I’m trying to find the words but I can’t ? pic.twitter.com/FY3ppLzqsA
— Laura Whitmore (@thewhitmore) February 15, 2020
I didn’t know Caroline, not like her friends and family would have.
I’ve been carefully considering whether to comment on the terribly sad situation that played out on the 15th February. I had met Caroline Flack a couple of times through extra work, and she always seemed really pleasant and professional, a far cry from how the press portrayed her.
I didn’t know Caroline, not like her friends and family would have. I never shared laughs, in-jokes, or danced with her at our friend’s weddings. We never agreed to disagree on subjects that mattered to us both as we held polarised views. I never stroked her hair as she slept or made sure her feet were tucked under a blanket like her parents likely did countless times as she grew into the woman people would get to know on TV.
I’ve weighed up the fear of writing something about this against my passion for sharing my experience on difficult subjects like suicide. I guess in writing this, I am adding to the flurry of Internet commentary about someone who, let’s face it, above everything deserves her peace. However, I’m also helping those still suffering by providing hope and knowledge from the perspective of someone who survived.
Every year, around 800,000 people die by suicide globally. Let’s try and visualise that number for a moment. It’s twice the population of the Bahamas, nearly nine full Wembley Stadiums or eight times the number of people at the Super Bowl—that’s a vast amount of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a tragic loss of life that’s often shrouded by judgement, shame, and questions and if we can open these lines of conversation, maybe we’ll help save some lives.
The thing with having a public persona is that people think they know you. You’ve been in their homes via their TV and magazines and on their phone screens where you’ve shared curated parts of yourself. But I see people as having at least three personas.
Alongside the public one that everyone gets to see, there is a private and intimate persona too.
The private is one your close friends and family understand and enjoy and below that there is the intimate persona. The one most people keep entirely to themselves for fear that if someone saw it, they would be so repulsed, so shocked that they would not be able to love us. The intimate persona we keep hidden, our inner critic, our emotional disgust and shame, and this is the issue I see with suicide. It’s often a lonely and intimate decision, made and completed in private no matter how many people you have in your life.
Many years back, I attempted suicide. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it happened.
I really wanted to die too. I’ve never felt as alone or at peace with a decision once I’d made it. There was such clarity. I was doing everyone a favour. They’d all be better off without me, and I had convinced myself that no one would miss me. Mostly I thought people would be relieved, that the substantial burden of having me in their life would finally be over and they could all live happily ever after and I, I could finally get some rest. No more inner turmoil. No more pretending. After all, continually trying to keep everyone happy and ensure the intimate persona is kept hidden is exhausting.
I was surrounded by my family when I made my attempt; we were having a family birthday party. In my suicidal state, I imagined me drifting off quietly into the background, unnoticed, and my family being happy and oblivious. This was not the case. As my body began to shake with the effects of the pills I had ingested, I panicked, and part of me decided I wanted to live. My family’s reaction was such a shock to me; they wanted me alive.
I was lucky—I got help. I was saved.
Years later, I still feel guilty. Especially as even after that experience, after seeing the devastation I left, I can’t promise my remarkable, loving, and supportive family that it won’t happen again. The issue with mental illness is that even when you seemingly have it all on the outside—in Caroline’s case fame, money, great job, millions of fans; in my case, loads of great friends, a supportive family, a roof over my head, and a flourishing business I have built from scratch—it’s ultimately the intimate persona who runs the show. Even if everyone thinks you’re the most amazing person in the world, if you can’t understand it, it won’t register.
When someone in the public eye takes their own life, it’s a wake-up call for us all, especially when it’s someone familiar, a comparable age to you and your friends, it brings home just how delicate the balance between life and death really is. It’s a short, sharp reminder of how quick and final that decision to take your life is. And without wanting to glamorise it, for some of us, it’s a reminder of how tranquil it feels to take back control of your life and decide to stop the pain only you know and understand. But for every celebrity, there are thousands more who remain unknown but to those who loved them. The hole that is left when someone leaves via suicide is unmeasurable. There are so many unanswered questions, and often you are left angry, frustrated, and confused as well as being floored by grief.
I feel so fortunate that I found therapy, plus the courage and tenacity to show up and work through my past traumas. I don’t criticise anyone who would prefer to avoid their emotional pain—therapy can be a rough road. Since completing years of treatment, I’ve felt so much lighter and way more able to cope day-to-day. I have a dedicated self-practice of meditation, EFT tapping, journaling, and yoga. I have a strong determination to improve my diet and live a 99 percent sober life; doing all this helps keep my symptoms at bay. You may think, “All that hard work and yet you still can’t promise it won’t happen again?!” But, the point is, all this work has made the gaps between wanting to die much more broad, so there is more space for me to enjoy living. I’m just so devastated Caroline and all the others we have lost to suicide didn’t find what may have worked for them.
There’s a significant societal conversation to be had around suicide, outside of the glaringly obvious way women are unfairly represented and treated in the media. This conversation involves the press producing commercialised stories of people’s weight loss/gain, aging, miscarriages, relationship breakups, and choices of partner or sexual preference, things which, let’s face it, are hard enough to deal with without someone shoving a camera in your face or having to read about it in the paper every day for weeks on end.
Then there is the matter of social media and the links to mental health deterioration. How online trolling is out of hand, and anyone’s personal life can be turned into a meme overnight and shared willy-nilly for cheap laughs. Or the emerging trend (which makes me vom in my mouth) of influencers sharing screenshots of private text messages to prove that they were the closest to the deceased and really did try to help while they were still alive.
The question we have to ask ourselves with all this going on is, is this a society we can be proud to be part of?
The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics states that the newest rate taken in 2018 is significantly higher than in 2017 and represents the first increase in suicides since 2013. However, the data shows figures are less than in the 1980s and had been dropping year on year until the 2018 rise. So, maybe all is not lost? There could be many risk factors adding to this increase. Social, cultural, and psychological factors can all lead a person to suicidal thoughts or behaviour. Some noted risk factors include access to mental health services and care, stigma, inappropriate media reporting around subjects of suicide, mental health, substance abuse, and self-harm. Austerity, relationship breakdowns, financial issues, chronic pain, and trauma.
What I’ve learned through my experience of suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, and surviving stages of my life where I had to decide not to take my life multiple times per day is that it doesn’t matter how many people love you, if you can’t feel love for yourself you won’t believe what other people say anyway. Everything starts from the inside out. Yes, there may be external factors as mentioned above, but there are many examples of people who have suffered horrendous trauma and abuse and not attempted suicide. So how do we teach people there are other ways? That life is worth living and that more than anything, they are loved and needed in this world? I believe through self-love and compassion for self and others.
The people online trolling, commenting, sharing memes, and making jokes are all likely dealing with their own internal pain. Their intimate persona is playing out unresolved emotional issues and trying to make themselves feel better by bringing someone else down. A kind of f*cked-up game of emotional tag, where if you chuck enough of your pain and anger out to others, you won’t have to carry it yourself. If we all began to do inner work, the love that is shared publicly and personally would be received and felt instead of discarded and batted off. You can see Caroline was loved; the outpouring of shock and collective grief is palpable, but based on what happened, it appears she didn’t know.
What if we could share our internal pain without fear, and truly feel all the love and support we had in the world?
Then the connection between public, personal, and intimate personas could be reached so we could find inner tranquility. No more fear of being found out. No more exhausting days and nights of pretending to be someone you’re not. When we reach this state, the cruel, unnecessary remarks of strangers don’t matter as they don’t reflect how we truly fell about ourselves underneath the perceived fame, money, and success.
This isn’t to say that with more self-love Caroline would have been able to shrug off how the media treated her—it wouldn’t. It’s terrifying to think that these modern-day witch hunts still take place with keyboards in hand instead of pitchforks and torches. But what I’ve learned over the years is when you hold yourself in high esteem, what others think matters less and less. In this current paradigm of celebrity, the haves and have nots, the belief you can have it all if you work hard enough and strive a bit more, we’re all destined to fail. Unless we begin to build our inner realms to be as strong as others perceive our outer worlds, we’ll always be living in despair, and that’s where the risk of suicide lives, in a world of separateness and fear.
I have no question that there are millions of people mourning the death of Caroline, the friends and family members with unanswered questions, wondering if they could have done something more. To them, I say: in my experience, when you’re in that space of facing death, it’s a calm, peaceful, and comforting space. It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there. I hope she found her peace. Try not to be angry with her and call her selfish. You cannot judge unless you’ve been there.
So how do we move on from here? Will we all go back to normal next week as the following sensation breaks? Maybe we’ll all post on social media about how things should be different, and we should all be more kind to each other while in the next breath picking up a copy of The Sun and diving into the celebrity section. Maybe we’ll not activate change because we’re tired and it’s not our fault, it’s the press and social media’s fault. We won’t visit our loving and elderly Nan or call our dearest friends more often; we won’t be the better lover we promised to be because maybe, underneath it all, it’s easier to pretend we’re happy. It’s easier to point our fingers at others, as to face our inner demons all seems like too much hard work for some.
If you are suffering from the issues represented in this article please contact The Samaritans.
If you need someone to talk to the Samaritans provide 24/7 access to trained listeners. Call them any time, day or night. Whatever you’re going through, you can call them any time, from any phone for FREE from the UK: call 116 123.
Sometimes writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you understand them better. So you can also now email [email protected] and they will reply within 24 hours.