Trigger Warning: This post deals with issues around suicide and could be triggering for some readers.
The email was brutal, breathtaking, and brief.
Paul Spicer – our kind, generous, loving father – was going to kill himself. Like everything, he planned it well, connecting a hose from the exhaust into the car in his garage.
Quick. Simple. Deadly.
Dad had always loved cars; my sister and I had petrol in our veins. He knew it would work because the vehicle was pre-1986, prior to the reduction of carbon monoxide emissions. When we read the email – 12 hours later, around nine o’clock the next morning – we thought he was dead. Frantic phone calls followed. Fortunately, Dad answered. But he sounded defeated.
“In the end, I just couldn’t do it,” he said, exhaling.
Desperation had led to despair.
“It’s a terrible thing,” he said. “Some days, really, I don’t want to go on. It’s so dark. I can’t explain to you how it feels.” Unlike many men of his era, Dad always communicated openly. A true family man, he worked odd shifts to spend more time with his kids. It was a time of change in the workplace: under economic rationalism, employees did more for less. For many, it was too much to bear.
One night, Dad had an epiphany.
We were watching a TV show about legendary actor and comedian, Garry McDonald, speaking eloquently about his ‘black dog’. Dad looked at us, sadly: “That’s what I’ve got,” he said. Of course, he couldn’t talk about it at work. This was a time when men were men, lunches long, and weaknesses exploited. Soon, it all fell apart. Dad retired early. And turned to drink.
My sister Suzie and I tried to commit him to an institution. During this time, he was a danger to himself and others. But the law wouldn’t allow it. This is what is left unspoken, in the discussion about depression. Diagnosis is important, but what’s next? Dad wasn’t one for ‘head doctors’. He laughed about a workplace psych test, in which employees were asked whether their, “left arm was a monkey”.
However, he had a great relationship with his GP. ‘Dr Ralph’ had been our family physician for as long as I could remember. Clever, caring, and no-nonsense, he put Dad on anti-depressants. I’m pleased to say Paul Spicer has never looked back. He’s systematically stymied his addictions. The two-pack-a-day habit? Extinguished. The four-litre goon sacks? Down the drain. The sugary soft drinks? Lost their sparkle.
He’s replaced these addictions with a new one: repairing second-hand toys for his beloved grandkids. Dad’s house is like a play centre with remote-controlled cars, bikes, books, colouring-in, craft and – well, why don’t I let nine-year-old, Grace, describe it for you…?
She’s peering over my shoulder as I type these words. Now, she’s whacking my hands from the keyboard.
This is what she writes:
“Poppy Paul is a very nice man, but throughout his life he has struggled with depression. Depression causes people to become sad, angry and frustrated. But Poppy Paul is the best grand dad in the entire world! Why, you ask? Well, for starters, he is always so funny and kind. For example, he always gives his dog Bora (also known as ‘little woof’) chips! So if you have a chip, watch out for Bora! And for the kindness factor, he goes out and gets all these awesome toys, so whenever kids come around they have something to play with. I love him so much.”
Tears flow as I read these words. For years, we didn’t think Dad would live to see his grandkids. When I asked whether he’d share his story, I was anxious. At the age of 74, he still suffers from shyness, bordering on agoraphobia.
“No problem darling,” he answered immediately. “It may help other people.” I’m so proud of his courage, candour and compassion. Now, there’s another member of our family struggling with something similar. He, too, feels he can’t talk about it in the workplace.
A study by SANE Australia has found four out of 10 people who take sick leave for depression hide it from their employer. It’s no wonder, when up to 75 per cent of those with mental illness are stigmatised despite it being illegal under the Disability Discrimination Act. Many employers are reticent about promoting anyone with a known condition.
This is despite one in five employees having mental health problems. https://www.headsup.org.au
For every exemplar, like Garry McDonald, there’s an antimodel: a colleague calling another a “nut-job”; a boss sidelining an employee because she’s “unhinged”; or water-cooler gossip about who’s “unstable”. The theme for Mental Health Month is Value Your Mind. But I think we need to value the minds of others, as well.
Dad tried to commit suicide because he was depressed and isolated. Sure, there was family support. But this was suffused by workplace shame. And a culture of silence. It’s time to lift the veil and stop the stigma.
This might just save someone’s life.
If this article brings up any issues for you, contact BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to someone online here. Alternatively, you can speak to some from SANE Australia on 1800 18 7263.