Shannon’s Story

Shannon’s sister, Carolyn

“Suicide doesn’t end the chances of life getting worse, it eliminates the possibility of it ever getting any better” — Unknown.

In 2011 my older sister Carolyn died by suicide; she was just 21 years old.

I remember the moment I was told she was gone; I will never forget that feeling of despair and hopelessness. Then came the questions: “Why didn’t I see the signs? Was it something I did? Why didn’t she ask for help?” Countless questions flurried round my head, questions I will never know the answers to or even be able to understand.

Carolyn was often described as: “having a smile that could light up the world, an infectious laugh, a caring soul, a joy to be around.” She would do anything to help anyone but she didn’t understand how to help herself.

Our family are originally from Orkney, my siblings and I grew up in a small village that didn’t even have its own shop. It was a quiet, sheltered lifestyle and gave us a great understanding of community. In 2005 we moved to Inverness, Carolyn was 15 and learning how to be a teenager in a city which is considerably different to our village in Orkney. New friends, new places and new relationships and that’s exactly what happened, Carolyn began a relationship with an older boy. The first romantic relationship dream was not exactly how she expected it — this relationship led to Carolyn’s first experience of domestic abuse. Young and scared she didn’t know where to turn, eventually she was able to get out and attempt to start again. Unfortunately, the cycle just continued to repeat itself.

A few years later Carolyn decided to move back to Orkney and live by herself, she had a part time job, was enrolled in a college course, rented a flat and things were looking up. But again her kindness and willingness to always see the good in people placed her in a dark and scary place. She had started another relationship with a man in Orkney and once again was subjected to physical and mental abuse. At barely 21 years old and already living with the trauma of a previous violent relationship, Carolyn felt trapped, lost, hopeless. She was losing her sparkle but trying so hard to hide it. My parents tried to intervene but as she was over 18 and classed as an independent adult GPs and police couldn’t do anything to help. Carolyn also did not want to admit that she needed help. Years of mistrust in the system made Carolyn reluctant to ask for help herself, she didn’t know who to turn to or how to get out this time. On the 14th of January 2011 Carolyn made the decision to die by suicide just two days after her 21st birthday.

The weeks that followed are blurry to say the least. Shock, pain, anger are just a few of the feelings I remember from that time.

My whole family are still trying to heal but we will never be whole again, since Carolyn’s death we have all experienced issues with mental health. My dad has always described it as if the family was a circle and when Carolyn died that circle was broken. It’s something that can never be repaired and her place in the circle will never be replaced. We just must learn how to live in the broken circle. We have all struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety — but together we keep each other going.

When I was around 15 or 16 was the hardest time for me. I was trying to deal with all the hormones and changes a teenager goes through and trying to process the pain of losing my sister. I didn’t know how. I was too scared to speak with my family in case I upset them. I think that’s one of the hardest parts — we were all in pain but too scared to talk in case we made it worse but how could it possibly be any worse?

I think that is a common fear when trying to have conversations around mental health — making it worse. We can often be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, but you do not have to be a professional to ask someone “are you ok?”. Three little words that can save a life. It is easy to ask the question but not always as easy to answer it. But by starting a conversation you are giving someone the chance to open up and talk.

Over the last few years, I have been working with my family to do our bit and raise some awareness of the massive issue in Scotland. My dad’s former football team donated us a trophy named the “Carolyn Firth Memorial Cup.” With this we have started a football tournament across the Highlands and Islands. Every year we invite Women’s football teams and a men’s over 40 team to play. We spend the day with the teams competing to win the cup. We reminisce about Carolyn and how much she loved the sport, and we try to spread the message that it is ok to talk. Since starting this my family’s mental health has improved as we are focussed on not what we’ve lost but preventing other families from experiencing the same pain we have. We have also had multiple occasions at tournaments over the years where participants and spectators have opened up and had a chat about their own mental health.

Although losing Carolyn has been one of the hardest things my family have ever had to go through, I am proud that we have managed to take our experience and share it with others. No suicide is inevitable, we can all show some kindness and compassion in our day to day lives and help to save lives.

The following services offer confidential support from trained staff and volunteers. You can talk about anything that is troubling you, no matter how difficult:

  • Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email jo@samaritans.org. Samaritans are there to listen 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s always free to call from any landline or mobile phone.
  • Call 111 to talk to NHS 24’s mental health hub.
  • Call 0800 83 85 87 to talk to Breathing Space. The service is open 24 hours at weekends (6pm Friday — 6am Monday) and 6pm to 2am on weekdays (Monday — Thursday). The Breathing Space webchat is an alternative to phoning the service.
  • Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, text “YM” if you are under 19.