Archive for September, 2014

About eleven and a half years ago, long before it became socially acceptable, never mind fashionable, I tried my hand at internet dating. It was a fairly successful experience, to say the least. I met a handful of people, some of whom I ended up in relationships with for a while, others that just became friends, and – eventually – my wife. And contrary to the concerns and admonishments of several friends at the time, nobody I met tried to murder me.

One of the people I met, in early 2003, was called Tori (or rather will be for the purposes of this post). I went out with Tori for about two months, after which we decided that there wasn’t enough of a spark between us, and that it would be much better to continue as just friends. Which is what we did. I was glad about that, as even if we didn’t work as a couple, I knew that I still very much wanted Tori in my life. Anyone who got to know her would tell you the same: there was something about her that drew you in and made you want her to be part of your world. She was beautiful, funny, kind, quick to laugh, incredibly well-read and – above all – fiercely intelligent. Probably the smartest person I’ve ever met.

She also suffered from bipolar disorder. I don’t think I ever saw her in a depressive state, but I did see her several times during a manic phase. One time, I visited her in hospital. Her boyfriend at the time was an obnoxious control freak, and he’d convinced her that taking her prescribed medication was a sign of weakness on her part. The outcome was predictable, and when she became ill, he got angry and beat her up. When I went to see her, she’d been sectioned. It was heartbreaking to see my friend, usually so articulate and full of life, in that condition. It was still her, of course, but her mind was at angles with the world, and the conversation was impossible to follow as it took seemingly random turns. The drugs she was taking had dialled her everyday vibrancy down to shades of grey. It’s such a cruel condition. I left the hospital that day feeling angry and upset and protective and powerless.

A while later, I wrote about the experience in a book called Cry For Help, calling the character roughly based on her Tori. I asked her permission first, of course, which she waved away almost without thinking. It was fine, she said – and with a typical degree of insight told me I wouldn’t be writing about her anyway, but myself. She was right about that, although I still wish I’d dedicated the book to her. I should have done.

But then, she was always remarkably forthright about her mental illness, and even while she fought constant personal battles with it over the years, she fought it on a different front as well. She worked her way up through academia, culminating in a PhD on ways of destigmatising mental health issues amongst the young – a PhD that was passed on the spot without changes. She produced numerous papers on that and other issues: always readable, thoughtful and insightful. That intelligence permeated her social life too. Whenever I had a problem, including issues with my own mental health, I knew I could talk to Tori and get exactly the right piece of advice, or a smart analysis of the situation that I’d never considered. It was as though she’d spent so long understanding the elaborate clockwork of her own mind that other people’s simple mechanisms had become child’s play for her.

She moved away. We kept in touch, but it was intermittent. Sometimes we’d see each other five or six times a year, others only once. She was at my wedding. The last time I saw her was early in 2013. We met for a drink, but she was reasonably manic and had double-booked, and we only spoke for half an hour or so. She emailed me a while later, suggesting we meet up, but it was close to the Harrogate festival and I couldn’t make it, and after a few back-and-forth messages the suggestion fizzled out. Again, I wish I had met her. Again, I should have done. Not because it would have changed anything, but just for the sake of seeing her again. Although I suppose the sadness of seeing someone for the last time will always be the what and why of it, not the when.

She was ill during the summer of 2013, and then seemed to be improving. There was talk of her returning to work, but it wasn’t to be, and in September 2013 she took her own life. It was hard to accept at the time, and it remains hard to accept now. I miss her very much indeed. Because of the nature of our friendship, it can sometimes feel like it’s been one of those periods where we simply haven’t caught up for a while, and there’s a painful moment when I remember that now we never will. She was always so supportive and proud of my writing, even though it was – frankly – way too lowbrow for her usual tastes, and yet I realised I’d never explored much of her own. After her death, I read through the various papers and articles available online, and then downloaded her PhD thesis. In the acknowledgements, amongst many others, I saw my own name and burst into tears.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m not going to say anything as facile as that everything can be dealt with, all problems solved, but if your feelings are taking you in that direction then please remember that you are certainly not alone, and that there is help out there. Here is a list of some charities and organisations that can offer either confidential advice or other resources:

116 123

0300 304 7000

0300 123 3393

0800 068 41 41

0800 58 58 58

0808 802 5544

020 7263 7070

The Mix
0808 808 4994