I couldn’t muster the nerve to say hello to Miriam Toews at the wonderful Eden Millls Writer’s festival. She’d just signed a hundred books and finally had a minute to check her texts and have a well earned coffee. I didn’t want to interrupt. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some obsessed stalker fan boy, just incredibly Canadian sometimes. We generally leave famous people alone unless circumstances arise to have a chat. I realize the entire point of a book signing is for the author to be completely available to the public and this would actually have been the exact right time to pop over and start blabbing about this and that for a couple of fleeting minutes. But I couldn’t do it. Not because I didn’t have a book to sign. I was 99% certain I was going to start to cry.
I’m also Scottish. All of our emotions are suppressed deep inside and when it does surface, it’s a train wreck. It will probably be my undoing, I fully expect some angry little tumor comprised completely of repressed matters will be found that will take me out eventually. It’s genetic. The last truly good sob I had was when I finished Toews “Swing Low – A Life”. Of all of her work for sale at the festival, this was the only one with some copies left over. I felt like picking them up and handing them to people. Read this one. I found out about it by accident in a review of her recent novel All My Puny Sorrows in which they said it was revisiting a theme first addressed in Swing Low, the theme being suicide. Only a survivor could have written both of these. To say that she has completely nailed it would be a massive understatement. All I really wanted to say was thank you but I couldn’t do it. So I guess I’ll do it here.
Thanks Miriam. I love your books.
I suppose I’ll openly tell the whole story one day but it’s incredibly hard. I can’t imagine going though it twice like Miriam, let alone laying it all out to be read forever. Everything comes with a trigger warning now and I never really understood the need for this until Robin Williams died. To gain competitive advantage the media will publish a stream of grabby headlines in the quest for eyes and that’s when I feel it all roiling inside, the rerun that never ends. Closure is bullshit. I’m once again an angry young man with a blanket around me punching out an ambulance chaser while the attending cop looks the other way. I’m thankful there was no internet then. I’d be one of those people looking ridiculous on a You Tube clip. Maybe not, since I took out his camera as well. It was likely not digital, it’s that long ago. “This is assault” he said. You bet your fucking life it is, scumbag.
I generally try to ignore the analysis and speculation presented when depression takes a famous person, especially anything that starts with “WHY”. For a while, obituaries toyed with listing “smoking” as a cause of death but no doubt someone’s legal council brought that to an end. Regular obituaries for the rest of us still rely on euphemism and for the departure of the depressed they use “suddenly”. If you read about a person who died suddenly and donations to the heart foundation are not requested, the cause of death is likely depression. An accident takes someone “tragically”. A terminally ill person on lots of morphine goes “peacefully”. I will be deeply impressed the day someone has the guts enough to use the d-word. “After a long struggle with depression, Greta succumbed to her demons on October 13th” No messing about.
This past week Ron Francis, previously the subject of much hilarity as he was better known as the pot smoking mountie, had been found dead. No immediate cause of death was given. He was a 21 year veteran of the RCMP and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To help alleviate his condition, he was taking medicinal marijuana. Without any further detail I concluded right away that he committed suicide. Depression killed Ron Francis. No editing, correction or retraction required. Just say it. It would go a long way. The Boys will still be laughing at him though. Police forces and the military don’t exactly have a great record of dealing with those exposed to all sorts of trauma the public couldn’t imagine. His funeral will not have two thousand police flying in from all over North America for a big parade. No mass celebration of the man who could not handle the weight of exposure to countless unspeakable things that every one of them sees. Any signs of frailty must be suppressed at all cost. The system took away his uniform but it was never about the pot. Unless we have a massive cultural shift, it’s going to keep happening. RIP Ron.
So, here are some tips on how you can help a suicide survivor. Definitely say that you are sorry for their loss. Listen more and speak less. Don’t offer any speculation as to why it happened. Movies and soap operas are the worst possible frame of reference you can use to guess why a person took their own life. Was it the drugs? Were they having an affair? Was it their chronic alcoholism? No, it was depression. Once it has happened, it’s too late. All survivors wish they could have done something differently or been able to read the signs. The big IF quietly pokes away at us hundreds of thousands of times. No need to add to this please. Tread softly. Be kind.
Something else we all need to get better at is recognizing if someone in your life, either close or an acquaintance, is depressed. At the first indication of a problem, don’t let it go until they have been able to find the level of assistance required. This is the best thing you can do, be a supportive and positive influence. Build a team you trust and do not relent. Persist and do not yield. Be gentle, not a jerk telling someone to “snap out of it”. Accept that all of this may not be enough. There have always been depressed people. Many live long lives. Others do not.
The ultimate analysis was written 400 years ago:
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in all thy Orisons
Be thou all my sins remembered.
Thanks William. Thanks Miriam.