Suicide, Samaritans & Me – a guest post

Today’s post is a bit of a departure for me as this is the first time I’ve invited a contribution from a friend. Actually I’m probably taking shameless advantage of the fact that my friend hasn’t quite got around to setting up their own blog yet! Anyway, here it is in full, with kind permission …

Suicide, Samaritans & Me.

I think you can say that Samaritans saved my life – in fact I know you can.

Not in the conventional sense though, I wasn’t talked down from a bridge, or off a railway platform or away from an overdose of tablets. I think what saved my life was become a Samaritan.

In 2010, from the outside I had a made a success of my life and career. Happily married, two wonderful sons (one at public school), Director of a Travel Company, four bedroomed house with double garage – all the things one thinks one should aspire to – the trappings of success, all good.

Except I knew it wasn’t.

Following the financial meltdown of 2008/9, the company wasn’t making a profit, redundancies were looming. The huge house came with an equally huge mortgage and if the job went, the house went, the public school went, and everything would crumble to dust. As a husband I would have failed. As a father I would have failed.

And that’s the thing, when you can’t see a way out of the situation the only solution is to take yourself out of it. So, it was on March 15th 2010 (beware the Ides of March) that I was staring at a pile of paracetamol tablets I had acquired over recent weeks thinking, how many is enough…?

Now I had no idea and whatever I may have thought then, I realise now that a paracetamol overdose is not a “nice” way to go. The liver functions shut down slowly and death can be long, slow and painful. Still there I was in the house all alone about to try and end my life.

I’ve no memory of how many I took – all I can recall is going to bed and hoping, naively, that I would slip quietly, blissfully away from life. It didn’t happen though, I woke up later, possibly the following day with stomach pains but very much alive.

Killing yourself is harder than you think – time for Plan B (always good to have a Plan B).

If tablets weren’t going to do it, what about carbon monoxide poisoning? Looks so straightforward in films and on TV – hosepipe from the exhaust, engine running, slowly lose consciousness – that’s what I thought.

So off to Homebase to buy hose, what length? Does it come in exhaust pipe to passenger side window length? No? well 2 metres should be enough, oh and some gaffa tape too, we don’t want the hose slipping off the pipe do we?

Suicide attempt take two. It was a Sunday afternoon, 2nd May 2010 actually, (you never forget the dates you attempt to take your own life) – the house was quiet, I’ll just slip away unnoticed. One of the advantages of suicide attempts by carbon monoxide poisoning in East Kilbride is that the town has a number of light industrial estates that are empty on Sunday afternoons. So that’s where I drove, parked up, connected the hose, turned the engine on and waited to die.  But I didn’t, again – something to do with catalytic converters maybe? After a few hours of not dying I drove home.

And there I fell apart.

For the first time in my life I admitted to my wife that I needed help – I knew I couldn’t go on anymore.

She was wonderful, ringing 999 or 111, I have no idea which, and later that very night I found myself admitted to the psychiatric ward of Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride. And there over the next week, I talked, talked like I’d never talked before, to nurses, doctors, counsellors and, on one occasion I recall, the chaplain – talked about me, properly, about how I was feeling, what I was anxious about, my childhood, everything in fact – and you know what, it felt good. At last the mask we present to the world was lifted – I was opening my soul.

I came out on the Friday, not a changed person but at least a person able to talk – and when I saw my GP soon afterwards, he said, keep talking, find a Counsellor and talk to them – so I did.

First weekly, then twice a month, then monthly over a period of almost 3 years. And you know what? – it was good. We talked about everything, family, childhood, relationships, career, sexuality, aspirations, fears, the whole works. I was being stripped back to the factory setting and being rebooted – and it felt good.

I even opened up for the first time about my deepest concern, that there was something not quite right with me… something I’d known, or at least suspected since I was about nine years old. And she said so what, it’s who you are… and I felt like the biggest, heaviest weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

Once you have added suicide to your list of options it never leaves you. In the years that followed occasionally the box would be opened and the idea considered, usually briefly, as life took a bad turn, before the lid was firmly shut.

And Samaritans I hear you cry? It’s in the title yet not mentioned so far….

Well by 2016 I knew who I was and I  knew that if I’d talked about everything over the years leading up to what I was now calling my “episode” I’d never have found myself buying hosepipe from Homebase.

And I got a notion in my head, if talking could have benefitted me, could it yet still benefit others and the idea of becoming volunteer counsellor started forming in my head. I looked about and by chance came across details of an Information Day for Samaritans – what have I got to lose I thought, so along I went.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but some part of me thought it was all about talking desperate people out of buying hosepipes or large amounts of paracetamol, and after a brief induction I’d be on the phone, talking and saving lives.

I came away from that Induction Day enlightened as to the aim of Samaritans, the methods and the potential benefits. If its possible to be hooked, I was.

I applied, was interviewed and accepted. I was now on the path to giving something back to people, people who in some cases would be going through some of the issues I was. (There’s one issue I’ve not mentioned yet!)

First day of training, eight other, possibly anxious, souls. And three trainers, who all seemed to be so kind, supportive, generous and non-judgemental people.

Share something about yourself with the Group they said – and so I did for probably only the third time ever, I said out loud, that I was Transgender (that’s the thing I hadn’t mentioned before).

And the reaction?? Total and utter disinterest. If it is no big deal to these people I thought, why am I making so much of it in my head?

It dawned on me on my way home, here was somewhere I could be the real me, for the first time in my life I had found unconditional acceptance. I knew this was where I wanted to be, this was an organisation I wanted to be part of. Because I also knew that I needed to be the real me. All the apparent reasons for my “episode” in 2010 masked one deeper reason – acceptance of who I really was.

That was in September 2016 and from that day I really felt that I could make my Gender Transition work – and Samaritans of Glasgow made that possible.

Since then I’ve talked to hundreds of people on the phone, and I hope in some small way I’ve been able to help them.

I’ve spoken at the Branch Conference on several occasions, run seminars, mentored new Samaritans and led training groups.  Prior to Transition the thought of addressing over one hundred people in a lecture theatre would have left me running for the hills. But now I do it, I enjoy it and I live my life as deep down I always knew it was meant to be lived.

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And that is down to all the wonderful people at Samaritans of Glasgow – you enabled me to take the first steps on the road to being the true me and for that I will always be so so grateful.

Helena R, April 2020.

I first met Helena when she joined the Samaritans back in 2016, and I was one of the “kind, supportive and non-judgemental” trainers (her words, not mine!) who were tasked with leading that group of nine anxious souls through the intensive process of becoming a Samaritan. I well remember that first session. “That’s a new one,” I thought. And it’s not true that we were disinterested, Helena, but, you’re right, it was no big deal to us. As a trainer, the most important thing about the group of people sitting in front of me isn’t their age or wealth or gender. It’s the fact that they want to be Samaritans. It’s the thing that binds us together. I know, I’ve been one for nearly 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Lady Called Anabel

I met Anabel a couple of weeks ago, the day before our current Corona lockdown. She was selling The Big Issue on Buchanan Street. At first I thought she was handing out fliers for some show or other – she had a theatrical look about her. But no, it was The Big Issue. I bought one and we got chatting.

She’s kind of…unique. Tiny, bird-like, seemingly fragile and yet incredibly strong. As with anyone who finds themselves homeless and on the street, she’s been through a lot. But meeting her was the highlight of my day. Not because her resilience impressed me, though it did; nor because she was so open and friendly and brave, though that too. It was an indefinable something, a connection I felt the minute we began to talk. You know that way when you unexpectedly discover a soul mate and everything they say makes complete sense and relates to something in your own life…

Moments like that seem part of a different life now. Now that we’re stuck at home keeping our distance from everyone else. I have to confess that I didn’t personally look upon it as much of a hardship, being a somewhat anti-social character not much given to hanging out in pubs and other crowded noisy places. So staying at home and not having to feel guilty about it actually suits me just fine. Or so you would have thought.

Truth to tell, unsociable sod that I may be, I’m not really very good at it! I find I miss having places to go, things to do. Even when I’ve had to force myself to get up and out, it’s always worth it in the end because there’s always that unexpected conversation or chance meeting – like the one with Anabel – that takes you out of yourself and reminds you that humans are indeed social creatures. Even me!

So there I was last night banging away on my saucepan doing the Clap for Carers with all my might and feeling that sense of involvement with all the other people who were out on their doorstep doing the same. We waved at each other before we stepped back inside. It felt good to be connected.

And this morning, for some reason, I’m finding the way cleared to do what I’ve been putting off for a while now – write in this blog. It’s not a big thing, but when you keep putting it off it becomes a huge barrier. And when normal inertia is added to the thought that now you’ve got lots of time and no excuse not to get on with it, it somehow becomes insurmountable. But I tricked myself today, I just started writing before I had time to think about it.

And there you are, I’ve managed to conjure up some thoughts about my take on the catastrophe that’s obsessing the whole world right now. It IS like being in some apocalypse movie – things were different before and may never be the same afterwards, who knows? But I’d like to think the afterwards will encompass taking a walk down Buchanan Street and finding Anabel firmly ensconced in her pitch just outside the House of Fraser selling The Big Issue in her utterly charming and unique way.

Click this link to read about Anabel, by kind permission of The Big Issue and the lady herself.

Anabel, 65, House of Fraser, Buchanan Street, Glasgow

 

What Defines Us?

If I had made a New Year’s resolution to define myself as a weekly blogger, that definition would be in the bucket already as its been a month since my last post! Just as well I didn’t make any resolutions then.

I find myself quite hard to define – grandmother, mother, sister, babysitter, friend, part time administrator, volunteer, trainer, writer, environmentalist, knitter, member of an older generation…? Truth to tell there’s no easy one-size-fits-all word I can find that would sum me up to my own satisfaction. Choosing between those possibilities would ignore all the others and would seem inadequate as a definition. I suppose really I rebel against the idea of receiving a label and being put in a box.

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The title of this post has been borrowed from a book I just read, “What Defines Me” by Amy Kingham (daughter of a friend of mine). The story (among other things) concerns a young woman who is diagnosed as bipolar, which becomes an all-consuming definition of who and what she is, and how her family and friends engage with her and she with them. In the end she comes to the realisation that who you are isn’t to do with what label society has given you, but more about what you do, the actions you take. Because, no matter what your label is, it’s what you do that defines you, reveals who you are, what you feel, what you believe.

I think this was brought home to me very strongly when I was exploring the lives of my parents earlier in this blog. The idea that the people who, as children, we relate to as Mummy and Daddy have a whole other life apart from us, a history that we only really glimpse in old photographs, or in the – highly edited! – stories they choose to tell us. Perhaps when we grow up we can come to see them as fellow adults, get a different perspective and start to understand better how they relate to the world as people in their own right. Perhaps we never really reach that point.

Take my mum. I couldn’t say that I ever had that kind of easy relationship some people describe where their mum is their best friend. No matter how much I tried (and perhaps I didn’t try hard enough) we never reached a way of connecting with each other on an equal footing; it was always that parent and child dynamic. Even when I was decades in to my adult life and had children and grandchildren of my own, visiting her at home always felt like stepping back into the past. It was as if she couldn’t escape from the definition of herself as “Mummy” and couldn’t resist judging me, telling me what to do, approving or disapproving of my actions. And of course I would mentally slip into rebellious teenager mode and so the unacknowledged cycle would continue.

I’ve just noticed that I didn’t include the word “daughter” in my list at the top of this. On the one hand I’m not a daughter any more as my parents are no longer with us. But it’s problematical, that one. For me it contains a whole world of expectations that for large parts of my life I found myself unconsciously resisting. This was because I felt I was part of a kind of family conspiracy where we had to present a front to the rest of the world about what kind of family we were. Things like “don’t mention your father is a bus driver” or “you are as good as anyone else”.

Of course the other side of that coin is that you don’t feel free to just be yourself, warts and all. You can’t do anything that would reflect badly on your mum and dad. Most of all, you don’t share things with your parents, or anyone else, because you are frightened of their disapproval. And that carries on until well in to your adult life.

I may not have actually rebelled as a teenager, but I did eventually come to a – rather wonderful – realisation. Which was that whatever the failings of my relationship with my mother (my dad had by this time passed away), I could choose the kind of daughter I wanted to be rather than just re-treading the old well worn path. I’m not saying it transformed the family visits, but it did enable me to have a more honest conversation with myself and my sisters.

In the end, I always believed that my mum did love me, and I loved her, however problematical that was. I never felt that love more strongly than in her last days when she lay quietly in her hospital bed with life gradually slipping away from her. We’d all come to visit in her final weeks, to say goodbye. You could always see that, even if she could no longer bring your name to mind, she always knew who you were. I felt that, stripped back to the bare essence of herself, what remained was her love for her family and her trust in our love for her.

How surprising that I should have alighted on the word “daughter” quite so conclusively – I wasn’t expecting that at all when I started. And equally startling is the lack of mention of the word “wife” or “ex-wife”. There was a time, many moons ago, when I was defined as the wife of someone, or when I felt defined by the whole getting-over-it process. Today, a week after my 66th birthday, it’s but a faded memory, though I remain friends (at last!) with Peter, the ex.

It occurs to me that how you define yourself depends largely on the context, doesn’t it? In a casual conversation you tend to fit in with what the other person is expecting – “Maggie’s mum”, “Charlie’s granny”, “Brian’s office manager”. You don’t break out and reveal that thing which is actually obsessing you, despite outward appearances. For me at the moment, I’m in trainer mode for the workshop I’m going to be giving at this weekend’s Samaritans conference – should I make some final tweaks to the script; are my props and handouts ready; what am I going to wear? In the couple of months before Christmas I was frantically knitting during every spare moment in order to fulfill my eBay orders for hand knitted mittens – “eBay entrepreneur” perhaps? Right now, this moment, I’m a blogger (hooray!)

As I get older, I’m not really that interested in labels. I know what the truth is – I’m me, and as I said in my New Year blog, my greatest desire is to be as true to myself as I can at each and every moment of each and every day. Sometimes I may be defined by overwhelming sorrow, or concern for a friend or the harassment of a work deadline. But as George Harrison said “all things must pass” and I know that sadness or wisdom or joy will be embraced and absorbed into my being and become part of that definition of self that is constantly shifting and evolving as I journey through my life.

I suppose I’m a fairly private person, but I’d like to think that the people who matter most in the world to me can see beyond any easy labels and know that for all my shortcomings the definition I’d be happiest with is this:

Someone who is capable of love.