Sunday 19 January 2020

There's no coming back from that fast exit to 'eternal fame'

In an open letter to despairing teens, Emer O'Kelly speaks bluntly about the reality of suicide

Emer O'Kelly

THIS is a letter to every sad teenager who feels despair because nobody seems to understand the misery under your laughter –when you feel as though you're smothering under unhappiness.

You see, a lot of us older people do understand. You don't believe it, but most of us understand better than your sister does, or your best friend does. We understand even if you don't have a brother or a best friend. We understand even if you're the isolated one who isn't popular, and spends long, lonely evenings alone instead of exchanging endless texts and tweets. Because we've been there. And we've come through.

You look at us, and you think that we never felt the way you do. That life was easier for us. Or maybe you don't care whether it was or not.

You look at Fr Pat Seaver who went on the Six One news on RTE recently to talk about Chloe Kinsella, and said he and her parents were determined not to glamorise her funeral. You probably laughed if you saw that, and dismissed him as a pathetic old celibate who never knew what it was to feel young and overwhelmed, to want to make your mark as dramatically as possible. If you're reading this, you probably think I'm old and smug.

But celibate, smug, old or whatever the condition of middle-aged or elderly people, we also have hearts that can break. A lot of us have had our hearts broken. And please, please, listen to us when we say that a broken heart can heal just as a broken ankle can. If you're heartbroken, or just see life as a bit pointless, and think killing yourself will not only give you a way out, but that it will make you as famous as Miley Cyrus, you're wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.

In 10 years, nobody will remember Miley Cyrus. And if you're still around, you may read an article about pop nostalgia, and you will wonder that you ever admired such a freak. You'll even think her music is terrible. I promise, that's what will happen. But if you're not around, because you have killed yourself, you won't be able to do that. Because just like Miley Cyrus, nobody will remember you ... except your family. In five years, not even 10, you will have become merely a nameless statistic, another of the terrible parade of young people who decided at a moment in time that life was not worth living. Just a number, not immortal at all.

At Chloe's funeral, Fr Seaver mentioned the reaction of a Junior Cert class in Cork several years ago when one of their classmates died by suicide. Almost half of them thought it was "a great way to go" and wished they had the "courage" to do the same. Maybe you think the same. Chloe, after all, was the third person in her school within a couple of months to think that killing herself was "the way to go".

Well, let me tell you something. It's not something that many people say. In newspapers, editors have doubts about letting people like me say it, no matter how passionately we feel, because they don't want families and friends of dead teenagers to suffer even more distress. If you have grieved for a dead friend, you'll know the depths and storms of weeping you go through. Some of you may try to deaden the feeling by getting blind drunk or high. But the sorrow, if you've been there, will be waiting for you at the end of the day, to tear you apart. Your friend did that to you. Is that heroic? Is that glamorous? Let me use the unmentionable word: it is selfish. Mindlessly, abominably selfish.

And when teenagers take their own lives, everybody around them is so burdened with guilt that they will not use that word: they cannot accept that the beautiful young woman or man who was so loved, who created havoc in the household and had a sparkling life ahead of them, even without fame or fortune, did something so selfish. They do not want to use such an ugly word about a beloved child or friend.

You are probably too young to recognise the name Jim McDaid. He's a nice man. He is a medical doctor in Donegal. He was once a politician, a government minister.

While he was in that job, he spoke about visiting the mother of a teenage boy who had hanged himself. She was broken-hearted; but she was also angry.

What she said to McDaid was: "Wasn't he horribly selfish?" He said publicly that he had agreed with her, and there was an outcry around the country. And do you know what lay beneath that outcry? Every parent of a teenager who had taken his or her life was being forced to face the rage that was blighting them inside, eating them up. They too thought that their child had been a monster of selfishness, but couldn't admit it. And bottling all that up was driving them to worse despair. That's what you do to the people who love you when you take your own life, to your friends and your family.

It won't be beautiful, either. If you decide to end your life, however you do it, when they find you, you'll have soiled yourself. And that's only the start of the horrible indignity of sudden death. If it takes a long time to find you, decay will have set in. Do you know what decaying flesh smells like?

The pathology staff who will be the first to deal with you won't start with the silk frills of a coffin, and look for a rose to put between your fingers. You, or what's left of you, will be heaved on to a slab under a harsh light, where you'll be picked over. Not because the staff are unsympathetic, but because they have a job to do, you're nothing special to them, and they've seen it all before. And when they've finished, they'll take a hose to the slab.

School authorities and the priests who preside at funerals keep talking about the dangers of copy-cat deaths when a young person like you kills themselves. It's only a word; the reality is something far more dreadful. If you think, because so many people your age are doing it, that it's a normal way to deal with life's difficulties, remember that while "normality" varies, death doesn't. It's final.

Back in the Eighties, before you were born, there was another pattern of copy-catting. Somebody saw a statue of the Virgin Mary in a Cork churchyard that seemed to be moving. Within weeks, statues all over the country were moving, and crowds were gathering in a frenzy. Jokes like, "Two statues were walking down the road, and one said to the other ... " were rampant. Silly, wasn't it? But it passed, and statues don't move nowadays.

Except if you take your own life, you won't be there when your friends get over their sorrow, and start to despise you for copping out when they've gritted their teeth and got on with things. Being dead, you won't have to suffer their contempt.

That's the trouble with death as a statement: you can't take it back.

Please, please: the older generation does understand. But we learned, sometimes the hard way, that picking yourself up is the heroic way. It can even be the glamorous way.

Sunday Independent

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