Death By Suicide Comes In The Guise Of A Suitor


There’s a very funny moment in an early Jim Carrey stand-up when he’s impersonating Jimmy Stewart’s irrepressible optimism. In Stewart’s Mid-Atlantic drawl Carrey greets Death with, ‘Wull, Hullo Mr Death! You look like you could use some soup!’

Implacable, Death makes no reply.

Carrey conjures him as we mostly imagine – a spectral waif drained of life, maybe an inky floating stain like a Harry Potter Dementor. Carrey reckons you can warm Death up, farcically, with soup.

Our most recent celebrity applicant to Death, Robin Williams battled with Demons like this, didn’t he? His Depression was a terrible foe, a hoary-headed beast, a dark nightmare cast in long gothic shadows harboring Succubae and Holy Terrors.

As it happened the day Williams took his life, I was in the jaws of the Black Dog, getting a proper mauling. It coincided with a third bout of suicide ideation since my daughter became ill without diagnosis over two years ago.

The news seeped through my online feeds like a cool reprieve. Death had lulled the howling dog interminably braying in his chaotic brain. I wondered did Death appear to Robin as his favourite Screen Siren, and did she keep her promise of peace.

For Death, under the guise of Depression is no Demon. What makes him so vastly terrible is that he looks like George Clooney. He slips around a doorframe, steps quietly to your side, turns his palm to you and intones with velvety intent, ‘Come lie with me and be my love’.

You find yourself replying in a little wet meepy voice, ‘um, ok George Clooney thanks, that might be really nice’.

It isn’t desirous, for there is no appetite at this point in Depression. It isn’t romance either. It is vintage betrothal, a contractual exchange, bathed in the white light of irradiated solace. The decoy has been elaborately staged over months, sometimes years.

It’s a tale of necrotizing tedium, which I won’t go into here, of how Death first appeared to me as some kind of benign suitor. He singles you out, spies you across the centuries. He lurks in certain places, locks eyes with you at a funeral, casino or Centrelink office.

Death’s eye fell on me in the crowded emergency waiting room at the Royal Children’s Hospital, under the two-story tropical fish tank, where the sharks circle the surface.

Seeing you alone in these sites of despair too often he takes an interest, picks you off and steers you away from the crowd. From that moment he assigns you your very own breed of Black Dog – sleepy Labrador, manic Jack Russell, shivering Whippet, snarling Rottweiler – to come sniffing under your door.

The day my publisher declined a 10-year manuscript, Death made his second call, corralling me in a way station near Avalon up the Hume Hwy. I’d driven that far trying to deflect the image of a pipe running back into the car from the exhaust.

I knew that as a Mummy, particularly of a child suffering far more than me, I had no choice but to turn back. Yet after U-turning, driving in the direction of my life gave me the shakes, so I pulled in to a way station and stared at the sky.

Death lay in wait, as they say. He detained me for six numb hours until I finally fathomed that if I went with him he’d start working on my girls. If I suicide I’ll give Death custody of my children.

Then the paralysis shed like a skin, I could flip up my seat, fire the engine and head back home. They say your children keep you going and it’s true, particularly so when they’re sick.

The loss of Williams reminds us not everyone sees the other side to the allure and consolation of Death. He enlists 2,415 Australians each year, nearly seven of us each day, more often men, more often over 80 years, but with a trend toward men in their middle years, younger than Williams, who are also more likely to die by hanging.

Far more often they are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, or Gay, by a significant margin of tragedy. Also significant, as William’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s suggests, is chronic illness and how it might be a tipping point for existing anxiety or depression.

So we’re familiar with depression as a terrible foe. But when Death by suicide imperils a life it comes under the guise of a charming benefactor, an alleviator of torment.

It’s worth familiarizing ourselves with his mesmerizing shape-shifting. I’ve grasped that a few days in his thrall is as anti-climactic as a few days in bed with flu.

The few times I’ve had it out with Death and managed to fend the fucker off, I’ve trailed a victory banner from the blimp of my circumstantial depression, and each time that blimp rides a little higher in the sky, I like to imagine, out of his cool reach.

* Readers who need help with depression can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636. For people in crisis, Lifeline’s number is 13 11 14.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.