Saturday, 16 August 2014

Suicide - Can We Say The Word?

Suicide is a confronting, confusing long term solution to a short term problem. It's an action often described as selfish and weak, yet the truth is it is far from that. Cricket hasn't been immune to its impact, in fact, its contribution to tragedy has been more marked than probably any sport. Perhaps its the long hours of play during which contemplation can deceive you or form that can leave, hanging on a succession of momentary decisions which have no second chances.

David Frith's "Silence of the Heart" (2001) details lives cut short that were known to our game. More than a decade later, we still ask questions. Depression plays a part, bipolar disorder a bigger one. The same illness which raises players to feats only supermen can achieve will lash them suddenly to the broken mast of a sinking ship and drive them deep beneath the surface to ugly ends. Jim Burke, Sid Barnes, Jack Iverson, Albert Trott, David Bairstow and most recently, a man fondly recalled on these pages, Peter Roebuck. Even arguably Australia's greatest sportsman, Tom Wills, one of the creators of Australian Rules Football, chose death over life. More than twenty Test cricketers in all.

People who suicide don't "take the easy way out after a few bad days", yet on the day Robin Williams died - the man who described cricket as being like baseball on Valium - the group of four beside me in a local cafe all agreed that was so. People with depression, they said, were slackers looking for an easy way out, an excuse for everyone to feel sorry for them. Ignorance can be conversational bliss it seems. The unusual nature of their comments is that with one in five people suffering from depression it was a wonder none of them had at least second hand experience of depression or it's final solution. Perhaps I was their fifth. After a few minutes, that was my reasoning for talking with them.

The problem us remaining passengers on life's train have is that when someone we care about - perhaps care for - dies by suicide, they are both the victim and the perpetrator. Or so we sometimes think. The latter stems from a society that believes someone is always to blame and if we can proportion blame and follow it with disapproval, disgust, hate, loathing ... then our healing can begin.

There is no doubt healing is necessary. The truth of course is something different. If you are reading this and have lost someone to suicide, you know the healing never really takes. The pain is always under the surface, waiting to twist and taunt. It never goes away, it's just that on most days you can conduct an uneasy truce.

People who chose death, do so because it seems the only escape. Most don't want to die. All just want the pain, the confusion, the hurt they are causing others to stop but see no other options. This despite the greatest of love, of medical attention, of care that can be offered in support. In the end, that's the most of what we can offer. Offer, because there is no guarantee it will be accepted. A drowning man can be seduced by the depths and ignore the clutching hand, no matter how desperately it is offered.

I have attempted suicide six times. I'm well enough to know I probably wouldn't make it through a seventh. As a young bloke, the attempts were about not knowing how to ask for help; how to delist the evil secret a pedophile kept me from spilling by the threat of a cut throat. Fifteen years ago, it was in frustration that depression would not lift, disgust at side effects and a belief it was better to inflict short term agony on my family than a life time of walking on egg shells. Eight years ago, it was because bipolar had infected my children and I felt like filth: I nightmared the horrific and became delusional I would become my childhood attacker.

All of which was untrue, now. All of which was my reality, then.

I was acting to protect my family. In the cost/benefit analysis, I saw them, eventually, finishing in front.
For those left to pick up the pieces, the conflicting emotions which invade every moment are the most confrontational. Anger, guilt, sorrow, disbelief and questions. More. Insert you own set list here. So many bloody questions and the only source of answers isn't answering the phone.

Each and every one of those emotions, every single question, is justified, real and painful. I can't tell you how to answer them, what to do. What is clear and truthful, is that you shouldn't repress them or feel disloyal for expressing them but as you do, try and hold on to better days when you knew you were loved, when it was said, when it was shown and know that nothing changed between then and now. Don't try and balance some emotional commitment ledger with the action taken to escape. In all likelihood, love and desperation exist in equal shares when a person suicides. Let's be very clear: suicide is not the act of a selfish person. It is the ultimate expression of loneliness, of desperation. It is not seen by the victim as defeat but as victory.

You may not agree. My wife doesn't.  

When I cried last night as I watched Hook, my film of choice through which to grieve Robin Williams, I cried for the pain I had caused my children, my wife and for the helplessness that had allowed bipolar to mistreat me like a rag doll. Mostly though, I cried for the memory of the desperation and agony of a decision Williams took and for that moment, that lonely moment just past the fear when he knew it was done.

There is no glory in suicide. It's an ugly, undignified end engulfed in a physical and emotional mess. I would urge anyone contemplating it to seek help. Set aside your problems and look instead for solutions. Decide to live. Tell someone. Someone you trust to love you, to protect you, to hold your hand with a tight grip through recovery. You can make it. I have and I have no more special ability than you do.

Forgive me one reflection which is a hope, not an encouragement.

In that moment, that final moment when Williams could no longer be saved ... I hope he found freedom.

Peter Langston is a former teacher and school principal who was medically retired following a breakdown which preceded multiple suicide attempts. He is now a successful and published poet and writer, who represents Australian Poetry as a Cafe Poet. He is also a voluntary community presenter for the Black Dog Institute, who delivers presentations on mood disorders to raise awareness and an understanding of depression and bipolar disorder. He was diagnosed with bipolar in 2001.

You can listen to a podcast of Peter being interviewed about his life by Richard Fidler, on the Australian national broadcaster, ABC Radio, on a program called Conversations. Just follow this link Conversations with Richard Fidler

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Goodbye Gus

" ... and Gilmore's wielding willow like an axe."

So went a line from the most famous sporting jingo in Australia's history. Well, not any more.

The passing of Gus Gilmore gives pause to all blokes of my age. We were young impressionables in the first half of the 1970's at a time when robust men did robust things with a cricket ball and bat. Unlike the Chappells or Lillee or Marsh, Gilmore was no legend. Instead he was a man who did legendary things in between being ordinary just like the rest of us. As a result, he was to admired because few of us believed we could ever be a Chappell or a Lillee or a Marsh, but being Gus might have been possible. Like him, on our day, anything was possible.

Dead at 62, Gilmore was a man whose body and finally heart were broken by a life lived on his own terms and with little regard for self-control. After all, he emerged at a time when talent was more important than discipline, when smoking and drinking and eating what tasted good didn't kill you ... mostly because the science was yet to ruin our lives. In his final months, having enduring several health issues which threatened his life to the point of losing it, he had to also farewell his son to brain cancer.

Some cricketers are renowned for their figures. Bradman, for instance, whose batting average every kid swinging a Kanga bat for the first time knows, regardless of his ethnic background. It's Australia's greatest sporting statistic, even immortalised as the post office box of all ABC offices. Doug Walters 242 and 103 not out at the SCG against Gary Sobers Windies side ... the first double/single century in a Test match. Lillee 8-29 v Rest of the World. Write your own set.

For others, its just moments or sometimes a performance which remain for how is far more important than how many. Its being there and seeing it. Gilmore was one of those cricketers. I watched him - on the telly - blast 95 at Adelaide at a then unheard of run a ball rate against the the West Indies in January '76 as the tail watched from the other end. Twelve months later I could only read in the paper of his lone Test hundred at Christchurch, more than 80% of which came in boundaries. He was only outdone on that day by a Doug Walters double century but added 217 with the Dungog lad when Australia was in trouble against meager opposition. Most people will go even earlier than these performances and tout consecutive five wicket hauls in the semi final and final of the first World Cup. He was close to unplayable on those days, with a left hander's late inswing at decent pace.

Little wonder some thought of Alan Davidson as they watched him, for he was also fast handed in slips.

A mate of mine played his sole Shield game with Gilmore in January 1972. Both were on debut and as Dennis Lillee was taking that 8-29, they were part of a new ball attack against South Australia which included David Colley, with John Gleeson providing spin. As luck would have it, I was there on the Monday as NSW collapsed to 6-70 odd in their second innings. It was holidays and Shield games were good value. Now I wouldn't know Brian Rhodes for another fifteen years but I will never forget the batting I saw from Gilmore that day. If I was to look for a modern equivalent it would be Adam Gilchrist, for although he hit sweetly over the on side, it was the driving that captivated because, the way I had been educated about batting, any mug could hit high wide and handsome to cow corner.

On that day, at either end of the ground, Gilmore hit drives so hard that he twice knocked pickets off the fence. Of course, modern players might do the same but we'll never know as the crowds cower behind the thick, automated amusements for advertisers. One drive, going flat and straight, hit the top of the picket on the full and spun it spectacularly up into the air. At the other end, the ball went along the grass from blade to fence, seemed to hop at the last minute and broke the picket clean through about a third of the way up. The bottom third lay back, mortally wounded, the top dangled for a second and then dropped to the ground.

I looked the score up just now, 122 and his highest first class innings ... but it wasn't how many, it was how.

Gilmore's big time career ended too quickly. He was back playing first grade in Newcastle at 27. In a way, it was like he had too much talent and as Ian Chappell has said, not enough luck.

His style though, was all Saturday mug cricketer. My favourite story of the man was an incident from WSC days. Having tried to get twelfth man Ray Bright's attention for several overs of a cold day, he walked over to the stump mike, bent close and said "hey Brighty, where's my fuckin' jumper."

Vale Gus Gilmore. You lived too short a life but at least you lived it your way. All of us Saturday arvo cricketers applaud you.