It’s hard to talk about this

First light didn’t bring the weather I had been hoping for – it was overcast and wet. I had prayed for glorious sunshine for the day of his funeral, but perhaps overcast and wet were better suited to the misery I felt.Cool-Dark-Clouds-HD-Wallpaper-2-For-Desktop-Background-1024x640

[Photo credit: www.wallallies.com]

Two weeks earlier I had learned that my former work colleague and friend, Bruce, had died just weeks after his 56th birthday. As we gathered at the crematorium to celebrate his life, I recognised many of the faces but never before had I seen them etched with the bewilderment that I, too, was experiencing. In the week or so between hearing of his death and attending his funeral, we had learned that he had suffered with depression for many years and he had eventually taken his own life. His death was a tragedy in itself, but it was utterly devastating to hear of his depression. How did we not know? Even his closest work colleagues had no idea. Why didn’t he tell people? Could we have helped? Where were the signs? What are the signs? Endlessly replayed conversations and revisited events brought no answers, no clues. As the questions continued to come thick and fast, the reality dawned – we would never hear the answers from Bruce. The one person who would have all the answers was gone forever. We were left only with swirling thoughts and guesses bouncing around inside our own minds.

To many of us it seemed that Bruce had it all. He lived well and had everything to live for. Or so we thought. We were completely oblivious to the sad truth that he had something he didn’t want – mental illness. An illness which turned a determined, capable, funny, thoughtful, resourceful and intelligent man into someone unable to cope with life any more.

Since Bruce’s death, I have started to look at mental health statistics and to learn of the horrors endured by so many people every day. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener has been the realisation that people with mental health problems don’t look depressed all the time in much the same way that burglars don’t all look like Burglar Bill. The smiling girl in the bank; the helpful man at the supermarket; the chatty and trusted neighbour – their outward appearances and demeanour give little away. They aren’t all archetypal black-and-white representations of themselves, clutching their heads in despair.

The sun eventually came out that day and the sky brightened somewhat. Perhaps it was an indication that Bruce was finally at peace. As we listened to some of Bruce’s friends talking of his early life and career it reminded me of the need to talk openly with family and friends while we can. A life can end in the blink of an eye, and when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. But it’s hard to talk about this sort of thing. We fear being stigmatised or being discriminated against. And even if those fears are unfounded, they are very real fears which hold people back, confining them to a life of secrecy, compartments and solitude.

I don’t pretend to understand mental illness. Indeed, until now I have been living in a parallel universe, seemingly unaffected by it and not knowing of anyone suffering from it. I had naively assumed that I would know if that were the case. Bruce’s death has reminded me that you just never know what is going on in the lives or minds of others. Only last month I had posted my thoughts about this – little did I realise at the time how poignant that post would become.

If the statistics are to believed, it is inevitable that some of my friends are suffering from some form of mental illness. The chances are that I won’t find out until it is too late. Until Bruce’s death, I didn’t believe this to be possible. His death and the posthumous revelation of mental illness has reminded me of a few truisms:

  • One never knows what other people are going through. Don’t jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts.
  • “Celebrating life” is best done whilst alive. There is little merit in guaranteeing one’s absence at a time when others are sharing great memories.
  • Life is too short, and it’s not a rehearsal. Make the most of opportunities.

Further reading:

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Feel free to comment on this post – I’d be interested to hear your views.
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8 thoughts on “It’s hard to talk about this

  1. Beautifully written Tim. You say everything and more that all his friends and colleagues have been thinking over these past weeks. With the funeral I have found some relief from the utter shock and terrible sadness and emotion I felt when we first heard the news. His funeral order of service sits by my laptop, a sad reminder of the loss of a lovely man. I read the poem ‘I’m free’ almost daily. It is the most poignant and fitting poem given the circumstances. If you read it enough you start to take note of the wise words. The grief eases bit by bit. With it I find hope he found his peace finally.

    • Thanks, Sarah. It’s still a complete shock, isn’t it? I must admit that it has opened my eyes to what others are suffering every day. I’m ashamed to say that I was “aware” of mental illness, but not in the sense that it touched me, or directly affected me. I am now…

  2. I’m so sorry about your friend. And thanks for linking to my post.

    I advocate for moms with depression and anxiety, and it’s so important to understand that everyday people, all around us, deal with mental illness. I am generally a normal, nice, fun, outgoing woman. No one would ever guess that I have to take medication to feel like myself and keep the anxiety and depression away. When I do “relapse” and am really down, people can tell that I’m not myself, but they probably wouldn’t guess the extent of what I deal with. It’s so important for us to lift the stigma and make it clear that mental illness affects regular, everyday people. Thanks for writing this post.

    • Thanks, JD – I appreciate your comment. I am only now learning about the extent of mental illness. Most of my learning is from blogs such as yours, and other articles I’ve found whilst searching for answers. This is why it is so important that you do what you do – to inform others by sharing your very real experience. Please continue writing; I’ll continue reading. And I hope you are able to manage your medication in such a way that it allows you to live life the way you want to.

  3. Thanks for a really well written piece. You have put into words what many of us have been thinking over the last few weeks. We all take so much for-granted and don’t give space for colleagues and friends to share their whole selves. We need the humanity and compassion to allow others to open up to us and share weaknesses , doubts and flaws. Bruce’s passing has thought us another important lesson in life.

    • Thanks, Colum. You’re right – we need that humanity and compassion. But here’s the question… how do we show that? How do we demonstrate that we’re able to accept flaws, and see past what can be perceived as personal weaknesses, or differences? Somehow it’s more complex than being regarded as trustworthy, isn’t it? And can it be done at an individual level, or do we need to somehow demonstrate it collectively in order to be regarded as suitable sharers of such information? Either way, it seems there are no easy answers – no quick fixes – and sadly colleagues and friends will continue to suffer alone. And when that happens, we all lose.

  4. Tim, it was great to see you at Bruce’s funeral, but you had the same bewildered look on your face as everyone else did, and I am sure I did too. I am still coming to terms with my loss of Bruce. It strikes me that every time I mention it I describe it as a loss, and not just “a loss”, but “my loss”. I had no idea I was going to take losing Bruce so badly.

    With regards to Bruce personally, I can count the number of hours I had spent with Bruce since I left the Rolf program in 2006 on one hand. But barely a week went by when I hadn’t used him in my own mind as a sounding board for a decision I have had to make, a presentation I have had to write or a project plan I have had to put together. Since he has gone, I have found it very hard to do this again. I had no idea I had been ‘resourced’ him to such an extent.

    I can’t remember when we bought you on board, but I had been working with Bruce on a number of projects for a number of years before the Rolf program (I think we had moved desks together three or four times before we even got to the Rolf program). I was in complete awe of him from the moment I met him at Nokia. It took me a little while to understand why, but I worked it out and it was really for two reasons:
    Firstly, because he could see everything so clearly from the top level business and resources program plan all the way through to the smallest circuit board component in the product from a Program Management point of view.
    Secondly, I truly believe he could do everyone on the program’s job for them. From Product Manager to SW Testing Engineer to Sourcing Manager. If you could have cloned Bruce a hundred times, you would have a complete program team and would need no one else.

    Although I hardly talked with him over the last nine years, I feel a huge loss.

    Now mental health, and in particular, depression as an illness has entered my life like a like a wrecking ball in recent months, and it is almost impossible to describe how much I am in fear of it and how little I understand it.

    Just over a couple of months ago I got a desperate call from my step-daughter asking me where my daughter was and that I had to go and find her…quickly. She said she had been texted by her half-sister saying that she had drank some bleach the night before, was starting to feel very ill and worried, and thought she needed to go to hospital but was too scared to tell me.

    I immediately ran around the house screaming her name to try and find her. She had locked herself in the bathroom. I had to threaten to kick the door in before she unlocked the door and let me in. I was shocked and very scared, she was very upset and just as scared. My instinct told me to rush her to hospital to get her stomach pumped and I automatically knew I should take the substance she had taken to the hospital with us, so they knew what it was and how much danger she was in.

    The local A&E is literally a 90 second drive away, so I was already feeling that the clock that had been ticking all night was a less of a threat and thought as soon as we walked into A&E someone would rush my daughter away to be examined immediately without any requirement for paperwork. How wrong I was. Although she was very upset, I got my daughter to explain what she had done, as her explanation at home was just a blur to me. To my surprise we were told to provide loads of details and sit down and wait until someone was available to see her. It seemed as though this was an everyday occurrence to them in A&E, like seeing a drunk who had fallen over and cut their head on a Saturday night.

    This made me feel both angry and a little calm at the same time, because if what my daughter had done was life threatening, she would have been seen by Doctors immediately, surely? After a while she was seen by a doctor, had blood samples taken and she was in a children’s ward in under a couple of hours. She had to be ‘interviewed’ by some children’s mental health specialists and kept in over night as a precaution.

    Even though she is a minor, my daughter has the rights to talk to the mental health people on her own and it wasn’t until after she had been speaking with them privately for nearly two hours were my wife and I asked to join the meeting. What we learned over the following hour turned our lives upside down.

    We were told that our daughter had been suffering from depression for the past 18 months. We learned that she had been harming herself and had made attempts at taking her own life at least twice.

    Prepare for the cliche, but it’s all true. My daughter is a beautiful, bright and bubbly, witty young teenager who is outgoing, athletic, intelligent and works hard at school. Just like her older brother she has always achieved top results, despite being dragged around six schools across three countries over two continents by the time she was 10yrs old and the fact her parents had achieved nothing more than average results throughout their ejucashun.

    Now we had seen some very minor glimpses of grumpy teenager behaviour from her, but only very rarely and it was nothing to complain about considering she was going through ‘the change’, and in comparison to many of her friends, had been an angel to be around and was blossoming beautifully.

    But that is what we had seeing, not how she had been feeling.

    And right there is the reason why at Bruce’s funeral we saw so many bewildered faces. At first I was more angry at our daughter (as I was at Bruce when I found out he had taken his own life) for hiding these feelings and thoughts, than worried that she had attempted to take her own life. What is it that makes it so difficult for people suffering from this type of illness to share what they’re going through? Well it’s quite simple…depression is a mental illness. And when suffering from it, it often makes the people suffering from it feel it is the best for themselves and all around them if they were no longer with us.

    A couple of weeks ago, just six weeks after I had first rushed my daughter to A&E with a bottle of bleach in my hand, I found myself doing it again. This time she had told her best friend, and her best friend against all her friendship morals, informed a teacher and the school called us to ask us to take her to hospital.

    This caused many people, friends, family and medical professionals to change their perception of my daughter’s illness and how seriously she was suffering from it.

    I have much more to write, but have to pause here. I will add more very soon. I want to explain my family’s whole experience.

    • I read through this several times, Adam, mouth wide open thinking “O-M-G” throughout. You must be at your wit’s end – I’m so sorry to hear about this. When we spoke about it briefly at Bruce’s funeral, I had no idea of the extent of your daughter’s illness. One message I took away from that conversation was your feeling that although there is excellent care available for the patient (victim? person-concerned?) there is very little support for those around her/ him. Charities seem to be very active in this area, and there is a huge community of affected people who share experiences online.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Please do continue your story – your family’s experience is important to share. I hope you are able to find the support to know how to cope and I’m sure your daughter is already in the best possible hands.

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