I’m not sure about writing this. It feels a bit… I don’t know… self-indulgent somehow? But then I can’t help thinking that the fact that we don’t talk enough about this could even be one of the reasons why it happens so much. Plus, there are things I want to say. So, here we go.
We buried one of my oldest friends yesterday. He had taken his own life.
First, I’m really not sure if that’s the best phrase for it. “He killed himself” feels too blunt and visceral. The idea of “committed” suicide brings with it the idea that it was a crime for much of history. I don’t know what to call it, but you get the idea.
He was someone I’d known since I was 8 years old. We were close friends right through high school. Played rugby together for years, and then even ended up (coincidentally) at the same university. One of my close gang from then right into our 40s.
“Never dull” is how I’ll remember him. In some ways he was always a bloody handful to be honest. The one who would get lippy in a bar or club and get us into a scrap or two. Not a hard nut – just cocky and never backed down.
But God, he was good company. A force of nature. Irrepressible, high energy and energising to be with, and full of love. Part of my life for as long as I can remember.
In the same way as you don’t choose your family, you don’t really choose your school mates either. They just happen to go to the same school as you at the same time and you end up with them. So over the years the ones who stick around end up more like family than friends. So he was kind of like a pain in the arse brother who was kind of exhausting sometimes… but a brother nonetheless. And did I mention bloody good company?
Looking back, I think he was always quite erratic, and always very intense too. But he was most intense about his friendships and about his love for them. He was someone I knew that if I called, in the middle of the night, and said I needed help, he would drop everything and come anywhere in the world. That’s quite special, isn’t it?
Over the years, we’d not seen each other as much, particularly since I’d been married and had kids. He was still free and easy (or seemed so to those who didn’t know him) and our lives were very different. He was buying a new Porsche when I was buying a new buggy. But he was always “there”. Whatever that means.
Shit happens, right? Sometimes you can control things, and sometimes you end up in the middle of things you never wanted to be in the middle of, and didn’t want to get dragged into. I won’t go into the details, because to be honest I don’t really think I know the real details, but suffice to say I’d been sort of “estranged” from him for the last 4 years or so. Shit happened. Complicated and painful for everyone involved. We’d had a couple of touchpoints along the way, but always strained and difficult. I cut myself off in self-protection in a way. I couldn’t be what he wanted from me.
I know that hurt him. I know that he really wanted everything to just be okay. Like it used to be. And maybe one day it might have been, after the dust settled. But the dust hadn’t had time to settle.
In a weird kind of self-flagellation, last week I looked back at the last messages I got from him, from a couple of years ago. I said he needed help, and that I couldn’t be the person to give that to him. I told him to take care. He said the same.
As I sit here, I’m feeling guilty as hell. Guilty that I cut myself off, and guilty that I could have done more. Before you think “oh you mustn’t”, I’ve learnt in the last few weeks that actually it’s okay to feel whatever I feel. Guilty, sad, angry. Fucking angry actually. But mostly sad.
That’s the point of writing this I think. Not to just unload, but to acknowledge the feelings.
As men, we’re conditioned not to feel things. We’re taught resilience from the moment we fall and skin a knee and are told to be brave. Boys don’t cry, remember? As a result we don’t talk about our feelings or address them. The only feeling men are “allowed” to have is anger, and that’s how so many things come out.
It’s a commonly quoted statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 40. As someone who studied statistics that annoys me a bit, because for all the shock factor of it, I can’t help wondering “what else would be??”. Too young for heart disease or cancer really. Maybe road traffic accidents? It’s information without context or insight.
But when I’ve put the pedant in me away, it’s still real.
In the last couple of weeks, there are so many men I’ve spoken to who have told me about a friend of theirs who killed themselves too. Most times we’d never spoken about it before. Everyone had an element of guilt for what they didn’t do. That feeling again.
I’ve mentioned Grayson Perry’s amazing, life-changing book, “The Descent of Man” previously in these pages. I encourage you to read it. It’s about all of the expectations of masculinity and all the issues they create for individuals, societies and ultimately the world. But one bit sticks out for me:
I am all these things. The last one is the most difficult of course.
I told my 2 sons that a friend of mine had died, and that I was going to a funeral. After a silence, my eldest son (11) asked how he died.
What to say? Do I tell them or do I hide it? I really wasn’t sure, and I looked over a my wife who was sitting with us. Without breaking gaze with me, she said that he’d taken his own life.
We then had a conversation about how people get to a point where they think that is the best thing for everyone. How talking about how we’re feeling is so, so crucial. How being all the things above takes guts, actually. A massive part of setting them up for success in life is in giving them the rights of man – that they see them in me, and see that it makes our relationships stronger.
By all accounts, the last couple of years have been extremely tough for my friend and those around him. Those who didn’t let go, or refused to be pushed away. And honestly, talking about feelings was never a problem for him. But fuck, if he’d seen the sadness in the faces of the people who came together at his funeral, he would have known that it wasn’t better. For him, or us, or anyone.
So there we are. It would be arrogant for me to think that me being connected would have made the difference, so I won’t put that on myself, or on you as you may think of the person you have lost touch with, for whatever reason.
What I will say is that, as men, the more we talk and share the better we will be.
And however bad things may seem, you have ‘family’ who love you. Even if they aren’t there to tell you.