Don’t hold that scream inside your heart

Don’t hold that scream inside your heart

Content warning: This piece contains discussion of suicide.

One evening in mid-October 1999 I sat in the kitchen of the cute 1950s cottage I shared with my friend, pinned to my chair by a force I did not understand.

I wanted to die. I wanted to not be alive. I could see no other way for the pain, the despair, the emptiness, to end. And more than anything, I wanted, I needed, it to end.

Roller-coaster operators in Japan ask their patrons to please, hold your screams in your heart. That night, and for months beforehand, I was screaming silently, within: but that silent scream of despair is actually deafening to the one who holds it in their heart. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was first experiencing depression, society still strongly preferred us to ride the rollercoaster of life with a smile on our face. We were asked, when life pulled us up to dizzying heights, and plunged us into stomach-stealing depths, to hold our screams silent.

I have experienced two or three further periods of time in the 21 years since that night, during which I have again played with the idea of not being alive, because the pain and despair were again unbearable.

I have thought about driving my car into a tree, for death, or for the serious physical injury that would be pain others could see. If only they could see the pain I was enduring. If only they could hear the scream inside my heart. It is possible to scream inside your heart. It is not always healthy to keep our screams inside.

I have never picked up a blade, swallowed too many pills, or actually driven my car into a tree. Although, in 1999 there were more days than I could count on which I turned off the ignition, sat in my car in the driveway, surprised to have arrived safely at home …

On Not Hitting a Tree
After “Five Thousand Acre Paddock”, Philip Hodgins

  1. There was only one tree on the corner and I drove straight past it.
  2. Flowers mark the tree where the car ended up. I think to myself that could have been me only I would have done it deliberately.
    (On Wisdom’s Wings, 2013)

That night in 1999 was the closest I came to forming a plan, considering my options, identifying what resources I had to hand. But I could not move from that chair at the end of the kitchen table; not until I sensed it must be almost time for my housemate to arrive home from musical theatrerehearsal, when I moved to my bed and cried myself to sleep.


I sank to my chai
I stared at the telephone
the bottle of wine
the car keys
I took up the phone
I put it down
I dialled no number
I took it up
I put it down
again and again
wanting to ask
made it no easier to call
I took up the bottle
put it to my lips
I swallowed no wine
I took it up
I put it down
again and again
wanting to forget
made it no easier to drown
I took up my keys
drove holes in the table
I went nowhere
I took them up
I put them down
again and again
wanting to crash
made it no easier to burn
away from the car keys
the bottle of wine
the telephone
I sank into my bed

(On Wisdom’s Wings, 2013)

When I awoke the next morning, I remember thinking, OK, I have chosen to live. How am I going to do that, then?

From there, in the following days and weeks, I told my GP and got help; I talked to my parents and one or two close friends; and I went to stay with my Nanna for a while.

I do not often talk about that year in which the depression worsened to life-threatening depth. I still find stories with a suicide in the plot – especially unexpected – throw me off balance. In a play I saw with my parents, the lead character ‘jumped’ out of his upper floor apartment window to his death. I had not picked it – usually I see a suicide a mile off in books, plays, movies. As the lights came up and people started to move, Dad looked inquiringly at Mum, for I had not moved at all. Give her a moment – the suicide, she said. I was catching my breath. It was not that Dad had forgotten my story, but that we did not talk about it all that much; also, that when you do not know suicide from the inside, you are not immediately aware of the impact a suicide on stage might have on you in your seat.

More recently, at the movies with new friends in a new town, one of the main characters hung himself, and again, I did not entirely see it coming. Credits rolling, lights up, I again froze in my seat, but this time I was with people who did not know why. If I had known suicide was in that story, I doubt I would have seen that film with people who did not know my story. I may not have seen the film at all.

It’s just that it shakes me up some. It disrupts my peace for a while: the rest of the evening, a day or two after. After the movie, over coffee, I shared something of why I was feeling shaken. I do not mind people knowing; I am reasonably comfortable sharing my story, and it’s out there for people to know, in my poetry, on my blog. I am not always able to tell that story, however. And I am not always able to stay in a room where others are talking about suicide not knowing what it is to want to die. To not want to be alive anymore. To choose to live.

I talk about it, write about it, when I can. I believe I must. The more we share our stories the better we understand ourselves and each other. When my first poetry collection, On Wisdom’s Wings, was published, containing much poetry from the first decade of my experiences of depression, I was convinced that it was not enough for me to tell my story in these poems. I knew I had to keep telling it, with the poems on the page, and with my voice – and I knew it was important for me to support and encourage others in telling their stories, too. For their healing, for the understanding and support of those around them, for the strength of the community.

I woke up that morning in October, 21 years ago, in a cottage in the Adelaide Hills, having decided to live. That decision gives me courage when the depression worsens again. Courage to seek help, to speak up, to choose the behaviours and practices that help me to heal. Because I honour my choice to live. My being alive is not simply the foregone conclusion of my having been born, fed and watered. My being alive is a deliberate choice: a choice not to end my life.

By the time I made that choice, I had effectively shut out everyone from my confidence and affection: family, close friends, the only person I have ever considered marrying. That was hard on them, and cost me some relationships (I never did get married). But it did mean that when I chose to live, I did so for the only ones who were in that deep, dark, cave: me, and Holy One. If I had chosen to live for anyone else, I am certain that would have placed a burden on them and me that could have been entirely counter-productive. There is, instead, a freedom to my choice to live, independent of anyone else’s desire for me to remain: it is for life itself. From that freedom I can love my family and friends, community, neighbours, and Holy One with the joy of being alive rather than under the burden of staying here as a favour to someone else.

tenuous wholeness

beneath a sepia sky
of rainclouds reflecting
my cheeks are wet, not by rain,
but by the profound
of wholeness, however tenuous,
painted against a black
scars an etching of regret, edges
faded and worn, colour
and yet –
piercing through to the heart
eyes that shine despite it all
for a precious, tenuous

(On Wisdom’s Wings, 2013)

Suicide is one of the hardest conversations to have, from wherever you stand in relation to it. But we all stand in relation to suicide somehow, whether as members of a community in Australia losing a devastatingly high proportion of our people to suicide, or as loved ones left behind, loved ones supporting a survivor, or one who has felt the yearning to not be alive anymore, not matter what we have (or have not) done about it.

So let’s talk. Gently, openly, honestly. And with courage, kindness and respect for the dignity of each person, let’s listen, both to the screams we hold in our hearts in silence, and to those we cannot contain.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with mental health issues you can contact Lifeline via their website or on 13 11 14.

Sarah Agnew is a storyteller-poet-minister in placement with Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra, on Ngunnawal land. Copies of On Wisdom’s Wings, and other publications, are available through her website.


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