Breton tradition calls November “the Black Month”. It’s the month of the dead, set aside for remembering them. For appeasing them. It’s an old tradition which isn’t much kept these days – not now there’s light and heat and even the fiercest winds can be shut out. But still. The Black Month it remains.
It was this time of year that I heard Frankie (not his real name) had died. A few years ago now – and more since I’d seen him. I’ve talked about him before, I think – and probably with a different name each time. I don’t have a problem with that: every year at this time, I find myself thinking about him, and there’s a part of me that desperately wants to mark the passing of time. To remember him.
Frankie lived in my street. We grew up together: he was a couple of years younger than me, but we hung out. His parents were some of my parents’ closest friends, and for a while we were in and out of each others’ houses all the time. I liked him. I did not, as a point of fact, like his best friend (who was entirely dickish, and whose real name I both remember all too well and am not afraid to use, so don’t push me…) but Frankie was one of the good ones.
And then something inside Frankie broke.
It was a kind of sickness I know only too well. Something inside him broke – his heart or his mind – and he sank into the kind of depression there’s no hope of pulling out of by yourself. He spiralled down and down, and the further you go the harder it is to pull up. His family rescued him – or thought they had, at least… right until they buried him a couple of weeks later.
His death frightened me. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of years, and the last time I had it had been a strange conversation across his kitchen table; his house empty and quiet. The man sitting across the table from me hadn’t been the boy I’d known, and it was more than just time. It was like something was eroding him; chipping away. I’d asked him for a favour and given him my mobile number – more as a pretext to give him my number than because I wanted anything. He shrugged and nodded and he never called.
His death frightened me – that conversation frightened me – because it wasn’t a surprise. I’ve tangled with depression enough to spot a fellow traveller, and I know the path well enough to know where it leads. The woods are dark and full of voices, and few of them are friendly.
I was lucky. Frankie was not.
That’s all it was: luck. It wasn’t about strength or determination or about someone telling either of us to hang on in there. I got treatment that worked: I had a sympathetic GP who slapped me with a prescription for Citalopram, and told me we would Deal With This. And we did. And when it came back, I had another sympathetic GP who listened and nodded and told me I was an idiot for not wanting to go back onto medication and good god, no, of course they weren’t going to section me what was I thinking and did he need to add paranoia to the already sizeable list of symptoms I was presenting? And when I needed to come off the drugs he pulled every string and moved heaven and earth and got me in front of a therapist – a guy barely a year older than me who was just finishing off his training and whose management of my own particular brand of crazy will surely stand him in good stead for many, many years to come.
And all the while I was being put back together, Frankie was falling apart. Not long after I finished my treatment, I got the phone call telling me he had taken his own life.
Luck. That’s all it was.
Luck in that I had the support of a marvellous doctor – several marvellous doctors. Luck in that there was a therapist there when I needed one. Luck in that I had – and continue to have – the most astonishingly patient and supportive friends who raise an eyebrow at my antics and file it under “Lou’s Special Crazy” and look right through it. They’re the most understanding people in the world, I think, even if they don’t know it.
So every year, as we head into November, I always find myself thinking the same things. I think about Frankie, and I remember him. I think about the way things could have gone – for either of us. I think about the reason my story is so different from his… and I remember not just the dead but so many of the living.
Because without them, I wouldn’t be here.