This is the story of my daughter, Philippa, who died by suicide in February 2015. Philippa was 33 years old when she died, a prolific writer and accomplished actor leaving a significant legacy of poetry and fiction. Using some of both, this paper gives an account of her life and death. It will explore the blackness and despair that can torment the creative mind—and which certainly plagued hers—but it aims to unmask the beautiful behind the sadness and some hope after death.
Philippa was born in Surrey in 1981 and we moved to Winchester in 1984. At the age of nine her school teacher, who came to her funeral all those years later, told me that, while always cautious about predicting what a child might do, she was fairly sure Philippa would be a writer. Here is one of Philippa’s poems, that gives the title of this piece.
‘We danced’, by Philippa Tatham
I don’t know what to
We had done it before
For seconds at a time
Though you didn’t
As a rule
As a rule
But in that room atop the rain and the streets
Steeped in a heat, in a haze that blotted us awhile
Safe and away from the white city eyes
We were drunk
And as some sound struck up from somewhere
Your arms fell around me
Your body fell around me
And we flickered, sunk between who we were
And though we don’t
Though we never
Still our hands pressed together in the old fashioned way
My head leant against you in that age old play
Of being …
And though we don’t
Though we aren’t
Yet in that moment
A highly educated person, she knew about grammar and punctuation; both are deliberate in all of her poetry; and so the reproductions remain faithful to it.
As well as dancing her way through life with her beloved, and with many friends and family, Philippa performed. She made a stage debut in a ‘send your children up’ bit in a pantomime at the age of three, and was then hooked. At the age of six she was acting locally.
Acting and writing were all she wanted to do. She had a most creative spirit, and studied drama at Bristol, where she attained a First. She was always a high achiever and, typical of such, she suffered with anorexia. Twice in her life, at 13 and 23, she took herself to the brink of starvation, pulling herself back at the last minute each time.
She went to London in 2004 and joined a street theatre project in Southwark. In the ten or so following years before she died she performed in more productions than I can remember, and we went to most of them.
Outside, inside, underground, over pub theatres, the Rose playhouse, the Minack, Paris gardens somewhere, the Isle of Dogs; in all those places where the striving and talented act, Philippa was there. She loved Shakespeare and played Sebastian, Autolocus and, joy of joy, was cast as Helena at the Rose Playhouse and Beatrice in St Albans with the Rooftop theatre. She created a huge network of friends who loved her personal discipline and encouraging ways. Dozens of them came on the 10.40 from Waterloo on 6 March 2015, and walked down the road to the church for her funeral Mass. They didn’t understand why she had taken her life. As the coroner at her inquest pointed out to her doctor, she was an accomplished actor and she let very few people know her darkest and most tragic feelings.
And she wrote; oh how she wrote. She had a laptop or notebook with her all the time, and was always tapping away. On the sofa, in bed, on the train, wherever she was, she was writing novels, plays, a ten-year narrative diary called ‘London’, and her poetry. Some of her plays were performed or read in the London writers’ underground network. A year after she died, her friends at the Tower Theatre in Islington held an evening called ‘Not quite a story’ where they read and performed her poetry. To have talented actors performing her work: what a gift for us, her family, to hear her sonnets, ballads, quatrains, cautionary tales, odes: she adopted many styles in her poesy.
She didn’t manage to make a living out of these arts though, like so many, so she worked as a receptionist to pay the bills. So now we hear the problem.
The Song of the Arts Student
I got all As in my exams
Got a first class degree
And so at work, you know, I am
The best at making tea.
They always said that I’d go far
That my analyses
On Freud and Plato were gold star
But now I make the tea
I’m good at coffee too, and cake
I file and type quite finely
I fill the printers, and I make
The boardroom tea sublimely
I screen all calls and order flowers
I smile and book your travel
I stare at Facebook hours on hours
And let my mind unravel
I listen to your pains and woes
Arrange your birthday supper
I buy your gifts, dry clean your clothes
Then brew you up a cuppa
I once read Milton, Keats and Joyce
Once wept at Shakespeare’s sonnets
I studied war, peace, Hobson’s choice
And eighteenth cent’ry bonnets
I marked the death cries at Culloden
Used words non-ironi-cally
Like ‘ribald,’ ‘infer’ and ‘postmodern’
So that’s now how I make tea.
For I have grown up, and away,
From such tomfoolery
And the cleverest thing you’ll hear me say
Is ‘How’d you like your tea?’
For Chomsky does not pay too well
De Beauvoir is a pauper
So it’s better not, when skint, to dwell
On Sartre, Pope or Chaucer
For pens are bought on broken dreams
And toilets cleaned with hoping
And once ambition’s burst its seams
You cannot keep on moping.
To earn half-decent wages, you
Must smarten up, like me
And leave your books, they’ll never do
And learn to make good tea.
She also knew how to love and enjoy life. She travelled, she loved her family and many friends, and once loved someone for a long time. He took her flying all over the UK in his light aircraft and they had other adventures in Iceland, Spain and his home in Sydney. These events inspired her collection of ditties:
A polar bear gazed at the rain
And poured himself a nightcap
Then watched as my wee aeroplane
A-melted down his icecap.
I get a fuzzy feeling
Whenever he goes past
His presence leaves me reeling
Because he walks too fast.
There is a posed photo of her on a beach near Sydney with a book. It is taken near a lighthouse, and the book is The Lighthouse. She wanted to demonstrate the ironic. Another irony emerged when her doctors agreed to meet with me to discuss why she had taken her life with sleeping pills prescribed and stockpiled in early 2014. She had seen them every week for eight weeks before she died, suffering with a very painful skin condition, and two days before she took the overdose told them they weren’t taking her seriously. She had told me at Christmas that the pain made her want to hit the wall. They admitted that they hadn’t seen the risk factors because ‘She was beautiful, well dressed, hair looking great, articulate and always with a good book in her vast handbag’.
Her love of words fooled them, but they now know that not every suicidal person is sad, unkempt and without words. These doctors reflected professionally and deeply after her death, and explained to me how they had changed significant practices. After meeting with them I sat in a park on the Caledonian Road, opposite their building and left my anger under a bench. If you ever visit you may see it, but don’t pick it up, it might be toxic.
So what was going on in her mind all these years? She held onto what I think of as a D-Day scenario. She had stockpiled medication, done her research, and waited for the day when she couldn’t take it anymore. Research has shown that suicidal people can reach a ‘perfect storm’, entering a room through a door that disappears behind them, and leaves only one exit—in front of them. We don’t understand why it happened that particular day. For Philippa it was a combination of the co-morbidity of the physical pain and depression, leading to isolation and feeling hopeless and helpless to do anything about it.
She expressed this in a piece of prose extracted from a novel she wrote called The Maenads. We know for sure it is Philippa speaking through the character Dympna, who is lying on Tower Green in her lunch break from the dreaded receptionist job, just as Philippa did every day. (Dymphnya is the patron saint of the mentally ill and suicidal.)
In this extract from the chapter, Dympna is musing on her feelings. She is having a telephone assessment with Colm, her wellbeing advisor. Having recently discovered that anti-depressants are an unreliable method of suicide she is now intent on convincing him to recommend to her GP that she needs sleeping tablets. She needs them for her D-Day stockpile:
Dympna. 1pm, Friday
Dympna had realised too late that sleeping pills were the way to go. Anti-depressants led to heart attacks and vomiting. You could go through agony and still come out alive. If she’d wanted agony then she would have hanged herself or stuck her head in a plastic bag or slit her wrists and sat in the bath weeks ago—although the last one was trickier with her shared bathroom. There would be no need for all this planning and looking ahead. But she was too weak for a painful death. Sleeping pills were her sort of thing. With sleeping pills, you just put on some pyjamas, got under the duvet and never came out. You never had to face Marion [her supervisor at work] again, or the banking district with its deep sea buildings where souls went to die, or that fact that you had never written that novel or met that man or had that adventure. That you had lived in the same single bedroom for ten years and made coffee for a living. The only trouble with sleeping pills was that doctors were reluctant to hand them out, so you needed to space out your requests. Not like anti-depressants. They gave them away like sweets.
What Dympna was doing was not the same as suicide. In fact it was the most sensible thing she had ever done. Nor was it failure. Accepting the future that lay in store for her, a future of soaring rent and dead dreams and miniscule pensions and dying slowly and afraid in some state-run old people’s home smelling of wee, that was failure. This was finally spreading her wings. This was escape. She had always been so afraid of life, knowing that somehow, in some way, she just wasn’t up to it. In spite of her intelligence and her loving if chaotic family and her general good health (‘when the bomb drops, it’ll be us and cockroaches that survive’, her mother proudly and regularly told her, as if sturdy genes were any compensation for ugly ones), and all the other gifts nature and fortune had bestowed upon her, there was still something about her that was missing. She lacked that grain of self-belief or common sense or vim (Latin, meaning strength or power), which enabled dumb blondes like Ambrose to live out their fantasies. She lacked charisma.
In a way it had been a relief when she finally accepted this and stopped trying to be something that she was not. Mostly, she had tried to be happy because that was what people said they wanted you to be and got very upset when you weren’t. But it was a losing battle. She had been a very happy child, so she knew that she was not an unhappy person by nature. Even now, she could see that the world was a wonderful place full of intricate and spectacular things. She was awed by the force of the human imagination and the majesty of creation. When she was younger this force had overwhelmed her and she had questioned everyone about everything. She had studied voraciously, convinced that beauty was all you needed and love would conquer everything and that if you just danced like no one was watching and loved like you’d never been hurt you would be fulfilled. She had sought passion, marvellous, incredible passion (from the Latin passere meaning to suffer), and she had been willing to undergo it in all its forms, yes even suffering because suffering was experience and experience was life. She had flown with a spirit so fierce it almost burned her and she had believed that life would always be wonderful or if not wonderful then interesting or funny or something. But real life was not even bearable. In real life people were not passionate, they were functional. They were poor and rich and treated accordingly. Beauty did not feed you or clothe you, money did. You had to work. You had to get on with it. She had done her utmost to get away from it. She wrote books but they were rejected, she had boyfriends but they left her when she cried too much. She had even tried to follow an academic career because academia was about the only thing she had ever truly excelled at, until she realised that, much like real work it involved a lot of hoop jumping and sucking up to rather stupid people, except you weren’t paid, and that she had neither the funds nor the inclination to continue. And so the truth of this painful, desperate, joyful, passionate terrified existence was that she was unhappy and would go on being unhappy until she died. Which with any luck, would be sometime next April.
‘Okay,’ said Colm after about twenty minutes. ‘You’ve scored …’ something electronic binged at his end. ‘Sixteen. Mildly stressed. So I won’t be recommending future counselling, but do keep seeing your doctor for regular assessment.’
‘And I can recommend you some books on sleep management from our virtual library …’
‘Oh?’ Dympna’s heart sank. Would she have to read some terrible tripe online?
‘Yes, we send you the titles and they will be available at your local library.’
Dympna’s heart rose. Her local library was a good four miles from where she worked, and never opened at the weekends. She wouldn’t have to do a thing. Another reason to be grateful for cost cutting.
‘And keep in contact with your GP.’
Dympna promised she would. Colm said goodbye with a sorrow worthy of an undertaker, and hung up.
Dympna looked up at a patch of sky pushing its way determinedly through the buildings. It was almost blue.
‘Please’, she said. ‘Give me one reason not to do it. A single reason and I won’t.’
She checked her phone. She would have to run if she was going to get back to her desk in time. Marion kept an eye on these things.
It was the following February that Philippa left us, in physical and mental pain. Co-morbidity is a suicide risk factor. Her inquest coroner, after announcing that he used to be a dermatologist, proffered a diagnosis to Philippa’s GP, and said she would have wanted to ‘tear herself apart with the pain’.
So she did.
Philippa’s suicide was a devastating shock to all who loved her. For a few of us it wasn’t the total surprise it is for many who are bereaved by suicide. However, just as people may know a tsunami or earthquake is likely to happen where they live, when it does come it is still crushing and life changing.
Bereavement by suicide is one of the hardest things to live with. Guilt, regret, sorrow, the unbelievable horror of the act of self-violence by your loved one. For me, it has been a journey of understanding why, to listen to others’ experience, to be listened to endlessly. I have had to keep walking every day, first for my family and her siblings, and then one day I found that I got up and walked for myself: a lifelong journey.
Three months after she died I returned to my doctoral studies and found my supervisors amused by the reply to ‘Have you read anything?’ being ‘Yes, a detective novel’. ‘Good’, they said and suggested perhaps some theology next. So I took a random book, or so I thought, on holiday to Poland. It was by Tournier, a Swiss Calvinist Physician from the last century. It is called Creative Suffering, and is the last of twenty books he wrote on healing and renewal. I read it sitting by the Baltic, Tournier’s message here being that we don’t have to like whatever loss we have suffered, but if, at some point, we don’t accept it and allow ‘God in to do the mourning with us’, we will never progress. Or we can accept and be creatively renewed. I stood up and said, ‘Okay, I accept’, and so the slow journey began; Tournier became my companion, and his works are the subject of my doctoral thesis.
The West Window in Winchester Cathedral was shattered by the Roundheads during the Civil War, and local people hid the glass—no one knows where—for eleven years, until the restoration of the monarchy. Then it was replaced, randomly, a mosaic with only suggestions of what it was before. Now it lets through light, keeps out the wind and rain and is a talking point of hope and inspiration. That’s what Tournier meant, I think, and perhaps I too can be some of those things in time.
Philippa always had the last word. She left us a long note, explaining how she felt. She—characteristically—wrote it on the last page in a book full of handwritten poetry, which her landlord found, next to her body. The coroner returned it to me and I found another treasure trove of her scrawling handwriting in the book.
‘I’m sorry, so very sorry … I love you all … but I need to be free’.
Now she is.