I was already ten years into my beleaguered childhood when my uncle downed a bottle of bleach.
It’s strange the things we remember about hazy far off moments. I don’t recall what I was doing, but I remember distinctly, that it was a Sunday morning. On lazy Sundays on our little island, everything came to a standstill. The roads were empty, and the sound of silence was deafening, depending on where you lived. In our kitchens, my aunts and cousins bustled about, labouring over Sunday lunch.
Then we heard it. Someone bawling. The kind of wailing intermixed with screams that come from deep within the belly. A band of my relatives rushed through our back gates, and eventually, came back with the news.
My uncle was lying at the roadside semi-conscious, frothing from the mouth. Perhaps I was too young to understand. I can’t remember understanding…why would my uncle do that? What I did understand was that this was the stuff nightmares were made of. I recalled having the same feeling of nausea on the day of my Aunty Janet’s funeral, though, I was only 5 years old and I didn’t get have a proper grasp of death. But these kind of tragedies distress the soul, even when the mind does not comprehend.
My mother, the then source of my greatest fears and ironically, my greatest desires, zipped into the kitchen, heating a pot of milk. I watched as she rushed out, tears brimming in her eyes, armed with a cup of warm milk.
The conversations that never happened
I waited that Sunday, patiently, for some sort of closure. My uncle was admitted to hospital. He lived, thankfully. But the conversations I was hoping to overhear, even at that age, never happened. Why did my uncle do it? My uncle who revelled in hunting trips, who got me my first parrot at the age of 4 when I hardly spoke, who lovingly teased me and called me ‘Peach,’ and who blasted the same inspirational gospel songs every Sunday morning – one of which, I incidentally grew to deeply associate with him.
“…I had believed in a lie, that You were unable to help me…” the singer belted out.
My uncle who believed in a mighty God, able to save him, had done something which I could not reconcile. I didn’t understand that he had tried to end his life, but even for a ten year old I knew something was off. I waited and waited, but the conversation never happened.
I sometimes remember this at quite random times, and only today, connected it with other family experiences.
I was past my mid twenties, when I seriously tried to end my life. After previous attempts, I was so sure I had it down the next time, and after my first hospitalisation in a High Dependency Unit, I more than doubled the prescription pills with a litre of whiskey and went to bed. It was bad. To my surprise, I woke with blood in my eyes and went to the loo to wash it out. I fell and hit my head on the ceramic toilet bowl. En route to hospital I had had two grand mal seizures, and my stay in ICU lasted longer, with days of unconsciousness, but eventually… to everyone’s surprise, I awoke.
I didn’t realise then how common suicide was or the enormity of the problem, that in the UK alone, thousands of people end their lives every year. The latest statistics in fact, report a worrying increase among women, for the first time in five years.
It was three years before I had a conversation of sorts with some of my family, only because I felt entirely compelled to. We were in the midst of a crisis, and the lack of support, even within a large extended family such as ours, saddened me.
It feels almost impossible to have these conversations when you grow up in a society that stigmatises mental health problems, and the only health care comes from an institution known as ‘the mad house.’ Suicide? Don’t even mention it. My own experience was different from my uncle’s, in that, by that time I had moved to the other side of the world, my problems at the back of me… (It was a nice thought but no). When you live with mental health problems, you carry that prison with you, until you learn to manage.
Back then I couldn’t tell you what would have been helpful for me during that tough period. But years on, a single happening plus other survivor accounts made me realise I was missing the comfort of my family. Understanding and empathy. The power of empathy cannot be overstated, in supporting people with mental health problems. It’s not the same as being loved. I knew I was loved. But so often there’s a disconnect between loving someone and being there for them.
It all came into focus one day, when I got a phone call. One of my cousins was exhibiting distressing behaviour. People were blaming evil spirits. I tried to explain to my relative that mental health problems are often caused by actual physical changes or issues with chemicals in the brain. So, actually, my cousin needed a doctor. She was eventually taken to that mental health institution (but not before she was taken to church), where she was diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
The power of the spoken word
My heart broke. I wept, and wept. In hindsight, my cousin’s predicament showed me exactly what it was I needed in my lowest valleys. In the throes of our darkest torments, we need a friend… we need empathy. While she suffered, I suffered too. I wished and wished so so hard, that I could be there with her. That I could tell her she wasn’t alone, that I had an inkling of what she was going through. That I knew she was scared, because I was too. That I too knew what it felt like to have your own mind working against you, to be trapped within its walls, accompanied by your greatest fears and terrors. At best, my cousin had the support and concern of some family members, too few I think for a family as big as ours. I knew she needed more, to heal.
She’s slowly doing better thankfully. But I still reel when I remember. In countries that stigmatise mental health conditions, it’s hard to get society to understand that mental health problems are legitimate illnesses, just like cancer or a tumour; That we need to move beyond hushed whispers for people to get the help they need.
It’s weird that I didn’t connect the dots. I already knew that some mental health conditions like depression tend to run in families. I just didn’t think my family was one of them or that we would remain so mum on it. I reckon, that if the silence around mental health conditions wasn’t so deafening, my family might have been better equipped to provide the needed support. My uncle and cousin might have fared better.
For me, personally, being able to engage in honest conversation about it – with other patients, professionals and wider society has been a big factor in my journey to recovery. Because open conversations aren’t weightless words— they hold power to connect, empower and liberate everyone involved.
That’s precisely why we have to change the status quo. Because the sound of silence on mental health problems hurts. It devastates, and sadly, in some cases it kills.
Gentle Hugs 🙂
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in my blogpost, there are organisations that can help.
Call 116 123 (UK)
Call 0300 123 3393
If you’re at risk of hurting yourself or know someone who is please call your local emergency services