Louise was normally a confident passenger, happy to sleep while I was driving long distances. But on this occasion, she couldn’t settle and sat watching the road ahead anxiously. It was 2 AM and we were driving a strange hire car in the dark on unfamiliar Sicilian motorways, returning to our holiday villa a couple of hours south after a long, happy but tiring day trip to Mount Etna and the chic resort of Taormina. I was tired, feeling unwell, and driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. Louise was alert to the risk of an accident. Three months before she took her life, her will to live – her instinctive desire for survival – was strong. This was not somebody who treated life carelessly. She valued it and did not want to die.
Before I met Louise, my attitudes towards mental illness and suicide were probably typical of those of the population at large; they were signs of weakness, a deficiency in character. I probably even fell back on the tired old cliché that sufferers simply needed to exercise a degree of resolve and ‘pull themselves together.’ While many people were enduring ‘real’ physical ailments, I could find within myself little patience or understanding for something as complex and intangible as a troubled mind. Only the vulnerable and needy experienced mental ill-health. Suicide was a form of cowardice.
Nothing, I now know, could be further from the truth. Louise was as far removed from my antediluvian stereotype as it is possible to be. Independent, resourceful, and a natural optimist, she loved life with a passion that puts most of us to shame and lived it every day with a glorious, inspiring sense of hope, opportunity, generosity, and vigor. Louise was, quite simply, the happiest person that I have ever met. She would frequently cuddle up to me at night and simply declare ‘I’m so happy.’ The light in her eyes did not lie.
But neither did it tell the whole story. For reasons unknown to all but those closest to her, Louise suffered periodically from anxiety and depression throughout her adult life. At the age of barely 18, she demonstrated remarkable insight and maturity when describing something of this state of mind in a school leavers’ booklet so acutely that it was instantly recognizable to me when it was brought to my attention after her death, 22 years later.
To battle a debilitating darkness of mind for a lifetime is extraordinarily exhausting and requires incredible bravery just to summon up the strength and the will to keep going. I saw the daily struggle during those periods when Louise was unwell, when her head was, as she described it, so full of a cacophony of destructive and doubting thoughts that it was impossible for her to escape, to switch off.
I saw how much energy this consumed, how it corroded self-belief and led to uncertainty, indecision, and restlessness. I saw and admired Louise’s openness and honesty in confronting the illness and the way in which she sought to take responsibility for it and identified and pursued means of throwing it off. I came to understand how little a part reason or logic could play in soothing such troubles, the futility of rationalization.
I came to learn that mental illness is as real, insidious, and dangerous as any other one that sufferers have no more control over than they would cancer or multiple sclerosis.
And I came to be in awe of Louise’s resilience and fortitude, not only in enduring the illness but fighting back, never allowing it to define or limit her. To be the person that Louise was, to achieve what she did both professionally and personally, even had she been always completely well, would have made her very special. But to do it all despite the recurring illness made her quite remarkable.
That same bravery followed Louise right to the very end. I know, both from conversations beforehand and the content of her farewell letter, that Louise saw what she was doing as a pragmatic answer to her mental torment. In her muddled thinking at the time, she also looked upon it as a means of releasing me from the stress and challenge of a wife with mental illness.
Louise had enough spirit and tenacity to fight the darkness hard, right up to the very last moments. As that episode in Sicily illustrated, her survival instincts remained strong. She didn’t want to die and had no comforting vision or expectation of an afterlife to fall back on – her Christianity always focused on the grace in this life. But having identified what seemed to be a practical solution she acted on it for her sake and, as she thought, for mine.
Here I must split my mind in two. There is no romance or redemption in suicide. It is always messy and tragically wasteful. It leaves loved ones with unique emotional scars. I still cannot easily fully describe what I witnessed. Not because I lack the words but because I am afraid of setting the tightly held memory free to roam. Even though I understand why Louise was driven to take her life, where the bleakness of thought and outlook had led her, and that I understand it was not an act of free will because of the malign power exerted by the illness, I am still taunted by the cruel needlessness of it.
Nevertheless, it is possible, even while loathing the act and the shattering consequences, to recognize the logic that sat behind Louise’s decision and the incredible courage, generosity, and determination it must have taken to arrive at this point and then follow her thought processes through.
We tend not to think of suicide as a rational act. Even here I have talked of Louise’s confusion and muddled thinking. But rationality is the luxury of a healthy mind. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to avoid the grip of darkness are in no real position to sit in judgment on what makes sense from deep within it. Oblivion must appear to be at the very least a viable alternative to life when you are so tortured, know that you have been tortured in the past, and believe that you will go on to experience the same torture over and over again in the future.
Within the context of her illness as it was affecting her at that moment in time, Louise’s desire for escape from the pain was no different to that of somebody with a severe disability who seeks a form of assisted dying.
The tragedy came in the temporary nature of that pain, the certainty of eventual respite if she had only been able to hold on a little longer.
But regardless of how wrong and misguided we – who are well – can see the act to have been, it was a far braver and more selfless thing than I or most of us would ever be capable of. The easy option would have been to continue to try to muddle through but, as always, Louise went a step beyond, to do what she thought was necessary and right. And typically, even during her distress, she was thinking of others, applying herself to what, in her mind, was the best outcome for me and attempting in her last moments to protect me from its immediate impact.
Louise was not, therefore, guilty of weakness, cowardice, or selfishness. On the contrary, she was the strongest and most giving person I have ever been privileged to know. Her determination in her long battle against mental illness and her monumental courage to follow through with such a drastic solution are testament to her remarkable character. Louise died in the way she lived: courageously, practically, and imbued with love and generosity of spirit. Her only fault, it turned out, was that ultimately, she was too brave.