. Then I worry whether I would be able to contain the mess within the bath, as my heart pumped my circulatory system dry.
Before I have gone any further with these thoughts, I realise that it would be grossly unfair to leave the discovery of my body and handling the police to a friend who doesn't deserve such a responsibility.
I think about setting myself aflame with petrol, in political protest at capitalism, inequality and social injustice, right in the centre of Canada Square. I think about how desperately agonising it would be to be burnt alive. I think about how suffocation would be as deadly as the heat, as the flames consumed all the available oxygen. Gasping for breath, and in unimaginable agony, death would be neither swift nor immediately assured. Dying of the burns over the course of the coming days would not be a great way to contemplate any last regrets.
It's the halfway situation that's the problem. A failed drug overdose so often results in organ failure and a much slower and more painful death than originally intended. Being knocked off your bike while wearing a helmet could mean paralysis rather than death. I know what it's like to score my arms with a razor blade. I know what it's like to wonder what the scars are going to look like when they heal. I know what it's like to experiment to see how deep you have to cut to reach the veins. However, so many cuts will stem the bleeding enough to preserve life, despite leaking profusely at first.
If you spend any time in psychiatric instituions, you meet suicide survivors. Most have had their stomachs pumped or filled with activated charcoal. Many will have their wrists bandaged. Scars from previous half-hearted failed attempts and self-harm, indicate a certain revolving doors nature to our treatment approach. Some of my fellow patients confide in me that they are saving up the very pills that were prescribed to them to prevent their suicide, so that they can have another go. One guy saved his tablets for 8 months and had things well planned except for an unexpected visitor. He was in intensive care for several weeks. He now faces a life of dialysis because his kidneys failed due to the toxic load. He was planning on attempting suicide again at his earliest opportunity.
I met a beautiful young Australian paramedic in hospital. You would have thought that she would value life higher than anybody, but the lesions to her neck indicate that she'd used her medical training to attack her jugular veins.
I read that media coverage of suicide can trigger a spate of copycat suicides. Newspapers are discouraged from reporting on the suicide method used. It's said that jails are like universities for criminals to swap tips and make connections. Could it be that mental health institutions are the same for the suicidally depressed, with more people being likely to end their lives using ideas gleaned while in hospital?
Frankly, there isn't much stopping a resourceful person from finding a way to kill themself. I've considered everything from inert gas to the application of an electrical current across my chest to send me into ventricular fibrillation. The one that is most appealing is drifting off to sleep and not waking up.
There's a famous quote by one of the few people who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, where they said they regretted it as soon as they had let go.
When I once took a drug overdose, there was a momentary twinge of regret that could have lasted about as long as it would have taken me to fall and hit the water, having jumped off a high bridge. There was a period where I would have been able to eject the toxins from my body, if I was suddenly determined enough to save myself. Instead, I then found myself accepting my fate, and a strange calm came over me before the chemicals hit my bloodstream. I was resigned and relaxed about whatever happened next. Death or organ failure. I didn't care.
It was only after a couple of days when my paralysis temporarily lifted and it was clear that the only way I was going to die was very slowly through the accumulated damage to my body, malnutrition and dehydration. I was pissing copious amounts of blood, and I knew I had to make a choice: an agonising slow death where I could be discovered, but it would definitely be the end of my kidneys, or a trip to the hospital and re-evaluate the situation.
I tidied my room. Took a shower. Packed my bags. Called a taxi. Sat in Accident and Emergency for hours.
When I was examined I was immediately admitted and I spent nearly 3 weeks in hospital.
It wasn't the right time to die. This was before I had worked my contracts at Barclays, HSBC and my current client. This was before I had somewhere nice to call a home of my own again. This was before I put together a 370,000 word document that explained who I was and how I arrived at the decision to take my own life.
I lay on the floor, semi-paralysed, and I thought about what kind of message I could scrawl in my incapacitated state, that would make it clear that I knew what I was doing. The circumstances leading up to that moment were a mess. It was too ambiguous. Even a suicide note would be seen in the context of great misfortune and stressful events in my life leading up to that point.
I had planned on starving myself to death or in some way doing myself in on the 1st of January, as some kind of protest at the way that we surmise a suicide with a neat soundbite that's supposed to explain all the reasons why somebody took their own life:
- "financial worries"
- "drug problems"
- "broken heart"
- "loss of status"
Take your fucking pick.
Without a conversation, we desecrate the memory of a dead person, by trying to oversimplify the complex problem of what could drive a person to arrive at the decision to kill themself.
In Japan, suicide is an honourable thing. The act of seppuku might be a protest over a decision or a preferable fate to torture. Preparation for the act includes writing a death poem.
Do you really want to be that crazy old homeless guy, yelling "I used to be somebody" as the world pays no attention and the streets finally swallow you into anonymity?
All glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.