What do you do when life feels unliveable?
This one's a guest post.
Below are some very good words from the incomparable, less-famous-than-he-ought-to-be, Gareth Edwards.
Gareth is my mentor. Once upon a time that meant he helped me figure out how to be vaguely employable after years of putting ‘musician, unpaid’ on my CV. These days I mostly just ring him up when I’m feeling a bit awful, and he makes me laugh till I forget why I called.
For the past 15 years, Gareth’s been a force for good in New Zealand’s mental health sector, consulting to government and helping to set up a number of major, forward-thinking projects. Why does he do this work? Because for a long time Gareth found life really, really tough. And he didn't see any reason to keep living.
This week's newsletter is an extract from Gareth’s upcoming book, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Killing Yourself. It’s the sincere, heartfelt story of his own experiences of wanting to stop living (and what that taught him about life). The extract below is heavy, deeply felt stuff – it's nothing graphic, but it is definitely more direct than our usual Big Feels fare. These words helped both Honor and me through a particularly tough spot recently, so we wanted to share them with y’all, for those who may need it.
If today’s a day you’d rather not dive into a piece about some of the biggest and scariest of the big feelings, you are very welcome to head over here instead, and watch a bunch of baby turtles eating a hibiscus flower. OH MY GOD I COULD WATCH THAT ON LOOP. Ahem.
For those who want to scroll further, over to Gareth...
The day I decided to live again
I’m standing alone in the centre of the living room.
My friend is bustling around the other rooms while my social worker tells me about the rent and the impact on my sickness benefits.
I hear them both but I’m mostly listening to my inner voice calmly and confidently say, we will die here.
Here we go again, I think.
I manage to smile through my despair.
My social worker takes this as a sign that I like the flat that she’s found for me, just a few months after being discharged from the local psychiatric ward.
But I’m smiling for a different reason. I’m smiling because, after more than a year of fighting this inner voice, I think I might have found a use for it. I’m still many years away from welcoming and celebrating this scary inner voice (more on that later), but at least I’m less terrified and traumatised by it.
“So what do you think Gareth?” the social worker says with a hopeful look in her eye.
My friend pops his head out of the bedroom and gives me an equally hopeful smile as if to say ‘it’ll be alright mate’.
“I’ll think about it,” I mumble.
Wanting to kill myself is the flipside of wanting to ‘live myself’
On this particular day though, this experience isn’t quite as terrifying as it usually would be. Because I’ve already had this experience many times, and I’m still here. Because I realise the voice in my head might just be trying to tell me something.
Before camera phones and social media, photos started life as negatives. You would take your roll of negatives to the chemist, and they’d take those tiny, colour-inversed images into a dark room to be made into larger, fully-coloured pictures.
I’m starting to realise that my despair, distress and desperation are like the small, inverse feelings of the large and colourful life I want to live. The desire to kill myself is really the desire to ‘live myself’ but feeling it’s impossible.
What if thinking about my own death was not a sign that my life should end? What if, instead, it was a sign that I needed a different way of thinking?
I leave the flat knowing I will never return. I decide, again, to live.
Taking the pressure off, moment by moment
It’s been 20 years since that day in the flat with my social worker. Back then I had days where my only goal was to find a reason to live. Just one reason. There were days, many damn days, where even that was beyond me and I clung to life with a force I still struggle to comprehend.
Back then, I wanted to kill myself more than I wanted to carry on living. But I didn’t do it. Why? Because I kept putting it off.
Accepting the fact that I wanted to stop living took the pressure off. Rather than hating myself for hating myself I said ‘I will kill myself, just not now'.
The 'not now' started very small. Literally putting it off by a moment. And the moments became minutes, then hours and eventually a whole day. Then days followed each other and became a week, a month and a year. A lifetime.
Even within those early moments of delay, a space began to open up for me as I stopped ruminating on whether to do it or not. The decision had been made and postponed, like a meeting no one really wants to attend. And in that space something new began to grow.
What comes before hope
It was still too early to call it hope, though I believe this deliberate procrastination established the ground from which that gentle flower could blossom.
It was more like respite. Like when you take off your shoes after a long day. You know you will be shod again at some point but for now you can stretch your squashed up feet and enjoy the cool air on your toes.
It’s ok to feel like everything’s wrong
I think everybody thinks about killing themselves. Everybody.
For some, the idea is a fleeting thought that, whilst alarming, passes quickly.
For others, the idea lingers and nags away until it becomes the only thought. And it is in these situations where I have found it best to flip traditional wisdom and 'do put off until tomorrow what I could do today'.
I believe that these experiences are an important part of being human – to experience times of deep distress and recognize the impermanence of life.
Whatever your stance on the question 'why are we here?' we have these experiences for a reason. And I believe it is because they have meaning. Sure they can be painful and scary for us, and our loved ones, and they are seen as scary in every culture and society around the world.
But my experience is that the more we hide painful and scary things with shame, stigma and taboo the more powerful they become. Darkness within us and in society must be met with more light, not less.
That’s why I’m writing about my experiences. That’s why I’m trying to share the things I’ve learned – not because I think I have ‘the answer’, but because it helps to know you’re not the only one wrestling with these big questions.
I still hear that inner voice sometimes, telling me to die. It comes and goes these days. I now think of it as a sign, a reminder to kick off my shoes for a little while and just feel the breeze.
Last thoughts from Graham
When I read Gareth's words on this subject, the thing that strikes me the most is: he is one of the most naturally joyful, present people I know. Hearing that he still sometimes has that voice telling him to die, it gives me a little shiver.
But it's not a scared shiver - it's more like I'm being let in on some kind of secret, if I could only grasp it fully. For now it's just a question mark, but it's something like this: if this man still asks 'what's the point?' from time to time, maybe that's just part of the deal? Maybe.
Want more Gareth?
The words above come from Gareth's book - The Procrastinator's Guide to Killing Yourself. The full thing is well worth a read. Check it out here.
That's all for now. Feelings be with you. (And also with you.)