This is a story about treating every day like it's your last...
My life plan was a fairly simple one: earn loads of money working in IT, marry an attractive & intelligent girl who was into outdoorsy stuff and live happily ever after. I lived by the seaside. I owned my own home. I had masses of savings. I owned everything outright: my car, my boat, the furniture... I paid cash for everything.
When it turned out that the girl I picked was, errr, 'incompatible' with living happily ever after - to phrase it delicately - I didn't really have a plan B.
To be honest, after my marriage went to shit, I hadn't really planned on living very long. I'm really rather surprised to find myself alive and in reasonable health today. I was warned that my new plan - to take copious amounts of drugs and die in a hedonistic blaze of glory - would drive me insane and I'd find myself permanently brain damaged and dying slowly and painfully as my organs shut down one by one, or perhaps I would just suddenly and unexpectedly drop dead.
"Suddenly and unexpectedly drop dead."
Isn't that a risk that we face every single day anyway? There's a certain chance that your heart is just going to stop pumping and go into cardiac arrest at any moment. If you have a cardiac arrest outside a hospital, you're 80% likely to die.
The biggest threat to my life at the moment, statistically - and this goes for any 37 year old man, not just the ones with bipolar disorder and substance abuse issues - is suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 50.
If I made smart lifestyle choices like not taking copious amounts of dangerous drugs, riding my bike through central London in rush hour traffic with no helmet on, stopping eating and drinking to the point where my organs fail and I piss blood, you'd have thought that I'd be doing a pretty good job of minimising my risk of premature death. NOPE!
What about all those extreme hobbies of mine? Off-piste snowboarding, skydiving, mountain biking, kitesurfing, rock climbing and mountaineering. You'd have thought that it'd be a good idea to give up those dangerous sports, if I wanted to minimise my risk of premature death. NOPE!
I was trying to have this argument with the Royal London Hospital consultant in the Renal High-Dependency Unit, where I was being kept alive by dialysis. I basically said, look, you're going to have to discharge me and let me go and start my new job and I'll just have to take the risk that my kidneys get worse and I drop dead. "You're playing Russian Roulette with your life" she said. Not really. The biggest threat to my life is suicide, and it was inevitable that losing my job would leave me in a psychologically critical condition.
One thing I quite often hear is criticism of risk takers. "How can you climb that mountain and risk your life, when there are people who are terminally ill, who would give anything for just one more day alive?"
"Treat every day as if it's your last."
That fairly innocent sounding platitude actually backfires, when you realise that it's an incitement to maximise your risk in pursuit of hedonistic pleasures and thrillseeking.
Knowing that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 is just a meaningless statistic, until you lose a friend or a relative to suicide, or you become suicidal yourself.
That's me in the picture above. I'm stood on a pinnacle of rock that's nearly 3,000 metres above sea level. If I fell - and I'm not tied onto anything - then it would a very long freefall before I went splat into the ground. Why am I not tied on? Why haven't I taken the precaution of attaching myself to a rope? Is it because I was suicidal?
The more you climb; the higher you climb; the more steep and perilous things that you climb, you start to become used to the exposure. The constant threat of falling to your death is something that you just get used to. One slip and it's curtains... but you're not afraid anymore.
I've got rather a toxic mix of psychology. I've got the ability to manage my own fear, stress and adrenalin, so that I can throw myself out of planes or climb frozen waterfalls, but when I become suicidal, I'm acutely aware that I could act on a suicidal impulse very calmly and methodically.
What is this silly little dance we call life anyway? Is it about procreation? Is it about making money? Is it about looking after your grandparents and parents as they get old and die?
Do I 'owe' anybody anything? Do I 'owe' it to my parents to treat the fact I'm alive with respect because they 'gifted' me a life that I didn't ask for? Do I 'owe' it to terminally ill people, to treat my life with respect, because I'm lucky and they're not? Do I 'owe' it to my friends to struggle on through the misery, because they'd be a bit sad if I committed suicide?
There are a couple of families - one in Ireland and one in Bletchley/Suffolk - who have been there for me during my darkest moments. There's a friend who I would've seen over the Christmas break, except for an unfortunate bout of illness laying him low. There are a handful of people in the world who've seen what my friend Laurence calls 'The Horrors' and they've protected me; stuck by me; defended me and been loyal friends. There have been people who've appeared unexpectedly - most welcome - back in my life. I'm not the most predictable of people, having decided to visit an old school friend in San Francisco, booked a flight and boarded it, within the space of just a few hours.
That's how it goes. Here today; gone tomorrow.
The speed with which my kidneys failed was shocking, even for me. The fact I needed dialysis was shocking, even for me. The length of time it took my kidneys to start working efficiently again was shocking, even for me.
Does that sort of stuff make me think "oh wow! that was close!" and "I better be careful and treat my life with respect"? You're asking the wrong question. My suicidal thoughts drive my reckless risk taking behaviour. Suicide was, and still remains, the biggest threat to my life. The shitty stuff that happened was all a consequence of my flirtation with death. I don't quite have the nerve to take the active steps to 'pull the trigger' as it were, because I know that I'm psychologically strong enough to just do it, without hesitation.
My trip to the Golden Gate Bridge was a metaphor for just how quickly, impulsively and with single-minded determination I can reach the point of no return.
My friends who hosted me in San Francisco read some of my recent blogs and asked if there was anything they could do to help. These are some of the people I admire and respect most in the world. They have super busy stressful lives raising little kids on the other side of the Atlantic, on the West coast of America.
What can anybody do? Everybody's got their own problems. Everybody's got their own money worries. Everybody's got a lot of shit on their plate. We've built a society where we are isolated, alone, overstretched by ordinary life to the point where we're just about managing. Who can afford to shoulder part of the burden for somebody who's struggling? Who can afford the time? Where are you going to find the energy when life is already so exhausting? Who has the financial means to help every fuckup with their begging bowl held out?
More fundamentally, under what kind of terms am I prepared to help myself? Arguably, I've thrown away 3 very well paid IT contracts for 3 massive banks, doing work that I can do with my eyes closed. Why the fuck would I do that?
I'm a complex beast. I feel guilty about my role in building systems that were pivotal in the financial crisis of 2007/8. I hired a development team in Mumbai, India, and I led that team to create a trade confirmation system for derivatives that handled over a quadrillion dollars in volume, in its first year. That's immoral. I knew what I was doing. I was busily fixing my own mortgage rate, knowing that there was a credit crunch coming. I invested my money in physical gold, because I had so little faith in the banking systems that I helped build.
I also had a taste of what it's like to own and run my own company. I outsourced. I ran software projects. The only difference was that it was my money and nobody could tell me "no". I could do whatever I wanted, and the ego rub from holding the job title "CEO" is a hard place to come back from. I now wander from company to company, pointing out the things that are on fire, fixing them if they let me or otherwise getting into conflict or suffering incredible boredom and frustration as I try to keep my mouth shut about the impending disasters I can see unfolding. Sure, I get paid a buttload, but it upsets me. I still spend money like it's my own.
That last project I was working on had an annual budget of about £25 million and was handling 30 customers a day. Basically, the cost of customer acquisition was over £2,000. These were not high-net worth individuals. They were simply ordinary banking customers. The project was not very complicated, but the waste was incredible.
What the hell is wrong with me? Am I a prima donna? Am I Goldilocks? Everything's got to be 'just right' for me? Do I consider the kind of work that's available to me to be 'beneath' me?
Certainly, I struggle with the prospect of having to do the kind of job that I mastered 10 or 15 years ago. I sometimes laugh out loud in interviews when somebody asks a question that's the equivalent of asking a master builder if they know what a brick is. Is it arrogant? I don't give a fuck... it psychologically destroys me, running projects for dinosaurs who pay top dollar for the best consultants and then don't listen to them.
I remember quite distinctly in 2001, I was deciding whether to learn a new(ish) computer programming language. I read a book about it. I was already learning another programming language at the time. Then it hit me: I had become a polyglot, somewhat by accident. I was able to read any code and understand its function - its intent - no matter what the actual specific implementation technology was. I knew that me and software had reached the end of the road. I asked my boss for a sabbatical while I considered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
It's kinda hard to change career direction and it gets harder with age. You not only have to bankroll yourself through training and getting started in whatever new thing it is that you're doing, but if you're turning your back on one of the most lucrative careers there is, you'd better be pretty damn certain that you picked the right alternative.
I bump along the bottom, being dragged back into god-awful, boring, unambitious, ill-fated and badly run IT projects, whenever my bank balance reaches danger point. But the hardest thing is the dread: the dread about selling my soul; the dread about having to keep a straight face when people are panicking and running around like they've never seen some mundane issue before.
I can't escape. I'm in a deep hole. The hole isn't deep at all for an IT consultant, but for almost any other job, it's an inescapable pit of doom. The reason why I got in such deep shit is divorce, mental illness, and being smeared all over the streets of London, in and out of hospital. Like I said earlier, it's a miracle that I'm still alive.
I hadn't really planned on living this long and that's a bit of a problem. Because I'm so suicidal and trapped, I guess there's an easy decision to be made. I know that I have absolutely no problem following through and overcoming any psychological hurdle that might stop most ordinary people from killing themselves.
I wrote this, while I was working my last IT contract:
Once he had started, he knew there would be no stopping until it was done.
That's why it had taken him so long before he started his final journey; because he could picture every single step of it. He knew that he would just methodically follow the steps, and then it would be over. He could be cold and clinical when required; rational and calculated; measured in his approach. There would be no panic, no rise in pulse, no hyperventilation. To all outward appearances, there would be nothing that would cause alarm or alert suspicions in anybody, until he was at the very brink; in the final moments.
The imagery of the bridge was so ingrained in everybody's mind, because it was such a major landmark. The bridge had featured in so many films. The bridge had been photographed so many times. The bridge was a prominent part of company logos and corporate branding. The bridge was something you could close your eyes, and picture it in exquisite detail. If you were asked to draw the bridge from memory, you'd be able to make a passable sketch of it. Even if you'd never been to the bridge before, it felt like you had been there.
That's why he had never been to the bridge. He could never be sure if he was there just in his imagination - where there were no irreversible consequences - or if he was there in real life. It would be so easy to follow through with his day dream - his fantasy - in real life. He'd played it all through in his head so many times.
Staring up at the spot on the centre of the bridge, where it was highest above the river below, he could imagine himself walking up to that spot, knowing that when he reached that point, only the chest-high barrier would separate him from the edge. He knew that the hardest part would be the bold step of climbing over the barrier. It would be so easy to peer over the edge, while safely protected by the barrier, and then chicken out. That's why mental preparation was important. That's why visualising the whole thing in advance was important.
He wasn't unfamiliar with the psychological battle of overcoming your fears and hurling yourself over a mental obstacle. Stepping off an edge was something you did every time you stepped off the kerb and into traffic. Vaulting a barrier was something you did when you climbed over fences as a kid, playing with your friends. He had done bungee jumps, where it was up to you - free will - to actually jump. He had done skydives and parachute jumps, where it was up to you, whether or not you hurled yourself out of a perfectly good aircraft. He knew he could overcome the psychological challenge of cutting loose and falling. Falling, not attached to anything, tumbling free in space. Nothing to grab onto. No second chances. No way to change your mind once you throw yourself out into empty space.
People talked about cowardice, selfishness, but they missed the point. People didn't understand that have to be brave to choose to put your life in danger, especially when falling to your death is one of the obvious risks. You also have to be brave to choose death. Who knows what happens when you die? Fear of the unknown is why people cling to life: self-preservation instincts.
He'd been a leader in the mountains and on rock faces. The leader always took the biggest risk of falling. At some point, falling became inevitable. If you roll the dice enough times, your number is going to come up eventually. If you take risks, you have to accept the increased chance of injury and even death. He'd had friends who had been killed or permanently disabled. A certain amount of "it could never happen to me" bravado and gallows humour stopped people from losing their nerve. At funerals, people would say that "he/she died doing what they loved" which was true, but this was mainly to distract from the reminder of our mortality, while doing the things that we - the living - love.
Those psychological skills, as a rock climber, mountaineer, bungee jumper, skydiver... they all now worked against him. He knew what it felt like, to be on the edge of a perilous drop, with nothing holding him safe except his own grip, and his own sanity: to not hurl himself over the edge.
At the top of tall buildings, on a mountain, or at a cliff-top, it troubled him how easily he could just jump off. He had to stay away from the edge; not because he wanted to keep himself safe, but because he didn't know if he could trust himself to not just jump. It would be so easy. It was the ease of it that troubled him. The proximity to a fall that would deliver a swift death called to him like a siren. Instead of being appalled by the fear of death, there was an allure.
When learning to climb, people clung to the rocks with white knuckles. They kept their bodies pressed as close to the cliff face as they could, as if being flat against the surface would mean that they were somehow safer from the pull of gravity. Most people were not psychologically prepared to be climbers or mountaineers. People on mountains collapsed on the flat ground, when sheer drops to either side of them overwhelmed them. Our instincts tell us to lower our centre of gravity, but when you are up high, gravity can only pull you down. It doesn't work, putting yourself closer to the cliff or the ground. You will still fall to your death.
There was something different about him. Sure, he wasn't the only one with the strange mutation of the mind, that allowed him to overcome the self-preservation instincts, but it was rare. Most people dislike heights. Most people are scared of falling. Had he always had this ability to put himself in a position of peril, and to overcome the instinct to simply freeze, to overcome the instinct to not jump out of the aeroplane, or climb up high where you could fall.
Possibly through repeated exposure to perilous situations, he had become immune to the threat of death. He had become comfortable, being in situations that put your own mortality as the immediate and most pressing concern. Sure, you could die crossing the road, but most people aren't thinking about that. Those first few times that you jump out of a plane, you most certainly are thinking "what if my parachute doesn't open?".
But the what ifs can be set to one side. What if I end up in Hell? What if I change my mind, in the split second before I die, when I'm past the point of no return?
Death is the great unknown, and we intrinsically fear the unknown. He had become well practiced at entering the unknown, in mortal peril. Who knows how you're going to feel, plummeting towards the ground at terminal velocity? He knew.
In a way, he had answered too many questions that previously had comforting answers dreamt up by priests, shamen and witchdoctors. The answers of the unknown, and of the intrinsic fear of death that dwells within all mortal creatures, for the purpose of self preservation instinct, had been given by those who sought to profit from believable fairy-tales for simple minded idiots. His rejection of organised religion gave him little comfort, in an uncaring universe.
Science tried to give answers, but it could offer no meaning. Why was anything the way it was? It just was. Even science broke down at some point, demanding that those who studied it just accepted the cold hard equations that revealed themselves in the mathematical patterns that were observed in reality. However, science had nothing to say about how to adjust to the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, the insignificance of existence and the seeming finality of death.
Science demonstrably showed that there was nothing after death. After the neurons of your brain ceased in their electrical dance, you were gone. There is no soul. A person is nothing more than the quantum potential, held in a brain. Consciousness is nothing more than an illusion, an unintended consequence of the vast complexity of an organ belonging to an organism that was only intended to allow genes to replicate.
What had he done, opening Pandora's Box by studying theoretical physics, and all the applied sciences that were derived from the fundamental rules that governed the universe? It was if by pulling back the curtain, and shattering the illusion of the theatre that played out in front of his eyes, he had of course ruined the enjoyment of life.
The willing suspension of disbelief was necessary to get any enjoyment out of any theatrical presentation. For sure, the sets were made of wood, and the birds were painted onto the background and never flapped their wings. For sure, it wasn't really snowing when a stage-hand in the rafters tipped a bucket of white polystyrene balls from above, but the illusion was passable if you didn't pick it to pieces.
He had picked everything to pieces. By relentlessly asking "but why" until the question made no sense anymore, nothing made any sense anymore. When he had reached the realisation that he was nothing more than an insignificant speck in a universe that was as good as infinitely huge, and incalculably complex, it was hard to return to a simpler, happier time, when there was some mystery and joy in things. When you can reason everything from basic principles, there is no more magic in the world. When the magician's trick can be picked apart by logic and reason, he turns from an entertainer bringing joy and delight to his audience, to a con-man.
Everything had turned to shit for him. With a Midas touch, he now applied sharp reason and logic to everything he saw, and the curtain was permanently pulled back. He saw humanity's ugliness. He saw people fighting and fucking each other over, and just vast numbers of total idiots, everywhere he turned. His heart was broken. Where had the beauty and mystery all gone? What questions were there really left to ask, when it seemed like all could be answered on his own, using base principles.
Through extrapolation, he saw no more point in continuing his life, than a scientist would in repeating an experiment that has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt to yield the same results time and time again. Only a fool does the same things expecting different results, he was often fond of saying. If you keep putting garbage in, you'll keep getting garbage out.
The world had exhausted him. In love with ideas of building a utopia as a child and young man, he now accepted that there was no shortage of good ideas, but there was also no shortage of people who didn't want to see them implemented. There were too many vested interests. People had too much to lose. He couldn't fight the world anymore, with reason and logic, and arguments about the greater good. Nobody wanted the greater good. Most people just wanted to be at the top of the pyramid, king of the hill.
Perhaps that's why men climbed mountains, because for a brief moment when you stood on the summit, you could count yourself amongst just a handful of people who had faced great adversity to be higher than almost everybody else on the planet at that moment. Standing alone on the top of Mount Everest, anybody else you could see, with solid ground under their feet, would be literally beneath you. The air passengers and astronauts in the International Space Station don't count: they didn't walk there, on their own legs, and they're not standing on Earth.
That was a brave thing, to get into an aeroplane or a rocket. We have become desensitised to it, now that jet travel is commonplace, but imagine those first adventurers in space flight and aeronautics. Imagine again, how mad it is to put yourself in a position where you could fall to Earth.
So, he supposed it was apt, that he should end his life in this way: falling.
He walked up the steps, to where the bridge departed from the land, crossing the chasm below, held in space by the tensioned steel structure that towered above. He started to cross the bridge to the opposite side, that he had no intention of reaching.
In a dreamlike state now, his vision narrowed. His hearing was dulled. The fine detail of the universe around him seemed to fall away. He no longer noticed the cars driving across the bridge: their engine noise, and the rush of air as they went past. He no longer noticed the people, who were photographing themselves, talking to each other and headed to their own unknown destinations. He no longer noticed the rumble of a jet passing ahead, or the blast of a horn on a giant ship, that passed under the bridge, on the river below. He was now living his daydream, with everything playing out exactly has he had pictured it so many times before.
Reaching the centre of the bridge, he turned to the barrier. He couldn't hesitate for a single moment. If he hesitated, then doubt would enter his mind, and he would start to have thoughts: rational thoughts. He would start to re-analyse things. He would start to talk himself out of what he was going to do next. He would start to think about the "what if?"s He would start to enter some unknown situation, out of control from the destiny he had chosen. Things could easily get out of his hands. Some kindly good Samaritan could step in. The police could become involved. Psychiatrists. People to save him from himself.
He threw his leg over the barrier, and lowered his foot to the little ledge the other side without a pause. He then brought his other foot to meet the other on the ledge. He was now stood with his back to the river, facing onto the bridge, but on the outside of the barrier. He stared dead ahead for just a second, steeling himself to make the final moves.
He twisted his body 90 degrees, and swung his left foot out into space. Now, he swivelled on his other foot on the little ledge, and reached behind himself, grabbing the handrail of the barrier, with the bridge now at his back. He returned his left foot to the little ledge, with his feet now pointing outwards.
Pausing to look down, he didn't really see anything. His vision had glazed over. He knew that to focus on what was below him, and to consider the height that he was at, would be to invite a sense of peril into his mind. He had put himself into a trance-like state. All of the mental rehearsals beforehand had prepared him for this. All of the times he had pre-visualised these steps, meant that he was now following a dance routine, and his mind was quiet and calm. All he had to do was exhale, and make his final move.
His stomach rose in his chest, constricting in his neck, before he even released his grip. His body anticipated the weightlessness, before he had even stepped off the ledge. He knew he was going to jump, before he had even done it. He knew he had passed the point of no return - psychologically - before he had even physically started the process. The decision had been made in his brain, and the signals were being sent to his muscles, but he was already conscious that he had done it. He had jumped, even though his hand still gripped the barrier and his feet were still on the ledge.
Now, he was just a passenger. He felt himself let go of the handrail, and let his arms drop to his side. He felt himself squat slightly so that he could launch himself off the ledge. He felt himself straighten up, springing forward and away from the bridge. He brought his arms up, above him and pushed out his chest, forming a 'Y' shape with his body, as he cut through the air.
He didn't tumble. He fell fairly flat, with a slight incline towards the ground, as he gently rotated towards a head-first plummet to Earth.
He felt the air briefly rushing past his face, and heard the noise of wind get increasingly loud. He didn't see the ground coming towards him. It was all too quick, in the end.
Then, blackness and silence.
Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.