Black Dog

Chapter 6: Retreat

Gradually, I became aware of activity around me. There was a background buzz of people talking, and I could hear footsteps. The high-pitched beep of a pager sounded. Machines were humming and blipping. Not too far away someone was crying.

I heard someone walking towards me. A voice called, 'He's coming round.'

Shit! SHIT! I'm still here! Man, I'm hopeless…I can't even get that right!

My heart sank as I realised that my plan hadn't worked. Then I began to feel angry. I opened my eyes and tried to sit up. I had to get back and finish what I had started. There was a nurse standing right beside the bed, however. She put her hands on my shoulders and firmly pushed me back down.

'Doctor!' she yelled, as I struggled to get up again.

'Whoa! Where are you off to, young Michael?'

The voice sounded familiar. It was on my other side. I jerked my head around, causing a sharp pain in my neck. Doctor Emery! I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I wanted to tell him I had to get out of there.

'Don't try to speak, son. It's possible you've hurt your larynx, and talking will aggravate it. Let's examine you and see how much damage you've done.'

I slumped back on the bed. My neck was hurting, but so was my heart. Tears came to my eyes and I started to sob. Where do I go from here? Where can I go? What do I do now? There's nothing left.

- - - - -

At first, the realisation that I'd failed to kill myself hurt more than the pain in my neck and throat. It even seemed to hurt more than the depression that had led me out to the tree with that rope in my hand. I'd already been feeling worthless, and I couldn't see any future. In my depression I convinced myself that death was the only way out. I thought my plan was foolproof. The knowledge that it wasn't made me feel even worse. I also felt frustrated that someone had stopped me from carrying out my plan.

Doctor Emery finished his examination and had me transferred to a private room. He came in and told me there was someone waiting to see me. 'It's important that you see them, okay?'

I didn't want to see anybody, but the tone in his voice and the look he gave me left no room for argument. I tried to stare him down, but it didn't work. Reluctantly, I nodded.

He left, and for a few minutes it was just me and the nurse who was guarding me.

I was expecting my parents, so I was surprised when the door opened and Brett and Clare walked in. Brett was sombre, and Clare's tear-streaked face showed that she had been crying. For a few moments we just looked at each other. I was wondering why they were there, and they were probably wondering the same thing. I felt uncomfortable and, judging from their silence, I was sure they did, too.

Suddenly, Clare burst into tears. 'Why?' she whispered. 'WHY?' she almost shouted.

That set me off. I started crying, too. I held my arms open and Clare almost launched herself at me. We hugged each other tightly until our tears stopped. Brett stood watching, showing no emotion. Clare went over and gave him a gentle nudge in my direction. He resisted, so she pushed a little harder. He stumbled and almost fell into my arms. I tried to hug him, but he was holding himself stiff and wouldn't allow me to. I started crying again. I felt Brett yield. His arms grabbed me and I heard him sobbing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Clare leave the room. She came back a few moments later with Zoë. They waited quietly. Brett gave me a final squeeze before he stood and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. He looked at me for a moment before Clare grabbed him and led him out the door. Brett hadn't said a word.

I must have looked confused. 'He's really upset and angry,' Zoë said. 'He can't understand why you didn't talk to him…why you didn't tell him how bad you were feeling.'

I just looked at her and nodded. Even if I'd been able to speak, it didn't seem like there was anything sensible that I could say at that point. Why didn't I talk to Brett? For that matter, why didn't I talk to anyone?

'He would have helped,' Zoë said quietly. 'We all would have.'

I nodded again. I closed my eyes, trying to prevent the tears from starting again. It didn't work, and Zoë lovingly wiped my face dry. She laid her head on my chest, put her arms around me and hugged me. It seemed like ages since she'd done that. In the depths of my depression I'd wanted to be left alone, and I had kept her at a distance. Suddenly I realised I'd missed her hugs, and I wrapped my arms around her gratefully. It felt good, and I held her tight. I never wanted to let her go, ever again.

'Oh, Michael,' she said through her tears. 'I thought I'd lost you. For so long you've shut yourself away, and I couldn't tell what was going on in that head of yours.'

She started to shake, and I realised she was laughing. I thought she'd lost it, until she sat up and looked at me with a crooked smile. 'You didn't know what was going on in there, did you?'

I shook my head.

Zoë took my head in both hands and looked me straight in the eye. 'Don't ever—EVER—do that again! Do you hear me, Michael David Parker?'

I nodded. She gave me a long, searching look, then leaned in and kissed me. It was wonderful. I returned the kiss.

Zoë gently filled me in on what had happened at home after I kicked the stool away. I had heard that shout and the running feet, but then everything had gone black and the next thing I knew I was waking up in Accident and Emergency. It turned out that the two were related.

Brett and Clare, knowing that I was alone at home that day, decided to check on me. After getting no response when they knocked on the front door, they headed around to the back. Clare happened to look over towards the oak tree, and she saw me kick the stool away. The shout I heard was Clare's reflex response. The running feet were Brett's. My best friend righted the stool, clambered up on it, and lifted me to take the weight off my neck. He held me for several minutes until Clare found something to cut me down. Brett then performed CPR on me while Clare phoned for an ambulance. Brett Thompson had saved my life. I must have caused him unbelievable shock and stress. No wonder he showed mixed emotions when he and Clare visited me.

My parents and Simon were on their way home when they heard, so they rushed straight to the hospital. Kellie and her boyfriend were close behind them. There were more hugs and more tears. The doctors limited the number of visitors and the time they could stay, so after a while it was just Zoë and me again.

Travis turned up after the family left. His reaction was much the same as Brett's, but at least he spoke to me. Zoë cracked up when he told me he would have come and kicked the stool away for me if I'd asked him to. I just shook my head in wonder. Even at a time like that he couldn't resist teasing me. I had to admit it helped relieve the tension I was feeling after facing up to everyone, and I couldn't help grinning. By then my voice was returning, and I managed to talk a little.

- - - - -

Doctor Cazelaar visited me the following morning. He told me I was very fortunate that Brett and Clare had turned up when they did. 'Otherwise you probably wouldn't have lived.'

'But I wanted to die!'

'I know you did, but that was only because of exceptional circumstances. You didn't choose suicide; it was forced on you.'

'How do you mean?'

'Well, you got to a point where you were hurting so much that it seemed like the only way to end the pain was to die.'

I nodded. That was exactly how I had felt.

'The pain became so powerful that you couldn't see beyond it. You had to end the pain—and the only way to do that was to end life itself.'

I nodded again. The doctor was making a lot of sense.

'You couldn't see any other way to stop the pain because the resources you had for coping with it weren't adequate. In other words, the pain you were feeling was more than you could handle. It doesn't mean that you really wanted to die—only that you had more pain than you were able to cope with.' (1)

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Suddenly, the doctor's words hit me and I recognised the truth in them.

'Wow!' I managed to croak.

'You could have lived through the suicidal feelings if you had been able to find a way to reduce your pain, or find a way to increase your coping resources. Either would have worked.'

'Wow.'

The doctor chuckled. 'You're very articulate today.'

'Well…I…'

'Hey, just promise me you will have a think about what I just said, okay?'

Thoughts were running through my mind at a blinding pace. I did need to think it through. But I needed to talk about it, too.

I was still thinking as I started to respond to Doctor Cazelaar. 'Doc— Peter…I…' Now. I need to talk about it now! 'Can we talk about it now? Please?'

'Sure. Where would you like to start?'

'Ha!' I snorted. 'About a year ago? Before any of this stuff happened?'

He chuckled again. 'Hmm, we all wish that we could turn the clock back at times, but it's not possible—and you know, I think it's better that way.'

'Yeah, I guess. It would create a whole new set of problems, wouldn't it?'

'Yep. So…we can't prevent bad things from happening, but we can use them to our advantage.'

'How do we do that?'

'Well, we can learn from them. We can learn about ourselves—our reaction to the situation, our tolerance for pain, and how we coped or didn't cope. We can learn about other people—the things people are capable of, and things we need to be aware of. Are you with me so far?'

I nodded.

'Then—and I think this is even more important—we can use these things to make ourselves stronger. Once we understand what happened and how we coped with it, then we can work out strategies for living so that we can better deal with the bad things that happen in the future.'

'Okay. So, what went wrong in my case? Why…' I struggled to get it out. 'Why…why did I try to kill myself?'

'Because your pain overwhelmed your coping mechanisms.'

'Yeah, but…'

'But you're wondering what else you could have done, right?'

'Well, yeah. If the pain was too much for me to cope with, what chance did I have? I mean, it seems kind of like filling a bucket or something with water till it overflows—it can only hold so much.'

'Yep, that's true, but there's another way to look at it.'

I frowned. 'What other way is there?'

'Did you consider finding another bucket?'

'Wha—' I began. Then the light went on. 'Oh, I think I see. I tried to cope on my own. I should have—' My heart sank as I remembered how things had been. 'But…but no one understood. No one would have been able to help. And I didn't think they wanted to, anyway.'

'That was the depression speaking. I reckon you'll find that everyone wanted to help, but you wouldn't let them.'

'Oh.' I suddenly felt like I'd been digging my own grave.

'They might not have known exactly what to do or say, but they could have helped you just by being there and listening. Do you remember me telling you that a burden shared is a burden halved?'

My heart sank further. I nodded. 'I do remember…now.' I gave a guilty smile. 'Man, why did I forget when I needed it most?'

The doctor smiled. 'Well, you were under stress, and depressed. Either one could have been enough to throw you, but together they made a formidable team. I think they caused you to forget…but you not only forgot, you pushed everybody out the door, closed it in their faces and locked it.'

'Oh.' I realised he was right. I had pushed everyone away—and then blamed them because they weren't helping me. 'I stuffed up, didn't I?'

Doctor Cazelaar nodded, allowing me to sift through my thoughts.

'Big time,' I added.

He nodded again, and with a wry smile said, 'I think that's a pretty good assessment. '

When I thought about it, I realised that my family and friends had reason to be angry with me. Even though I hadn't realised it at the time, I had been terribly selfish. I hadn't intended to be that way, but my depression had made me anti-social; it made me just want to curl up in a corner somewhere and be alone. I had bottled up my feelings instead of sharing them and giving those who loved me a chance to help me through the blackness. True, I hadn't understood what I was feeling or why, but if I had opened up there would have been a good chance that someone would have had the right word to say or the right insight to share. Doctor Cazelaar explained that clamming up and shutting down—and the desire to enjoy the self-pity alone—was fairly common in people suffering depression.

My frustration at being foiled in my attempt to die soon dissolved, as I began to understand that my perceptions had been quite different from the reality. The guest at my solitary pity party had convinced me that no one cared, that no one would miss me if I wasn't around. The reactions to my attempted suicide showed me how wrong that idea was.

The people around me did care. As we talked over the next few days, I came to realise that, without exception, my family and friends had agonised over my descent into depression. Unknown to me, they had talked to one another, trying to find ways to help me. They had all tried to show me that they cared. I just hadn't wanted to see it at the time.

- - - - -

Thanks to Brett and Clare's timely arrival and their quick action, my injuries were minimal. It was only a matter of seconds after I'd kicked the stool away that Brett lifted me to take the tension off the rope and my neck.

The rope hadn't done much damage; apart from a sore neck and throat—and pretty spiral bruising around my neck—I was fine, and my voice returned completely almost immediately. The doctors were more worried about my emotional state, so for the first day or so I wasn't left alone.

I made up my mind to never again shy away from talking to someone if I became depressed. I was fortunate. I had my life back—for the third time, it seemed—and I would do my best to get on with it.

My suicide attempt was a turning point for me. My family and friends rallied around me to give me the support I needed. There was nothing new about that—they had always been there—but there was one thing different…I had a new attitude.

- - - - -

After a couple of nights in the hospital I was sent home. The doctors were satisfied that I was physically healed, and that emotionally I was well on the way to recovery. My new attitude, together with the support my family and friends provided, was enough to convince Doctor Cazelaar that there was no need to keep me under surveillance. He told me to rest for a couple of days before I returned to school, though. That meant I didn't have to go back until July, because the end of that week marked the start of the fortnight-long school holidays.

I was amazed and relieved to find that I had scraped through my exams; fortunately my grades throughout the semester had been good. Nevertheless, my exam results spoiled my good record, so I went back to study with a vengeance. I was determined to make up for the lapse caused by my depression.

At the beginning of July, Kellie left for her three-month-long exchange visit to Japan. Departure day was Sunday, and the whole family—including Zoë—travelled to Melbourne so she could catch a domestic flight to Sydney. There she would join her travel group, which was scheduled to leave for Tokyo the following morning. Kellie couldn't keep still as we waited for her flight to board. It was great to see her so excited, but there were lots of tearful hugs as we said our goodbyes.

'I'll be on the first plane back to knock some sense into that thick skull of yours if I hear anything bad!' she whispered in my ear as she hugged me. 'Got that?'

All I could do was nod my head. I didn't trust myself to say anything. I knew she meant it, and I felt bad that she even had to say it. I had nearly ruined it all for her. Had I succeeded in killing myself just a couple of weeks before her departure date, I doubt that she would have gone. To have her interrupt her trip would be even worse. I just couldn't do that to her. I think she knew what was going through my mind, because she didn't wait for me to say anything. She gave me a warm sisterly smile and a peck on the cheek and she was gone, saying goodbye to someone else.

Although it meant that we would miss a couple of days of school, our parents had decided that we would all stay in Melbourne until the Wednesday so that we could meet and collect our Japanese student, Noriko Kasahara. She would be staying with my family for most of her time in Australia, and Zoë was to be her "buddy." Noriko would attend year 11 classes with us.

We filled in one whole day visiting Melbourne Museum and the Arts Centre, and another half day at Melbourne Aquarium. The rest of the time we spent wandering around the central city, exploring the laneways and shopping arcades. We went to a film at IMAX. The huge screen, together with the 3D effect, made us feel like we were in the middle of the action. It was so realistic that at one point I was certain the fish swimming towards me were inside my headset.

Early on Wednesday afternoon we joined several other host families at the airport to wait for the flight from Sydney that was bringing Noriko and a group of exchange students. We had been told that the students had all learned English, but that they didn't get many opportunities to use it, so we weren't sure what to expect. As it turned out, Noriko's father was a businessman who travelled a lot, and he had been determined that his children would never experience the difficulties he had faced communicating with people who didn't speak Japanese. He had employed a private language tutor, and consequently Noriko's English was almost flawless. At seventeen she was a little older than us, but she and Zoë hit it off immediately and I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked kind of funny to see them together. Zoë had long blonde hair that framed her oval face, blue eyes and a fairly pale complexion. In contrast, Noriko had a roundish face, a beautifully smooth complexion with her skin colour a couple of shades darker than Zoë's, dark eyes and short jet black hair. She was slightly built and a head shorter than Zoë. She was very pretty, and I had the feeling that Travis was going to fall in love.

By the time we arrived in Sale late that afternoon, we knew all about Shinjuku, the Tokyo suburb where Noriko lived, her family and friends, and her school—which Kellie would be attending. Noriko had never been out of Japan before, and all the way to Sale she kept remarking on the open spaces. She told us that Tokyo squeezes about thirteen million people into an area a quarter of the size of greater Melbourne, which has a population of less than four million. We found it hard to imagine how crowded it must feel—but we were sure Kellie would tell us. If Melbourne's metropolitan area seemed spacious to Noriko, she almost freaked out when we got out into the country.

- - - - -

Having Noriko at home and at school seemed to help me come out of my funk. She was fun to have around, and the days were too busy for me to dwell on what had happened. On top of that, my suicide attempt had broken something that had been holding me back; the depression was manageable and, with medication, I was able to function normally again. Some of my friends seemed a bit wary of me, as if they didn't want to come too close in case I went off the rails again. Mostly, however, they were pleased to have the "real" me back, and treated me just like they always had.

As I had anticipated, Travis fell head over heels in love with Noriko, and for a while we all took every opportunity to remind him how much of his life he had spent teasing the rest of us. Fortunately, Noriko seemed just as enamoured of Travis and didn't mind the teasing. They made a kind of odd couple—Travis was loud, boisterous and spontaneous whereas Noriko was demure, thoughtful and much quieter—but everyone agreed that they were made for each other.

The first anniversary of my kidnapping came the week following Noriko's arrival. I couldn't decide whether it seemed like it had just happened the day before—it was still so near in my memory—or several years earlier. So much had happened since then, it seemed impossible that all of it could have fitted into twelve months. Since Dad's birthday was only two days later, the dinner we had for him became a celebration of my survival as well as of his special day. Things were looking up at last!

Something was still bothering me, though. The black dog had been run off and I could see more clearly, but I still had a weight bearing down on my shoulders.

I could keep up with my work and take part in discussions at school. I could hang out with Zoë, Noriko and my friends, and join in the fun—especially the incessant stirring of Travis. I was able to join in family outings, and enjoyed catching up with Kellie's news when she phoned. I was glad I wasn't paying her phone bill, though! In a first for our family, we sang Happy Birthday to Kellie on the speakerphone. Her Japanese host family gave her a party.

All in all I was doing fine at home as well as at school…until I was alone at night.

The nightmares hadn't returned, and I slept well most of the time, but I'd lie awake late at night or early in the morning trying to think everything through, trying to work out what the problem was. I always had the feeling that someone or something was trying to drag me back down into the pit. Try as I might, I could never pin it down to anything specific; it always seemed just out of reach. It would begin to float into focus in my mind, but just as I'd reach out to grab it there would be nothing there.

Man, it's gone again! I'd sigh and turn over to go to sleep.

After several weeks, with everything else seemingly back to where it had been before the nightmares and my descent into depression, the vague feeling of unease was still tangible enough to bother me, but at least I talked about it. I wasn't going to make that mistake again! No matter how much I talked, however, I couldn't solve the mystery, and the feeling remained: a gnawing nuisance at the back of my mind. The closest I could get to the cause was that it had something to do with The Monster.

By the middle of August I was getting really frustrated. In about a month we would have another two weeks' school holidays, and that gave me an idea. The more I thought about it, the more attractive it seemed: I would go away on a lone retreat and try to sort out everything once and for all. Our family owns a holiday cabin on the Wellington River, near the little village of Licola, which is in the middle of the Great Dividing Range. I reckoned I could talk Dad and Mum into letting me go up there for a week or two. I hoped that, without the distractions of life at school and at home, in the peace and quiet of the bush, I might just be able to think clearly and logically enough to work out what was wrong.

It took a lot of talking, but I finally got everyone to agree to my going. The holidays fell only three months from my suicide attempt, and Mum was worried that being alone might not be good for me. Simon, Travis and Brett all offered to go with me to keep me company (and to keep an eye on me, I suspected), and Zoë wanted me to stay home so we could spend time together. In the end we compromised, and agreed that she, Clare and Noriko—along with Brett and Travis—would join me for a few days in the middle of the holidays. If I was ready, I would return home with them. An adult would also have to go, to provide transport and supervision, but we left that to the parents to sort out.

We set my departure date for the first Saturday of the holidays, and Mum won the privilege of driving me up to the cabin.

- - - - -

I stared out of the window as the car travelled through the green, gently rolling hills of the Macalister River valley.

Hills? Man, are we at Glenmaggie already? Where have I been? We only just left Sale! I looked over at Mum. She glanced at me and smiled. I hoped she hadn't been trying to talk to me; if she had, I hadn't heard anything. I might as well have been on another planet.

I drifted off again, and the next thing I noticed was the car slowing as Mum pulled into the store at Licola. I stayed in the car while Mum went into the shop. A few minutes later she came out with bread and milk.

'Mr. and Mrs. Charlton know you're going to be at the cabin on your own, and they offered to come up and check on you in a couple of days. I told them I thought you'd like them to do that. They even said to phone them if you need anything and they'll bring it up for you.'

'Thanks Mum, that would be good. As long as they won't think I'm being rude if I just want to be alone.'

'No, they understand. Their son went through a really rough patch a couple of years ago. They said they learned to respect the times he needed them to give him a bit of space, so I think they'll just come up and say hello and make sure you're managing all right. But they might be good to have around if you feel like talking to someone.'

'Yes, they're nice people. I've always liked them. I'll see how I go.'

I watched the bush slip by as we headed out of Licola to the cabin. In a few minutes we would be there. Usually I would be feeling excited as we drove the last ten kilometres, but that day I was preoccupied. I desperately needed to get the niggling thoughts of The Monster out of my head so that I could get back to living. Man, I hope this works!

We drove up to the front of the cabin and Mum helped me unload my bags and supplies. She put everything away while I got the fire going, and by the time the room was warm she had the kettle boiling. We sat down at the kitchen table with our tea and biscuits and enjoyed a companionable silence.

We didn't have long before Mum would have to leave so she would be home in time to prepare dinner for the rest of the family. Suddenly I had second thoughts; I didn't want her to go.

The same thoughts must have been going through my mother's mind. I felt a couple of tears run down my cheeks, and when I looked up there were tears in Mum's eyes, too. She reached across the table and took my hand in hers. When I looked into her eyes all I could see was love.

'Michael, we'll get through this together. We all understand that you need to get this sorted out, and that you need this time alone—but we'll all still be there when you're ready to come home. Take as long as you need, okay?'

I got up and gave Mum a hug, burying my face in her shoulder. We were both crying.

'We'll miss you, Michael.' I knew she was saying much more; she was worried that I would try to harm myself again.

'I know. I'm going to miss you guys, too. But don't worry about me, please? I'll be okay here, and I won't do anything stupid. I'm past that stage now. I just need to work out what's bothering me so that I can move on.'

We went out to the car together. We gave each other a kiss and hugged again. I promised to phone home every couple of days, then Mum was gone and I was alone in the bush.

- - - - -

It was warm in the cabin, and I felt safe and comfortable. I was sitting on the floor looking into the fire, with my knees pulled up and my arms wrapped around them. The constantly changing shapes of the orange flames had me mesmerised. The logs provided food for the flames, and the embers seemed to change form as the flames moved over them. The smoke curled up, adding its own fluid shapes and forms.

My thoughts ran wild, and I imagined I could see people, places and events unfolding before my eyes. I watched as flame fought flame; one would attack and be repulsed, and the "victor" would then be overtaken by another, larger flame. It seemed like that had been the story of my life over the previous year or so. I'd get through one crisis and then be overtaken by another. I shuddered as I remembered the man responsible—The Monster. I saw his evil grin and felt the blows as he hit me. I felt the pain as he forced himself on me.

The Monster was like a cloud hovering over me, constantly keeping me in its shadow. I needed to get on with the rest of my life, but I couldn't until I figured out what was wrong—and what The Monster had to do with it. I had doubts about my lone retreat, though.

'Am I doing the right thing?' I asked myself aloud. 'Am I running instead of fighting? Is this just a way to avoid facing up to it? Should I have stayed at home?'

No, I've talked things through with everyone, and they all agreed that I need to figure this out for myself…and there won't be any distractions here; I'll be able to think more clearly.

'What happens if I can't work it out, though?'

That was an outcome I couldn't bear to think about.

I have to do it. I have to! I can't let him win. If I do, I'll never have a life.

Then the tears came again. I dropped my head to my knees and silently let the tears fall. I had cried so much those past few months that it seemed like I had no emotions left. Gradually, the crackling of the fire filled my mind, calming me as it took over from my erratic thoughts.

---------------------

(1) Ainsworth, Martha. Suicide: Read This First. http://www.metanoia.org/suicide. Accessed 17 August 2008.