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At the age of 24, Tony Kirby walked in front of a tube train in an attempt to end his life. He talks openly about past events, and the processes of recovery which led to a final state of equilibrium and allowed him to continue to work as a musician and DJ despite losing an arm.
Have you ever seriously considered suicide? Not just flirted with the idea of doing a ‘Kurt Cobain’, but actually, truly felt that you really want to die?
When it comes to ending lives, especially their own, young men don’t do things by halves. Frighteningly dramatic in their choice of method, they are three times more likely than women to succeed in their attempts to end it all. And as the latest report by the Men’s Health Forum indicates, the suicide rate of young men (15-24) has almost trebled in the last 25 years.
Most people find it impossible to comprehend why someone would want to take their own life.
The reasons are always complicated, powerful and very individual. More general problems facing men in particular are connected with the pressures to succeed in such increasingly competitive times, to still be the ones to keep it all together when everything around them is falling apart.
Methods are usually violent: shooting, slashing wrists, jumping off bridges and tall buildings. Or, walking in front of trains. That’s what Tony when he was just 24 years old. Unlike so many others though, he lived to tell the tale. He talks openly about past events, and the processes of recovery which led to a final state of equilibrium and allowed him to continue to work as a musician and DJ despite losing an arm.
“I walked to Whitechapel tube, got a ticket and went down to the underground. For some reason I got off at Tower Bridge and stood on the platform feeling trapped and very frightened. I desperately wanted to escape.
“I saw a train coming towards me, and I thought I might be able to escape to another world in some kind of magical way if I just jumped. I was urging myself to walk off the edge; it was as if there was some kind of voice in my head encouraging me to. I know that sounds psychotic, but we all have voices in our heads to a certain extent, mine were psychological echoes from the past.
“I walked off the edge of the platform onto the track. It was very much a spur of the moment thing. Looking back I think I may have thought the train would stop, but it didn’t. It carried on, and I blacked out.”
Standing at the edge of the platform, staring down at the tracks, thinking about what it would be like to jump, we’ve all been there at some point, whether in a fleeting moment of self indulgent angst or a more serious contemplation of really wanting to end our lives.
They’re not comfortable thoughts. Even when we are travelling to work and we hear that trains are delayed because someone has thrown themselves on the line, we shudder and don’t like to acknowledge that it strikes a cord within us all. Though we still wonder what powerful reasons could possibly lie behind such a violent act.
For Tony Kirby life in the mid eighties was fast. Club land was in full swing, rave culture was increasing its momentum, and like many other twenty something’s, Tony was leading a typically hedonistic lifestyle. Sure he had the usual career and financial dilemmas of someone of his generation. He played keyboards in a band and worked as a cycle courier for a London despatch company – his call name: ‘Major Tom’. But he especially loved dancing, and he loved women. His good looks and lithe physique ensured he had no trouble with either.
It was a good time: the drugs, the clubs, the ideas floating around. And on a quest for self-exploration, Tony did it all. It was fun – at first. “I was reading a lot of philosophical stuff and that did my head in a bit, explains Tony. “I didn’t have the experience or mental facilities to digest or understand a lot of it with any clarity. There were lots of different ideas buzzing around in my head, partly fuelled by drugs.”
E had just hit the dance scene, and dope and speed were in plentiful supply. Later he experimented with acid. “We all have a fantasy world we dip into every known again, but I was living it 24 hours a day. The LSD sparked off latent fears, and pushed me into some kind of temporary drug induced psychosis. Things began to take on a legendary status and I was soon running scared with this living hell inside my head.”
The living hell was connected with deep-rooted and unreconciled family problems, though at the time it was difficult for him to separate these realities from a fantasy life that was fast spiralling out of control. By April 1989, one of his flat mates, a nurse, noticed his behaviour was becoming increasingly bizarre.
Like so many men who have breakdowns, he looked to spirituality for answers. “Everything began to take on a religious meaning. I tried to get my flatmates to come to church with me. I was striving for perfection. It felt like some monumental struggle with the forces of darkness when it was actually a reflection of my own inner battle.”
At this point the flat mate got him to agree to visit the local hospital with her. He tried to leave and was sectioned. After a week he tried to leave again, this time he went unnoticed, and walked out onto the street in a pretty confused state.
“When I walked out of the hospital I was on some kind of psychiatric medication but it didn’t agree with me. I felt like I was being kicked in the head and going through everything in slow motion. Some people end up trying to attack others when they are walking around in that kind of state, they lash out at complete strangers, but I ended up turning it on myself.”
Within half an hour of leaving the hospital, he was walking in front of a tube train at Tower Bridge station. “The ambulance man later said that I had my eyes wide open throughout the whole thing. As far as they were concerned I was conscious, but I don’t actually remember anything. I do know I was quite considerate though, it wasn’t at peak-time.”
“The next thing I knew, I was waking up in intensive care a few days later, with a bandage on my face. I had lost an arm from the shoulder, luckily my left – I’m right handed. I also had a fractured skull, a broken spine, multiple fractures, and a punctured rib and lung. But I was on lots of morphine so I felt ok. It’s pretty scary how those drugs can give you such a false sense of well being. When I came round I saw my friend sitting next to the bed looking down at me, and I said ‘Oh you’re here, I’m not in heaven then?’ ”
He pauses to chuckle at the memory, then looks up and holds my gaze, admitting that he hopes that didn’t upset his friend too much. Tony is good at looking you in the eye. He doesn’t shy away from the painful and uncomfortable, and still manages a laugh, punctuating his speech with many a splattering of dark humour. Something he relied on a lot at that time.
“I tried to make my friends feel at ease by coming out with these one armed jokes, or jokes about being an arms dealer, but I don’t know if it actually worked, it was probably really embarrassing for them. But for me, humour was my saving grace.”
The process of recovery was long and arduous. “After a few days in intensive care, they took me down to the spinal injuries ward. During this time my brain shut down to a certain extent, maybe so I could cope with these very real physical injuries, and having to spend the first four months completely on my back. Then they starting putting me in a tilt machine. It tilts you up vertically; I must have looked like Frankenstein. It was the first time since the accident that I felt the effects of gravity again, it made me really sick. I thought ‘Oh God, is this how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life?’ But the physios spent many sessions with me in the gym until I gradually got stronger and stronger. They were really great. Because I’m quite statuesque, they said I looked like that armless statue, you know the Venus di Milo. Later, I was fitted for an artificial limb, but I didn’t get on with it at all, I don’t use one even today.”
As he started to get better, he began to feel guilty for the effect his actions must have had on underground passengers, the driver of the train, and all those who know him. “I didn’t realise how much it would upset my friends and family at the time.”
Whether they are influenced by drugs and alcohol or not, the suicidal are often so engulfed by depression, pain and negativity that any thoughts for how their actions will affect others are almost completely overpowered. That was the case with Tony. Cowardice and selfishness don’t come into it.
He ended up having to spend 12 months in hospital – time to try and put it all into some kind of perspective.
During this transition period he thought long and hard about what the hell was going on to make him jump in front of a tube train. “The horrors of life, I had to re-address them. I was so lucky to survive. Many die after they’ve thrown themselves under trains or off bridges, though many survive too, often with horrific injuries, it’s quite a big price to pay. It’s brought me back to my senses.”
So what was really happening during this difficult time? This becomes clearer as he
remembers that one of the first things he thought about during his convalescence was the death of his father. ” I started to think about him a lot. I never really grieved for him at the time of his death. I felt sorry for myself and cried floods of tears. It’s not something men do very often, but I needed to let it all out.”
The man, who Tony had known all his life as his father, had died three years previous to the suicide attempt when Tony was 21. It was difficult to grieve for him at the time of his death because shortly after the funeral he was given an even greater shock. His mother told him that she was actually his grandmother, and hence the man they had just buried was really his grandfather. His sister, who lived abroad at the time, was his mother. His biological father was unknown to him. He had voiced suspicions about his background in the past, but they were continuously denied.
“I just wish they had told me when I was much younger. They said they hid the truth to protect me, though I think they were also protecting themselves. They were very Victorian in their attitudes and didn’t like to think we had skeletons in our closets.”
Although both his ‘parents’ were always there for him, the implications and repercussions of the family secret had begun to take their toll. “As a child I was always told not to trust anyone by my ‘mother’, then to find out she had effectively been lying to me all along was really difficult. It turned my whole world upside down. I started to question everyone else’s motives. I started to think people were just out to get something from me. I thought ‘well if I was right about that I must be right about everything else’. I didn’t not want to trust, it just felt ingrained inside me.”
Once it became connected with other more deep-rooted problems that lack of trust had manifested itself into something much darker. By the time he was 24, and despite leading the full and varied life described earlier, he slowly began to suffer from paranoid delusions, probably fuelled by whatever drugs he was taking at the time.
“A lot of the thoughts I was having were connected with who my real father could be. Most people have at least some idea of their background. I was drawing on a fantasy world to fill in all the spaces, and coming to lots of weird conclusions. That may be great if you’re a writer, but not if you want to live in the real world. With all that going on, the input I was receiving from the outside world became distorted, it became tainted by my own experiences and it didn’t get processed by the brain in the same way as it does in the average person. I felt overpowered with information. It was very scary.”
But he also tried to make something positive out of his unconventional background by finding a coping mechanism even if it didn’t solve anything. “Jack Nicholson’s circumstances were the same as mine (his sister was his mother too). It made me different; I wasn’t from that kind of ‘ideal’ background. I mean what is a normal family anyway, does it really exist as much as we think it does?”
Though Tony’s girlfriend at the time stood by him throughout everything, he knows he should have found another outlet as well. “She was great, but she had her own problems too. Looking back that is probably what attracted us to each other. But we didn’t make it better for ourselves, we made it worse. We just dumped on each other, when we really should have found someone neutral to help us out.”
The majority of men who attempt suicide say later that they found it really hard to talk about what they were going through at the time. And often there was no one really appropriate to confide in. The Samaritans are all well and good, and have probably saved many lives, but so many man feel either ashamed to speak out or have trouble articulating and conveying their thoughts to anyone, let alone to an anonymous voice on the end of the phone. Then there’s the shame. It doesn’t matter how desperate they are, shame can hinder many an attempt to find help, especially if they also grew up in an atmosphere that stifled emotion, helping to perpetuate the stigma attached to unhappiness. Then it doesn’t seem so surprising that when they do finally ‘voice’ their torment, it is through a dramatic physical act, as in this case.
As the explanations continue to roll off his tongue, it’s not difficult to see where he’s coming from. There are no signs of embarrassment about what he went through as some may expect there to be. Nothing really is too much of a big deal to talk about. Though he is considerate of unsettling others. When Terry Jones nestles into the alcove next to us for an interview, he says: “maybe we should stop for a while?” So we eavesdrop for a bit, and continue in quieter tones.
“I’ve quite literally broken the cycle now “, he says, referring to how he finally destroyed the vicious circle with one physical act. “Of course some of it was about drawing attention to myself – ‘look at me, hear me, this is what’s happening to me’.” “Yeah, I know drugs are all about a voyage of self-discovery and all that. But they are not even a good shortcut, they just confuse you more, you end up getting very self-obsessed.”
Tony recognises the urge to go over and over the past in an attempt to understand and rationalise it more than anything else, but he knows there comes a point when you have to take responsibility for how your own life is lived and move on. “My experiences were obviously really personal to me, but there are many people who have had really bad things happen in their lives and they manage to move on. You can’t keep going on about your background, saying ‘it was because of this, it was because of that’. There comes a point when you just have to cut it off, grow up and say ‘well now is now, let’s move on’. I hope I’ve reached that point now.”
“I’m glad to be alive, though in some ways it’s harder to live since I’ve always lived in my head to a certain extent, in a way it’s my home, so I just want it to feel comfortable and not be the hell I’ve created in the past. But we all have our dark sides and we all have our bad days. Mine aren’t so intense now. ” He makes sure he has someone professional to talk to if he does start to feel depressed.
Today he is pretty sussed. He partly keeps dark thoughts at bay by seeing his regular mates, they’ve always been important to him. Although there is still a lot of physical pain in his back, in all life is not bad. He has things many men are still struggling to attain. He has a ten year old daughter who he clearly adores. “I didn’t know it when I walked in front of the train, but my girlfriend at the time was pregnant. I found this out after a few weeks of being in hospital. At that point no one knew whether I would ever walk again, but there was never any question of not keeping the baby.”
He is no longer with her mother, but he sees his daughter every week, and she often stays with him and his current girlfriend, an Australian commercials producer. “My girlfriend and I share a similar sense of humour which is a great leveller. We help each other out, relationships are all about compromising. She is also very grounded, whereas I’m a bit more up in the air, and she won’t have any of my nonsense.”
They share a flat together in Soho, where Tony has lived for the last eight years. He loves the area. He knows the people, Blacks is just up the road, the are great restaurants to go to, but as he says “it’s not like I’m out on the town every night.”
Having never really played the game in terms of being a conventional achiever, he gets by doing his own thing. Always one of the forerunners of an alternative scene, he has been involved with a number of ventures since fully recovering. BigLoud Universe (BLU), a music collective, was set up with his brother, a poet and rapper, in 1993 amid enthusiasm for a post-clubbing reaction to the all too blinkered eighties. With them he composed computerised music scores for short films and did the odd cinema commercial.
He still keeps in with the club scene by DJing on a regular basis for the Foundry, an ‘arty’ club in Old Street. “It’s just nice to see people dance to what you’ve chosen to play, old style funk, jazz, blues, that kind of thing. Music’s a great form of catharsis.”
He also DJ’s for Middlesex Hospital Radio who are always on the look out for volunteers. “The only thing about that is that you can’t say ‘get well soon’, or talk about politics or religion, which aren’t my main topics, but as well as records you can play comedy tapes and read out the more bizarre stories from newspapers, anything to help people pass the time of day.”
Joss Ackland has agreed to voice a short radio play he has recently written, ironically called Television and about a couch potato games show enthusiast who becomes obsessed with coincidences and connections. “I’m trying to write more which I find hard when nothing is structured for me, it’s really rewarding when you succeed though. The lows are lower, but the highs are much higher.
© Tina Bexson