Tom Clarke’s daughter Laura was the eldest of three children. In 2018 she left her mother and two sisters in Dublin to live with her dad in Dubai and study. However after a long struggle with mental health challenges, including borderline personality disorder, and all possible interventions by her family, she took her own life on September 2, 2019 at the age of 23. Tom is speaking about his loss to reach others who may be struggling. This summer, for example, he did a live virtual talk with Darkness Into Light in Abu Dhabi. “That was quite a tough thing to do,” he says. “But I’m glad I did it if it helps others.” That is how he came to tell livehealthy.ae the story of losing his daughter, which we are publishing on the occasion of World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10).
Trigger warning: This interview contains strong language regarding the topic of suicide. When reading this, if you feel triggered in any way, please know there are multiple ways you can reach out for help. A list of mental health resources available in the UAE is included at the end of the article. In case of emergency, call 999.
All her life, Laura was into coloring and drawing. She went on to do a fine arts degree at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. It was a fairly niche degree to be fair, she would perhaps have had to travel to New York or Paris to get some work out in her field. Ireland would be a very limited career opportunity, specific to her degree type I mean.
So I said to her, come to Dubai. Live with me and I will fund the second degree, this time in graphic design. She had what some would say was quite a comfortable life. I converted the master bedroom into a creative room with a conference table and a place on the walls to hang up all her college creative work.
A good life; an ongoing struggle
Whatever it was, you name it, she had it. I paid for driving lessons, bought her her first car, which she never got to use, unfortunately. When I compare and contrast Dubai versus where she was living before, her world just literally opened up because she had access to so many things, all of the nice stuff in Dubai.
Laura loved Ireland too. She loved going home to visit, to see her mom, sisters, friends and all the family pets, as well as the freedom of just going out. She had a great relationship with her mom and her sisters. They have so many happy memories of all the good times they had with her.
Ironically, although she kind of had everything, inside she felt that, in her words, she was “worthless.” She was already anxious and had been suffering from depression in recent years. I spoke to her tutors at university and they said that despite giving her positive, constructive feedback, Laura would still read into it that she wasn’t good enough, not doing a good enough job. She had self-doubt. Laura had been struggling for some years and she had had counseling; she was also on medication.
After being on my own for several years, when Laura came out to Dubai to live with me, I suddenly had a companion. I had someone to chat with and vice versa. Laura and I would go out occasionally to a restaurant for lunch on a Friday, or we’d go out in the evening someplace and we’d sit and chat for hours. She’d talk about everything and anything. I was almost like her mother, her father and her friend all in one. We had, I would say, a very close relationship in the year-and-a-half Laura lived in Dubai.
Saying that, I could never replace her mom, with whom Laura had a remarkable relationship (just as she did with her two sisters, a mother who did all she could, tirelessly supporting her over the years in Ireland. Laura was full of life too and could light up a room with her humor; many of those who knew Laura well would testify to this.
Part of the deal for Laura coming to Dubai was that the second degree would be an online version, so it would be flexible and portable over longer durations. She would spend half her time on the course and half her time on work experience. She did an internship and they hired her as a junior graphic designer. She was ecstatic on hearing the news of her very first job in Dubai.
The tipping point
Everything was going well, she got her first paycheck. Laura was quite delicate and sensitive; she had high and low days. I’d be sitting on the sofa and she would come down in the evening, ready to go out. She’d be all dressed up in her nice blue dress, her hair down and she would be on top of the world. Then a couple of days later she could be in one of her low days; she hadn’t slept all night. She would do her artwork or she couldn’t sleep or thoughts were bothering her and then she’d sleep all day sometimes. She was quite nocturnal at times.
We would text each other morning and afternoon, just to touch base. “How are you doing?” and “What’s going on?” That kind of thing. One morning, there was no reply so I thought maybe she was sleeping late. I thought I’d try in the afternoon. It was a bit odd but it wouldn’t have been totally unusual. Laura could be up all night and then she’d sleep all day till 5pm. Then I got messages from her sisters and mom saying she hadn’t replied to them either. I came home from work; it was about 6.30 in the evening. I thought to myself, “Where on earth could she be?”
The thought occurred to me to check if she was asleep upstairs, so I went up and lightly knocked on the door. There was no answer. I opened it. I could see the lights were on, the AC was on, the room was cold. But she wasn’t on the bed. I looked around the corner to the en-suite bathroom and that’s when I saw her. She had hanged herself on the frame of the shower door.
Searching for a reason
There was absolutely nothing I could do, she apparently had been dead for around 12 hours, according to the paramedics who were first on the scene. That night, my life and that of her mom and sisters, changed forever.
After she died, I searched her room, I searched everywhere for a note. There were some documents she had written; they were like self-help books. Some of them were spiritual, some were specific to mental illness and I found some notes in there. On one of the notes, she wrote what she wanted to do and achieve in the next 10 years, like her life plan. She was specific in terms of the outcomes and the years they would happen.And then, directly under all of it she wrote, “kill myself.”
It’s like a person with two minds and they’re in conflict with each other. I don’t know if I will ever make sense of it. In the beginning, there was anger. But the point is, we had this great relationship. Several people who were professional have told me that when a person gets into that zone, it’s the only thing that matters to them and reality and logic don’t come into it.
One of the first things I did afterwards was to ask Laura’s mom and her sisters: “Would anyone like to have counseling?” Sometimes it helps to talk to somebody. I still have to provide for my other two daughters, one of whom is studying nursing in university. The younger girl is in what we call secondary school, the stage before college. They’re my reason for everything. What helped me cope was getting back into a busy working environment; it takes your mind off things. I find the more time I have, the more I think about things. Most days are good, some days are very dark. I also reached out for counseling.
A father’s tribute
I’ve produced a tribute book for Laura. It’s about 180 pages and it contains examples of her artwork and graphic designs over the years. I spent – I can tell you exactly – 177 hours pulling together all her work, from her website, Instagram account and Facebook, with all the screenshots.
I’ve laid out the book so that wherever there’s a significant piece of art, adjacent to that I would put all the social media posts she did for that same piece. In fact, some of them are probably drawings or replications of how Laura was feeling at the time. People, perhaps those with mental health issues, might be able to relate to some of those images through an exhibition or the book.
How to help
I would say talking is the most important thing if you feel anxious. Talk to somebody, even if it’s a stranger or someone you meet randomly but you feel comfortable talking to them. Obviously, the people to speak to first would be a parent, a guardian, a sister, a sibling, a friend, a religious person, a teacher – someone you trust and feel comfortable with. The person who’s doing the listening should do exactly that: two ears, one mouth, in that order. It’s often better for people struggling, I guess, for someone to listen rather than to give advice.
To view more of Laura’s artwork, or to view a digital version of the tribute book, visit her tribute site. Go here to make a donation to Pieta House in her name; and here for more information on Darkness into Light (DIL), which operates online and in-person events in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai and Ras al Khaimah. DIL has also begun offering the half-day, internationally recognized LivingWorks Education suicide alertness training course, safeTALK, in the UAE. The UAE National Program for Happiness and Wellbeing this year launched a toll-free hotline to help people cope with stress, fear and anxiety, at 800-4673. For counseling contact: Be Psychology Center (Dubai); Priory Wellbeing Centre (Dubai); Lighthouse Arabia (Dubai); Maudsley Health (Abu Dhabi). The Open Minds Psychiatry, Counseling and Neuroscience Center in Dubai offers teletherapy and in-person consultations.
Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.