A Open Letter to my Dad
Last night, I made the toughest speech of my life. I was given the honour of being the keynote at the Grassroots World Suicide Prevention Day event in Bright.
This one was written differently. The audience were different. The way I approached it was different. But it was important to put it all out there. This is what I said…
‘Good evening everyone. First of all, it’s important for me to stress how much of an honour it is to be able to speak at an event like this. To be a part of what is, frankly, a world I wish I never knew anything about, is so bittersweet and such an integral part of who I am. Like many of you, there is a part of me that would love to be one of the naive; one of the people totally unaffected by suicide and completely unaware of it as a subject, a concept and a very conscious part of us. But the honour comes in the knowledge that I am one of the many who are trying make a difference; one of those who works to teach the naive that so long as suicide exists, they many not (and should not) remain naive for long.
I’ve told my story a number of times – I try to share it as much as possible and truly believe that if people hear the word ‘suicide’ enough, it will become common and accepted. A bit like the word ‘innit’. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell it again here tonight. To an extent, I feel I am preaching to the converted. We all, after all, have a vested interest in suicide. We know someone, or some people, who have taken their own life; we know someone who might take their own life, or we work in an industry where suicide is a common occurrence. Only a very small part of the audience tonight is one of the naive who we are really trying to get to, to get our snowball rolling. But that’s no slight on this event, because a collection of voices sing in better harmony than individuals shouting from a distance. And I really believe that the work we all do will make a difference!
Last night, as I was writing this, I had an interesting exchange of Twitter messages with a lady who’s brother killed himself. ‘Well, now when people ask me if I have any brothers, I just say ‘one’ instead of ‘I did have two, but one killed himself’. ‘Don’t like denying he existed though. They just feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, which is understandable’. Which made me realise that everyone deals with things in different ways – and that there is no right or wrong way. Despite my strong feeling that she should always mention him, and educate the naive, that’s not my call. So my disclaimer comes here – these are my opinions and are not representative of anyone else. I’m sorry if what I say upsets anyone – it truly isn’t meant to do that. I’m sorry if I babble and go on a bit – I truly do mean to do that! This comes from the heart and is my own experience of life without someone who decided to remove themselves from my future. Can I also say that I never find any comfort in talking about my dad’s suicide. I find it neither entertaining nor cathartic. Every time I talk about it, it tears at my heart and makes me want to cry. It makes me hurt just as much, each and every time I talk about it, because it all revolves around the things I don’t want to remember. But this is my obligation to ensure there is some sort of legacy to my old man. Because if someone listens to me and changes the way they think, and it has even the smallest effect on someone to change their opinion on suicide, then that heartache can be repeated a thousand times over. I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that if it gets a bit much, bear with me – because I WILL finish what I came to say. It’s just that it might take a few deep breaths along the way. The best way, I felt, was to write my dad a letter and share it with you.
When I was younger, I made you a lot of promises and told you I would do a lot of wonderful things. I told you that I would run a marathon. I told you that I would be a part of the Olympic Games. I told you that I would leave our town, go to university and get a job with a salary and a pension – a safe job! I told you that I would get married, buy a house and be very happy. I told you that I would stand up and be counted and lead people – that I would make a difference and that I would make you proud of me. I told you that I would get so big that when I performed I would have Sinead O’Connor as my warm up act. I have achieved each of these things, just like I promised. But you won’t know that, because you chose not to be here.
I made some other promises, too. I’m not done yet. Because I won’t stop. They’re my three words that get me by in the hard times – I. Won’t. Stop. I told you that one day I’d be a doctor. I won’t stop until I do. I told you I’d break a world record. I won’t stop until it happens. I told you I’d continue to make you proud. I won’t stop. And I told you that I would have kids – loads of them. I still need to get the wife on board with that. I also told you that you’d be a brilliant granddad – the sort who has kids climbing all over him – like a performing monkey. A happy-go-lucky hands on granddad who would give the world to his grandchildren. But I’ll never know that, because you chose not to be here.
You also chose not to be here for your daughter’s wedding. I had both the honour and the dread of walking down the aisle with her. I couldn’t help but feel I shouldn’t have been there. She has two kids now – you’d love them to pieces if you’d decided not to leave us. They couldn’t not bring a smile to your face.
We had tough times growing up. Looking back, I don’t think I realised back then just how tough things were. Mainly because despite the shit that was thrown at you and mum, you deflected every single bit of it past us. Not once did I feel vulnerable – even when I saw you and mum on your knees and desperately bailing out the boat – to your own detriment you both worked to give us the good memories I have that far override the bad times. Mostly. I remember watching you sob with joy when I told you I had done well in my GCSEs. I felt so awkward to see tears rolling down your face, but I revelled in that pride. I was so happy to be able to make you so unashamedly emotional and proud.
That first time you tried to kill yourself – when I was 16 – was one of the worst days of my life. It was probably worse than the day you actually died. The shock and horror of it all was overpowering and hit me like a truck. Thank god you failed. Thank god our family and my closest friends rallied around me. Because despite my school knowing about it, despite our GP knowing about it, nobody came to help – to check on us. We lost in that lottery, because they buried their heads in the sand through not knowing how to approach the issue, or because they felt it wasn’t their job to help me at my most vulnerable time. I want that to change. I even asked for help, once. My teacher said I should go and talk to our head of year who, in turn, told me she didn’t have the time to have a one to one meeting because she was snowed under with marking exams. I don’t want that to be the case for other young people.
The second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth times you tried to kill yourself were obviously really bad. But I thought every time was inevitable. That’s a hard feeling to deal with. I do thank God that you had awful geography skills, though. Because that time you told me you were on your way to Beachy Head to drive off, and that you had just crossed the Welsh border still makes me smile.
I’m sorry for the relief I felt on the seventh and final time that you tried and succeeded in killing yourself. I couldn’t help it. Every time my phone rang from aged 16 to 19, and Melissa’s number came up on my phone, my heart sank. When she told me, I realised I would never hear those words again. “Dad’s dead”. I’m sorry that I didn’t cry straight away and that I went into autopilot. I was sad, honestly I was. But the feeling of relief that I would never hear those words again was overriding. On the train journey home that evening, I remembered the time that you voluntarily sectioned yourself and spent 24 hours in a secure unit in a specialist hospital. I remembered that after 24 hours you decided you weren’t as crazy as the other people in the unit and as such discharged yourself. I remember you then proceeded to walk the 17 miles home in your pyjamas and slippers with your worldly belongings in your pocket. Yeah, not crazy at all. I still can’t quite believe that nobody followed up on that, and that not a single person from the health services thought it might be courteous to see if you were all right and ask whether you might want any help. But then you did decide to discharge yourself, so you must have been of sound mind. To me, I feel that the health services wouldn’t withhold treatment from a terminally ill patient, and they’d chase them up if they missed life-saving appointments. I can’t help but believe you were terminally ill and left to just get on with it.
When I got home on the night you died, I went and picked up Bod, who was staying at our grandad’s house. He was 15 at the time. I tried not to cry when I held him and promised him that we’d be OK, pretending that I was OK, too. “Do you think dad was thinking of us as he died”, he asked me. I hope you were. And I hope you had one last smile in you, as a result.
I was scared, but ready to face it head on – with the support of the people I knew and loved. I was a bit taken aback when a very old friend saw me in the street a couple of days after, crossed the road and ran into a shop. He did text a couple of days later, though. He said he didn’t know what to say. It had never crossed my mind, but suicide appeared to be a dirty way to die. Shameful and selfish, almost. Luckily, Melissa, Bod, mum and I just saw it as a way to die – we held our heads up high as a matter of fact, not because we were making a stand. I did have one distinct wobble, though. A friend saw I was upset the night before your funeral and said “look, let’s make the funeral a celebration of his life. Not a sad and miserable day”. I’m sorry, dad. I couldn’t do that. The only time I will ever celebrate somebody’s life is when that somebody chooses life. Not when they choose to end it. I was sad on that day and although I looked back on the good times fondly, that day was about you deciding not to be here anymore. It’s a day that haunts me and carrying your coffin was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
Life went on, though. We all knew that. So I went back to uni and I excelled, in the most part. And two weeks after you died I took up rugby again. I’d given up when you got really ill, because – well I don’t know why. It just felt right at the time. I thought it would be a good way to remember you, because of how you gave everything you had when I was younger to drive me to training all the time. I had a terrible injury in my first game back – a fractured dislocation of my shoulder meant I was never allowed to play again. I cried when the doctor told me. I’d lost my dad and I’d lost the sport which linked me to my dad. I sought help from my tutor at uni. He said I could hand my assignments in late, if I needed, and sent me on my way. That didn’t feel enough for me – I wanted more help. After that meeting, nobody ever mentioned it to me again, though. You’ll like this – I went and saw a hypnotist to see if that would help. I had a session with him and I felt obliged to pretend to be under his spell because I didn’t want to offend him. It did help, though. Because for most of the session I sat trying not to laugh at what you’d say to me if you were there, too.
I started jogging, and it turned into a bit of an obsession. I realised it was often my only opportunity to be on my own with my thoughts. And I realised that if I thought a lot when I ran, and I cried because I was sad about you not being here anymore, it didn’t matter – because I was going so fast that nobody would notice. When I ran, I also realised that as a result of you not being here, I had more resilience than anyone else. I was more determined than anyone I knew and I knew that because you weren’t here anymore, I had no fear. If I could deal with you deciding you didn’t want to be here any more, I could deal with almost anything. So when I did my first marathon and my body told me it wanted to stop after 18 miles, I said to myself “I. Won’t. Stop.”. Because my mind is so much stronger than the rest of me.
I never felt pain like that marathon, dad. I cried afterwards. I cried on my own, for ages. Absolutely spent, doubled over in pain and deliriously uncomfortable. I now chase that pain. It makes me feel closer to you. It’s hard to explain why, but I think it’s because it’s the closest I can get myself to how I feel you were at your lowest. When I get to my lowest ebb in a race and feel like I can’t go on any more, I do go on. Because I’m not you. When everything tells me to stop, to give in and to say “no more”, I. Won’t. Stop. I never want to feel like you did, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like to feel so alone and helpless despite having so many people there for you. But I do like to remind myself what it’s like to struggle because it makes me appreciate how easy I have it and how good my life is!
It does make it hard to understand when you couldn’t take a hold of one of the hands held out to help you. I’ll never understand why you felt so alone and I struggle to comprehend why you felt it necessary to take your own life. But I don’t dwell on it. What’s the point in thinking what might have been? I’ve been asked if I ever got angry at you. As you said many a time to me, I’m not angry – I’m just disappointed! I’ve been asked if I ever felt you were selfish for doing it. I don’t. I’ve been asked if I regretted anything. There’s no point. I’ve also been asked how you did it, where you were found, if you left a suicide note and what that note said. Each of those people unreservedly told to stick their question up their arses. Like it matters! You’re dead – that’s it. Simple as. My nearest and dearest have never asked those things. Because they’re insignificant and unnecessary. The media don’t see it like that, though. They love to sensationalise things. Just yesterday I saw an article about Gary Speed. It had the line ‘Speed, who was found hanged…’. What does that matter? What important information does that offer the reader? It needs to change. The inquest into his death didn’t present a verdict of suicide, you know. The coroner couldn’t be sure that he meant to kill himself. I struggle to find another reason for why that might be. Maybe they were scared because suicide is so final and a dirty word. I wrote a blog about Gary Speed and it was published in the Guardian. I know you read The Sun, but I have a degree now so I have to be seen to be associated with ‘proper’ newspapers. It’s not quite Dear Deirdre, but it’s getting there!
Anyway, dad. Let me tell you about some amazing things that have happened in my life. Because times have been great. I really can’t believe how lucky I am. After graduating from uni and getting a good job and all that, I decided I need to make a difference. So as well as running marathons, I started blogging about my adventures. People enjoyed the blogs and as the marathon running got more serious, so did the blogging and following. There are these new things around called Facebook and Twitter, by the way. But I don’t think you’d understand them because a) you’re old and b) you’re dead.
It started to upset me that people would still not talk about suicide in every day life. People always went a bit funny when they asked how you died and I said you killed yourself. They always said they were sorry. It felt like they were saying they were sorry for asking, not for the fact that you were dead. So I got on my soap box and challenged people to talk about it. Last year I ran 52 marathons in the year. One for every week of the year.
I don’t like running, you know. But I did it to get people talking – to show people that I could walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I raised a reasonable amount of money, but more importantly I led by example. I got people to join me, to say the S word and to promise to spread the word. I have some incredible experiences of it, too. I went to Las Vegas on my stag do, and ran a marathon there. That’s right, I got married. Dad, you should have seen her – when Amy walked down the aisle I couldn’t help but cry. She makes my world spin around and is everything I want and need in a wife, and more. It’s just a shame that you chose not to be there. She saw you at your lowest, during the hard times, and not once did she waiver. I knew from then that she was for keeps.
A newspaper called me crazy for running a marathon on my wedding day. Quite funny, considering I was running for a mental health charity. People got involved, though. One lady heard about what I was doing and bought me a flight to New York so I could take part in the New York Marathon. I was instilling hope in people, she said. I was leading the way in getting the message out there that suicide wasn’t a dirty word. I had lots of people get in touch with me and tell me what I was doing was great. I also had a few people get in touch with me and tell me they needed help and they were considering killing themselves. They asked me to help them. I couldn’t – and it scared me. At times I thought I was in too deep, but we’re trying to address that. It’s why there is training available called Asist – where people can train to become better prepared to detect and support those at risk of killing themselves. The more people we can get talking about suicide and doing this sort of training, the better.
Do you remember 1992, Dad? The Barcelona Olympics when we were screaming at Sally Gunnell and we took the micky out of mum for staring at Linford Christie’s lunchbox? And I told you that one day I would like to be a part of the Olympics? Well this year it came to Great Britain. I wish you could have watched the games with me. It was amazing. And I was a part of it – I was one of the cogs that turned because I got to carry the Olympic Flame. It was one of the many rewards I got for saying I won’t stop and campaigning against the suicide stigma. I’ve even got to keep my torch and it takes pride of place in the downstairs loo. You’d have loved it and you’d have cheered the loudest. It was one of the biggest honours in my life to be a part of the games. But I wish I never got to carry it. Because that would mean I was one of the naive and you hadn’t decided to die and would still be here.
I took my torch into schools in the days after I carried it, to show it off and let children have pictures with it. One school raised lots of money and a little girl came up to me with a picture she drew. It said “thank you for raising money to help sad people”. I cried when I got in the car. Just before assembly at another school, a member of staff thanked me for taking the torch in and then said “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell the children how your dad died”. Again, I cried when I got in the car.
Much like with my marathons, I. Won’t. Stop. I will plough on until suicide rates drop, until those who want help know where to get it and until we stop burying our heads in the sound and being amongst the naive! I am everything I want to be in my life and that is down to you. Unfortunately, it’s down to you deciding you don’t want to be here anymore. I’m making more of my life now than I ever did before because the way I see it, you can’t go back and change yesterday, but you can use yesterday to change tomorrow. I can’t bring you back to life. But I can use your death to show others that there is hope, that we can strengthen protective factors and that together we can help people to celebrate the fact that they chose life. You don’t know how important you’ve been in making me the man I am because you’re not here. But then would I be this man if you were? You’re my inspiration and you’re death is the reason I’m here. My childhood with you gave me strength to deal with your death and to see through the dark enough to realise I can help to install hope in others. To use the loss of your life as a catalyst to encourage others to see that it’s not the way to go and that there are other roads to take.
I love you, dad. Don’t stop inspiring me, and I won’t stop remembering you.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, they’re the things I’d like to say to my dad. To me, the way he died is insignificant. But until other people see the way he died as insignificant and the taboo no longer exists, I will use and abuse my story of him until I’m blue in the fact OR people ask me to stop. But until then, I. Won’t. Stop.’
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