Tag Archives: suicide

When love feels like carbon monoxide

I studied literature at university, but poetry was a genre I never managed to get into. Not that I disliked it, but my enjoyment was hindered by the fact that, most of the time, I didn’t understand the imagery nor the symbolism in poems. In the past year or two, however, I’ve been trying to enjoy poetry as a way of learning new ways to express emotions. This week I checked out a Sylvia Plath book from the library, Ariel, which she wrote in October 1962, only months before taking her own life.

I choked when I read A Birthday Present. I read it aloud two, three, four times, taking in each word like a deep in-breath, finding resonance in every turn of phrase. I was left in a flood of tears, wishing to embrace the spirit of Sylvia, in solidarity as a fellow female. It’s generally believed, at the point of writing the poem, Plath had already decided to die, and it certainly makes for grim reading, but her words resonated with me like nothing else I’d read before. (For the complete version click here).

“[…]If you only knew how the veils were killing my days,
To you they are only transparencies, clean air,

But my god, the clouds are like cotton.
Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.

[…]Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole? 
Must you stamp each piece in purple,
Must you kill what you can?
There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.

[…] Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death

I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious. 

There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.”

I was a total novice to Plath’s work. All I knew was that she’d committed suicide by gassing herself in the kitchen, that her husband, poet Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman, that she had mental health issues from a young age. I’m also aware many blame Hughes for her death. Knowing that his lover Assia Wevill, with whom he had a daughter, also killed herself and the child in a similar manner to Sylvia, and knowing that Hughes had numerous lovers in the meantime, I can’t help but feel sheer rage against a man, whose autocentric behaviour led to the destruction of so many women’s lives. Did he think he had special privileges for being a well-known poet? Or just for being male? Did he see all women as mere objects of his lust? If a poet cannot hold love sacred, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Of course no one really knows what happened within the Plath-Hughes marriage. But as a woman who understands what Plath means when she refers to ‘carbon dioxide’, a silent, lethal grief that kills you slowly yet savagely, I chose to side with her.

In Sylvia’s name, I swore loudly at Hughes: “Bastard!”

Sociopathic relationships

While raging at Hughes and his treatment of women, I was reminded we live at a time when sociopathic behaviour abounds in the area of relationships. This is the era of swiping right or left to indicate whether you like someone or not, when it’s permissible to end a relationship by simply unfriending or blocking someone on social media. One day the relationship is there, the next day it’s gone. There’s even a word for it: ghosting.

No one believes in commitment any more because commitment, they say, spells trouble.

I can almost understand 20-old-somethings behaving this way on the excuse that they haven’t yet learned what a mature relationship is about, but people in their 40s and 50s with half a century’s life experience?!

Dating sites are full of middle-aged men looking for “new friends”, code for no-strings-attached sex friends. There’s nothing wrong in men or women wanting to get laid, if that’s all both parties wish. But I’m sick of feeling like an aberration for insisting on believing in old-fashioned romance and devotion, where partners inspire each other to be better people in order to, together, be greater than the sum of the parts. What happened to, “No matter what happens, we’ll overcome it together.”

Commitment has become such an uncool, taboo word many women refrain from using it in front of a man for fear of rejection. We fear if we honestly ascertain what we want, the man we esteem will leave us and there’ll be no one else for us. The truth is, by not being honest at the outset about what you want, you’ll lose the man anyway but suffer months of degrading humiliation in between.

Misdirected compassion

I’m guilty of it myself. For the longest time I pretended to be okay with outrageously disrespectful behaviours within a toxic relationship with a man I thought was ‘it’. It led me to spiral down and culminate in a nervous breakdown and the worst bout of depression I’ve ever experienced.

What drives me insane is realising I constantly made excuses for his fear of commitment and misogynistic attitudes, looking for traumatic events in his past that would justify his abhorrent treatment of women. I ‘enabled’ him, as you would with an alcoholic. I encouraged the behaviours to continue by tolerating them, and, in the process, I grossly disrespected myself.

In trying to be compassionate towards a broken man, I spurned compassion for myself.

Mind games

It was, using Plath’s words, like carbon monoxide I breathed in slowly, gulp by gulp, slowly annihilating my self-esteem until there was nothing left of my former self. Toxic men have the uncanny ability to continuously behave badly, then turn the blame around on you so it looks like you were at fault, not them. Such insidious mind games can make even a normally sane person feel suicidal over time.

The knife that enters, not carves… Yes, kill me. KILL ME! For killing me would be more merciful than torturing me in this manner.

And yet it was I who abused myself by not laying down boundaries, by not saying “this is not acceptable”. Having survived one abusive marriage, I’m struggling to come to terms with this truth and forgive myself for having allowed such abuse to happen…once again. Was one lesson not enough?

Commitment

In my parents’ generation, people sat down to talk things over, couples believed in fixing what was broken, not giving up at the first crisis. People weren’t deletable; they were more than icons on a computer screen. If you erred, you apologised. You owned up to your behaviours. Couple got married in churches because their promise to honour and respect each other – not an easy one to keep for life – would stand a better chance if placed in a scared context.

Commitment isn’t another word for marriage, which is altogether another story. But it does imply looking after someone you love in good and bad times, caring for their feelings beyond your need for self-gratification. It means thinking twice before doing anything that could hurt another, no matter if you consider it right.

Because loving someone means you do care how your actions will affect them.

The other day a male friend I greatly respect bought me a drink and asked me about my love life. I told him about my broken heart and bemoaned men’s unwillingness to commit. His response was unexpected:

“Commitment is not a dirty word, you know?” he said. “Commitment is good. Don’t be afraid of wanting it. It’s okay. It’s after you commit that the fun starts.”

So it wasn’t my fault. It’s okay, he said, it’s okay. I went home and cried, hugging myself in bed.

“Let down the veil, the veil, the veil.”

Christmas for one and the John Lewis penguin illusion

Every Christmas I wonder if cases of suicide go up during the festive season. Because every year it reminds me of how inadequate I am/my life is in comparison with others’. The crux of the matter is exactly this: the comparison.

Shopping for Christmassy meals for one at Marks & Spencers’ on Christmas Eve, alongside couples pushing trolleys brimming with festive food and Christmas crackers, instantly turns me into a self-pitying Bridget Jones. It makes me wish M&S sold at their tills, alongside their mints and chewing gums, one-way tickets straight into Dignitas in Switzerland so I can be put out of my misery once and for all.

Was that a look of pity I saw on the cashier’s eyes, as she scanned my single dessert, my single breakfast bread roll and my single nut roast without any accompanying side dishes? Maybe it was out of compassion she didn’t wish me merry Christmas, but I was relieved she didn’t, as my Christmas was about to be anything but merry.

At home I scroll down Facebook, and predictably feel nauseated at everyone else’s sugar-coated photos: Christmas trees laden with decorations (it was my childhood dream to have a large Christmas tree, as I never had one), families posing together, kids being cute, husband being cute, cat being cute, couples saying “darling I love you, thank you for a wonderful year” followed by a few hundred “likes”. Can people not love each other in private any more?!

Of course not all you see on social media is true. People only post what they want others to see and believe. Couples on the brink of divorce may well have been making an effort “for the sake of the kids”, as says this Huffington Post article on the reasons why people stay in unhappy marriages.

This reminds me of my favourite scene in Love Actually, where Emma Thompson realises on Christmas Day that the expensive necklace under the tree she thought her husband (Alan Rickman) had bought for her was in reality for another woman. She cries in private with Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now playing in the background, yet she regains composure and keeps a happy façade in front of the children. Conclusion: not all blissful-looking families are what they seem.

The enforced joviality of Christmas can push any existing tensions to breaking point. If there already was any friction in the relationship with your partner, parents, in-laws, or friends, the social pressure of behaving as if you are having fun can be the last straw that makes that taut string snap.

Out of curiosity I googled to check if the Samaritans received more calls during the festive season and found out last year 244,000 people called in the UK and the Republic of Ireland during the Christmas period, many of whom were men, who felt their families would be better off without them. In other words, men who felt lonely and excluded even when they had wives and children.

Boy, did that make me feel better about spending a solo Christmas! I may be alone, but I am not lonely. Loneliness within a relationship is utterly soul-destroying.

This year’s was the second Christmas I spent on my own since my separation. The friends I had intended to hang out with turned out to be all away, and I wasn’t organised enough to have a plan B so I got stuck with myself.

Being a bit of a sociophobe  – I didn’t even attend the company’s Christmas party – I am perfectly comfortable not having company. But Christmas is simply not meant to be spent alone. As Michelle Hanson says in this Guardian article, “there is such a thing as society, and it doesn’t seem to like people being alone at Christmas.”

Facebook in particular can be a poisoned chalice: when the entire world seems to be posting photos of themselves being jolly with their loved ones, including your own family abroad, it is hard not to feel like a total failure in life. What is wrong with me that I do not have friends, a partner, nor kids for that matter?

I also have a massive Christmas hangup from childhood. I grew up in a Catholic country in South America, where Christmas was celebrated in a big way, whereas my family, being Asian immigrants, did not even bother with a tree, nor presents. If we were lucky, mum would cook us a big meal, and that was it. As a little girl, I used to spy through the door’s peephole as guests arrived next door laden with presents, and hear the excited voices of small children with a pang of envy. Once school re-started, I had to suffer my classmates bragging about the many presents they had got for Christmas, when I’d received one, or none.

I always resented my parents for denying me the experience of Christmas. I used to think it was every child’s basic right to have a ridiculously fun day, to believe in Santa Claus and presents being delivered through chimneys. I always looked forward to the day I’d leave home behind to start my own life, live it the way I thought was right. I’d have my own family, and we’d have many presents under a beautiful shimmering Christmas tree.

This never happened of course. And now, I realise, it may never do.

Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says in her book When Things Fall Apart that in order to stop suffering you must give up hope. Again and again I have sat with that thought, trying to understand how that can be possible. In theory I can see what she’s saying: unattainable dreams only make you feel more miserable. But without dreams, what joy is there to live for?

Sitting alone in a silent living room, with candles lit in every corner and no other decorations, my flat looks more like a venue for a wake than for Christmas. That was the most festive I managed to get. I’ve given up on my dream Christmas. I am no happier as a result but I at least stopped feeling envy, that is, as long as I log off Facebook for a good few days.

It also occurred to me that a perfect Christmas Day may be an illusion itself. Over time Christmas grew larger and larger in my head like a mirage that looks alluring exactly because I can never own it, but I’d probably not appreciate if I had it every year.

Two years after my new departure as a single woman I am finally starting to feel like I could contemplate a new relationship. At the same time, I am steeling myself for the possibility it may never happen, like that Christmas tree of my dreams. I might die alone and forgotten in some old people’s home, without anyone to even hold my hand. Isn’t this giving up hope?

The idea terrifies me though, and to counteract it, I decided I can always choose to jump off a cliff and get it all over with, if it gets too much. It may sound morbid, but for me it is the only way I can face life these days: knowing I can put an end to the darkness by plunging into it.

Give up hope or give up life – does it really have to be this radical? There must be a solution, somewhere in between, which allows me to live with not having the things I wanted to have, and still attain some level of satisfaction.

It doesn’t help that this week I happened to see a couple of Christmas photo greetings from men I once loved, each with their wife and two beautiful kids, looking like they couldn’t be happier if they were in heaven surrounded by singing angels. It made me question what I have done wrong that they achieved what they now have, and I lost everything, including the chance to be happy with them.

This is what Christmas does to me: I was perfectly content until it arrived.

We are such idiots. We half believe the twee penguin tale of this year’s John Lewis’ Christmas commercial, and think the magic of the season should make everyone fall in love with everyone else, all rifts healed. This is the fairy tale we all buy into, the one we so desperately want to believe. I doubt the world looks that rosy past the Bank Holiday, once alcohol and sugar have been flushed out.

I don’t know which is worse: not having Christmas, not having a family or not having hope. But I decided 2015 will be the year I live as if it was my last. If I only had a year to live, what would I do, where would I go, what would I say and to whom? We are all slowly dying, we are mortals, in case you forgot. Living intensely is the only way I can think of to obliterate pain and death.

Everyday will then be Christmas.