This is a letter I wrote in 2017 to someone in my mens group who’d been down for several months. I’m going to share it with you…
What with how short a time we had on Saturday for you to share how you are doing and what with me not being able to get to the group next Thursday, I thought I would write a letter to you to express support even if only so you can witness the effort someone else is willing to put in. I can’t think what else I might be able to do which would be useful or supportive for you right now.
I myself am happy talking at length on the phone and as I don’t live near to Totnes that would be a way for me to reach out to you. But I sense you are less comfortable on the phone than I am and it doesn’t feel like the medium of choice in this case.
I’ve been through low periods a number of times in my life, and whether any of them were at all similar to what you are going through I don’t really know, but one thing I learned was that there is life on the other side, impossible as I found that to imagine, let alone believe, at the time.
So I’m going to tell you a bit about how it was for me some 30 years ago. You don’t have to read it or reply or acknowledge you got this letter. I just acknowledge I felt my heart go out to you when I saw you in the circle on Saturday and this is the best I can think of to do at a distance to let you know something of the feelings I have for you. Within the group you and I are the longest serving members, going right back to when the group started, and now that Fred’s moved on there’s just the two of us. Even though in a sense it’s simply a historical fact rather than something imbued with great meaning, it is of some significance to me.
So when you feel wobbly, a lot more than wobbly really, I feel it deep down inside as a wobble in the Devon Mission Group, even though it feels robust with lots of years life left in it and new blood turning up every few months. The older I get the more I think about my own departure from the world, not too often and in no way in a morbid fashion. I’m just aware that it is closer now than it was 10 years ago, say.
I carry a bit of fear that you won’t get through this spell which has been going on for a longer time and seems to have taken you to a darker place than I’ve witnessed before. I heard you say on Saturday and I heard you say the last time we circled up that you were feeling a tiny bit better. What I hope for when I put my fear aside is that it is a tiny bit improved each time until you get back into a place with a lot more light around you.
Although I have heard you speak several times lately of the loss of meaning in the work you do, from the outside it looks like a good and wholesome contribution to improving the world a bit in the work you do. And your relationship with Gail and the tough time she’s going through right now is something I love to hear about when I imagine how good a dad you are and how Gail will remember you years from now when she’s grown up and gone away and is leading her own life.
So as I said I have been down at a number of different times in my life.
The longest was for about 3 years when I lived in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire. I went there following a woman I was in love with and occupied myself at first during the day picking peas. A net of peas would earn me 60p and I was less than half as fast as even the youngest child of a large family of travellers living in the same field as I put my tent in. They were the only people I had to talk to after the woman moved on and when the pea-picking season came to an end I had no one to talk to.
The tent collapsed as the winter approached and I lived in the back of my van after one of the tent poles broke and then some travellers who were moving on sold me their caravan for £35 because its towing hitch was buggered. It was parked in the woods just off the road on the other side of the quarry.
I used to think about suicide every day. I knew I wouldn’t do it, not because I lacked the strength of will but because it felt so incredibly selfish, affecting even the total strangers who might have to scrape my body up from the ground. I also thought, even in those days, that actually it would solve nothing, that I would just have to come back to do it all over again, whatever the “it” was that I wasn’t able to face up to.
There was this railway bridge close by I used to think about. I could either just jump off the bridge and hope the fall to the ground was enough to make sure, or I could jump and try to time it so the front of a train would get me. Then I would think of how the driver of the train might feel and then I’d think well it’s got to be the ground then.
As I say I knew I would never do it but it was a comfort somehow knowing I could. I worked on an intermittent basis on various local farms, always being paid in cash at less than minimum wage and had enough to live on day by day. I think I spent £5 a day on food and mostly ate the same meal over and over again, potatoes, carrots, peas and onions heated up in water with a little soya sauce and olive oil. I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t do much of anything really.
I was bored witless, felt I had nothing, really nothing to look forward to and I dragged through each interminable day aware that the next day would be no better. I looked after myself hardly at all and had to remind myself to pay attention when crossing the road to make sure nothing unexpected and unwelcome happened. I operated on autopilot as much as I could and couldn’t get away from the same negative thoughts going round and round in my head.
I felt that I’d always been that way, that my very faint memories of my life before were somehow not real or relevant, and above all I lacked any hope that things would ever improve. I could witness other peoples’ happiness or their laughter, but I had no corresponding feeling inside me, I just felt totally cut-off and isolated and above all stuck in the same old life day after day.
What kept me going I think was (1) that I can be incredibly patient and that (2) I can bear the unbearable because the stoic in me is very strong. I had no friends or anyone around me who cared about me and my mum and my dad who I had not been in contact with for 5 years didn’t know where I was or whether I was alive or dead.
So I want to remind you Greg that you have a lot of people around you who care about you a great deal. The world would be a much poorer place if you weren’t here with us any longer. I don’t get any inkling from you that you would contemplate topping yourself but I can easily imagine how helpless you might feel and how powerless to make any improvement in your life.
I am aware that neither I nor anyone closer to you is able to pull you out of the place you are in. The best that I can offer is that as you start to pull yourself out of that place there is a large circle of hands reaching out to you ready to help haul you back to safety and a life worth living when you arrive at the time to clamber out.
For me, all those years ago, I had to do the impossible and pull myself up by my bootstraps. I knew it was impossible but I did it anyway because in some deep part of me I felt I had no choice once I had made the first tiny move in that direction. Greg I wish you the courage for that daunting first step.
Email from Greg a week later:
Hi David, thanks for the letter you sent me recently. It was very sobering to hear of your experiences and how you’d made it through such dark times. I know that I just have to hang in there and do what ever I can to nourish myself. My relationship to life will change, it always does, it’s just hard to have faith in that at the moment.
Thanks for the care and concern you show me. It helps a great deal.
Lots of love to you David. See you on Thursday.