What would save a wretch like me?

10th September, it is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) and I am filled with a rising sense of despair. The more I read on the topic, the more I shake my head, disheartened.

wspdI feel pummeled by the horrific statistics that try to highlight the risk of dying by suicide including that “10% of professional singers have attempted suicide”. I read that in The Age, September 10 2015 page 11, over coffee and it’s online. That is a shocking statement for all sorts of reasons one of which is the amount of effort and research put into identifying people at risk as if they are a special and perhaps delicate or sensitive population, and not one of us. On one hand who hasn’t heard of the artistic temperament as a sensitivity that may predispose oneself to taking one own life? On the other hand why does this statistic about singers feature with headline status on WSPD?
Who are we talking about? Should I be concerned?

I asked Google for more information. I didn’t find Australian figures but there were some from America. In the US it is acknowledged that there is no reliable way to measure the real size of the US musician population. Somewhere around 168,000 by Government counts and more like 1 million by industry reckoning. So singers and musicians make up around 0.3% of the population if I take the larger estimate and take America as typical – and why not?

Wait…I have more. That’s counting singers AND musicians. How many are singers? Those being the people identified as at risk. There are many ways I could estimate the ratio of working singers to musicians. Solo performers, choirs and orchestras or bands where there is perhaps 1 singer to 4 musicians? Who knows? I would be wrong what ever I guessed, so for my own purposes here lets just say half. Half of the working population of singers and musicians are professional singers. Now I am worried for 0.15% of people – that figure being less than a twentieth of one percent. In Australia where the population is estimated at less than 24 million, and I will use that rounded up number good measure. We are talking about 36,000 people as the possible number of professional singers and 10% of those has attempted suicide according to today’s newspaper (see above). I have 3600 people but in what time frame? During their lives? During their singing career? In the last 15 years? Taking the last measure that’s potentially 240 singers a year. That’s a lot of people especially considering that I have not previously read of singers as being identified as a risk group, and that’s not for want of reading. I read more on suicide, anxiety, and depression than the average bear – mind you that’s an anecdotal observation rather than a well researched one.

Every year, I read today, 65,000 Australians attempt suicide. That’s the general population and I have deduced that less than 0.4% of that population are working singers. I do the math and calculate suicides versus attempted suicides as 3.85%. I’m now saying of 3.85% of attempts end as suicide. I am saying that becuase the original eye-catching statistic was singers who have attempted suicide and I am interested in how many professional singers might have died by suicide. What you can’t do with numbers, eh? It’s a dodgy figure because I don’t know how the reported WSPD figures are accrued and maybe the numbers talk of discreet populations. I am counting completions as subset of attempts, and (very probably erroneously) concluding that 3.85% of 240 singers who attempt suicide a year, die by suicide. That’s nine and a quarter, or less than ten, singers a year die by suicide in Australia. By any counting that’s a lot of people and that’s just the singers, it’s ten too many from any population group on a per annum basis. Sorry about the ‘per annum’ comment I got carried away, completely distracted by this numbers nonsense.

So here I am on WSPD day worried about the diminishing number of singers in the world and how to accurately count them or measure their capacity for survival in order to die by means other than suicide. I did get carried away and I did get distracted. I had many other thoughts about what to say today and mostly about how we individualise suicide and suicidal feelings rather than take responsibility as a society for how we are together and with each other each day. I’ll write about that another day something about being too cold and, in general, too unrelated. Too many statistics and not enough heart?. Professor Helen Christensen reports “Right now, our current suicide prevention practices are not impacting the suicide rate.” Woe is me…. impacting the suicide rate is what WSPD is about? In my world WSPD is about asking “What would save a wretch like me?” Note to reader, I did finally get to the point or a point at least.

On this day I am about living, I am about being softer, kinder, more generous, failing, losing, weeping, I am about shame and about wonder. I am all for rambling on a little to long, for richer and for poorer. I am for taking another step when the situation is hopeless and not because things will get better, I don’t know what will happen. I am for uncertainty, I am also numbers and probabilities. Australian singers? Yes I am for them too, especially Gurrumul and Paul Kelly.


Andrew Solomon wants me to read him

In a series of meaningful coincidences, or synchronicities if you like, Andrew Solomon has been showing up in my world. In a favourite bookshop I came across his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. The book was written in 2001, I hadn’t heard of it. I wasn’t sure I would read it, but I bought it and I have owned it for some months now. It’s more than a book with its more than 500 pages and its weighty subject, to my mind it is a tome almost to big to read and so far I have not read it.

A week or so ago in another favourite bookshop I came across a much smaller book, one published this year (2015), Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. The cynic in me did not want to be taken in by the title so I ummed and ah-ed a bit, in the end it was Joanna Lumley who convinced me to buy it. Not the actor herself but her recommendation on the front cover “A small masterpiece that might even save lives“. She hooked me in, I bought the book and this one I read in a night or two. It is an extraordinary personal account of surviving an existential crisis. At the back Matt Haig lists some further reading including Solomon’s Noonday Demon, which Haig describes as “An astonishing (occasionally terrifying) account of Solomon’s experience of depression.” Again I resolved to read it, but the word ‘terrifying’ haunts me a little and I haven’t started it.

Today a friend published Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk on Facebook. There he was again, Solomon is almost stalking me, I listened and I was deeply moved:

Andrew Solomon speaks slowly and deliberately about his depression. He is compelling to listen to. Like Matthew Haig, Solomon doesn’t tell anyone what to do, he speaks about his own experience knowing others may have experienced similar.

Part of what touched me was imagining being in the grip of this experience: “Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.” Something about the Stations of the Cross is evocative allowing me a sense of the experience he describes. There is much more that he says that makes listening worthwhile.

Both authors believe that the silence that typically surrounds depression makes it worse. I share that belief. I like to talk read and write about experiences of living with suicidal feelings, I am trying to understand what often defies understanding. OK Andrew Solomon, I hear you, tonight I will start reading The Noonday Demon.

A year passed by

robin williamsRobin Williams
July 21 1951 – August 11 2014

Me, my sister and our Dad

My sister just reminded me that it is three years since our Dad died. I don’t have a good sense of time, I do have a good sense of loss that years don’t dull.

Dad with us in blueAfter nodding our heads in wonder at the time that has passed we didn’t say much more about Dad. It was one of those times when words don’t work, our hearts held the moment. What we couldn’t find the words for is how losing a parent is something akin to having the ground disappear in front of you as you’re about to put a foot down. A wrenching step into an unexpected empty space, that’s how it was and how it is. I have a prolonged sense of desolation, a groundless feeling. I don’t know what she would say, but my sister might describe something similar.

When somebody dies, the grief you feel is something that is largely endured alone, others may suffer the same loss but each experience is intensely personal. My Dad and my sister’s Dad were one person and the father each of us knew would, of course, be familiar to each daughter. Familiar and different, each with our own experiences and memories of ‘my’ Dad. He is the same man and he would be recognisable to both of us on an emotional level. It’s a bit like when we share memories or childhood, inevitably what is recalled with clarity by one has the other asking “Was I there?” We were created with the same genetic fabric though, it binds us together along with our brother and a third sister.

I love us all, we all miss our Dad, and I wrote this for one sister, the one who was at Dad’s hospital bedside three years ago, holding his hand. She’s the one who reminded me of this anniversary, what we share and who we remember.

“Losing a parent is something like driving through a plate-glass window. You didn’t know it was there until it shattered, and then for years to come you’re picking up the pieces- down to the last glassy splinter.” Saul Bellow wrote in a letter to Martin Amis

LwSF group

lwsf postcard front (2)Psst, I want to share a secret – For the last 18 months my friend Liz and I have been facilitating a regular group for people who live with suicidal feelings. The group is not really a secret, we are a low key sort of group and we try to keep attendance numbers small.

We hold a space for people who live with suicidal feelings to talk about and explore those feelings. We’re a small group and this is special space. Our emphasis is on living, while acknowledging and exploring darker thoughts and emotions that many live with.

This is such meaningful work for me I hold a lot of gratitude for the conversations we share, sometimes with hushed voices and always with honesty. We share and connect. We laugh too – sometimes at the world and sometimes about ourselves. I don’t have words to truly capture the nature of our conversations and the connections that develop over time. I can say we’re a community of care and I feel privileged/lucky/blessed/happy to be a part this group.

See news of meetings here on our FaceBook page

Hey hay day

Recently I was advised to have some ‘hey’ days. At first I thought my advisor was suggesting ‘hay’ days. Making hay being to turn something to your advantage, like the pinata I saw in a comic recently. Children were running away from the pinata which was hanging from a tree. Their mouths were open in alarm and their arms were in the air. Someone was saying “Uh-oh The pinata’s got the bat now.” Sure enough, on closer inspection the dangling pinata was clutching the bat. Now who was going to hit who?

I found the reversal of fortunes enormously funny. From the pinata’spinata perspective the tables were turned. Time to make hay or, to be more accurate, I should say time to get its own back. Making hay is not about vengeance but opportunity, and I was being advised to have hey days not hay days.

The comic pinata was dangling by a string up high in a tree, unable to make hay, vengeful or otherwise. Time for a hey day, like I was being advised have.

When somebody is against me and my emotions get struck by their metaphorical pinata stick, a detached response might be good for me. Instead of getting contorted with questions of why and what, like I tend to do. Instead of constantly questioning myself with could-have or should-have scenarios, I could try to just let things be, think “Hey…” and nod or something. Hey, there is nothing to change. I am going to try and notice when the best response is ‘hey…’ and to leave it at that.

Hey, happy New Year.

Looking for explanations

WP_20130811_007In the wake of Robin William’s death there has been a lot of trying to explain what brings someone to suicide. Impending dementia, or prescription drugs have been offered as explanations. I don’t know that there is any way to understand the dark thoughts of another, the speculation sounds misdirected.

I do think that we sometimes find ourselves deep something unrelenting and unbearable. Suicide can not be easily, or rationally, explained.

A personal account I read this week that resonated more than the recent guesses, in the newspapers, around what may have gone wrong for an actor and funny man was this description of losing oneself by another man:

“”It gets to the point where you just don’t recognise yourself,” Marc Pierre, a physical therapist in Los Angeles, says of the depression he has experienced.

“You look in the mirror and just have no connection to what you are seeing. The fire raging inside your skull is so intense and requires so much energy it is difficult to interject any sense of beauty, of appreciation, of love…I was heading into a well with no stairway.”” From Shock by Dukakis K. and Tye L. p.16

Distress tolerance

It is mid-winter here in Melbourne and so it is hardly surprising that I am thinking about warmth, in particular the emotional tone of warmth. I could also say a metaskill of warmth. Taken from Processwork a metaskill is a feeling attitude or tone, a quality to how a person does something that is most often more important than whatever it is they do.

WP_20140109_007Warmth is critical when thinking about distress tolerance and I have to admit I had never thought about distress tolerance until today. Sitting in a warm cafe on winter’s day I read an article a colleague had shared this week and started thinking about distress tolerance. It’s the ability to hold or tolerate distress in another without trying to fix or change something. It’s needed when encountering painful feelings, like grief without trying to make it better – nothing makes it better anyway. The warmth not to judge, to accept rather than criticise, to hold.

Warmth for another is one thing, what about for oneself? Imagine cultivating distress tolerance for your own inner criticisms and attacking. Warmth from others fosters the development of warmth for ourselves, our feelings and our distress. Self-caring, being gently sensitive to ourselves will warm any emotional winter. It might not be easy to feel deserving of that warmth and you are, and I am. It’s cold outside, and our fallible, critical, insufficient, perfect, selves need warmth.

The long and winding road to contentment

I enjoyed a conversation this morning about the value of not having goals and direction, about just getting through a day and about appreciating anything that gets done on those days. As we talked one thought connected to another, we lost one thread, kept talking and found another idea, it was easy to ramble just wondering and wandering. Nodding and smiling.

It was truly delightful as we sat and talked sharing observations and thoughts, trying to find words for things that have been mused upon but not spoken aloud before. I was reminded of Mr. Curly’s Wandering Day Map and how Mr. Curly’s day and this morning’s conversation are pathways to contentment, a quirky sort of calm and directionless contentment. Contentment nonetheless.

mr curly's wandering day map smaller

For more thoughts like this one visit the artist here; http://www.leunig.com.au/

Happy Valentines Day Maggie Estep

In her essay Think of This as a Window Maggie Estep wrote “I fell in love with New York City one day in 1971 when I saw dozens of people blithely stepping over a dead body on the side walk.”

Photo from http://www.maggieestep.com/about/

Photo from http://www.maggieestep.com/about/

I read that today in The New York Times, in Maggie Estep’s obituary. A novelist, a blogger and a performer of poetry she died on Wednesday after a heart attack. Maybe her heart couldn’t take anymore.
You might see what I am alluding to in one of her poems:


To hell with sticking my head in the oven
I’m happy
I’m ridiculously vengenfully happy
I’m ripped apart by sunshine
I’m estatic
I’m leaping
I’m cutting off all of my limbs

I’m doing circus tricks with a fork.

Happy Valentines Day Maggie, I’ll miss you in the world.