LIFE HONESTLY

How my father’s suicide shaped my life

Salena Godden reflects on a life after losing a loved one to suicide

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By Salena Godden on

At the age of nine, I rehearsed a new sentence: My father committed suicide. When the other children finally found out and asked me how he died, my honest answer slapped the air. I could feel each of them rehearsing that sentence in their minds, fingering the material of those two unfamiliar words: Committed. Suicide. A phrase so heavy with purpose, its final meaning, a piece of information that kills conversation, words that meant something difficult and final was committed and done with intention – it was a sentence you couldn’t take back or change.

It is a warm summer morning and outside my open window the sky is blue, birds are singing, the air is sweet with jasmine from my garden. As I sit to type this, I exhale and feel the word “suicide” – it’s a word so familiar and heavy, it is the cold jagged shape of this word that I know too well. I have just had a bad phonecall. This week, a friend of mine took an overdose. I cannot stop thinking about it, about her, about her intention and everything that she has left behind. It’s a bad word, suicide, isn’t it? Once you have suicide in your history, it sticks to your insides and coughs up questions that renew every time you come into contact with it again. You cannot help but remember other people you loved and lost, people you couldn’t save. You try to avoid the clichés, but they come flooding in, the ones about having so much to live for…

My friend was a role model, a trailblazer and an inspiration to so many people. She was clever, an academic and a doctor. She was dark, hedonistic and funny. She was extraordinary and her suicide feels like a door slammed shut. I wish she was in some hospital because she attempted suicide – attempted is reasonable, we can talk to attempted over a pint of cider in the sunshine – but she succeeded and is gone. 

Once you have suicide in your history, it sticks to your insides and coughs up questions that renew every time you come into contact with it again

I have had a special relationship with suicide for all my life, at least since my father hung himself when I was nine years old. I wrote about it in my memoir, Springfield Road, maybe to try to finally put his ghost to rest. I wrote in detail about how it feels to want to die and how it feels to be abandoned. I wanted to understand it, to explain what happens when you are left behind to do the living, and when someone you love is gone, past tense, the one who didn’t make it.

We are all so fragile. We are all fighting the good fight, but we are way too harsh in the way we measure success and failure, the way we reward and penalise ourselves. Perhaps loathing and punishing ourselves enough to convince ourselves that we will not be sorely missed by every person’s life that we touched.

When my father hung himself, it was a pane of glass we carried between us for the rest of our lives. It took decades to talk and write about it. In the playground, some kid told me that people who kill themselves don’t go to heaven or hell, they go somewhere else. And, ever since then, I always pictured a party of extrovert ghosts ie my kind of people: beautiful characters, larger than life, creative, talented and funny spirits, and, as I write that, Robin Williams comes to mind, because it’s not always the quiet ones you have to watch.

It seems extroverts are expected to attend to life with cheerleader pom-poms held high. Extroverts have a thick skin and can come back from knockbacks. People are much more likely to knock them down twice as fast because the extrovert can handle the rejection, because the extrovert is seen as popular, because the extrovert is a tough cookie, a moxie. I have a friend who is bipolar and she told me she is much more likely to do herself harm when she has ego, when she is extroverted and on a high. When she is low and depressed, she can hardly get out of bed, her family know where she is, they know that though she is depressed, she is safe at home and in bed. But when she is high, she’s perhaps more likely to be in danger, to make bad decisions, to put herself in harm’s way and do something reckless.

***

I endured parts of my teenage years with a black algae in my chest where this terrible self-destruction lived. When things got too tough, there was a strange and occasional comfort that I could always kill myself. When the dark was all encompassing, and when inexplicable sadness became intolerable, I had a death plan, a private account with suicide. 

If Facebook had been around in the 1980s, then everyone would know my favourite colour was purple, I loved Prince and I wanted to die

I know I wasn’t the only one – we talked about it and many of my school friends felt the same. One summer, I recall counting 11 overdoses in a row; I was around 14 years old. These attempts were naive and foolish – I didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully, I didn’t know what I was doing. After taking a fistful of cheap painkillers and booze, I’d lie there looking up out of my attic window at the stars, my heart racing so fast. I’d tell myself this was what dying felt like, that the pain would be gone, that it would be all over, that it was for the best, until eventually the stars all blurred and I passed out. I’d wake up late for school the next morning, groggy and nauseous, walk to class with leaden feet, sit at my desk with the mother of all hangovers. A horrible taste in my mouth, the dread, the fear, a sense of failure and stupidity and the pain still there, the dark black hole eating me up inside. I was hurting but nobody knew – I mean no adults knew. A few of my school friends knew I wanted to die, but it was just part of my profile; I’d write maudlin poems about it. If Facebook had been around in the 1980s, then everyone would know my favourite colour was purple, I loved Prince and I wanted to die. 

Eventually, my mother discovered my intention and sent me to the grey-haired bumbling Hastings family doctor. He put me on the Pill, which made things worse. He patronised me and told me I had “everything to live for”, but that was the last thing I wanted to hear. I sulked in this dark space for that whole summer. And, when I returned to school that September, one of my friends had succeeded; she had drank a bottle of bleach and slashed her wrists. She was one of the most beautiful and popular girls in the whole school, everyone loved her, I never forgot her. It was such a shock, such a violent self-murder, I saw the grief it caused and never ate painkillers, staring up at the stars like that again.

My father was 40 years old when he killed himself, I didn’t expect to see 40, I didn’t expect to survive to see Springfield Road published. But the year I turned 40 and outlived my father’s fate, quite the opposite happened: I started living. I owe this to love, I owe this to learning to forgive myself more and allowing myself to imagine an alternative happier story. Since the book’s publication, I’ve received letters from strangers who feel I wrote their story, people who have experienced this loss, or the death of a parent, and I didn’t expect that – I mean I didn’t expect any good to come from any of this.

Now, writing this, I wish my friend could have allowed herself to imagine something even more wonderful was around the corner. I’ve since been told she was struggling with depression, but she seemed so strong and ballsy to me. If you saw her from a distance, you’d never know what demons she was fighting, you’d just admire her chutzpah and exuberance. I also wish my father had waited for sunrise, to see if he felt better in the morning light.

Since the book’s publication, I’ve received letters from strangers who feel I wrote their story, and I didn’t expect that – I mean I didn’t expect any good to come from any of this

I know a number of survivors: people who are relieved they lived, people who tried to do death and didn’t. Suicidal thoughts can be so neatly camouflaged under big brave smiles, beautiful multi-coloured layers of jokes and shiny defence mechanisms. People who want to die are not always the shy introverts, or the ones in obvious pain and trauma. All you can do is listen and love and be there for your friends, because it’s not always the quiet ones you have to watch.

It was an overcast and ordinary day in the bleak February of 1982. I sat on her left and Gus sat on her right. My mother spoke in a low and deep voice and Gus and I looked across from each other and smirked a bit. We were restless, our mother spoke in such a serious tone it made us nervous. We pulled faces copying her, on the verge of larking about and laughing at her. She was building up to something but we were not totally listening until she completed her speech with those three words: Paul is dead.

Pardon? my brother blurted, and we looked each other in the face and then burst into peals of laughter. It was our mother’s face, it was so strange and so serious we laughed and then slowed to a snigger. I looked at Gus, he tried to take control so I tried to mimic his features, which made him chuckle and that made me giggle. I looked at my mother, she was stroking both of our backs with the palms of her hands as you might a baby. Feeling this soothing gesture and catching my brother’s eye I started roaring with laughter again, which set Gus off. Gus and I laughed, we laughed until it really hurt, we belly laughed. The more I laughed at Gus the more he laughed at me, out of control, away from our mother’s hands, we fell off the sofa and were face down into the carpet, hysterical. Gus looked at Mum and kept catching his breath and saying, It’s her fault she keeps making me, which sent us both into fits of laughing again. I have never laughed so hard in my life. There were tears on our cheeks then suddenly Gus, he wiped his face and croaked, Salena stop…

In slow motion, I saw my brother’s face change. First his dark eyes went glassy, then his mouth turned down at the corners and his brow knotted. As though a cloud had passed over the sun, a shadow crossed his face as something registered. He couldn’t see the joke anymore, though I was still frozen in smiling. I thought the cloud would last a moment only and then normal service would be resumed and we’d laugh together again. But the more serious he looked, the more nervous it made me. Mum said quietly I think she’s in shock.

Gus’s eyes were out of focus and filling with tears but I didn’t want the laughing to stop and I tried to laugh some more. I forced out a fake laugh. Mum held him and he was making a noise, a low wail that I had never heard him make before and which wasn’t laughing. I didn’t want the laughter to ever stop. Their shoulders were shaking now, they were both weeping  Paul is dead, Dad’s dead Salena…

Then my mother made a long sonorous cry, a single note that resonated through me. It rang underneath and inside her and through me, it was a howling, it was my mother crying and my brother crying, the two of them in front of me. I couldn’t take it all in and I mean I didn’t want to and then I had started to cry too.

Extracts from Springfield Road, which is available to buy here

Picture of her father courtesy of Salena Godden

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LIFE HONESTLY
long read
Mental Health

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