It wasn’t until he started beckoning for all the other shop assistants to come over and marvel at the amazing, death-defying experience that I had just shared with the young, fit outdoorsy type sales man at CCC that I began to feel sick. Just as my story of jumping from an air craft at over 600 feet over the Pyrenees and the parachute failing to open as I crashed at great speed to the floor, had seemed to water tight. It now seemed had holes that were so big anyone over the age of five could have fit through. Martin and I had joked about different stories we could come up with to explain the anomaly, we had produced a list of no less than twenty seven different explanations as to why my body was so fucked up. The aeroplane/parachute story was never my favourite and I knew why. Firstly, I had never jumped out of a plane in any circumstance and if you are going to lie about something then the general rule is that you have done some pretty good research. Secondly, I didn’t even know off the top of my head where the Pyrenees were so not only had this lie not been thought through properly, it had been based on the assumption that no one should ask me anything back. And finally, if I had indeed fallen 600 feet then I would definitely not be stood in CCC trying to purchase footwear as I would be more likely to be sitting in a brown coloured urn on top of my mother’s fire surround.
Just as I was crap at trying to kill myself, I was also crap about lying, especially about this. It would have only taken someone with the slightest bit of medical knowledge to have realised that you don’t get pancake feet from having a car crash or being bashed onto a rock in a winter storm in the Mediterranean and most certainly from falling out of a plane. It was a shit lie and I knew it and just as easy as it was laying in bed in hospital, coming up with mad stories with Martin, a cheeky guy I had met on the ward, putting them into practice in the real world was not so easy.
I was trying to buy a pair of shoes. In one respect I was extremely lucky that I had thrown myself off a building at a time when comfortable, flat, broad footwear was the in thing. If it hadn’t have been I would have been forced to design an entire new range of shoes. I could have called them ‘Jumpers’ for the over 45’s who desire style, comfort and modesty but with the extra thick soles just in case ATOS find ‘fit for work’ and need to try killing themselves twice, ‘Crush Puppies’ for the 60+ suicide attempter wanting that fashion appeal with extra width and soft leather, ‘Con Hearse’ for the younger mental health patient wanting suicide with style and ‘Step Offs’ for those summer evenings that suit all ages.
Thankfully, I had no need to concern myself with a new designer range to meet the needs of those ‘awkward to fit’ feet on people who jump off tall buildings as this was the 20th century, an age where all ‘crankpots’ could be catered for in the world of feet, where women need not suffer in seven inch, strappy patent leather stilettos no more, for they craved comfort and style and Crocs, Fitflops, Cloggs and Ugg were queuing up to provide for everyone with feet all shapes and sizes without looking like a geek, even for those who have been left with pancake feet like me.
I decided to leave CCC to the people who could walk more than a few foot and shop on the internet to avoid anymore uncomfortable situations that only served the purpose of making me look a total idiot. In the first couple of years, my contact with the outside world was limited. Apart from of my own friendship circles, the local COOP and the checkout staff at Asda, I avoided public contact with anyone other than those who were paying me to tell them my story or for educational purposes only. I struggled to come to terms with ‘the incident’ and the impact this was having on all aspects of my life. It’s such an odd thing to say to people,’ hi, I’m Kathryn, I threw myself off a building, how are you? Somehow it doesn’t seem to flow as smoothly as ‘hi, I’m Kathryn, I have cancer’ or ‘hi, I’m Kathryn, I have been in an car crash on the M1’, another lie that always seem to evoke a response of ‘was it your fault?’ presuming that they are checking out whether I have received an adequate amount of compensation for my misfortune. One thing was for sure, it was never a good chat up line. in the beginning, when I was much slimmer, the perfect diet plan always having being put into a coma, the unfortunate event had earned me some cool, rock and roll ‘hot to trot’ points in certain, dark, alternative circles. A freak sex object, where scary men want weird sex with woman wearing pots and bags and other medical appliances attached. In fact, my increased ability to pull had certainly not gone unnoticed and it wasn’t long before females peers began to show signs of jealously and even consider making the leap themselves.
In the first six weeks of being discharged I had more male attention than I had had for years. Just like ‘normal’ women were draped in their gold jewellery, I was downing new, state of the art, hospital wear. With sexy black pots to my knees, a colostomy bag and skin that looked like I was an Ed Gein victim that he had got bored with half way through slashing. I wined and dined in my super wheelchair . For the more straight folk on the planet it was met with surprise, shock, anger and sometimes fear.
In actual fact agonising over what people knew or didn’t know about the incident was fairly futile, for I had a team a Mental Health professionals involved in my care, following discharge from the Orthopaedic ward, that were doing a great job of spreading the word to their own family and friends, who in turn spread that word to their extended family and friends and by the law of the six degree of separation it wasn’t too long before it got back to me. Upon realising that the story was in fact mine and only mine to tell, I boarded the express locomotion to mental health survivor training. Just like they were getting paid to spread my muck, so was I.
However, the appropriateness of telling people the truth about my little ‘incident’ was to be a continuing theme that later down the line, having been assigned to adopting a slightly more sensible, realistic approach, for economic reasons only, and the fact that I also began to get bored of hearing my own voice repeatedly telling the hilarious but equally uncomfortable and upsetting story, that careful thought and revision was needed when it came to parting this information, for not everyone had the stomach to deal with such a ‘heinous crime’ against oneself. Not everyone would understand that people do not throw themselves off buildings unless they are seriously unwell, just like cancer. Some even thought that it was an outrage. Like I had done it for fun or was particularly bored that day. ‘Oh, what shall I do today, tele is crap, no one wants to go out for a drink, I know I’ll throw myself off a very tall building. It did make me wonder what I should do with myself now given I offend some people so much? ‘Did you not think about your daughter?’ or ‘How selfish of you to do that’ were a few comments that were regularly made. How could I stop being so offensive? Should I consider another suicide attempt? Should I leave all my friends and family again and move to a remote part of the world where no one would have to look at me again? What should I have done?
A few years after my ‘offensive’ act, my close childhood friends mother who coincidentally was also had a diagnosis of bi polar disorder and having suffered many desperate and torturous of years, battling with savage effects chronic mental ill health, tragically took her own life by drowning on a cruel winters night in December.
Hundreds flocked to City Road Cemetery on that day to pay their respects where, in no uncertain terms told by Catherine, who stood so boldly and courageously, ‘MY MUM WAS ILL, JUST LIKE SOMEONE WITH CANCER’ which was a profound and deeply chilling speech served up with a cocktail of anger, grief and shock. Despite me knowing that both her mother and I had been so very ill and despite me knowing that neither incident was personal against anyone or not designed in any way to cause the maximum damage to our loved ones, for the rest of their lives, I stood their feeling as if I had murdered someone, as if I was guilty not just for the ‘crime’ against myself that I had committed, but also hers, for I knew more than anyone else in that room, in that moment, on that day, that I had the only level of understanding about what could have been going through my friends mothers mind in that moment.
The funeral itself left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I looked round at the crowds and wondered how many of those present actually truly felt. Did they all come because they knew and loved her, did they come because they had empathy and understanding for the violent act she had commit against herself or did they come for a bit of ‘voyeurism’? I knew all too well what that looked like from my time in hospital. They rubbernecking associates, imitating compassion and identification with the abnormal spread out in front of them. How much did these people really care? How many minutes of their own lives did they give up to show warmth and understanding before the tragic event? I quietly considered the façade of our daily lives where most intimates, exchange disingenuous, deceptive pleasantries as it is human nature to hurt, betray and deceive the very people we weep into Kleenex for when they lay before us in a wooden casket, when they are gone from this world forever. The adverts posted on social networks ‘Mental Illness affects one in four’, spend a little time with someone who is suffering’ so meaningless as anyone who would tell you to spend time with someone who is so ill they are wanting to ‘end it all’ is not an easy or a very comfortable thing to do. I thought about my own funeral and whether the people who shunned me after coming out of hospital, would have indeed be stood in a room like this weeping in the same way this crowd was, placing their hands on my own child’s shoulder in a gesture of ‘heartfelt sympathy’. Whether the same people in my community who shut their curtains as I wheeled myself up the road in my Neanderthal hospital chair and the people who I thought were my friends, people who I had worked with in Social Work, the very profession itself professing to be ‘non-judgemental, metamorphosed into fickle and untrustworthy individuals would have been stood there, feigning grief whilst satisfying a misrepresented need to mourn their own failures in that hour of darkness we all shall face one day. The bottom line was that I didn’t care, I had humour and I was going to use my gift of ‘The Laugh’ to get through this complex, deep and disturbing situation. If I was going to make a difference to anything and change attitudes, it certainly wasn’t by being angry. A clever combination of openness and the power of the ‘laugh’ moved mountains in helping to explain the illogical the absurd and the inexplicable.
As the months progressed, so did the fear of losing my legs. There were two plus points to this event taking place, one being that I would never have to shop for shoes again, the other being that I would definitely be in for a healthy shot at the ‘Slimmer Of The Week Award’. The infection caused by the equipment used to save my feet, now was the thing that might be reason for losing them, the ultimate price to pay. But this was my cross to bear and mine only. The permanence I would carry on my shoulders for the rest of my life. I didn’t care, for I was alive, I was here to for my family and I was here for my friends, the only thing that mattered. For me, contrary to what others were thinking and feeling about me, my own life was looking fairly good.
People, who had been holding it together for me, keeping their emotions intact and strong, began to spill over. I didn’t feel quite ready for this, not ready to hear the their experiences from their side of things, things I could know little about despite me being physically present in the world, I had been anesthetised, saved from the trauma of other peoples hurt, their intense grief while the doctors battled to save my life. This was an inevitable procedure, an uncomfortable but necessary unburdening of the truths advanced whether I wanted it or not, it was my time to listen. The chapter in the story I could not, and didn’t wish to erase, other people’s experiences of the same event. Their silent commitment through the darkest months had left differing but equally disturbing emotional scaring in my ‘inner circle’. It was their time to heal, their time to depart the story of their journey to me. Some found this harder than others. Those who had had experiences of losing their loved one, their primary carer as a child, their lover or their friend whether through suicide, natural causes or foul play, transferred anger and confusion towards me. Others, just plain shocked, bewildered and frightened. I felt a desperate sense of blame for the plethora of feeling, experiences and past hurts, a sense of blame I couldn’t allow to get into my psyche to prevent me from maintaining the positive stance I had adopted designed to protect, heal and ultimately rebuild.
So the lying and being economical with the truth will continue for as long as I live. A complex conundrum necessary for both protecting myself and others. Just as the power of ‘the laugh’ helps to change attitudes continue, the increase of ignorance and hate, fuelled by government and media, towards people with mental illness and disability continues. Just as there will always be people who love and accept me, there will always be those who don’t. There will always be those who will never accept my experiences but I have the quiet knowledge that one day, they too will have an experience that other people find difficult and may well help them to have more empathy. There will also always be those who I am afraid to tell as I think it is too much for some people to take on board. I am in contact with many people who have learning disability and I am surrounded by children in my private life. I work with disabled people and their carers who are often in extremely distressing situations themselves and I recognise that although this is a part of me I do not wish to deny and that I own my experiences and am proud of myself for being so open, not everyone should know and I will continue with care, to judge the appropriateness of sharing ‘my’ information both in work and in my private life.