I am not really supposed to tell you this, but many years ago, I spent a period as a volunteer for the Samaritans, a charity that I consider offers among the purest, most human of all services to people. One might reasonably imagine that an evening on the phones is fraught with desperate and emotional conversations, that every call is an immediate matter of life and death. Well, it isn't quite that dramatic, although of course there is frequent despair.
Often, the opening line from a caller was "You probably think I am being silly...", usually delivered in a quiet, calm voice.
Today, I think many of us spend much of our time in some form of mild despair; it is a tough world. But social ills can be compounded by the human experience of bereavement and the irony that in a connected world, people have scarcely been more "lonely" as we retreat into our cyber-worlds, advertising our fabulous lives for all to see. In my time as a Samaritan, a very common cause of a caller's unhappiness was bereavement, sometimes many years previously. "Everybody assumes I am over it, but I'm not," was a familiar refrain. And we all, no matter what causes our unhappiness, try to set the way we feel against how we are supposed to appear to the outside world: it's harder if your life revolves around the public, leading organisations or are in a position of authority.
Many who know me or read my book will be aware that over an 18 month period, beginning three years ago, I lost my brother, my father and my mother. My parents were difficult for different reasons, but both being in their eighties gave at least a sense of reason, or expectation, despite the swirling family dynamics that made each of their deaths more poignant and complicated than they might ordinarily be.
It was the death of my brother Matteo that had the greatest impact and it is one that I still haven't been able to consign to the past. Perhaps it was the nature of the events that surrounded his death, the daily drama of a week that elapsed between his brain haemorrhage and us having to decide to turn off life support. It was as intense and surreal a week as I will perhaps ever have. I wrote about it on this blog.
What happened after his death still has an effect on my daily life. Strange and inexplicable consequences, seemingly disassociated from anything I can explain are still exerting an influence although some diminish in time. I became agoraphobic and claustrophobic - sitting in theatres is still immensely difficult. I couldn't stand being in rooms full of people either (difficult in my job) and your dedication to work suffers - I had to force myself to leave the house every day and still do at times. The most noticeably residual effect is that I have become profoundly sensitive to the mere mention of Matt, a situation that became insufferably tough when in Italy recently among family who all wanted to talk about him and his death. In essence, I have come to believe that I won't ever get over it. It will be four years in May that he died.
I don't know WHY all these things happened to me, why his death had such a deeply powerful affect on my personality, changed me in so many ways or why I so often closet myself away, full or maudlin introspection. It just did, and I now understand fully those people who call the Samaritans, not always knowing why, but who, over the course of a conversation with a stranger, empty their souls out on a river of emotion and tears. I know they often felt a great deal better having done so, and though the darkness will return again eventually, they have an outlet - everybody does - in charities like the Samaritans. So as we approach Christmas, consider making a donation - or better still, perhaps you might think about volunteering yourself.