A lifetime of secret suffering came to a head for Stephen when, three years ago, he had a breakdown. But what felt like hitting rock bottom, soon became a platform for him to create positive change in his life
For the past 25 years, I’ve experienced mental illness (including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, mania, insomnia, paranoia, binge-eating, and body dysmorphia), addiction and postnatal depression. I also have experience of self-harm, and suicide (thoughts and attempts).
About 15 years ago – the night before I left my first wife – I tried to end it all. I used as many pills as I could, washed down with alcohol. I slipped into unconsciousness, but my up-jerk reflex saved me that night, waking me, and rapidly emptying the contents of my stomach.
After I cleaned myself up, I went to my parents’ house, told them I’d left her, but never told them about my attempt. I finally did that last year, after more than a decade, and three years on and off therapy.
This was the culmination of the pain and suffering I experienced as a result of weight issues, bullying, and rejection, which started from my early teens. I wasn’t bad looking, and played a lot of sport; still I got the shit ripped out of me for being a ‘fat bastard’. While my friends were out getting girls, I was getting hammered – the bottom of a bottle, my mistress.
One night, about 20 years ago, I’d been out drinking all day. As it approached last orders, I started talking to a beautiful lady who was sitting on her own. I still remember her looking at me and saying: “I’d go out with you if you didn’t drink so much.”
We never went out.
At the time, I thought it was helping me, but drinking was doing serious mental and emotional damage. My addictive personality trait was already there, and as my self-esteem worsened, my relationship with alcohol became more damaging.
Things began to spiral out of control, as did my gambling addiction. I went through long periods of time going out alone, drinking alone, and gambling huge. But large wins and losses meant nothing, I was just a shell, existing in my own lonely, detached world. Pint in one hand, pound coins in the other. Pain in my heart, and a fucked-up head.
I felt like I didn’t deserve people, relationships, love, or oxygen. My only companion was booze, and the damage it was doing to me was something I didn’t see – or chose to ignore.
Eventually, through Gamblers Anonymous, I beat that addiction, and never told anyone (until last year) about that either.
I went through long periods of time going out alone, drinking alone, and gambling huge. I was just a shell, existing in my own lonely, detached world. Pint in one hand, pound coins in the other
I married my beautiful, current wife, in 2012. She’s a staggering lady, and has blessed me with two spectacular daughters. But even then, my mental health was still bad, and like so many men, I didn’t talk about it. This was partly because I didn’t know how to talk, and partly because I didn’t know what my friends and family would think – and that petrified me.
We should never, ever feel like this. We should be able and comfortable to talk openly. But the fact that male suicides are so high, shows this is not easy, and society still doesn’t know how to manage the size of the mental illness crisis it faces.
About three years ago, everything finally came to a head. I had a breakdown. I was signed off work for seven weeks, and for the first three, I didn’t step one foot outside the house – and barely left my bedroom. I sometimes went days without eating, getting out of bed, or taking a shower. My only rare communication with friends was via text.
Three of the most painful, but most important, conversations of my life followed. I still remember them as if they were this morning – standing by my bedroom window, explaining everything to my parents, my boss and then, most importantly, my wife. As painful as it was, I had to admit I could not longer cope, and needed help.
People felt guilty that they’d not helped me, or ‘saved me’… But how can anybody help us if they don’t know we’re in trouble? Only we can truly save ourselves.
But so many positives came from this, and this is what I hold on to, and what I’d say to everyone who is suffering in silence. Opening-up and baring it all brought me closer to my wife, friends and family. It wasn’t a click-of-the-fingers thing – it’s taken time – but now me and my wife are taking small steps together, sometimes forward, sometimes backwards, but always together.
One thing I learned quickly and painfully was how my mental illness affected my current wife, and our marriage. I have never used mental illness as an excuse for shitty behaviour, but sometimes, no matter how strong you try to be, the wheels come off. She has been truly amazing through my illness, and stood by me through everything. Not one day goes by when I don’t think how lucky I am. Without her, I would never be in the position I am now.
Shortly after telling her, I went to my doctor, and found a therapist. I spoke to a local medical herbalist to select a herbal medicine to use in conjunction with my therapy. I was offered selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), but they scared the shit out of me. While I understand they can transform and save lives, I’ve never taken one personally.
I started writing a diary and poetry to help process things. A month or so later, it turned into a book. I continued to write over the next two years, and in March, Mad, Sad, Dysfunctional Dad will be published. It’s a true-life account of 18 months of struggles with mental illness – balanced against the joys and responsibility of becoming a father for the second time.
It’s taken time, but me and my wife are taking small steps together, sometimes forward, sometimes backwards, but always together
I hope it will show the challenges faced by people with mental illness, and how it affects family life, relationships, and a person’s ability to live and function day-to-day. But also, the progress we can make by taking that first step – opening-up and seeking help.
I want to show it’s OK for men to be vulnerable, admit we’re experiencing problems, and need help. To show the importance of early intervention, and how it can save relationships and lives. In today’s progressive and inclusive society, nobody should feel embarrassed and isolated, and held back by fear of being ridiculed, judged or ignored.
I still have my professional support network in place today. Once you have professionals around you, who you can trust, you have the foundations for progress.
My support network has helped me to start understanding and accepting myself more, and to reconnect with the people around me. I’m not totally better, and the reality is many of us never will be. But even though I still have rough patches, I’m more comfortable in myself, enjoying life more, and most importantly, my wife and daughters have their husband and daddy back.
Remember, talking changes lives.
Fe Robinson | MUKCP (reg) MBACP (reg) psychotherapist and clinical supervisor, says:
Stephen’s candid story shows the importance of talking, both to the people who love us, and to professionals who can support healing. Stephen’s honesty and courage in sharing while on his journey to recovery show there is no need to fear speaking out. The rate of male suicide is, as Stephen says, a mental health crisis we need to be addressing; I encourage anyone, male or female, who is feeling at risk, to talk to someone. It can make a big difference, and start a road to recovery.