Facing personal biases and my next encounter with suicide.
The Friday night school disco was always an awkward, fun, silly affair with smoke machines, rotating disco lights and the occasional shifty bottle of MD:20:20 smuggled past the headmaster. I had danced with Harry, the new boy. He was a bit different, I liked him. We had similar military family backgrounds and being fairly new to the school he was having trouble adjusting because of that. He was fun. We were 14. Nothing else mattered.
On Monday morning as we took our seats for the new week, with stories flying around about who got up to what, our head of year entered the classroom. He asked for our attention, he told us to sit and listen and things suddenly changed. Harry is dead, he said, there had been a terrible accident. He explained how he had been playing a trick on his little brother, pretending to hang himself with his belt, he had slipped and he couldn’t be saved. We were 14 years old.
It has been a while since I was 14 years old. The school has been pulled down, the tree we planted in Harry’s memory torn up to make way for new flats. A long time has past and yet I still can’t shake off this nagging feeling. I just can’t bring myself to believe that this is what really happened. You see, I think Harry killed himself and for whatever reason, we were not told the truth.
I have lost an alarming number of friends, acquaintances and colleagues to suicide in recent years. Shall we take a moment and get past the joke that maybe they just couldn’t stand to know me any more? Thanks…moving on…
There have been the two hangings, the two drug/whisky overdoses, the jumping in front of a train (two of those believe it or not!) and one that I think was suicide but I have never asked because, to be frank, I can’t bear to hear it confirmed. At work I have seen a few people who have taken there own lives. If you spend any time with the ambulance services it doesn’t take long before you see them. A hanging, a shot-gun to the head, an overdose.
The fact that every time it happens I really struggle to deal with it may be my biggest problem here. I haven’t ever been able to face it and so I haven’t been there for my friends. I haven’t been to funerals or memorials. I have avoided any discussions. I have been so angry about each occasion that I have refused to hear the details, I have never questioned what really happened. I don’t get upset, I don’t cry, I just get very very angry.
I mentioned this to a senior medical colleague recently and she seemed a bit shocked. “You’re going to have to get your head around this” she said “to work in the emergency environment and not, you know, go nuts. Also, you can’t be seen to deal with this so badly”. She was pretty blunt. I hadn’t really thought about it like that. She might have a point. I really don’t know how my own thoughts or feelings of anger affect how I deal with family members, or how I am seen to react. I just hadn’t considered that before – how does my own almost irrational bias manifest? Do people see it in me or do I manage to hide it? I don’t know the answer to that.
Doctors are more likely to kill themselves than people in other professions. We know this. It makes me angry. Female physicians are just as likely as male physicians to take thier own lives. It is only a matter of time before I have to confront this again. I hope I never have to but of course I will. I suppose we all have our own individual hang ups, our own personal biases that might make us react differently when they come through the hospital door. At least knowing what mine might be is a good start.
Right now I work on the top floor of the hospital. The emergency department is downstairs at ground level. I sometimes joke with colleagues that there’s no point in jumping out of the window here…I would only land in the ED and as we are the only ward to ever have a spare bed I would just end up back where I started. I don’t think they realise that the thought had on more than one occasion seriously crossed my mind. I have, on more than one occasion, driven home along the small winding country roads (that have a habit of claiming a lot of lives around here) at over 90mph, willing a truck or tractor to come the other way so I could just drive into it. I have been there. It was a bad time. Please don’t worry, I’m not there any more.
So why do I get so damn angry when others go and end their own lives? I don’t know, but I have a suspicion it may go back to Harry. It may go back to wanting to be told the truth. It may go back to knowing that, with recognition and support, any one of them might have been prevented.
At work one day I asked a friend what was wrong. I hadn’t seen him for a while. He looked tired and unhappy. He looked like crap. He shrugged and told me he had a cold and I accepted that. Why wouldn’t I? A few days later I learned he had taken his own life. I felt so so angry. I still do.
Tuesday: I appear to have hit a nerve or two with this post. I am replying to personal/direct messages but I am a bit poorly (D&V, will spare you more details).
Please do leave a comment below if you wish to.
Some more reading:
Hopkins Medicine: Why do young doctors commit suicide?