Making an exit
Earlier this year (May), BBC Radio 4 serialised neurosurgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir Admissions. (at time of writing it’s still available on iPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08q3xnv). In the first episode he talks about his suicide kit: a selection of drugs he has put by to help him shuffle off this mortal coil rather than wait for nature to take its sometimes tardy course. He goes on to say that he isn’t sure if he will be able to use his kit – as a surgeon, he has witnessed many people going through the last stages of their lives, and he observes that hope remains, and people cling on to life no matter how bleak things seem.
My mother had a suicide kit. No doubt it was much less sophisticated than Mr Marsh’s: a bottle of vodka, some paracetamol, a plastic bag. Nonetheless, it gave her some measure of comfort and control, however unrealistically. She let me know about her kit when I was in my 20s. I was very disturbed by the information, and urged her yet again to leave dad, strike out on her own, rather than live with a level of anxiety which only a final exit option could reduce. I was naïve, in spite of having left home at 17: I did not understand what living with alcoholism can do to a person, and how the symbiotic threads of my parents’ relationship had become so tangled that there could be no easy way to separate.
Looking back, I feel sad that she was never truly able to escape, and that the suicide kit was not the solution she had hoped. The one time, to my knowledge, she did attempt to end her life, she used a blunt breadknife to saw at her wrists. Tragically, this happened after she had made an attempt to leave her marriage and was living in a flat that I had rented for her not far from where I lived. We all got it terribly wrong.
My mother had never lived on her own. She was addicted to valium and pain killers, which made her paranoid and irrational. She was miles away from everything familiar, including my father. I was a virtual single parent with a baby and a full time job, so was already exhausted. I suppose I had had a half-baked idea that stepping into being a gran would help my mother settle: this was her first grandchild. But instead, she needed more from me than I could possibly give, and, after she had read some less than flattering things about herself in my diary, she went back to her flat and picked up the breadknife. She panicked and called 999, ending up in hospital.
I was in the middle of teaching a class of Vietnamese students when a colleague pulled me out to tell me the news. By the time I got to the hospital, she had been bandaged up and was waiting for a psychiatric assessment. I was furious.
“Why didn’t you use your suicide kit?” I hissed at her, poor old mum, pathetic in her blood stained dressing gown.
She shrugged. For years, I believed that the whole stunt was an attempt to punish me. Perhaps it was. But she was also trying to cope with a massive change in her life, to being thrown on her own resources. It was the first time I really knew I was stronger than my mother.
She spent a month in a psychiatric unit, which she perversely enjoyed. She was at her self-mocking best, presenting me with odd things she had made in the craft sessions, and telling me about her trips out with “the loonies”. Visiting her was not easy: I had to dash back from work, collecting my child from nursery, then get a baby sitter to look after her so I could head out again to the hospital. After that, daughter permitting, I had lessons to prepare for the next day. There was no way round any of it. It just had to be done. When she decided to go back to my father, I was relieved. Although I now wish she had stayed, and that we had found a way to help her have a new life, in fact she made some changes when she got home, and I think managed to carve out more of a life for herself for a while. She also became the world’s best gran. For this, and for many other reasons, I am glad she chose the blunt breadknife rather than the potentially more efficient suicide kit.