'I was determined to end my life'
Following our feature on understanding suicide, John Lonsdale recalls in vivid detail the day he tried to kill himself – and explains why he is thankful every day that he didn't succeed
Tuesday 13 December 2011
Imagine lying in a dark hotel room, having taken a large overdose, occasionally being sick into the waste-paper basket, and expecting to die a slow and painful death. Life doesn't get much worse than this. The sense of despair is overwhelming. Every second of living is a second too many, every thought a burden, every breath an unwanted delay to your longed-for death. The wish to be swallowed up into oblivion is overwhelming. You forget your friends, your happy times, your blessings, even your children. You feel ashamed and worthless. Life loses its colour, its purpose and its preciousness. The only way is down.
I am not supposing and guessing about this. I know what it is like because I have experienced it. I attempted to commit suicide early last year. It wasn't a cry for help. I took a large volume of tablets, expecting to suffer irreparable damage to my liver and to die soon after.
Male, in my late 40s, recently divorced and suffering from bouts of depression and anxiety, my life had ground to a halt and, at the time, my network of friends was very small. Being self-sufficient, self-contained and ashamed of my divorce, I didn't really want to speak to anyone. I shed most of my tears alone and, believe me, there were plenty of them. Like many men in this position, I was broken-hearted, isolated and worn down by the experience of separation. Even an amicable divorce like mine was a source of shame and inner torment.
I had taken a week off work and on the Monday morning I rang my mother to say my goodbyes, although she wasn't to know that. Having put down the telephone, I calmly set about my own destruction by picking up several packets of tablets, taking a train to a nearby town and booking into a hotel. The building was suitably cold and clinical, and I made my way up to the fourth floor and my room. I locked the door, closed the curtains and put on a sidelight. Sitting on the edge of the bed and occasionally looking at myself in the mirror, I emptied out my bag and started to undo the packets of pills. I swallowed them down one at a time with a bottle of water.
Vomiting occasionally an hour or so later, I lay on the bed and tried to sleep, so that I could avoid having to observe my decline into death. But I woke up after a short while and walked out of the room into the corridors. I even considered jumping out of the window to speed things up but it was locked. Also the view below wasn't very clear and I didn't want to land on anyone and cause another death. I certainly didn't want to take anyone with me into the beyond. I felt short of breath and like curling up into a ball. I so wanted to die, and quickly.
The next few hours were surreal. I took the lift down to the lobby and walked out into the streets. I was dying and no one knew. I would soon be gone but the street was bustling with people. I used the computer in the hotel lobby to try to find out how long I had left to live but there was no information available on Google. I walked to a telephone box in a nearby square to ask the Samaritans how long I had to live but they weren't able to help me. They wanted to talk about saving me and I wasn't interested in that.
Reaching my hotel room, I fell on to the bed and slept for two or three hours. When I woke up it was dark outside. I had arrived at midday and it was now midnight. There were people queuing up at a nightclub outside. As the voices and laughter rose up to the windows, I felt strangely detached, separate and lonely.
My main concern was whether I had booked the hotel room for long enough. Would I be dead in 48 hours or 72 hours? I didn't want the staff to discover me unconscious, so I made sure that the "Do Not Disturb" sign was on display. And here's a strange thing: I later deposited a sharp object in the bin and, in between bouts of vomiting, I wrote a note for the cleaners warning them not to cut themselves on it. It's strange what human beings do in the most trying circumstances.
An insane logic had overtaken me: I was in the way; I was useless; my wife had found a new partner and wouldn't care what happened to me; my two-year-old daughter was young enough not to notice that I had gone; my elder daughter, now independent, would barely notice my absence from the world; my brother lived thousands of miles away; my mother would cope. I was too ashamed and broken to see the folly of these thoughts. My breath was shallow, my shoulders were hunched within me and my mind was stuck fast on the escape of death.
And then, after many hours and another brief sleep, came a glimmer of sanity. I thought about my little daughter and how I wouldn't see her again. A wave of regret and sadness passed through me. I was still alive and still breathing, still able to walk in fact. Although, by now, it was too late, I thought, to survive, I suddenly felt the urge to half stagger and half run to a nearby hospital. So that is what I did.
When I arrived at the hospital I felt as though I was in a terrible dream. I wanted to see my little daughter once more and yet I would soon be dead. Why was I here? What was I thinking of? Perhaps they could tell me how long I had to live at least? Even after I was settled down on a bed waiting for a nurse to arrive, I picked up my things and ran out of the ward, frightened that I would end up permanently disabled, so damaged that I would be unable to speak or think. I returned an hour later – another wasted hour – believing that after so many hours it was all over for me and, as it turned out, it very nearly was.
I can't praise the doctor and nurses at the hospital enough. They were sympathetic, non-judgmental, fast-acting and kind. I was quickly hooked up to special drips, tests were carried out and blood samples were taken from my veins and an artery. When the first results arrived, a curtain was drawn around the bed and I was gently told that, with the level of poisons so high in my blood and so many hours having passed, I was more likely to die than survive. It was possible that I would go into a coma and all the staff could do was to make me comfortable as I slipped away.
Strangely, I was very calm. Sitting up in the hospital bed, the colours and shapes of the ward seemed quite beautiful. More wonderful yet was seeing my mother and a friend arrive an hour or so later. I had been reported as missing the previous evening, the police had tracked me down to the hospital and my mother had been told where I was. I had not imagined seeing any of my loved ones again. To see my mother was like a marvel to me. I was like a child again.
Remarkably, the levels of toxicity in my blood dropped steadily and I began to recover, partly as a result of the three different types of drip given to me over the following 24 hours and partly, I think, because I am a relatively healthy man. Quite how my liver survived, I don't know, but a liver test at my local surgery just a few weeks later confirmed that it was functioning as normal. I was lucky to get out alive, let alone in a relatively healthy state. I didn't even have to take a day off work, which seems incredible to me now.
So what have I learnt from this crazy, ill-advised and almost fatal episode? I guess the obvious thing is not to do it again. It was an act of madness, which could have caused untold grief to my family and friends, and would have cut short a rich and rewarding life. I may never have seen my daughters again. The thought of that still brings tears to my eyes.
In the time that I was at the hospital, three other overdose cases arrived. They were all men. I spoke to one and it was a very moving encounter. He had girlfriend problems, he felt lost and alone, and had taken an assortment of drugs. But the details didn't really matter. Just looking into his eyes said all we needed to know about what each of us had gone through. We shook hands and our good wishes for the future were genuine. We spoke for less than 15 minutes and yet I often remember him.
Stepping out of the hospital, having received counselling and a final check of my test results, the world looked so much more colourful, wonderful and inviting. I could hardly believe what I had just been through. It was madness. But, since that day, I have gained some important understandings from it. I have let go of my need for perfectionism and my certainty about how things should be in this world. I have developed greater empathy and understanding. I have become less judgmental, less sure of my opinions, and more open to others. I am a little less hard on myself, too.
I have learned the importance of friendship and I now have a growing circle of friends. I have discovered that I have much to give, that I can be of service to others, and that life can be kind to me. Just four months after the incident, I was promoted at work. I now live in my own house and my daughter stays with me at weekends and we laugh, read and dance around the house together. I count my blessings every day.
My love for the world and its people has grown, and my capacity for love in general has been expanded. Out of darkness and despair has come a profound empathy for other people, and a tremendous love of humanity, with all of its foibles, frailties and follies. Out of suffering has come grace and the episode has taught me to recognise what really matters in this world. I was lucky in that I survived but I could so easily have died, in which case none of these lessons would have been learnt.
Most of all I have lost my fear. There is very little that frightens me now. My fear has been replaced by love, my despair replaced by purpose, my inner turmoil replaced by service. Life has never felt so precious to me. And love – that pure, essential, unconditional love that powers the whole universe – has never felt so important.
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