My husband Greg often remarked (humorously) that he saved me from spinsterhood. In a way he was right. For me, there will never be anyone else. Like most married couples, our love linked our beliefs, but also interests and humour. We complemented each other – I was always the positive one, yet he unfortunately tended to hold the negative view.
I learned early on in our relationship that he didn't tread life's path alone, but was followed by a 'black dog' whose visits were short, but regular. I was surprised, he always seemed 'up', full of humour. I knew nothing about depressive illnesses, but I was to learn. For the first 13 years of our married life, we endured the small bumps of his depressive illness. It was an accepted fact – managed with regular medication and therapy.
In 2006 however, something about the illness changed and the black dog returned – this time grabbing a stronger hold and after much persuasion it reluctantly left. Things improved, life was better and we pushed thoughts of the black dog away.
As if to taunt us, in 2008 the dog returned and this time, refused to leave. The depression grew much worse, hospitalisations followed. Bi polar II was diagnosed and different treatments were commenced – a series of ECT left Greg jaded, his long term memory affected, in addition to his short term memory. New medication made him lethargic, so he exercised even more in an effort to regain that elusive rush of endorphins which would loosen the black dog's grip for a while. This was a man who tried valiantly, who fought continually against the demons of his illness but who also voiced to me his desire to end the pain when it was at its worst. The constant feeling of being in a pit from which he could not escape, his inability to make even the simplest of decisions and a complete lack of interest and enjoyment in anything were all characteristics of his illness. He talked of a feeling of complete hopelessness, yet he willingly tried new medication, then a new therapist. Greg fought this battle for eighteen months, which included regular hospitalisation until in January, 2010 he had to be admitted to the psychiatric ward of our local hospital for his safety. Here he stayed for nearly three weeks – but was still unwell when he came home.
Then one hot February morning, it was my turn to walk our dog. I left my husband sleeping – or so I thought. I came home an hour later to a bed neatly made, the children occupied and no husband. This was not unusual, as Greg often began his day with a swim at our local pool. It energised him, washed away the torment for a brief period. After nearly an hour however, I began to wonder. Realising his swimmers were still hanging on the line, panic was instant. My heart thumped hard in my chest, I felt fear itself as a sharp, tingling sensation which ran down my arms to my fingertips, the hairs also rising on the back of my neck.
Running to the bedroom I found a note wedged between the pillows. This time, he didn't want me to find it quickly.
I knew where he had gone, but as I drove out of the driveway, I froze – terrified of what I would find. As if my not going could somehow prevent the inevitable. Instead, I rang a close friend, unwittingly dragging him into the vortex of the nightmare that had already begun.
Arriving at our destination, my legs could hardly move for I could see the Police Rescue van. The police gently confirmed my fears and at that moment, my friend and I would be forever linked. In the space of an hour, the shape of our lives and family was forever shattered.
The memory of that morning is forever ingrained. The guilt and sadness, forever felt.
More agony was to come. Our two children had tried valiantly to understand their father's depressive illness, but to comprehend his death was to expect more of them than I could ask. I had lied to them about the severity of his illness, yet with good reason. How could I ask them to live each day in fear, as I had for months? How could they begin to understand, when it was so difficult for me?
I became a robot on that day, my feelings numbed, my perceptions dulled. The enormity of our loss and the road ahead seemed insurmountable. I willed myself not to think about anything else but getting through each day. Not being able to imagine the future without him in our lives, I refused to think of it, locking that thought with others in a box in my head I would open sometime in the future. I felt disconnected from everyone – it was much more than just being 'alone'.
To lose someone suddenly is indeed a shock, but a suicide makes grief more complex. Those left behind can feel such guilt and regret. Why couldn't I save him? As husband and wife, we fought his battle together, but he decided to end his life alone. He felt tormented by life, now we are tormented by his death.
Our loving memories of him are tainted by the sadness of his pain, made worse at times by ignorant comments of those with no understanding. The stigma remains. Spoken still in hushed tones or not at all, those affected are often silenced. Trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, we can't talk about the depth of our loss and then feel guilty about our silence. I have not felt anger as others have asked me. How could I feel anything other than compassion for someone who was in so much emotional pain? I could see Greg's pain, while others could not. I'm disappointed he is not here to share our lives, I'm immensely sad for my children but anger was never really a strong emotion because that might mean he rationally chose to end his life and he did not. Sadly, our realities at that time were vastly different.
Could I see the signs? I had stopped him twice before, but the final sign – perhaps his final decision, was something I only saw with hindsight. Making sure he saw close friends and staying home with me when I was sick in the few days before the event, were clues I should have picked up on but the Pollyanna in me thought that maybe this time the medication was finally working.
I feel sad and guilty for those who were immediately involved, the witnesses, police and ambulance crew. My husband's violent death is a dichotomy for he was a gentle and sensitive soul who felt no escape from his torment. While most would see a man who had taken his own life, we see a man who died of an illness. Suicide takes the lives of over two thousand people each year, yet prevention can mean something as simple as asking, not 'How are you?' but 'Are you O.K?'
Eighteen months on, our loss is still raw but perhaps the edges are beginning to soften as we begin to reshape the format of our lives as three, instead of four.
If you've been affected by suicide Sharon McGuiness offers support and helpful links on her blog Those Left Behind.September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Every year, almost one million people die world-wide from suicide, and international suicide rates have increased by 60 per cent in the last 45 years. Strong evidence now exists that restricting access to common methods of suicide, such as firearms or poisons, can reduce suicide rates, as can follow-up contact with people who have attempted suicide. Access to treatment services for mental illness and for drug and alcohol use can also reduce suicide risk.In Australia in 2009, 2132 people took their own lives, more than three quarters of them men. For males, the suicide rate peaks in the mid 40s and again after age 75. For women, the 50s is the time of highest risk. For Australian events and campaigns related to World Suicide Prevention Day: http://www.wspd.org.au/Support is available for anyone who may be feeling distressed. For 24-hour counselling please call:Lifeline 131 114 Mensline 1300 789 978 Kids Helpline 1800 551 800