There has been a photo on my classroom wall over the last four weeks. It is of me and a group of fellow staff and students on a sunny day in 2014. I am smiling widely, sandwiched between a close friend and a student who carries herself with more grace and sophistication than I have ever had. I grin, but just a few days before, as everyone else in this photo was away on day trips and days off, I had come close to walking into the surrounding woods with a knife stolen from the school kitchen and killing myself. The plan was clear. I remember knowing it would be for the best and hoping never to be found.
When I look at that photo, I think three things:
- I miss my friend so much. We are still in touch but contact with him lessens as time goes on; I know he is bored and has moved on from supporting me and my troubles and it hurts even though I understand it.
- I notice how slim I am. While my mind was at its lowest and most diseased, my body was probably the healthiest it has ever been as an adult.
- I wonder at how I can look so normal and so happy when I was in constant inescapable torment, when I cried suddenly and violently throughout the day, when I was a mass of panic attacks and fear and the simple desire to not exist.
That day, a week at most before that photo, I got as close as tapping in half of the key code to the kitchen before hearing someone moving around nearby. I had thought myself to be alone in that school in the middle of nowhere and I was a mess – body shaking, heart racing and face flushed, nose and eyes bright red and swollen from crying, unwashed. I bolted back up the stairs and to my bedroom and there I stayed, terrified someone would see the weakness that I was.
I don’t know who that person was that day so they will never know that they possibly saved my life. I don’t know if I would have been able to go through with my plan or if I would have succeeded (there were subsequent attempts; all of them obviously failed so who’s to say this would be different?) but that day, thanks to a random cleaner or someone returning early from their day off, I remained someone who had never tried to kill themselves.
These days, I am thankful to say, the suicidal thoughts rarely surface and when they do they are vaguer and less threatening but that sunny day photo epitomises for me the dangers of mental illness. I doubt anyone apart from the two people I confided in had any idea how ill I was and even those two would, I think, have been horrified at just how close to the edge I was and continued to be for months afterwards. If they had, they would at least have checked on me a couple of times during the day and may even have insisted I go on the trip or accompany them on their day off; instead I was completely alone.
I wish I had been brave enough to confide in someone but if I were back in the same place, I’m not sure I would even now. So if you know someone who is depressed, no matter how well they seem to be coping, no matter how skilfully they smile and move through life, check that they are OK in some way. It doesn’t need to be explicit, it just needs to be contact, something to let them know they are not left alone. Later on, I would be saved by a coincidental text or Facebook message more than once. Say hi. Say how are you? Say do you want to do something? Say anything. You could save a life.