At the end of the third lockdown in the United Kingdom, my 26-year-old sister hung herself in my dad and step mum’s garage.
They managed to revive her, but she was never conscious again, and she died on 29 April 2021.
She’d had a mental breakdown during the first lockdown and had not recovered from it. I never got to see her during this period because I live in Australia and she lives in the UK, and the borders closed. But there was so much I wanted to say to her and wished I could have said.
I had a mental breakdown a little before she did, also due to the pandemic and lockdowns. Our family have always said we were similar—both academic, at times reserved, deep thinkers, and apt to put pressure on ourselves. Neither of us had any sort of mental breakdown before or been diagnosed with any sort of mental illness before the pandemic—which is why I think I may have been able to understand some of what she was going through.
With my mental breakdown came an initial agonising web of confusion that smothered my ability to do anything and sent my mind into a frenzy. I was assaulted constantly by thoughts that terrified me and seemed to have no control over waves of unbearable feelings that would send me into a frozen panic.
I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder initially, which later morphed into severe depression. Throughout the breakdown, I was also stricken by relentless, painful self-recriminations that broke me down further and formed giant obstacles to my healing. I am broken, I have failed, I am not good enough. And the worst, I will never get better, I cannot get better.
I understand why she committed suicide. I didn’t understand suicide when I was younger. I thought it selfish. Now I see it as such an extraordinarily brave act. It takes such bravery to kill your own body. I felt it during my own mental breakdown. The feelings I experienced were so unbearably painful and relentless that I knew I could not live that way for any long period of time.
Death felt like a blessing; it was something I clung onto at times. At least this agony would stop with death. I was way more scared of living than dying. And I could feel that it was the despair, the hopelessness that would drive me to that place above all else. I was fortunate that I did not stay in the darkness for longer than I could bear—although this does not seem quite right to say, as the word I most associate with my breakdown was unbearable. It was agonisingly unbearable a lot of the time, and I just learned with much effort and the support of medication to endure feelings I found unacceptable.
I pulled myself minute by minute out of the suffering, and it was never a straight or steady path. But I learned so much that it has changed the way I live. And I so wish I could have been there whispering these words into my sister’s ears night after night until they began to settle into her being, soothing her frantic mind, and releasing its dark, relentless grip on her life.
1. You are loved and you are love. Cradle your whole self, but especially your mind in loving-kindness. As often as you can remember. You need your own love. No more judgement of yourself, no more blame.
2. You can trust in life again. You can trust in yourself again. They are one and the same, for you are life.
3. The love, the joy, the bliss exists inside you as much as the darkness, the fear, and the despair. You cannot see them right now, but they are all still there, all still there inside you. They haven’t gone.
4. You are not doing nor have you ever done anything wrong. Ever. You are not broken. There is nothing “wrong” with you. “Mental illness” are just words that we currently use to describe a stage of life many of us go through. You have not “failed.” You are just being shown where you can heal traumas and harmful thinking that you were unaware of before because they were so deeply buried.
5. Place yourself first and foremost. Other’s opinions do not matter. They really do not. Not society’s, not your parents’, not your friends’ (although they all think you’re wonderful).
6. You are not alone. You are never alone. The separateness and emptiness you feel right now is not the truth. You are part of a whole that is there to hold you again when you are ready.
7. You are so strong. You are so brave. You are doing so well. You might not feel this right now, but you are all these things because what you are going through is the toughest path.
This is for her and any others who might be feeling this way. Know that you are not alone, that things can get better. This is your path, where you are meant to be, you have not gone wrong, you are not failing, not at all, indeed you are so strong because anxiety, depression, psychosis, mental illness are some of the hardest things that any human has to deal with.
Here’s something I wrote for myself that I wish I could give to all those others cloaked in the heaviness of anxiety or depression.
“Her arms were open wide welcoming, and I fell into them encompassed completely. All the pain and suffering fell away immediately. I was safe, cocooned from all the thoughts and emotions that had been assailing me for so long now. My mind stopped its condemning and frantic confusion and expanded infinitely until it merged with all around me. Nothing could harm me now. I could handle anything. Suffering was just a drop in the ocean of joy, peace, and bliss available to me with ease at any moment in this extraordinary world. Being alive was all I needed to feel at peace.”
I sensed my sister once after her death. In between being awake and dreaming, I had been thinking about her before I fell asleep—her essence. And suddenly, I felt her, and the feeling came, so strong, that she did not want to be remembered by her death but by her life.
I remember your playfulness, Paige, your lightness, your gentleness. I remember your intelligence, your sweetness, your kindness, your laughter. This is how I will always remember you my darling.