Photograph: I love Images/Corbis
Getting to know someone new can be a complicated affair. Sometimes it’s hard to judge what to reveal about yourself and what might best be left to a later date. The last boyfriend I had told me that when I first talked to him about my childhood he had to drop in on a friend afterwards to offload.
‘She’s got this crazy backstory. I just don’t know if it’s all too much.’
He only revealed this post-conversation-debrief to me after we’d been together a few months, and though my first response was defensive, on reflection, he had a point. Which brings me to one of the biggest quandaries those with a difficult past face—when to tell the people we meet the basic facts of our lives?
Of course it’s a personal choice, and each of us is different, but I favour getting it out of the way quickly. Omission of truth has always felt like lying, and if people don’t know what I’ve been through I fear the relationship is built on a kind of false floor. That it could, at any moment, cave in. Mine is a traumatic story, with no easy explanations, but usually it comes up naturally enough.
‘So, how many siblings do you have?’
I always pause, not sure how to respond. Right now I have two, but I used to have three. How this came about is the crux of the story. For me, this innocuous question holds a different kind of weight.
When I was twelve my eighteen year old half-sister, Zoe, committed suicide. I could mention this, or I could hold off. If I disclose, the conversation will either slam to a halt, or continue. I’m most afraid of the first possibility—my revelation causing a rupture, a shutting down of something burgeoning, an end. But sometimes I’ll risk it. I’ll say—‘Three. I had three.’
My sister has been dead now longer than she was alive, but that doesn’t mean she never existed. Growing up with Zoe coloured my whole childhood. The loss of her devastated my family, her suicide like a detonating hand grenade thrown right into the heart of us. No-one was unscathed. But it saddens me that because of the way she died—and whatever mental health struggles led her there—there’s never been any space to talk about the person she was. Vibrant and fierce, delicate of soul and wild of heart—a teenage girl who never made it through. I often try to imagine the adult my sister would have become if she’d chosen life over death all those years ago. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a stranger and see a fleeting resemblance. She’d have been like that, I think. Just like that. And what I most long to say to the sibling question is—‘Three. I have three.’
But if by chance that question doesn’t arise, there’s always the seemingly safe territory of—‘So, where’s your dad these days?’
Grief stricken after my sister’s suicide, my father became ill. Crippling depressions interspersed with effervescent but terrifying highs. A late onset, grief-induced bipolar disorder. In and out of psychiatric hospitals from that point on, he finally took his own life six years later. One suicide lighting the fuse of another, a sort of explosive domino effect. In my head, I call them ‘the dark years’. The time everything I knew and took for granted crumbled. You can see why I might be nervous about false floors when my whole family very suddenly plunged into an unimaginable black hole. My father was fifty-four when he died. The older I get the younger that seems.
‘Floodlighting’ is what American social researcher and TED Talks sensation Brené Brown calls the act of sharing too much sensitive information with someone who you haven’t yet built enough trust. (See above for a spectacular example.) Traumatised people do it for two main reasons. Firstly, as some kind of self-defeating subconscious test. If this person can hear my pain then perhaps they’ll stick around. Secondly, because the need to talk about the events can be so overwhelming it is impossible to contain. The problem being that often the person on the receiving end is caught like an animal in the headlights, startled and unable to respond.
For me, learning how to judge when I’m floodlighting or more healthily sharing has been a long road. When my sister died I was just a kid, and for many years I believed when I spoke about her I wasn’t using the right words. That words must have existed that would make sharing our story possible but I just hadn’t found them. After the death of my father I began to see it wasn’t the words I spoke that created such a discomforting space between me and the listener, it was the enormity of the events themselves.
And nearly twenty years later it’s still tricky. Usually I can tell when there is enough intimacy in a relationship to share about one of the deaths in my family, but often the second death is a kind of tipping point into too far. I am left in a limbo land between half and full disclosure, not knowing how to proceed. And all this is not because I don’t like to talk about my dead ones, it’s because I’m trying to find a time and place where the other person will feel safe enough to hear.
Lifeline (Australia): 13 11 14. Samaritans (UK): 08457 90 90 90. Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
First published in The Guardian, 13th October, 2014.