This post deals with suicide and might be triggering for some readers.
A dear friend who recently died by suicide left a letter for me.
Her suicide was, tragically, no surprise to anyone who loved her. She had suffered a terrible, acute and chronic pain condition for eight years that robbed her of her work, her art and, sometimes, her independence. How she endured that for so long was a mystery to us, and a testament to her strength.
The pandemic was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think we’ve all felt the strain. But it broke her.
When Queensland emerged from hard lockdown, she stayed in it.
For months afterwards she still wouldn’t see anyone. Not even her parents; she would just drop their groceries at their door. On our Zoom catch-ups, it was obvious that her mental state was deteriorating. She was incensed by people’s failure to abide by strict social distancing protocols - the fact there were zero cases in the community made no difference to her.
The day I knew she was in deep trouble was the day she said to me ‘joy is not something I can have in my life’.
For years, she placed constraints on our relationship in the name of coping with her chronic illness. She couldn’t chew due to the pain in her jaw, so we stopped going for meals. She found it hard to sit for any length of time; so we no longer went to the movies. When I offered to do errands and chores for her, she refused saying doing those things for herself helped her to feel normal. I respected her wishes, and didn’t impose myself on her. It hurt, watching her physically and mentally deteriorate but I did my best to be the friend I thought she wanted me to be.
For context, a few years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After the shock of diagnosis, I set about teaching myself about how to cope with suffering. It’s how I approach things: ask what’s the worst thing that could happen, and prepare for that. Death might well be the outcome, I knew and accepted; suffering along the way was what I decided to try to avoid.
I learned that positive emotions are healing - literally. While cortisol from stress breaks the body down and damages the brain, positive emotions improve vagal tone and reduce inflammation in the body.
For me, this information seemed miraculous. I could help myself to heal, simply by taking some time every day to do things that gave me positive emotions. I pronounced chemotherapy days to be Medicine and Movie Days, and after I got home from treatment, drugged up on steroids, my partner would put a movie on in the bedroom. We’d watch it together, with lashings of ginger ale and dark chocolate with peppermint crème filling. I gave myself permission to do silly things that made me happy, including swinging on the swings at my local park, singing Bette Midler songs and watching comfort TV like Friends. I hugged trees, talked to birds, and made unskillful art of inspirational quotes.
But my friend’s journey was very different. First of all because she never received a diagnosis for her chronic pain. A host of specialists told her there was nothing physically wrong: one GP even told her they thought it was all in her head. She went to a pain clinic, where she was taught practices to retrain her brain. She practiced rigorously - religiously even. I thought we were both practising mindfulness, but when we compared notes I realised her practice was a grim discipline. I tried to share some of my learnings with her but, although medicine had failed her, she wasn’t ready to give up on it.
Her body broke down. I celebrated when she managed to do things like cook with her young cousins, or see her beloved nephew, and tried, time and again, to find ways to show her she was deeply loved. As time went by, the more I tried, the more she pushed me away.