June is the cruelest month. Short days, frosty mornings. Winter's slap is always a nasty surprise, lulled, as we are, into a false sense of security by Autumn's beautiful shambles. Its easy to get the blues, feel seasonally unloved. For some, the weather and weight of worries is just too much and the week before last a lovely man I knew took his own life. He had a smile as big as Africa, but behind it unhappiness had hurt his heart one too many times and the cold got into his bones.
I felt shock hearing of his death. Followed closely by guilt, as I realised it had been at least a year since I'd seen him somewhere that wasn't Facebook. I didn't know him well, but I really liked him. He was one of those people who make the world better by living in it. Now he doesn't and I didn't get a chance to tell him.
Reading the many tributes to this sunny free spirit, this same thought was repeated over and over by other Facebook friends: 'Hadn't seen him for ages...', 'wish we'd caught up...' The time had slipped by and we just hadn't noticed. And noticing each other is what friendship is all about. Friendship, and the act of displaying it: touching base, meeting up for drinks, talking utter bullshit, is a way of saying, 'I see you', 'you matter' – and you simply cannot do this over the internet. Friendship needs hugs, pokes in the belly and hair ruffling. Friendship is hands-on sort of stuff. Because you don't know if someone is really alright until you ask them, to their face, and see the answer in their eyes.
Your friends are the wall you wail to. Friends put up with personality traits a mother doesn’t love. They advise against skinny jeans and dating men who own small dogs. They never chide you for drinking that last tequila and take you to the Farmer’s Market the morning after for a bacon buttie to feed your hangover. Friends know your secrets (and keep them), your deepest fears and were there at your most embarrassing moments (taking photos). Without your friends, you would be that woman talking to herself in the pasta aisle. Yes, friendship is messy. Red things get spilled on white carpet. Glasses and ornaments are broken, people laugh and accidentally spit on you. Maintaining friendship is an effort, a constant fleshy broil of loud noise and bad jokes and I can see why sometimes, a quick text is the extent of our bothering.
But no no no my dears, the fact is we will forever be too far out all our lives, and not waving but drowning, without our friends. Friendship is an expression of shared humanity, acknowledging we are just pitiful squeaking creatures parked on the face of the planet and that the best thing to do would be huddle together. Because its a marvel anyone will put up with our stupid tics and grumbles, a miracle anyone wants to be our friend, cares if we live or die.
As Chris Barton writes in this month's North&South, New Zealand has one of the most restrictive regimes on suicide reporting as well as a persistently high suicide rate, hinting our silence about it isn't working. Suicide loves a secret, is, as Chris says, “devious and cagey; morose and brutal. It infects with misery, creeping anguish ... hides in plain sight cloaked in shame, dishonour and mortal sin.” We don't like to talk about it, but those affected by a sudden, violent gap in their lives actually want and need to talk about it. And anyone contemplating their own untimely end must be able to feel they can tell someone, ask for help. That dialogue is possible, and welcome.
So make sure the people in your life know how much you love them, how blessed you feel to call them 'friend'. When you ask, “How are you?,” really listen to the answer. Even those satellite friends, glimmering on the edges of your solar system yet adding to its illumination – don't let your affection for them be a mystery. It is only by banding together that we can keep out the darkness, turn our backs on the fat-fingered goblins of gloom. Keep in touch and keep eyeballing each other.
Helplines: Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828-865; Lifeline 0800 543-354; Depression Helpline 0800 111-757. More information at www.spinz.org.nz and depression.org.nz