The Eclipse: A Memoir of Suicide

Books

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Recently I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchen’s Hitch-22. In the chapter in which he discusses his mother’s suicide, he mentions that he has never found a text about the topic of suicide which he felt shed light on why someone like his mother might commit suicide. As tends to be the case in my reading, one small thing triggered thoughts I wanted to follow up, in this case, re-reading Eclipse.

When I was about 13, I wrote to Antonella Gambotto to tell her how much I loved both collections of her journalism. I don’t think I really expected anything in return, but instead she invited me to spend the day with her in Sydney. We spent the day talking, she took me to magazine offices and introduced me to editors and I spent most of that time gobsmacked and feeling very out of my depth.

The reason I found her so intimidating, which I couldn’t understand then, and which I wouldn’t realise for many years, was that she is one of a very few people I’ve met who have been able to carry their power, their intelligence and their sexuality in a completely unabashed way. 

It was an intimidating thing for a 13-year-old girl.

In subsequent years, I followed her writing, whether it was features, reviews, her blog or novels. Her writing is succinct, witty and in every instance, satisfying. Around 2004, I heard about Eclipse.

Eclipse is a very intimate, very raw and absolutely compelling study of suicide and the lives of people left behind, from philosophical, psychological and personal points-of-view. Antonella lost both an ex-fiance and brother to suicide and Eclipse is her account of the devastating impact it has had on her life and how it has influenced her views on the act of suicide, and the treatment of depression.

It is a small, but powerful book, challenging and difficult at times to read, but one which I have come back to several times now, because in a strange way, it clears my head and I really believe its publication and subsequent promotion opened discussion about an issue which is, dangerously, one of the last taboos.

But this world will be shaken by a whisper.

I was reading back through a really old blog which I kept from 2001 until 2005, and every entry had a song lyric for a title. One lyric in particular really struck me, and I’d obviouly picked it for a reason, but I couldn’t even remember the song it came from.

After some hunting, I realised it was Slovo’s Whisper. I’ve never owned the song or the album it’s on, but after downloading it, everything came rushing back. I know who played it for me, I know where I was when I first heard it. Everything this week has been reminding me of 2003.

I Was A Teenage Smoker

I was just reading  I, Asshole, the blog of the delightful SJ, and she was writing about her history with smoking, which got me thinking about mine.

The first cigarette I ever smoked was in a huge storm water tunnel which ran under a road near the netball courts in Orange. It was probably fifty metres long, and foul and it was fairly standard to be dared to run the length of it at some point. I guess we figured a dirty, wet, pitch black tunnel was the safest place to try smoking, if you can follow that logic.

Someone stole a cigarette from their dad. I can’t remember the brand, but it was a 16 milligram. I remember that because 16 milligrams, to a new 13 or 14-year-old smoker, in a dark tunnel, basically feels like death.

We smoked it, we discussed smoking it, we decided we’d probably smoke again and we exited the tunnel … at the end of which stood my mum and my dog. It was weird. To this day I have no idea why she was there, we didn’t live anywhere nearby, we hadn’t arranged to meet after school and I’m fairly certain she had no idea I was in the tunnel when she stopped. 

She was more concerned with the fact that I was hanging out in a tunnel than anything else, but I caved under no pressure whatsoever and was all ‘I know I smell like smoke but there’s a very good reason!’. I forget what “reason” I gave, but I’m fairly sure my mum hadn’t suspected what I’d been doing and really, just thought I was insane.

I smoked really, really occasionally until about year 12, when I started my love affair with Benson & Hedges, Extra Mild. Extra Mild meant eight milligrams, which feels less like death, and more like … slow death. I’d been going to pubs to watch live music since I was about 15 and so my weekends now were music, Malibu and Coke and cigarettes.

smoking

Although my parents knew, I had no idea they knew, and because it was back in the days when you could smoke in pubs, I always felt safe because I had an excuse for why my clothes, and as a result, their house, always smelt like smoke. Then I moved out.

I smoked in Canberra, where I learnt the joys of rolling my own and licorice flavoured papers, thanks Dave. This talent would later be put to use by desperate fellow students for slightly more illicit purposes. I never mastered rolling with filters, but that’s fine, I just smoked unfiltered, licorice flavoured cigarettes, while watching fire twirling and helping my man friends through girl troubles. I smoked with a group of Pakistani men, who went through cartons of Marlboro Reds [death x 2] like it wasn’t no thang. I smoked before I ate breakfast and I smoked well into the night with good friends, because really, what else are you going to do when you’re 18 and you’ve just discovered postmodernism?

I moved to Bathurst and I smoked my way through a Bathurst winter and a year of dorm life before I moved into my first share house. It was a little pink house and it was across the road from my favourite pub. I think we can guess how I spent much of 2003. It was smoking which got me entangled in one of the most intense, yet chaste “relationships” I had during my uni days. It’s dangerous to smoke the same brand as an older man, who knows you’ll be on your porch at 1am, staring into the darkness, trying to make sense of being 21.

I smoked into a new share house, through two break ins, many shifts at Bunnings and several more winters.

Then I started Honours, which should have meant that I smoked more than ever, but for some reason, one day, it just didn’t feel right anymore. I didn’t have a health scare, I didn’t stop liking it, I just realised it was stupid. So I stopped, cold turkey, ending my career with a pink Fantasia which I had been keeping because I was a big fan of the Mr Bungle song, Pink Cigarette. If you have never had a Fantasia, let me tell you this: I must have been desperate, because I would smoke Malboro Reds by the carton, before I would smoke another Fantasia. But I went out lookin’ classy.

fantasia

I quit cold turkey, except for patches, which I eventually stopped using because, first, they itch like crazy, and secondly, they made me have inappropriate dreams about the character Arvin Sloane from the show Alias. Yes, I mean sex dreams.

I know I can never smoke another cigarette, not even so much as a puff, because even though I don’t get cravings very often anymore, I loved it and I would smoke again given half a chance.

And there it is, my history with that hussy, nicotine.

Sandy

In 2001 I met Sandy, the mother of one of my most precious friends, Skye.

I’m not one for flowery speech or being particularly gregarious in my descriptions of how people make me feel, but Sandy is an exception.

I can say with all honesty that in my life, it has been rare to meet a person who has had such a powerful impact on me emotionally.

She was also one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. She and I barely knew one another before she told me (and she didn’t have to, she had two brilliant daughters of her own who deserved much more praise lavished on them than I ever did) that she expected big things from me and would always inquire about what I was doing, so sure about where she saw me ending up.

She was stunning too, such high cheekbones, and warm eyes in such a calm face. She was grace personified, and her voice was so peaceful, it was like meditating. I never walked away from her without feeling struck by her quiet presence.

Sandy fought and very nearly didn’t beat cancer once. To see, even several years later, the impact that it had on her small family was heartbreaking. To watch Skye worry when she didn’t need to was almost impossible to bear. A lot of wine and late night chats and hot chocolates (and Beyonce and PJ Harvey) were needed, for both of us, but somehow we made it through that first crazy year living out of home.

Sandy got sick again recently, suddenly, news that hit me and a lot of other people who had met her, or been taught by her, or been loved by her really hard. To witness what people have been writing about her in the last ten weeks or so has been amazing. I think it’s safe to say that what Sandy has left is far greater than than what’s been left hollow by her not being here.

When I last saw Skye, now with a daughter (and a gorgeous son!) of her own, it struck me how she was starting to resemble Sandy in so many ways. It was breathtaking.

I can’t help but wish none of the family need ever have gone through this again, but it is pointless and the dignity and grace and love with which they have dealt with this tragedy in the past months has been amazing.

It was news I really didn’t want to receive, but such a great comfort to learn her family were with her at the end.

Sandy, like many others, you really touched me and I will miss you.

The wheels are stopped, done, so let me off.

sunsetz

I spent the entire day today solving A Big Problem. Probably in the scheme of things it wasn’t even my biggest Big Problem, but it was the one I was finding most troubling, so I got up before seven and worked and worked and worked and now it’s fixed!

It was kinda crazy to get to 9:30 and see how much work I’d already done.

I also got my eyes tested and get new glasses on Tuesday, when I also have to get more eye tests, but I’m not exactly sure why. Had I not already been so spent, I probably would have thought to ask. I think it has something to do with my right eye, which is the one I lose vision in first when I get migraines, so I’m actually kinda interested.

Roll on beer and the weekend.

Stevie! Stevie! Stevie let your hair hang down!

My sister Steph and I are generally on the same wavelength, so when I’m talking to her, things tend to be weird times one million, except she’s far more quick-witted than I am, and she generally she makes more sense and she can remember actual quotes from popular culture. She also acted out the entire Canteen Boy sketch from Saturday Night Live for me about fifty times before I saw the original. Hers was better, even when taking into account Alec Baldwin’s chest *bites knuckle*.

Recently I was talking to my mum about how some people designate a friend to get rid of all their porn and other secret stashes in the event that they meet some sudden misfortune, and I said ‘I don’t need that friend, I need the one who will delete all the messages from Steph and Joel in my phone. Actually, if all three of us die together, the story won’t be how sad it is that three members of the same family died together, it’ll be about the saucy text messages we sent one another’. Mum managed a weak smile and not even a laugh. And then struck me from the will.

That was before she even read some of the messages. For example, whilst there is a lot of love between Steph and I, it does generally deteriorate pretty quickly into a gross farce of family:

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Ah Steve, Steve and her “movements”. She never can seem to get them quite right. Sometimes we don’t just play silly buggers and we do share real love for one another:

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Wait. No. No we don’t.

The story here is that we, and probably no-one else, find it incredibly amusing to call each other and breathe heavily into the phone. Generally the person calling does the distinct, heavy mouth breathing, whilst the person being called feigns fear and whispers ‘Oh God! Who is this?!’ Sometimes this charade can go on for minutes.

Last night, I needed some sisterly advice and arranged for Steph to call me. The designated call time came and I hurried to the phone, which, for some ungodly reason, I keep hidden under a coffee table, which is behind a couch. It takes at least basic gymnastic skills to answer my phone. Remember, when doing forward somersaults, tuck you head under. Always tuck your head under.

So I answer and there’s the distinct heavy mouth breathing and I squeal internally with joy and started with the ‘Oh God! Who is this?!’ and then there was more heavy breathing, then silence and I thought to myself, ‘Well! Here’s a twist! Silence, hey?’ when all of a sudden my sister’s little voice squeaked, ‘Hello?’ and then the phone went dead.

Turned out there was something up with our connection and she actually hadn’t been able to hear me whispering ‘Who is this?!’ at all and her heavy mouth breathing wasn’t sensual heavy mouth breathing, was just … her regular heavy mouth breathing.

Now things seem weird between us.