When Dancing On Ice star Jake Quickenden lost his dad and younger brother within four years, he began drinking heavily to numb his emotions. Today Jake, 29, tells Happiful why strength truly comes from talking out loud…
The endless nights of boozing had taken their toll on Jake Quickenden. As he stared at his reflection in the bedroom mirror the physical clues were obvious – the sallow complexion, the disheveled hair and the heavy, bloodshot eyes. The biggest casualty of all, though, was not visible to the eye - because, inside, he was crumbling.
For five stormy weeks after Jake’s 19-year-old brother Oliver died from bone cancer – the same non-familial disease that killed their father Paul, 52, only four years earlier – Jake felt unable to “burden” his mum Lisa with his grief. Instead, the pub near his home in Scunthorpe was his solace, as he used alcohol to numb his devastation until each morning when, sober and hungover, his feelings slowly resurfaced.
“Not only did I feel bad because of the grief, I felt worse because alcohol is a depressant, so to make myself feel better, I’d go out again, the next night. It was a vicious circle,” explains Jake, 29, currently competing in ITV’s newly revived reality show Dancing On Ice.
“One morning I looked in the mirror and I looked a state. I thought ‘What am I doing?’ I’d tried to be strong for mum by staying normal, by being my usual funny self, but I wasn’t dealing with reality myself. I didn’t want to drink myself to death and for my mum to lose another son so, in that moment, I realised that enough was enough.”
Growing up, although encouraged by his parents, in particular Paul, to be honest about his emotions, Jake believes he suppressed them in the aftermath of Oliver’s death because of a societal pressure on men to stay strong. It’s a contributing factor, believes Jake, to why men under 30 are three times more likely to take their own life than their female contemporaries.
“From being a teenager to your late 20s, boys feel like they’re untouchable and nothing can bother them, but deep down there are emotions going on that often don’t get discussed, which can have devastating consequences,” says Jake.
“Mental health is the biggest killer and more needs to be done to encourage young men to talk about how they feel. Just like we have PE lessons, perhaps kids should be taught mental health in schools. A 13-year-old might be having mental health issues and not understand what they are.”
Jake admits he “should” have sought help from a qualified professional long before Oliver’s death, but has no regrets about eventually deciding to confide in his mum – who split from Jake’s dad, Paul, before his diagnosis – older brother Adam, 33, and stepdad Matt, 45.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger, but our family are so close that when I did open up, I felt like I could say anything and they wouldn’t judge me,” explains Jake. “I’ll never forget when I could finally be honest about my feelings. When I realised I could cry and didn’t need to be mega-strong, it was a relief. I realised that rather than making mum worse, opening up would make her better because we could deal with our grief together. We all bunched in together and got each other through it, but we always knew therapy was there if we needed it.”
After Jake’s dad died in October 2008, the family had a year of “everyone being all right” before Oliver was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called osteosarcoma – a condition that made his bones vulnerable to breaking. Long before he passed away, Jake harboured feelings of guilt for not keeping his younger brother safe.
“I was supposed to look after him and protect him and I couldn’t do it,” says Jake, who now plays football in an annual celebrity match to raise funds for Manchester-based bereavement charity Once Upon A Smile.
“I always expected my brother to pull through, and when that didn’t happen and I realised that he wasn’t going to be with us forever, just like my dad, it was very unsettling.”
“We literally had a year of everyone being all right after my dad died, then Olly was diagnosed. I had to get my head around my little brother having cancer. It came out of nowhere.”
Jake’s first encounter with mental health issues was at the age of 15, when he developed an obsessive compulsion to wash his hands after falling during a game of football and getting a bird skeleton stuck in his hand, which later became infected.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that I washed them 100 times a day for a good six months to a year. My hands got so dry from all the washing, they would bleed,” explains Jake, adding that his mum, who “also had OCD in the past”, helped to guide him out of the compulsion.
In person, Jake is confident, engaging and an open book. It’s exactly why he has become British reality TV gold after originally finding fame on The X Factor in 2012, before reentering the talent contest in 2014, the year he appeared on I’m A Celebrity…. Get Me Out Of Here! and finished second to superbike champion Carl Fogarty.
On top of a nationwide tour, guest presenting roles on ITV’s Lorraine, modelling and recording an EP, Jake’s biggest post-jungle reward has undoubtedly been finding love with camp mate Carl’s eldest daughter Danielle, 26, who he met at the show after party and began dating in February 2015.
The couple, who live in Wilmslow, Cheshire, got engaged last September at their favourite wine bar in Ribchester, near Preston, where Jake ensured that Paul, Oliver and other departed family members were part of the romantic surprise.
“I framed pictures of my dad, brother and Danielle’s grandparents, to let them know that they’re always in our thoughts,” explains Jake. “It made us feel like they were with us on a day that meant so much.”
There’s no doubt that 2018 is going to be year to remember for Jake Quickenden, but whatever the outcome of Dancing On Ice you can be sure he will remain happy with his lot. Life has taught him there’s no other way to be. “I live by the saying: ‘You never know what day will be your last,” says Jake. “So why not put a smile on your face, get along with everyone and enjoy every single second?
Jake will be appearing on TV screens across the country in the brand new series of ITV’s Dancing On Ice, which kicked off on 6 January 2018. He joins stars such as Coronation Street’s Brooke Vincent and Antony Cotton, as well as singer and TV presenter Cheryl Baker.
For more information and to follow Jake’s progress, visit itv.com/dancingonice
Hero Photography | Joseph Sinclair / Chilli Media