Talking With Daniel Alland

I came across Daniel Alland when he wrote a blog post in the UK about his suicide attempt several years ago. I hadn’t spoken with anyone from over there, and I wondered whether it was somehow easier in the UK to talk about suicide. We spoke by Skype, and then I went back and re-read his blog post. I liked that he was direct about his thinking after his own attempt and how his sister’s attempt not long after that changed him: “Up until the first time my family member did this, I maintained a very cynical attitude towards suicide,” Daniel wrote. “Even with regards to my own experience. I hadn’t truly listened to what those mental health charities were telling me – I was just concentrating on ways to cope. I convinced myself it was entirely down to my drug use and general weak-mindedness, and still believed that ‘It was the coward’s way out’, ‘How can someone be so selfish? They should be ashamed’ and all the other disgustingly ignorant things you hear from the ill informed about suicide.

“But when it happened to someone I knew; someone whom I had enormous respect for; someone who was strong in character, intelligent, a real fighter; I knew that this was not the attention seeking display of selfishness and spite that I was led to believe. This was a genuine problem that, if treated with contempt and disdain, could result in a successful suicide attempt one day.”

Both Daniel and his sister have moved on from their experiences, and during our conversation, he dismissed the idea of being followed around by stigma. “Just because you suffered mental health issues doesn’t mean you’re an incompetent oaf,” he said.

Who are you?

My name’s Dan. From little old England, the south of England. I work for the Ministry of Defense, and I do a bit of writing in my spare time. That’s about me summed up.

What happened? How did you get to the point where you’re telling your story?

Right. I live in a very small town in Hampshire, and there’s a little park near where my parents live, where I grew up. Basically, a few kids just decided to hang themselves in this park in the same tree, and no one knew why. It was very, very troubling, confusing. We had no idea what drove them to it. It brought back a lot of memories, really, what I went through, me and my sister. I just thought, “This could go on indefinitely, you know.” There was a case in a Welsh town called Bridgend. An old story but quite incredible, a very small town, some 30-odd suicides in eight years or so. I just thought it seemed like an epidemic, and I wanted to write about it. I didn’t think some bloke would see it and stop it happening, but I thought if I share my experiences, “Look, I know how bad you’re feeling, you can move past it as though it never happened,” you know? They’re all choosing the most definite form of suicide, isn’t it? Hanging yourself. Not like what I and my sister did, which was to hop up on pills. So when you do that, you have time to reflect afterwards.

When did this happen?

I was 22. And I’d been sort of, like, taking quite a lot of drugs, at first recreationally, and then it kind of escalated to drug abuse, basically. It’s not something I’m proud of. I’d already sort of had a problem with depression since I was a kid, maybe something I was born with. Even my dad said he had it himself. He’s been able to keep it under control. So the years when I started abusing drugs, stuff like that, I wasn’t entirely happy with my employment, I felt stuck in a rut. So one day, I just took a lot of pills, just horrible. A similar situation for my sister, really. She was probably a similar age, a few years after. The thing is my sister, she had repeat episodes, a few times she did it. But she’s totally past it now.

Are you?

Yeah. I still have days where _ I never contemplate suicide, but I do have days where I think it wouldn’t matter if I died today. It sounds weird, but _ You think it wouldn’t actually be that bad, if you died. It’s only very occasionally.

How old are you now?

26.

You said trying to kill yourself by taking drugs gives you time to reflect. Did you?

It was about half an hour afterwards. I just thought, “Oh crap.” I started thinking about people dear to me. I had a girlfriend at the time, she was great. I was thinking about my lovely mum. Ridiculous. Instead, I jumped in the car and picked my girlfriend up from a job interview. She said, “I think I got the job. How are you?” I said, “I took a load of pills.” She said, “Right, drive to the hospital now.” The hospital in our hometown is crummy. If you want something more than, like, your fingernails clipped, you have to go to Winchester, about 30 minutes up the road. They took me in an ambulance. I left my car and it got a ticket. I got a nice parking ticket.

How could you decide to kill yourself without knowing about the lethality, or not, of what you were doing?

I took 20 painkillers without doing any research whatsoever, because it wasn’t until that moment that I knew I was going to attempt suicide. I had the pills in the drawer and I thought, “If I bosh all these with a glass of water, I’ll probably just fall into a coma and then die.” Very, very silly of me. And I would obviously not recommend anyone do it.

How did everyone respond?

It was very brief. They were like, “Why did you do it?” I said, “I don’t know.” I said, “It won’t happen again.” That was it. It wasn’t until I wrote that blog post that I’d spoken openly. I just said I was down, told them I’d been taking drugs, and they were very disappointed, but they didn’t say anything. They just said, “Don’t do it any more.” I don’t know, it’s not an easy one to talk about, really.

There’s no feeling of having to hide anything?

There were only my parents, my sister, who know I did it. I don’t think they told.

The blog you wrote for, does it have a big audience?

Quite a big audience. The chap who runs it used to be editor of Loaded magazine, the biggest in the UK. It’s weird, actually, because I wrote my blog about depression and suicide and a few weeks later, a young lady on there wrote a blog titled, “I had depression before it was cool.” Quite flippant, the blog post, hers. Mine took a slightly more serious tone.

How did people respond?

Very positively. I posted a link to my Facebook page. I was inundated with positive messages: “I had no idea.” A few took slight comfort from it because they knew the guys who did end their own lives. I just wanted to create a sense of community, everyone sort of pulling together. I don’t know what I wanted from it. I just thought it’s got to stop. Thank god there hasn’t been any subsequent suicide. There were actually four, and I write in the blog there were three. There was one I didn’t know about. I think the local newspaper got tired of reporting those suicides every week.

How would the newspaper cover it? I’m not too familiar with the media over there, just the papers like the Guardian and the Times and then the tabloids.

Funny you should say that. We have a local radio station called Andover Breeze. When they reported one of the suicides on their website, a young girl, 22, very, very sad, they wrote the copy in the most conversational style I’ve ever, ever seen. It was titled “A body’s been found.” So conversational. Ridiculous. My flatmate actually sent them an e-mail to tell them off. It seemed so insensitive, to put it so flippantly as that. I think they should cover it, but I think they should be approached sensitively and respectively. I think it’s good to talk about it, you know?

How to talk about it?

I think as far as the media goes, even the sort of most reprehensible tabloid papers like the Mail cover it quite sensibly. I think it’s actually the average man on the street who has the worst attitude towards it. A personal example: After the episode of mine, about a year later, it was my mum’s birthday, and we had family around. My aunt said, “Oh my god, you’ll never guess what happened to us today. We were driving to Tesco and I was driving up the road, about a 40 mile-per-hour road, and we saw a strange-looking chap who stood on the sidewalk looking shifty, basically a guy who’s tying to kill himself. He tried to jump in front of the car.” She slammed on her brakes and just stopped from hitting him. I said, “God, that’s tragic.” They were just like _ my little cousins were laughing about it _ what a sad case he was. And then my aunt and uncle were in agreement, “What a sad idiot, how selfish it is to jump in front of our car! If he’s going to do it, do it, just hang yourself.” I kind of thought, they didn’t for one minute try to put themselves in that chap’s shoes. They made him a figure of fun.

Did you bring up own experience?

I didn’t. I was going to do it, but it was my mum’s birthday, and I didn’t want to create a scene. Maybe if I had had a few drinks, perhaps. But I didn’t want to ruin it.

How can people make this topic more approachable, more comfortable?

Good question. Just give people like yourself more of a platform. A lot of charity adverts. You see them all the time on Sky News, other news channels, every other advert is for a charity. But it’s never a mental health charity. Interesting.

Maybe there’s a different reaction in the UK if someone talks about their experience? Maybe you guys are more open than over here in the U.S.?

It’s not, really. They just think you’re a bit nuts. It’s a shame. Maybe even more so because perhaps we’re slightly more cynical. That’s what we do. We’re very good at it. I think it could change, over time. As long as you keep giving people the platform to talk about this. Like TV, if you got TV behind it, adverts. I rarely see adverts even in newspapers regarding mental health. I think that’s the best way. Just put it out there. Because then you normalize it, don’t you. The more it’s seen in the public eye, it doesn’t become such a taboo subject.

Are you concerned about people Googling you and finding your post? Say you look for a new job and they look at your background?

Yeah, well. I couldn’t not do something like that because I thought it would hurt career opportunities. A slight shame in that, if you ask me. It’s not the right reason not to do something.

You said you work with the Ministry of Defense. There’s no concern?

Yeah, maybe, if that’s the sort of thing they sack me for, then shame on them. I’d quite happily, if I was to be sacked, or if I found out I was overlooked for a position because of that, I probably would go on a campaign and try to bring those people down. I would do something like that. Just because you suffered mental health issues doesn’t mean you’re an incompetent oaf.

In this country, one good thing, we’ve got a lot of high-profile famous people _ You know Stephen Fry? He did a brilliant two-part documentary on his bipolar disorder. And obviously he’s the hardest-working man in show biz. Really intelligent, really talented. He suffers sometimes, like, very badly with bipolar disorder. I think, well, it just goes to show people can cope and get on well in life.

Were there any resources you found useful when you were getting back on your feet?

I think the best resources are literally just friends, really. There’s a few, sort of, like, charities and websites. Time for Change is one of them. They’re more about exposing and combatting prejudice against mental health. I saw a couple of social worker-type people. They were very nice, they listen to everything you’ve got to say, but really, you’ve got to help yourself.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I was gonna mention the first port of call: Anyone who’s ill goes to the doctor. That’s what I did. I went to see a GP, a general practitioner, just at a local clinic. And that didn’t help at all. Before you’ve even sat down, they’ve already given you a prescription for antidepressants. They hand them out like Smarties. I didn’t get on with them at all. I don’t think the best way to combat mental health is with drugs. I stopped taking them. I’d like to say the drugs didn’t work.

Did they follow up with you to check on how you were doing with the medication?

Not at all.

Finally, who else are you? I have this sort of narrow view of you so far. And the Ministry of Defense job sounds rather mysterious.

I don’t deal in the sort of exciting part of the Ministry of Defense. We just look after soldiers’ accommodation. I quite like talking to the soldiers. They’re great guys, doing a great job for us. Obviously these people, some of the sights they see, losing their friends, going off to Afghanistan, I think if these guys can cope with those kind of experiences, surely I can. Apart from that, I’ve always played in bands, stuff like that. I do writing for the Sabotage Times, album reviews for Virgin. I write a bit of fiction as well.

It’s the last thing, depression and suicide, the last thing I define myself by, to be perfectly honest. I wanted to write about it because it was the biggest story in my hometown at the time, and I thought I had to give some sort of commentary to this. But I don’t define myself by that by any means. That website, my next post for it was slagging off the rock band Muse. I don’t know, the next post may be about ice cream sundaes.
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