It's cliché to say we need to 'talk about' mental health, but for Ben Smoke, 2017 was the year in which learning to reach out might well have saved a life.
It might sound cliché to say we need to 'talk about' mental health. Certainly talking alone won't solve the crisis. But for Ben Smoke, 2017 was the year in which learning to reach out might well have helped a disaster be avoided.
I’ve never really been a fan of Soundgarden. Nor Audioslave. I dabbled with them when I was 11, ‘discovered’ grunge and promptly decided to add it into circulation on my MP3 player. I never really listened to Linkin Park willingly. It was always in smoke filled rooms as a teenager, when someone else was in control of the music. The same goes for K-pop, though in those instances the smokey rooms of my teens were replaced with those of my early twenties.
In 2017, Chris Cornell, Chester Bennington and JongHyun all took their own lives. All three were musicians. All three were high profile deaths. Unexpected. Unexplained, for a time at least.
I can’t explain why, and I know it’s certainly not a compulsion unique to me, but each time the news broke, I found myself gravitating to Spotify. I’m not really sure what I expected to gain from listening to songs of artists I didn’t have any emotional connection to, but I did it regardless.
It will come as no great surprise that each of them had songs that pertained to the experience of depression. To the emptiness and isolation that would eventually drive them to take their own lives. Jonghyun’s most listened to track is entitled ‘Lonely’, something which later he referenced in the suicide note he left, released posthumously on his friend’sIinstagram. Soundgarden’s top track is entitled ‘Black Hole Sun’, whilst Linkin Park has offerings including ‘Numb’.
The official figures won’t be released until December 2018, but approximately 6,000 people will have taken their own lives this year by the time Big Ben starts to chime in midnight. According to the Samaritans Suicide Report, 75% of these will have been men.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 20 and 49. Charities like Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) have been set up with the aim of bringing down the male suicide rate.
This year, I came closer to become one of those statistics than I have in a long time. Just as the summer was really hitting its stride, I dropped into a deep and dark depression. It engulfed me so fast, I barely had time to reach out before I was under. Looking out on life playing out around me, I screamed and screamed and screamed for help, but only I could hear it. Those screams would stay in my head, grow and grow in volume, sharpen themselves and turn on me, lacerating my brain.
Chester Bennington died on 20 July. I logged into my Facebook and watched the tributes to him rack up.
Someone shared a video of ‘Numb’, so I clicked on it and listened to the chorus: “I’ve become so numb, I can feel you there, become some tired, so much more aware.” I turned it off, thinking ‘yeah – same pal’.
The summer months fell into one another, and I circled around the drain of my own mortality. I thought seriously about a lot of things. I spent hours sat in the bath after it had drained, fighting with myself over a razor – though I’m not sure which side I was on.
All the while, when I had the energy to socialise, I’d be the best version of myself: laughing, smiling, koking around. There are photos of me at Notting Hill carnival where I’m stood posing with friends, warm red stripe in hand, covered in glitter, all the while wondering whether I’d make it to the end of the day.
About a month and a half after he died, Chester Bennington’s wife shared a video on Twitter. It was a video of Chester sitting around with his children, playing a game where they sampled different flavoured jelly beans. He’s laughing, smiling, and joking around. He picks up a jelly bean, puts it in his mouth and immediately spits it back out, laughing and retching at the taste.
— Talinda Bennington (@TalindaB) September 16, 2017
I watched that video over and over again, and suddenly it was five years before. I was in my flat, writing a suicide note. Eight hours before, I’d say goodbye to my mum, all smiles and jokes. A few days before that, I’d been out with friends drinking, smoking and dancing. For my friends and family at the time, that’s what depression looked like. It’s what an attempted suicide was about to look like.
I realised that, it was what depression looked like for them now too. I reached out. I wrote to my friends. I posted on my social media channels. I talked to people, and they were there to listen. To help pick me up.
For me 2017 has been a whirlwind. At dinner the other night someone said “I feel like I’ve lived 3 different lives this year” and it feels like that rings true for so many of us. As we barrel into 2018, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I’ve learnt and how I’ve changed.
Without doubt, the biggest thing that 2017 has taught me is to reach out. To let the people that love me in, behind the shiny veneer of the armour I construct around myself. To smile less when I don’t feel like smiling, and more when I do. To show the people I love and trust the real face of my mental health, not just the one that I think makes me palatable.
When I first listened to the chorus in Linkin Park’s ‘One More Light’, two lines leapt out, and I immediately discounted them:
‘Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do.’ I finish 2017, with the help of everyone around me, being able to say that now, I do too. I really do.
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