My father gassed himself in his car one night. I only found out the following morning but I knew exactly how he did it. I knew because the first time he tried it I must have been only 10 years old. He had left the house in a tantrum that night and, by chance, I heard the motor of his car still running in the garage. In those days, BMW’s had a very distinct hum to them. I tried to open the steel roller door of the garage but it had been locked from the inside. So I ran to call my mother who managed to open it with a key. It’s one of those life events where you don’t really realise what is happening at the time, all you are aware of is the panic, but as it unfolds an unexplainable weight slowly starts to lean down on your heart; a weight that you carry for the rest of your life.
I was in the middle of a couple’s consultation when I discovered he was dead. I finished the consultation first. I didn’t quite know yet how I felt about his death. I probably still don’t. As a therapist you learn to hide, to some extent, what you really think and feel. The therapy space is less about you and more about your client. But, if truth be told, most therapists learn this long before they become therapists. It’s a comfortable place to sit, in a wing backed chair, not having to talk about yourself or your own feelings. It’s also a part of psychotherapy culture that has attracted increasing criticism.
I didn’t have to think too much about it though. I knew exactly how he had done it: A piece of garden hose cut just long enough to reach from the exhaust pipe to a narrow slit left in the driver’s window. That’s how my mother and I had found him that night in the garage. Even though he was already unconscious, we managed to get him out of the car soon enough for him to recover. This time, with his cell phone plugged into the car charger beside him, no one was there to stop him.
Suicide is a topic complicated enough to be left for another day and a much longer exploration. There are so many reasons why a person would feel desperate and even courageous enough to try it. Most of us go through periods in our lives where we secretly think of it or even plan it. My father’s choice leaves me with no pre-judgment of people who have considered or even attempted it. In fact, I think it is at the point of contemplating our own ending that we are most capable of real change. But, every time I think of accountability in relationships, I think of my father and the “spirit of the west”.
Relationships are not sustainable in the absence of accountability. The on-going struggle that I had with my father was not one of needing him to change who he was. I needed him to stand accountable. His choice to “walk out on his own story” was perhaps his final act of refusing to do so?
Being accountable is not just about saying “sorry”. Being accountable is an action. It’s to behave in a way that demonstrates a consideration for the emotions of the other person. When the person we are in a relationship with does not take accountability for things, we are left feeling not good enough (at best) and invisible (at worst). This is true for all relationships but it is especially true for intimate relationships. When couples come for therapy they come to hold each other accountable. It’s an uncomfortable process but its a process that can turn our relationships into our greatest source of personal growth.
“People think relationships are about happiness. But they’re not. They’re about transformation.” – Joseph Campbell