Three Years, Three Days: reconnecting with PhD origins.

Three Years, Three Days: reconnecting with PhD origins.

image2 A couple of months back, I connected with a woman organising an event for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). She asked if I would write some words that could be spoken at a fundraising event (which is happening next week (15th July 2017), and I said yes.

The following is what came out.

Have to say that writing the words was also good opportunity to also remind myself of where my research came from and why I’ve taken it on (especially as general PhD stress and deadline-meeting can be things that take a hold, pushing your focus perhaps a little way from where you initially started)….Never a bad thing to reconnect with your own reality generally, but that is perhaps especially the case for researchers…

“On the 8th April 2011, my little brother, Martin, wrote the following to me:

“I haven’t moved a step forward in seven years. TIME for a CHANGE. What do you think?”

I replied saying that was a brilliant idea, and I would support him however needed. But later the same year, on 24th November, unbeknown to me at the time, he wrote this one and only blog post:

‘I don’t think I can live any longer in a vacuum; nor can I live with the unwavering paradox of desperately craving company and isolation at one and the same time. …

I have come to the point now whereby incessant commentary, self-criticism and constant fear have effectively annihilated whatever prior persona there may have been. I would renounce everything – everything – just to ‘be myself’ for 5 seconds. Just ‘to do’, not ‘think to do’.

I go to meet people as if they were the gallows. I have tried everything I can think of but cannot conceive of it being otherwise.

My only passions were music and history. But this whatever-it-is has jumped spheres and now infects my inner world: I am absolutely, distressingly indifferent.

Everything is subordinate to the problem, disease, whatever it’s called. Life, passion can only have meaning if you share it. I can’t talk to people. And from such little seeds do fuck-off massive weeds grow.’

Three weeks later, on 15th December 2011, he took his own life. He was 27.

Subsequent to the date of my brother’s passing, the fact of his death and the means by which it occurred have been omnipresent in my daily life. Amongst other aspects, I have experienced loss-of-limb nightmares, mirages on airplanes and in town-centres, immense guilt and situation re-livings all induced by the events of that winter. It is difficult to explain the sensation of carrying around such knowledge to someone, but I hope the following clarifies it a little. There is a scene in the 1992 film ‘Death Becomes Her’ in which Meryl Streep (her character, obviously) shoots a hole through (again, no recollection of character names) Goldie Hawn. The hole is big, round and airy, completely see-through with a black rim. And that is how I conceived of my physicality as I walked back into the classroom in Mexico where I worked at the time, about two months after Martin’s death. A huge gap of nothingness in my middle, like part of me had been shot out. That sense remains, though the hole-size is, 5.5 years on, much reduced.

It is perhaps classically the case that a ‘suicide story’ begins before the date of the actual death. Those left behind pick over the deceased’s life and try to fit together all the pieces in the hope that some sense can be made, some explanation can be found. The ‘why’ that bothers me is ‘why did he not talk to me?’ He had done so before; why not this time? I would be lying if I said I didn’t sense the depth of his problems. It sounds very cheesy but I just had a sense of the ‘wrongness’ of the situation in the months immediately prior to that December. I got more than upset hugging him goodbye in his dark and fairly cigarette-stinky pit of a bedroom, with the dog at his feet, as I again left for Mexico after a brief trip home in the summer of 2011. I even (don’t laugh) toyed with the idea of contacting Stephen Fry, just to ask if he had any thoughts on where I could find my brother help, because I simply couldn’t think of anywhere else to go or anyone else to ask; we had exhausted all options, and I had given all personal-experience advice I could give. It is so easy to obsess over this pre-death sense, to question ‘why didn’t I do something?’; ‘why did I carry on regardless?’ But that is utterly pointless. I’m not saying I haven’t questioned myself and my behaviours at various (numerous) points since, but the fact is it happened. I lost my baby brother in a manner I did not foresee, and which hurt(s) greatly.

It is unpleasant, but nonetheless true, to say that I spent a good part of the ensuing two and half years in a state of fury, specifically directed at my departed brother. I am not proud of this, but nonetheless my involuntary reaction to Martin’s death was pure ire at almost its most fire-in-the-belly severe. And because of this I lost Martin multiple times – everything became ‘my brother’, ‘depression’ and ‘suicide’ as inextricably linked entities. I eventually came to a realisation that I wanted Martin back. So I began “sifting my memories, the way men pan the dirt under a barroom floor for the bits of gold dust that fall between the cracks”(John Steinbeck, East of Eden, Ch24; p.296). And I began to rediscover ‘Martin’, and also my role of ‘sister’.

To begin the process of rediscovering my brother, I sat down and wrote the first things to come to mind: Books; Music (Guitar, Glasto, Radiohead, The Manics); Film; History; Football (Blackburn Rovers); Humour (Satire, Sarcasm); Smoking; Dog; Forgetfulness; Loyalty; The Great Outdoors; Impatient; Perfectionist; Often Infuriatingly Clever.

I then moved to prose, prompted by a writing course I took to ‘help get stuff out’:

You can see Martin through his bag. A navy-blue rucksack, not a new one. One that has been up and down a lot of hills and is starting to show signs of wear and tear. It has the beginnings of a hole in the base, and fraying on the straps. Inside is a book – something deep, academic, thought-provoking, philosophical, truly analytical (with words you’ve never seen before) or a classic fiction piece (a Brontë, or Steinbeck, or literature of purpose/social commentary). This book is dog-eared and the spine is broken as a result of multiple readings. The pages most likely show signs of having had coffee spilled on them, and there are loose tobacco strands in the page/spine creases. It follows that inside the bag there is his tobacco tin, a lighter and papers for roll ups. There are also to be found apparatus for cleaning up after the dog, because it is unlikely he would go walking or travelling anywhere without him (wherever doggily possible). A guitar plectrum. His laptop (on sleep), scratched and without a protective case – not for any writing, reading or internet surfing purposes, but for his music composition software, or perhaps for film viewing, having masses of downloads stored on it. There are his (latest set of) keys, which will likely fall out of the growing hole in the base of the bag for the upteenth time…and his passport, for entering a pub (i.e. spiritual home) often necessitates proof of age, due to his baby face. This passport will likely (subsequently) be left in said pub, and the process to replace it will begin yet again. He definitely isn’t carrying a camera – loathed the things – ‘you should be using your eyes properly to create memories, not experiencing the world through a tiny lens’….

These are such details insignificant to most, but part of Martin’s mid-20s essence to me.

Thinking about my brother meant that what often came first were not detailed thoughts about him as an individual. A memory of a person often starts with the thoughts of what was shared in the relationship, how the connection manifested itself. Thinking about the stories and situations that had us both as characters has largely been the route by which I have retrieved some of my strongest memories. So I recount to you the instance of my brother jumping headlong into a pond filled with frogspawn because he mistook it for grass – he was not best pleased and oh the laughter I fought to conceal as I ran to recruit parental assistance. The time when an unplanned fire alarm went off in our primary school, resulting in the infant school classes being pushed together with the juniors – I went around the playground with my brother, a protective arm around his shoulders, introducing him to everyone, which he seemed remarkably pleased about. Meandering and chatting through the Lancaster suburbs to our tennis club, and engaging in ‘matches’ that often ended in competitions to see who could lob the ball highest whilst still landing it in an ‘in’ location. Arrangements to meet and open our Christmas stockings together at 5am. Parascending in tandem over the Greek island of Skopelos. His staying with me, aged 15, in Aberystwyth during my first year at university, watching The Exorcist (!) and impressing my new friends with his ‘roll-up skills’ (I didn’t even know he smoked). Spending a summer’s day in Regent’s Park, culminating in a Seth Lakeman concert at the Open Air Theatre and a Chorizo burger at the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. His face when I handed him the Natasha Kaplinksy autograph I’d got for him the day after she won the first Strictly Come Dancing; he was a BIG FAN. Our ‘debates’ on smoking during the discussions pertaining to the introduction of the UK Smoking Ban – I, for; he, angrily against. Rising at 4am and travelling to our ‘local hill’ Clougha Pike (accompanied by our father) to climb it in time to see the sunrise from the summit on Midsummer’s day, before nodding off in the heather, followed by a descent that would include an obligatory stop (and dip) at a natural ‘plunge pool’, the location at which we were to later scatter some of his ashes.

Yet this is a brother we speak of, so I must state that Martin also loved to wind me up something chronic. Whether it was pinching the back of my neck, making me walk around with shoulders hoiked up and head tilted for his own amusement, or his pointing out of all examples of my ‘up-talking’ when home from university, or the changing of the ‘H’ in my name to an ‘F’, calling me ‘Feather’ much of the time, which I hated. One of Martin’s amusements was certainly getting a rise out of me. Exam revision times were ‘fun’ – I don’t care how well instruments are played, or what kind of wonderful creations are being constructed, you try learning the facts of some Tudor revolt whilst drum-machine thumping or multiple repetitions of Deep Purples’ Smoke on the Water‘s guitar-riff come pounding through the wall of your bedroom. ‘Shut ups’ were frequently exchanged. And I simply do not know anyone else who took longer to have a bath. Accompanied by a coffee and a book, Martin would enter the bathroom and we would know not to expect him to leave for near on two hours, even then necessitating ‘get a move on’ banging on the bathroom door. My brother could be demanding, often the grumpiest of human beings, seriously impatient, and I have no qualms in admitting I was more than a little jealous of his cleverness, his ability to exit an exam with the highest grades going without having done the slightest grain of revision. He could just do stuff.

When I think about it, we did fight a lot. Well, bickered. More niggly, nit-picking rather than outright arguments. But what siblings don’t do that? But to me, the arguments we had never meant we disliked one another. I was allowed to fight with him, but should anyone else have a go they would have me to answer to. I felt entirely loyal to Martin, and I believe he to me too, despite our squabbles. In my later teen years, after leaving for university whilst my brother remained, finishing school, this bond solidified. I really looked forward to heading back home for Christmas and catching up with him, and the common ground we had that led to the great experiences and conversations of an adult sibling relationship. A love of lounging in jacuzzis; a deep interest in Latin America and the Spanish language; simply going for a drink in the pub; a love of together taking the dog for his walkies; meandering around the local antiques centre at Lancaster Leisure Park (where he had been known to pick up random items, such as a useless gramophone just because ‘I found it interesting’). I believe we became even closer after he left for university himself, where and when it was that his illness really first took hold and then started to be visible to ‘outsiders’. He would call me in the early hours of the morn at times to vent. And I went along with that; it was standard practice for me to leave my mobile on in case of his needing a chat in the middle of the night, usually around 3am. Indeed, one of the toughest realisations after his death has been that my phone need not be on during the night; there is no call to receive.

Martin was not just my brother, he was my finest of friends. We could talk for ages about nothing in particular. He supported me, putting himself into situations to help me out, even though I now know they were so very difficult for him. He tried for me, did not judge, and whilst he may not have been a bruiser-type protector, he was brilliant at backing me up with quick fire wit. His understanding and use of words was enviable, and I admired his incredible intelligence and sharpness more than that of any other acquaintance. He was simply a wonderful, authentic human being that I am so very proud to have known.

I scattered my brothers ashes at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall on 1st November 2015. I felt awkward after the scattering. I did not know what to do or what to say. I took some pictures of the tree, and walked around its base for a bit. My husband and I sat on the remains of Hadrian’s Wall at the base of the tree, eating cheese sandwiches, satsumas and cinnamon biscuits, saying very little of any consequence. We did not discuss what had taken place; we did not talk about Martin. We merely existed and focused attention on the landscape around us, particularly on a lone barn on the horizon ahead of us. I thought to myself how very much I missed my brother, and how much I wished he were there, as a living, breathing, talking being. He would have had something to say.

As with all other aspects of the grieving process, time is needed, as is personal, individual reflection. Scattering the ashes did not have all the effect I had hoped for – there was no immediate sense of release; there was no sense of setting him or myself free; there was no weight lifted or shoulders relaxing; and sadly, there was no sense of that much needed word, ‘goodbye’, being uttered or fulfilled. The world has not changed, things have not resolved and the existing multitude of mixed emotions persists. Given the nature of Martin’s death, I have realised this is what bereavement by suicide means – living, continuing, with the insolvable, unresolved. However, the ashes scattering was, for me, an important symbolic event to illustrate Martin and I as siblings, and what that connection meant – I am glad to have an idea of ‘knowing where he is’ so I can visit and remember on my own if I wish, glad to have spent moments in thinking about being brother and sister. That day reflected what I wanted to say about losing Martin in the way I did, as his sister – it allowed me to say ‘I am a sister; I have a brother’, and therein I am happy.

Why write this piece? Why lay essentially personal/private memories open? Because it is harder to remain silent on the subject, than it is to speak. I am not ashamed of Martin, of how he died, of having him as my brother. Martin knew all his faults and illness-induced problems himself, and eloquently explained himself in writings we have found since he died. He could, and managed to, help others with their conditions, (they have said so); he just couldn’t sort his own self out. I write also because I am not ashamed of myself – I know now I did all I possibly could to help my brother. Nor am I ashamed of my reaction to his death – it was and still is a trauma that has defined me and aspects of my future. Suicide is not a comfortable subject, and I have felt unease in talking about it with people, making judgments as to whether or not I should include my brother in a conversation. I never wish to put people on the spot, which sometimes makes conversing naturally difficult. But I do not wish to hide what happened, or indeed my relationship with Martin, which played such a role in defining who I am. And I also wish to make the point that behind facts, figures and fear of suicide deaths, there are people. People who had intricate lives and interests and specific, special relationships as individual characters. These people highlight issues that should be discussed in a public capacity, to aid others wherever that may be possible. Eradication of suicide may not be entirely achievable right now, but certainly a massive reduction in fatalities and the ensuing trauma of the loss experience could be.

I’d like to finish with two quotations:

‘I do not love my brother less for having killed himself. I was his sister, you understand; suicide makes no difference’ (Gambotto-Burke, 2003, 2013)

‘I had thought that your death

Was a waste and destruction,

A pain of grief hardly to be endured.

I am only beginning to learn

That your life was a gift, a growing

And a loving left with me.

The desperation of death

Destroyed the existence of love,

But the fact of death

Cannot destroy what has been given.

I am learning to look at your life again

Instead of your death and your departing.’

(Marjorie Pizer, ‘The Existence of Love’)

Thank you.”