If I told you I had a difficult adolescence, perhaps you’d imagine that I got into trouble with the law, or that we were poor, or that I was a victim of some kind of abuse. Maybe you’d think we moved around a lot, or that I didn’t have friends, or that I underachieved at school. None of those things are true.
I was well-behaved, academically successful, had plenty of friends, and didn’t want for anything. I’ve never been in serious trouble. I’ve never been abused. We never moved; not even once. Even now, when I occasionally visit my mother, I drive to the same house I was brought home to as a newborn.
But it was a difficult time.
The details are largely prosaic, though occasionally otherwise. I’m not sure they even matter — different people have different responses, even to the same events, and the important thing is how we’re affected — but I’ll summarise anyway.
It began with the most ordinary of things: my parents decided to get divorced. I was twelve; my brother was eight. We still shared a bedroom. For weeks beforehand, after my brother was asleep, I sneaked out to the top of the stairs and listened to my parents arguing in the living room below. I knew what divorce was, in theory, but I never put the pieces together. It came as a complete surprise to me.
My mother was a dance teacher, and she worked from home; the dance studio was part of the house. My father sold cars, and was almost always at work. My mother taught in the evenings, because her pupils had school during the day, of course, so she’d tend to finish her classes at 9 or even 10 PM. On Fridays, it was ten.
On one particular Friday in winter of 1991, she finished her classes and came through to the living room. My father was home from work already, and was watching a TV show about classic cars, with my brother and I. It was unusual for him to be there — Friday was his night for going to the local pub — but we didn’t think anything of it. When our mother came into the room, my father switched off the TV. That part was unheard of. She spoke immediately.
“It’s time for a family discussion.”
I don’t remember her ever saying those words at any other time, before or since. They’ve always stuck in my mind. They make me feel a little ill, even twenty-six years later.
My brother and I exchanged a glance, but we weren’t concerned. He was innocent, and I was naïve. He was also at the age where he was starting to try out wry humour.
“You’re not getting a divorce, are you?” he asked, with a grin on his face.
My mother replied that they were, after an admirably brief pause. My brother looked at me again, and this time there was concern in his eyes. I smiled, and reassured him that they were just joking. He looked at her. She said they weren’t. I reassured him once more. She said that she’d smack me if I said it again. Then we both knew.
I was angry with my parents for a while; a few years. Eventually, I learned to pity them for how that scene played out. I can imagine that she’d planned how it would go, and her plan immediately went sideways as soon as my brother went so disastrously off-script. Then for me to repeatedly tell him they weren’t serious… well, there’s a grim kind of humour to it, in hindsight. There wasn’t any humour at the time.
The remainder of the evening went according to all the clichés. My brother and I promised to be good; we wouldn’t fight anymore. We’d be quieter. We’d help with the housework more. I pity my parents in their roles there too.
It was made clear that we weren’t the cause, and this wasn’t a negotiation. The next question occurred to my brother and I at the same moment:When is dad leaving?
We watched from the window as his car pulled out of the driveway fifteen minutes later. My mother gave us weak tea, loaded with sugar, and then reassured us and packed us off to bed. Against all reason, we both fell asleep almost immediately, without any discussion. I woke up later than usual the next morning, feeling what I’d now call a bit drugged — and of course I was.
We didn’t see my father for a while after that. We didn’t know where he was, but he was somewhere. We met his girlfriend a few months later, by which point everything had already changed.
I still remember some images from the classic cars show on the TV that night. I remember my brother sitting on the floor watching it; he always had interests more aligned with my father’s. I was in an armchair, reading a book. It pains me to tell you that I can’t remember what it was, and I’m not sure I ever finished it. I think of that night, and of how normal it seemed, and the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. We had no idea what was coming. It was my last night of implicit security. That sounds melodramatic, but I don’t mean it to be.
Divorce is an essential thing. I believe in it absolutely. I think that if two people aren’t happy together, and that if either or both of them can’t (or won’t) work to fix whatever the problems are, they should strongly consider splitting up. It’s a necessary option, and it’s often the right choice. I don’t think that you give up your own right to happiness just because you have children, for example. There might be reasons to choose your timing, or some other caveat, but I’m not here to decry divorce itself. It was definitely the right choice for my parents, and I’m glad they did it.
Nonetheless, the next few years slowly destroyed me.
My role in the house had changed overnight, and my mother had changed too — frighteningly so. She was doing the best she could, but she was under a great deal of pressure, and it got to her. It goes without saying that my father wasn’t a popular figure, as far as my mother and her family were concerned. The problem was that I was apparently his avatar in the house, because I shared his name and a lot of his appearance, and inevitably some mannerisms too. She resented me, and while she never said so outright, she made sure that I knew it.
We saw our father once a week, most weeks. He’d pick us up from the house, and we’d go somewhere for a few hours: maybe bowling, or a walk around a nearby loch during the summer months. We’d talk a lot, but it took a while for us to talk about anything important. I remember those evenings as quiet and calm, but also tentative and sometimes awkward. I think that’s probably normal.
There were incidents, though, and they’re the ones you’re probably expecting. He got behind on child support, so she’d refuse to let us go with him when he arrived to collect us. He, in turn, refused to leave. The police were called. I was the one who had to talk two officers out of arresting him.
There were financial problems. His business was secured against the house, and he hadn’t been paying his taxes. The government found out, and then he was bankrupt — and the bank wanted to take the house. My mother’s business depended on having it, and I was in a private school on the other side of the city. We had to beg the school to let me keep attending, on a bursary. To their infinite credit, they did.
I think she knew by then that I needed to be away from home for most of the week. I think she knew that’s how I was surviving.
When she finished teaching at night, she and I would sit down and try to find a way to get the money together, so we could keep the house. It was a ruinous amount: more than eighty thousand, in the mid-1990s. I had little insight to contribute, but I bore the weight of knowing about it, along with the paralysis of being unable to meaningfully help. It was breaking both of us. It did break both of us, in the end. My brother was protected from most of it, by mutual and unspoken agreement. My mother and I kept things from him. I’ll never regret that.
She made occasional attempts at new relationships, but never without problems. There was the charming thief. The successful narcissist. The Jekyll-and-Hyde alcoholic. The man who was damaged on the outside, but even more on the inside; I remember him particularly. He used to do magic tricks with coins, and he bought us chocolate. Ultimately, he hanged himself in an upstairs bedroom. I still think of him sometimes.
I kept writing for a few years, through it all. The stories were dark, and I suppose that’s to be expected. Scary tales. I was reading a lot of Stephen King, and I tried to write similar stuff. I had a temperamental inkjet printer, and I made paper copies of whatever stories I felt had some value. I was mainly a writer, not an editor. I used cheap paper; almost transparent. I’m not sure it was even meant for printing, but it held the ink. When a sheet came out of the printer, it smelled like hot glue.
I had a big box-file on a shelf under my desk. It was dark grey, and it was the kind with a spring-loaded clip on the inside. That’s where I kept my stories, and there was also a manila folder inside the box, with handwritten notes and ideas. I wrote the word PRIVATE on the front of it, just in case. I’d finish a first draft, print it out, and add it to the box. Then I’d start the next one. Eventually, I stopped.
I’d been unwell for a while, but not physically. I was unwell in my mind. My mother was on a parallel path, and she had a breakdown. She went away for a while, to rest. I visited her in the place, but my brother didn’t. She asked me to wear my school uniform because it would make her proud. I did. When I saw her there, she seemed like she’d just arrived, and was ready to leave at any moment — but when visiting hours were over and I got up to go, she stayed behind.
She’d changed our last names by this point, to spite my father, and to finally make me no longer be his namesake. I was the one who accidentally let it slip to him, and I think it hurt him a great deal. It hurt me too, especially as the delivery system for this particular weapon. A few years later, I got my name back. My brother kept the other one, so we have different last names now.
I started spending more time away from home, and eventually I moved out entirely. I was still in high school. I lived with my then-girlfriend’s family, and her father was a long-term depressive. That’s when I learned that mental illness isn’t just dramatic and theatrical dysfunction: it’s also a mundane, corrosive, quiet thing. It eats away at you, just like it’d been eating away at me for years. I got through the last of my important exams, and then everything just fell away.
I’d been ducking into unlit rooms to hide the sudden and unpredictable tears. I’d had nightmares, but also the urge to sleep all the time. The future was just fog, and then it began to narrow towards a point. There was still enough of me left to be scared, and so I sought help. I got it.
There was my doctor, and a psychiatrist, and a psychologist, and there were the tests and the drugs. There was a brain scan, just to check there were no structural causes. Afterwards, I knelt naked in a bathtub, in my girlfriend’s empty house, using her nail-polish removing fluid to get the adhesive out of my hair where they’d attached the electrodes.
The drugs mostly made things worse, though they might also have had a moderating effect at the same time. I lost my appetite — for everything — and I had plenty of the side-effects listed in the leaflet. I broke out in a sweat without warning. I couldn’t drink alcohol without being violently ill, which was a good thing, because my drinking was also a problem for a while. Mostly, I felt like a machine that was winding down.
You hear it as a voice speaking a language just below the threshold of hearing.
It’s more like a suggestion. You ignore it, until one day you don’t. Once you acknowledge it, you hear it more often, and it starts to make more and more sense. That’s how things go downhill. I felt like I was already sinking into tar, half an inch per day, and I could no longer see any harm in helping it along. The thing is, you get eerily clinical. I didn’t want to live anymore, and I accepted it — I even felt a little better afterwards; more settled. Like a fight was over, or that I’d at least opted out.
I decided on how. I held off on deciding about when, but it was winter again, and the start of a new, long year, and I knew that things were coming to a close. I sat outside past midnight on a private tennis court, utterly alone, looking up into the sky. I thought about everything. I felt nothing. I saw no compelling reason to keep going.
I got my word processor out again, for the first time in quite a while. It had been a Christmas present years before, just weeks after our family discussion; a gift borne of guilt. I knew it at the time, even at twelve years old. It always seemed destined for dark tales, and it was the most natural thing in the world to use it one more time. It was the 4th of January, 1996. I know because I dated everything I wrote.
It’s winter again. The beginning of the year. The calendar says 2018, and my teenaged self would be disappointed in our technological progress. I was counting on flying cars, and teleporters. It was unimaginable that a futuristic-sounding year wouldn’t have corresponding technology. Yet here we are.
My wife and I have a labradoodle puppy called Whisky. He’s such a precious dog, and he fills our lives with even more love and fun. I’m forever posting photos of him on social media. I work from home full time (I write novels, after a previous career in the software industry), so the pup and I are together constantly. It was his first birthday recently, on the 4th of January. Rest assured that he was suitably spoiled. Treats were consumed, and toys destroyed. The rain didn’t stop us from going on a long walk.
I had to go into the basement to get something, and it’s a mess down there. Tidying it up has been on my to-do list for far too long. I’ll get to it eventually. For now, I just move carefully between piles of stuff, get what I need, and get back out. It’s cold, too, so I don’t linger, but once in a while I’ll notice something. This time, I noticed a dark grey box file, almost invisible, in the shadow of an extra chair. I brought it upstairs to my office, and opened it.
It was all still there, including the manila folder. The stories. The notes and ideas; many painfully adolescent, but some still pretty good. I sifted through it all with the reverence of a museum curator. I remembered the words of the tales, but not writing them.
I found my suicide note.
There’s a feeling I had, as I realised what I was holding. I know many words, but I don’t know the word for this one. Perhaps there isn’t a word. Perhaps there shouldn’t be.
I’d forgotten how the note began. I’d forgotten all of it, honestly. All gone; erased from my mind, but still immediately recognisable. I could hear the words in my head as I read them.
You’re probably wondering why. This might be the answer. Sorry for any typing errors.
I apologised for typos. I don’t even know how to feel about that. I think I should find it perversely amusing, but somehow the words just cut straight through me now, and make me bleed in a way that’s somehow new, despite having lived thirty-eight years on earth. Those were my words. They were meant to be my last.
I held the cheap paper, and it felt so familiar. Its smell had completely faded, but my god, here it was. And like any artefact charged with emotion, it was also a doorway.
It opened a rip, and I stepped through. Twenty-two years fell away, the scattered dust of already-lived tomorrows, and I stood behind my younger self as he typed. I saw the word processor, and the printer. I saw the desk, and the wallpaper, and the dim lamp. I can see the mirror moved across to the other wall, because a reflection isn’t a desirable thing when you’re writing your last words.
I was so much closer to the start of my life, but I was also closer to the end. I can see that boy so clearly, after years of barely remembering him. I imagined myself reaching out to put my hand on his shoulder, but I knew it would pass straight through. I tried to think of something to say, but I knew that he wouldn’t hear.
I let the paper fall, and it landed on the sane, familiar, solid surface of a different desk, here in my office in the futuristic-sounding year of 2018. The rip had closed, and when I picked the note up again, nothing happened. I felt that I’d squandered a chance, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
I looked around. It was still winter, but now with the expectation of spring.
Self-evidently, I didn’t kill myself when I was sixteen. Nor do I remember having the sensation of a man standing behind me while I wrote a note to leave behind. That’s the stuff of stories — the kind I still like to write.
I emailed my mother the other day, just to check in. She’s still in the same house, and enjoying her recent retirement from her dance school. She has a dog, too. Once in a while, she still sees the charming thief. She’s fine.
My father married the other woman, and my brother and I were ushers at his wedding. She was always kind to us. After twenty years or so, the relationship broke down, and they divorced. The last I heard, she was dying of cancer, and wanted no more contact. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. I don’t know whether to hope that she is.
I spoke to my father yesterday. He’s bought a new flat, and just got the keys. He’s excited to move in tomorrow. He’s fine.
My brother is married, and expecting his first child in April. As usual, he steadfastly refuses to provide any useful gift suggestions for his upcoming 35th birthday. When he was six years old, and was asked what he wanted (for dinner, for Christmas, for anything), he took great delight in replying “a pig”. He’s been doing it ever since. I have a text message from him with the same answer, that I received two days ago. He’s fine.
I’m more than fine. I adore my wife, and our puppy. We have the kind of strong and loving marriage I was told I could never have, by virtue of being my father’s son. I’m writing, and people are reading. In as much as you can ever really know, I seem to be fine too.
When someone writes a suicide note, they expect it to be found — but probably not two decades later, by an older version of themselves. The latter part of mine was a long list of thank-yous to those who had cared about me, like the acknowledgments section of a novel, or an award acceptance speech. And there’s an omission: I forgot to include my brother’s name. I’m not sure what to think about that.
As for the rest of it, well… that’s personal (or PRIVATE). It’s for me, not for you. I even feel like a voyeur when I read it, because really it’s his; the boy that I was.
I’m glad I found it. I have to try to make something positive out of all this, so I see it as a point of reference; a low-water mark. I have my problems, and last year was tough, but I’m not sitting in the dark writing my farewell. And I’ve found that I can talk about this, not just to my wife or my close friends, but publicly. I can see it as a part of my journey up to this point. It was something that happened to me, but it’s not happening anymore, and I survived.
It hurts like hell; no point in lying about that. I still don’t have a word for how it feels to hold that cheap paper in my hands. The note is nothing that should ever have existed, and it serves as both proof and reminder of the worst point of my life. It also scares me, because for a while, it was close.
But I’m here. Hopefully for a while.
I put the note back into the file, reverently. I put the file back into the basement. It’s down there right now, though I don’t remember exactly where I left it this time. Perhaps I’ll stumble upon it again in the future. I hope so.
Because it’s me; it’s mine. My box full of dark stories.
One of them is true.