Every year, around this sort of time, I start to get jittery. When I take in the date, it all starts to become clear as to what the cause is. The 2nd of March is the day my former lover, Brian, killed himself.
It was a gruesome business. And his death was as dramatic as his life. At the time, we were, curiously, living apart. Me in East London, acting as Land Claim’s Commissioner for a while; he in Pietermaritzurg. We would meet, every now and again, as schedules allowed, at our home in Johannesburg.
Previously Brian had worked for Rentokil, but now he had grand designs of running his own business. I subsequently found that this business wasn’t working at all. But despite this, he had delusions of grandeur. He lived in a dreary little garden flatlet near the university in Pietermaritzburg, and to pay for his staff and his own lifestyle, he started pimping himself out through adverts in the newspapers, going under the name “Steve”.
This shocked me, a little, when I found out about it after his death, but it didn’t surprise me. I was a bit concerned about the HIV factor and when I heard about rumours to that effect after his death, I went around to all the local pharmacies, to try to discover whether or not he had been on anti-retrovirals or not. It was a fruitless task, which led me nowhere.
Brian, in a fit of madness really, had set up the suicide event, so that I would be the first person to find him. He was hanging from one of the gum tree rafters of our thatch, on a dog lead. And I suppose it is as he would have wanted it - that I would never get that image out of my head.
I went into immediate therapy, firmly resolved that I was not going to give up my house because of the spectre which his death presented. It was his choice, I rationalised, not mine. So I refused to leave my house, where we had lived for the past 7 years and where he had chosen to hang himself. His last message to me, which out of some kind of embarrassment, or projectile judgement on my part, I hid from the police for a while. It read something like this: “Now you can have all the things you have always wanted - the house, the car etc”. and that was that! No “And I really love you” or “I’m sorry it has to end like this’. But there it was.
These are the raw memories to the event. As I said, I went into trauma therapy immediately. My therapist was an Afrikaner woman, who was married to a Chinese man. In the days when she must have married him, when Apartheid was rampant, this must have been an extremely radical thing to do. She was mild mannered, but extremely clear and forthright. She was also a person who could show a genuine sense of understanding and compassion.
Her major work was with perpetrators of violence. With the people who had tortured and killed people during the apartheid era, in particular. I once asked her how she managed to cope psychologically with this. How did she deal, day after day with these most vile criminals, who had, through their actions, inflicted the most terrible pain on others. Her answer was startling. She said, “I just keep on thinking, that person could be me”.
For a long time, from that moment on, that thought haunted me. I wondered if it was possible for me to also be a perpetrator of violence. I felt myself, in my partner’s death, to be a victim of the violence of his death. I felt angry with him, shocked by what he had done to me. Could it possibly be that I too could be capable of the same thing?
Over the months of counselling which I had, I came to realise that it was certainly possible. Not because I am a particularly violent person, or a vengeful one, or a bad one. But simply because I am an ordinary one, who does, on occasion, make bad decisions.
One of the most interesting things which I discovered on my journey to calm, after the storm that was his death was that many suicides think that they will somehow “live” to extract the vengeance they seek. “I will kill myself, and then…”. They are incapable of seeing that there is no “…and then”.
Then I started with serious, uncontrollable and surprising flashbacks. The therapist started the fairly new and as yet untested EMDR (Eye Movement Desentsitization and Reprocessing therapy). It was a very strange process, involving you thinking about the things you were troubled by. And while you were doing that, she would wave her finger, or hand slowly backwards and forwards in front of your face.
I wept, I howled, I railed, I sat silently bubbling. But, my heavens, did it work! The terror had its sting drawn from it. I could face it again. I could walk away from it, momentarily. (It would be back, but some of the terror would be gone). And so it would lessen and grow weak. It would never disappear completely, but it would grow weaker.
It certainly worked. Within three months, I had no more terror attacks. Brian had closed all the curtains in the house and consequently,I could not allow curtains to b e closed, under any circumstances – for many months. But eventually, this too faded.All of the strange effects that violence and that shock had on me, have passed. What is left behind is a whisper and a trace. And fond memories of the man.
So, if you have had a trauma, of some kind – don’t get spooked by the idea of EMDR. It really works. Even for those with a serious attempt to keep their minds operating, without resort to what could so easily look like hocus-pocus. Because, as we all know, "There are more things on heaven and earth than you have ever dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio”. This is one of them.