A loss you can’t imagine: young men and suicide

1992. Only a few weeks after his twenty-first birthday, our sonDavid died in a fall from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats behind the Merrion Centre in Leeds. I  see it every time I drive to Leeds .

World Suicide Prevention Day was last month, Sept 10. As ever, I’m out of synch with the rest of the world, but it can’t ever be too late to write this post. Just over five years ago, two people I love found their son dead in their living room. He was about the same age as mine was when he killed himself. I remember I wrote to them and said something like: people will tell you they can imagine what you’re going through. They are wrong. More thoughtful people will tell you they can’t imagine what you’re going through. They are nearly right. The fact is, you can’t imagine what you’re going through.

Three good friends of mine, all the same age as me or thereabouts, have died in the last 18 months. Two, apparently fighting fit and well, died of sudden catastrophic heart attacks. One died after a long and painful illness. We grieve for them, but we understand our grief. Their deaths are sad, they diminish us, but we understand this natural process. It doesn’t accuse us. But when someone you love takes his own life, when it comes without warning, it’s inexplicable, bewildering, devastating. It makes no sense. The world makes no sense. You are made helpless with guilt; you believe you are to blame, that you could have prevented it if only…..

This happens to tens of thousands of people every year. The statistics are terrifying. The websites you can visit will tell you:

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male.

Men and boys are often more vulnerable to taking their own lives because:

  • They feel a pressure to be a winner and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel a pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel a pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

Most suicidal people don’t actually want to die, they just want to remove themselves from an unbearable situation, and for the pain to stop.

There’s a lot of support and advice available for people who are worried that someone they know may be a suicide risk. Advice like this:

So how will you know? 

You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it.

 

Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation

 

What to say

Not too much. Above all, LISTEN

 

For me, and for my family, it was all too late. Because we had no idea, because there was no warning sign we could pick up on. There was just the immutable fact that our David had killed himself. We are tight as a family, we comforted each other, but we go on living with the bewilderment and loss and overwhelming guilt. It never quite goes away. So I’ll dedicate this post to all the families who have lost a child, a sibling, a parent, a partner to suicide, and I’ll talk about the long long process of finding the serenity to accept what cannot be changed. I’ll tell you our David’s story.

Two of my five children were adopted, and our David was one of them. Against all the rules, we met his birth mother, who would have been no more than eighteen. She wanted a say in who would adopt him, and a wise social worker thought she had that right. That young girl trusted him to to a couple not that much older than her. She will be in her sixties, now.

our david c 2 copy.jpg

It’s a complicated story, but the core of it is that we were at yet another stage of the usually ponderous adoption process, which suddenly accelerated quite wonderfully and frighteningly, and we found ourselves sitting in the small living room of a foster-mum, and our David, who wasn’t yet Our David, four months old and surrounded by love, was having his bath. He wasn’t called David, either. He was Conrad Hamilton Gervaise Irving (no surname), and just Conrad, for convenience. When you adopt a child you’re not supposed to keep his or her given names. Since the truth is that the amazing and enlightened social worker short-circuited every due process that evening, and that we drove home up the M1 with Our David in a carry-cot on the backseat of a Ford Anglia, it didn’t seem so transgressive to keep Conrad as his middle name. David Conrad Foggin.

This much
I remember:
the small neat creases, the crook of each elbow,
the crook of each knee, the soft place
between your neck and your shoulder,
and the tight whorls of dark hair
tattooing your skull, and the delight,
the wide pink of your open mouth
as you came shedding light and bright water
out of your bath, how you sank
in the fleece of a fat white towel,
and you lay on your back on her knee
and you danced,
how you pedalled and trod on the air,
and how pale the soles of your feet.
You were mangoes, grapes, you were apricots,
all your round warm limbs, your eyes.
How your name made you smile;
how we said it over and over, your name;
how we wanted to make that smile.
And I remember
how we would take you away,
and why your name could not come,
why we must leave it behind,
and how we feared for your smile.

 

When his face would cloud over, or when he seemed to turn inwards (as happens with all your children) it troubled us. And then it would be OK, and we’d forget.

 

 

 

Later, when he was nine or ten years old, he drew endlessly; meticulous battle scenes, some times on rolls of lining paper, so they stretched out like eclectic Bayeaux tapestries. I wrote a poem about them, years ago, and keep revisiting it, and rewriting it.

Untitled copy

 

Our David’s Pictures

In tracing the anatomy of war

our david’s concentration’s absolute.

He kneels in peace, head bowed. An acolyte.

His pictures conjure tiny armies on the floor.

 

All history’s invited to this fight:

Martello tower, pele, and launching pad,

heaps of Roman, Norman, Saxon, Panzer dead.

Drawn up, his minute cohorts. Black and white.

 

Each man’s accoutred – breastplate, chainmail, greaves.

Crusaders squint down Gatling sights,

or brandish spears with blades as big as axes,

and quivers jammed with arrows, bunched in sheaves.

 

Every shield’s a wicked chevron

or a bossed and studded disc;

the sky is bristling with a stiff cheval de frise

of arrows and everyman’s vulnerable, at risk.

 

There’s Agincourts of arrows, flight on flight.

The sky’s cross-hatched, and somedays almost black.

The sun’s crossed out. Eclipsed. Our David’s arrows –

they fly miles, out of day and into night,

 

they shift the whole perspective. What is it

he celebrates? Pattern? Power?

The living or the dead. I’ll never know,

his last bow drawn, and loosed, an age ago.

 

I wrote this when he was still alive, puzzled and perhaps mildly worried about the obsessive quality of the drawings. But mainly delighted. When he died, I changed the ending, and it was read at his funeral. We had a Bob Marley track in the service. Stop that train. It was an extraordinary service. There were dozens and dozens of young people who I’d never seen before, who I didn’t know, but who had clearly loved our David. For some reason he either never knew, or if he knew, he didn’t believe it.

It was a long time between being told of his death and his funeral. My wife and I had separated seven years earlier. We weren’t asked identify his body and I was too numb to wonder why I wasn’t notified of the inquest, and I was too numb to protest. The morning the police told my ex-wife of a death behind the Merrion Centre, the morning she drove from Leeds to tell me, the morning we went to the police station in Chapeltown was the morning I started to learn about the lovely boy I realised I didn’t really know. That he’d been smoking dope, that this may have triggered a suspected schizophrenia, that some time earlier he’d served a short prison sentence for a trivial non-violent offence, that he was being looked after by NACOS, that he was training as a painter and decorator (like his great-granddad). I know I could have known all this, and I should have, but I was too busy, too tied up with a new job, a new relationship, and deep down, because I was scared to ask. Most of those young folk at the funeral were young offenders on schemes like the one our David was apparently enjoying. Nothing made sense.

It was a morning like this

 

a Sunday morning. The sun shone.

It was July. It was a morning like this,

your ex-wife at the back door,

and why would she tell you

your son was dead, or had died,

or had been in an accident

on a morning like this still

not fully woken, a morning of sun

to drive into Chapeltown to drive

to a police station that’s called

The Old Police Station now, that’s

a bijou gastropub but then was just

a police station full of Sunday morning

sadness, and a morning something

like this and two young coppers

who thought we’d need somewhere

quiet at the back which turned out

to smell of smoke, that had a pool table

and coffee rings, and no-one knew

how to start or what to ask but

it was a morning much like this

they asked if we knew a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre or if

we had a connection to a tower block

and a ring with a skull and a brown

leather case and did we know if

our son had friends in a tower block

behind the Merrion Centre and

we might as well have been asked

about tree rings or chaos theory

or fractals on a July morning and

one young copper saying that

he didn’t think it made sense

for cannabis to be illegal and

what harm did it do really and

how it wasted everybody’s time

and I don’t know why I’d remember

that except it was a morning like this

I learned what waste might mean.

A couple of weeks after David’s funeral my good friend Bob Hogarth, the Art Adviser said: why don’t you do a painting of him? Why don’t you paint his life? I set out on a collage of maps of the city, photographs of his childhood, images of a small attache case and a strange ugly ring that he’d left on the top floor of that block of flats behind the Merrion Centre, an old atlas open at a map of Africa. Buddleia. Hydrangeas. I worked on it for a week or so. And then stopped. Just a layer of collage and thinned down acrylics. Every couple of years I’ll have a look at it, and resolve to finish it. But I don’t think I want to. I suspect I understand why. It took a long time…more than twenty years…to find out that for me the answer lay in writing. Maybe it started with a friend of a friend buying me Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers, and then started again with being told about Carrie Etter’s Imagined Sons. 

It started with rediscovering Greek myths, and particularly the story of Icarus. It was discovering, through the process of retelling the story, that the character no one pays enough attention to is Daedalus, or points out that if Daedalus had used his amazing gifts well, he would never have needed to build a labyrinth, would not have given away its secret, would not have been imprisoned in a tower with his son, would never have needed to conceive of making wings. I understood, through this that if you make wings for your children, it’s not enough to just watch them fly. Whether they fly into the sun or the heart of darkness, if they fall, then are you responsible, and how will you live with that.

Tony Harrison wrote that in the silence that surrounds all poetry

articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’  .

I believe articulation is healing, a way to atonement and to being able to forgive yourself. The serenity to accept the things you cannot change. Articulation can be confessional, too. You can’t change the past; ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ simply make you spiritually ill. We know this, rationally, consciously, but living by it needs help. Two poets have given me that help. Clare Shaw’s credo “I do not believe in silence” and her unwavering frank gaze at her history of self-harm, and psychological disturbance gave me courage. As did Kim Moore’s decision to use poetry to deal with her experience of domestic abuse. And, finally, one moment in a writing class that Kim was running that somehow unlocked suppressed and unarticulated belief, guilt, knowledge. I remember I wept silently all the time I was writing. It only lasted five minutes, that task. But an insight, an acknowledgement takes only a moment no matter how long the process that leads up to it. This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine says Prospero at the end. I think I understand the release he must have felt in that split second.

A weak force

 

there’s sometimes a loss you can’t imagine;

the lives never lived by your children, or

by the one who simply stopped

in the time it takes

to fall to the ground

from the top of a tower block.

 

They say gravity is a weak force.

I say the moon will tug a trillion tons

of salt sea from its shore.

I say a mountain range will pull a snowmelt

puddle out of shape.

I say gravity can draw a boy

through a window

and into the air.

 

There is loss no one can imagine.

 

In the no time between

falling and not falling

you learned the art of not falling;

 

beneath you burned

the lights of Sheepscar, Harehills,

Briggate, Vicar Lane;

 

lights shone in the glass arcades,

on the tiles, on the gantries of tall cranes;

motorway lights trailed ribbons of red,

and you were far beyond falling.

 

Because you shut your eyes

because you always shut your eyes

you closed them tight as cockleshells

because when you did that the world

would go away the world

would not see you.

 

I remember how you ran like a dream.

I remember how you laughed when I swore

I would catch you.

 

Then you flared you went out

you flared like a moth and you blew

away over the lights over the canal

the river the sour moors the cottongrass

the mills of the plain

and over the sea and over the sea

and the bright west

and you sank like the sun.

 

our david 1 001 copy.jpg

 

I count myself lucky. Lucky to have had our son for 21 years. Lucky to have learned to live with the loss of him and to have learned how to make amends to myself and to his memory. Lucky to be able to articulate it.

This week we learn we now have a Minister for Suicide. She has no budget, no staff, no office, no brief.  A disproportionate number of young men will take their own lives in the coming year. Some of them will have been made desperate by being stripped of benefits, being made homeless; some will have been denied the recognition and appropriate treatment the desperately need for their mental health issues. Whatever their circumstances, there will be parents, siblings, partners, children, friends who will be numb, full of unassuageable guilt. There is loss no one can imagine.

The return of Polished Gems Revisited : with Laura Potts

flo's ditch

It’s October. It was summer last time I looked. Then:

 

The world tilted , the sun shone slant,

showed up every crack and canker,

made the million cobwebs shine.

There was dew and people thought of fires.

Children went back to school.

This year everything would be better,

a clean book, new pens, a blazer

to grow into.

 

Where was I? Ah, yes….looking back at a post in which I was musing on those periods of curious flatness that overtake you from time to time. And for some reason, here’s another. Maybe there’s been so much going on that when it stops you’re mildly disorientated. That must be it. I remind myself of the episode in John Hillaby’s book Journey through Britain. In the early sixties he walked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, using, as far as was feasible, only footpaths and drovers’ roads and bridleways. Arriving in Bristol tired and jaded he seeks the advice of a boxing trainer who examines his legs, looks up, and says: what you need, sir, is exercise. Which turns out to be sound advice. When in doubt, just do it. So I shall.

I have no excuse; last Monday was a day I’d looked forward to for months. The guest poets at Puzzle Poets Live were two of my inspirations. Kim Moore and Clare Shaw. What a double bill! Poets whose reading makes you more alive, who electrify and excite you. One of the folk in the audience was David Spencer (cobweb guest in July) who had cycled from Huddersfield to Sowerby Bridge to be there. Valley to valley over a big Pennine hill with the M62 at its top. And then had to cycle back. That’s how good they are. It was a brilliant night. Along with their new work, Kim read Train from Barrow to Sheffield and In that year ; Clare read This baby and I do not believe in silence, and I could not have been happier. This week I found a warm review of my pamphlet Advice to a traveller in Indigo Dreams’ Reach Poetry 241 (thank you, Lynn Woollacott, and then…..

I’ve had a summer of doing stuff, pretty well non-stop; brickwork, woodwork, paintwork, garden work. I looked forward to it all being done, and then it was and suddenly I’d nothing to do. Except that I have…a review that should have been sent off months ago and which I keep rewriting and scrapping; feedback on lots of poems for two special friends. Why don’t I just do it? I’ve a horror of not being busy. I always have. It’s that Conradian thing, the need to work and work to avoid reality, or something. I dreaded retirement …and it was destabilising when it came, that lack of imposed obligations. What I’m not so good at is dealing with self-imposed obligations. A bit like the feeling that most teachers know, the Sunday afternoon feeling, the knowledge that there’s a pile of marking that must be done for Monday, that’s grown because you didn’t do it when you could have done, because you’ve put it off.

What saved me was finding poetry and writing. I have a fear of unemployment and silence. Like Clare Shaw, I do not believe in silence. I cannot sit still. I cannot be quiet. So when today’s guest sent me her review of what she’s been up to since she was a guest two years ago, what she wrote resonated very powerfully. She writes about how she is saved by words. Yes, I say, yes. And here she is.

‘Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has appeared in Agenda, Acumen and Poetry Salzburg Review. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura was last year listed in The Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She also became one of The Poetry Business’ New Poets and a BBC New Voice for 2017. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018’.

This is her reflection on the last two years since she decided not to finish her degree and make a life in writing.

“Two years have passed, and as another season leaves I think of last time I was here. Two years and a world away. And I do not recognise the words I wrote. The syntax strange; the sentences too academic, too composed. I do not like the way they kept my life so guarded, so controlled. They do not sound like me.

Life – and living – has changed since then. I am older and younger at heart by the day. More attuned not to needs but desires of the mind, and my light glows brighter for it. And my most drastic change was in education. I didn’t complete my degree. I didn’t stand on a stage with a scroll in my hand and feel like that was the height of my worth. I dropped  formal, regulayed education, and instead I started to learn.

The promise I made to myself that day will always remain. I promised to live for myself. Nobody else would tell me; no media would push me; no guilt would force me to live without a love for my life. I started to write. Perhaps, at a time of both great hope and vulnerability, it was my Freudian throwback to childhood: those hours at home, as a very young girl, reading by firelight; or the gravel of my grandmother’s voice, reading Chaucer and Keats; or writing my own tales of Peter Rabbit because, like Beatrix, I too thought he was better than any friend. So when I sat at the desk to establish this new, epic plan for my life the answer was already there: I was writing, and that was enough.

Others seemed to think so too. My words were ample; were adequate; were ‘bountiful and bound to become’, as one editor wrote. Looking back, in those early days of sudden freedom I wrote to compensate for the absence that lived where friends and noise had always been. I found comfort in an imagination which can dream up any person on a page, and have lived very well without the white noise of the world ever since.

In those early six months, my poems sat in the hands of editors and sang themselves off the page. Solid journals like Prole and Poetry Salzburg accepted them; Ezra Pound’s Agenda spotlighted them; The Yorkshire Post reviewed them; a reading club in New Zealand even printed them on shirts. I had never felt so estranged from and connected with the wider world, which seems to be the paradox of writing. And this, among others, would be one ethical point I discussed in my BBC New Voices interview soon after.

Last year, of all the years in my young life, was by far the most academic. Far surpassing my school years (in which learning was only for passing exams and never for joy alone), I gave myself an education. I led myself not towards examinations but outwards:out to schools of thought and further I’d been before. I chose to write, for BBC Radio, a set of poems based on the lives of those who had lost loved ones to war. It was a project which turned the singular act of writing into a connective one, and brought catharsis with it. The poems, featuring Carnegie-Medal winner Berlie Doherty, were broadcast alongside Carol Ann Duffy on The Christmas Verb last year and have since been archived by The Imperial War Museum.

And who knows what comes next? The writing alone is enough for me. If I had words but no world, that would still be enough. My inner heart is still, as ever, the same. I may have since been a Pushcart Prize nominee; I may have received an award from The Poetry Society; I may now be writing for The King’s Chapel in London, but I will always return to a book in my hand at the end of the day, as I always have. It is a love of words; a belief that in the beginning is the word alone; and no end of shouting and spitting and stamping on stage will ever be a match for that.

Remember. Poetry is alive and well, and that’s good enough.”

That’s a manifesto to stir us all. I try to imagine having the courage to say that over 50 years ago. I can’t, but I can try to live by it. Right. Time for poems.

grimshaw-john-atkinson-silver-moonlight.-fine-art-print-poster.-sizes-a4-a3-a2-a1-003230--6554-p

Alma Mater

Widow-black and winter, evening took me south into

lamps burning blue in the dusk. Out and over my hometown musk

lay the hinterland hills breathing low in the dark. Still,

frostspark sharp on the city streets, holy rain sweet

in the winter and the wet, with no evening stars ahead I let

the pavement take me home. Through the town nocturnal, gloam

 

and grey, my chimney throat coughing its smoke, I saw aslope

on the city’s slow spine those old black gates, the summer of my days

inside. Grief cracked my face. Those navy girls and me, a pace

always ahead. But in the pale stairwell light the ghost of my girlhood dead

in its fresh green spring and gone. From roadside wet I looked on

at this child of light, her afterglow bright, her ashes of life

 

already black. The cold breath of loss on my face. At my back

a schoolbell cracked at the evening air. I saw Death at my table there

tipping his hat, and the years in my face that sank as I sat

at that desk at the back of the class. I remember that. And last,

on an old December evening, down hallways dark the wilting hymns

of girls turned ghosts before their time, I saw their eyes

 

like candles cold, like lights no longer leading home. Outside, to the bone

I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done

and gone at the sight of myself. Each girl ringing her own passing bell.

Well, in that mist and half-dark morning, my face a clenching fist

in pavement pools, I saw that septic, terminal school for what it was.

 

I never went back, of course. I tipped my compass north.

 

The first time I heard this poem, I wanted to see it on the page. You need to hear it first, and then you need to have it in front of you, so you can read it aloud and try its syntax and rich texture on the tongue. I love the way it starts, in a landscape realised like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting (which is why I chose one). I love the persona of the narrator, a dark watcher who puts me in mind of others, like Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox, and of Stephen Dedalus, the ones who examine their isolation, or alienation, and square their shoulders, and become resolute. As she watches her own ghost with a mixture of pity and a huge sense of loss, of being cast adrift, the clenched fist of a face fighting back tears becomes the clenched fist of defiance. That last sentence nails it.

I tipped my compass north.

I really like that stripped back line after the rich language that comes before. And I like that rich language too. Laura kicks the fashion of the day. It’s worth quoting something she wrote for her first guest post.

My earliest memory of writing is of a seven-year-old me in my grandmother’s old armchair back home. She would read Kipling’s ‘If’ to me over and over again, and to this day I can still recite it. She wasn’t well-known in the writing world, but she’d had a few poems published in her time and was a great lover of words. I used to sit on her knee and she’d read in her great gravelly voice verses of Tennyson and Chaucer for hours. Of course, I didn’t understand it back then, but something about her vocal lilt made the words alive to me even when I was young. I often think of those times. That’s how it started. I owe my own love of writing to her.

You don’t have to listen too hard to pick up elements of an older poetry, and elements of Dylan Thomas, too; another who was unafraid of  language like

Outside, to the bone

I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done

and gone at the sight of myself.

There’s an echo of The Tempest there, too. You might not like it, but I do. I think of artists like Picasso, and Hockney who understand that you need to work with older forms and rules and make them easily your own before you know how to break them. You need to know your craft before you can do without it. Enough. Promise me you’ll read the next poem aloud; get the rhythm of it, all the repeated rhymes and internal rhymes that drive it along, and then let the last two lines expand in your mind. Don’t try to rationalise it. Not yet. Let it work.

Yesterday’s Child

 

The sun slit a knife through the womb-wet night

and bled like an egg, like a budburst head:

in the swell of the sweat on the belly of the bed,

broken-throated then and red, you said

the clench of winter let the roses grow instead.

 

But time has fled with jenny wren and left

the meadow dead. And overhead a mouth of moon

has called the mourning on this room, and soon

an ever-bloom of moss will clot the loss of you.

For the years between us are wide as a child;

 

and the tears as wet as a wound.

Laura post 2

The last poem moves outwards to larger stories and histories.

The Nightwatchmen

 

Forever as the shepherd’s hook pulled up the dusk and ever-dark,

when far-off foxes coughed the frost and laughed that more must be,

beneath the dropping eyes of stars that fought that winter to the last

was always you and me. The storm departed from the sea; the war from we

 

whenever through the cold-bone blue of mist came you, chin uplifted on

the winds in wedding lanes we never knew. Until in this the airfield age,

with planes that screamed the world awake, we felt again the fist of truth:

sleeping in that infant rain stood one more crooked tooth. These the graves

 

that ever grew to guard the isle at night, the bones beneath them ballroom-bright

that fight the thunder and the tide, and bend and beg surrender to decline

their ebbing heads. And with the herrings overhead, remember this instead:

that somewhere as the embers fled, a minister took to his bed and only ever dreamt

 

the dead. Oh never will the waiting world forget the winters, blue-of-birth, that

never wake the sleepers here: ever in their slumbers at the first snow of the year.

 

I keep re-reading this poem, still not sure what to make of it, not quite sure of the landscape I’m in. It elides folk ballads, 18thC pastoral, derelict Lincolnshire airfields; I puzzle over the you and me, and the minister who took to his bed. It might be a dreamscape if it wasn’t so cold and concrete. It puzzle and challenges with its tone of fierce purpose, and its music holds me. It does what Clive James asks of a real poem. It announces itself as a poem and is laced with the moments that draw you in.

You’ll have realised that I’m an unashamed fan. I cannot understand why we’re still waiting for a publisher to snap her up. It won’t be long. Thank you, Laura Potts for being our guest and sharing your poems. Thank you for reminding me that I don’t believe in silence. Please come again

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I hope you all enjoyed this as much as I did. A special thank you to my partner Joan Foye for letting me use two of her edgeland landscapes. For those who like to know this kind of thing they’re pastels, and 2’X2’…and stunning.

Looking ahead: upcoming guests include Tom Weir, Pauline Yarwood and Peter Riley. There’s also a review of Gaia Holmes’ third collection Where the road runs out on the stocks. I’m very happy.