The Dark (part 1)

The room was small. Softly lit. A smell of damp. Like wet cardboard.

The nurse arrived and sat opposite me. I could tell she was concerned. Concerned that I might be trouble.

It was the middle of the night. She was on the graveyard shift. She didn’t need the agitation.

She relaxed a bit, sensing probably that I was more afraid than angry.

She smiled and put her hand on top of mine for just a moment. The smallest gestures are often the ones which stay with you forever.

‘Well sonny,’ she began. A rolling Scottish lilt. Soft. ‘How did ye end up here?’

I shrugged, trying to avoid her gaze. A kind patient face which seemed to say ‘No matter what you tell me, I’ve heard ten times worse before’.

I didn’t speak so she went on.

‘What do you do for a living son?’

I gathered myself, trying desperately to find the person I had forgotten I was. I summoned some of my old pomposity, speaking more from habit than conviction.

‘I’m a journalist. I’m news editor at one of Northern Ireland’s biggest newspapers.’

Her smile hadn’t shifted and the eyes were steady and sympathetic. She leaned forward and patted me on the arm.

‘That’s nice sonny. That’s nice….’

It’s hard to say where the journey began which brought me here. I suppose like all stories it started at the beginning.

I remember from my schooldays always having a sense that something wasn’t right. The crushing constant anxiety and fear, the desperate debilitating sadness which was like a blanket over you, keeping you from moving or breathing.

The feeling of worthlessness. The persistent conviction that you’d be better off dead. The active thoughts of how you’d do it. The gnawing worries about what people would say when you’re gone.

They’ve all been with me for decades, like old friends that you just can’t shake off. And they all started back when I was still a teenager.

But mental illness didn’t exist then. Or if it did exist it was somewhere else, certainly not in rural north Antrim.

You didn’t talk to your family. You didn’t talk to your friends. You didn’t talk to a doctor. You just didn’t talk.

I became expert at developing my own coping mechanisms. Building a personality for the rest of the world to see. Pushing my worst feelings so deep inside myself that they could never escape.

And then you just got on with the next day. And the one after that.

After all it was probably just a bit of teenage angst, I told myself. Something that everybody had to go through.

Before I started university I went to see my doctor. My thoughts of suicide had been becoming more real. I had spent days crashed out in bed or the sofa virtually paralysed by a feeling of hopelessness which was taking control of me.

I was terrified. But not a single soul in the world knew what I was thinking.

Looking back I am astonished that I found the courage to go to the doctor. It was such a small place, everybody knew everybody’s business.

There was so much shared knowledge but so little understanding of anything of worth.

I must have been in a desperate state to have reached out.

I went into the surgery. The severe impatient eyes of the doctor as I walked in have never left me.

I tried to explain to him what I was feeling, how scared I was. But my voice seemed to be slowing down like a radio when the batteries start to go. I could hear what I was saying and it all sounded absurd.

The doctor essentially chastised me for coming. He asked me if it was true I was going to university. I said it was. He told me about all of the sick people in his waiting room. And here was I, with opportunities that most young people would never have, and I was talking this way.

I meekly nodded my head in agreement. He told me to pull myself together and get on with things.

I left the surgery. I was crushed. Humiliated.

It would be more than 20 years before I would dare to tell another human being on this earth what was going on in my head.

University passed in a blur of alcohol, depression and discovery.

Then I decided to become a journalist. I’d always loved to write and had a keen interest in politics and current affairs. It seemed a logical choice.

I progressed quickly. Soon I landed a job in a daily newspaper and rose quickly through the ranks. First a reporter, then a correspondent, then a news editor.

Colleagues assumed I was ambitious and assured. It may have come across that way but, as always, the truth was very different.

I never had any confidence in my own ability. Every day of my career was the day I believed I would be found out. The day when my incompetence and idiocy would finally be revealed to all.

But there was also a comfort in the monotonous routine of office employment. By throwing myself into my career I was able to cover up many of the insecurities which had plagued my life.

I had found something to which I belonged and I clung to it like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.

Some of my obsessive personality traits began to take hold. I worked long hours. In truth I did very little else.

It was at the office that I met my wife. We fell in love and got married. The fact that she worked in the same industry, and seemed to understand my obsession with work, made the transition to married life easier.

During these years the most terrifying parts of my own mind were still there, but I mostly ignored that. I still endured the darkness. The days when I was certain I could not go on.

The daily thoughts of suicide never left me but I learnt to ignore them. They became automatic, like breathing.

Also there were people who now depended on me. My wife. The people I managed at work. They all saw me as strong. I was the steady one. Never was somebody more ill-fitted to a role.

Plus there was another person who now depended on me. Our son was born. Our wonderful, astonishing, beautiful boy.

I tackled fatherhood as I did all tasks, by throwing myself into it obsessively. Covering my terror by immersing myself in all of the processes.

But I hadn’t slowed down at work. If anything I deepened my commitment to it. The working hours stretched even longer into the night.

At around the same time I decided to challenge myself. I set myself the task of writing a novel.

Looking back now this was a clear sign that my power to think logically had broken down. It was like I was intent on pushing myself into a state of exhaustion. Stretching my mind until there was simply nothing left to give.

My wife suffered from post natal depression and, of course, I was the strong one who stood beside her, supported her as she recovered.

She was and is a fantastic mother. But as she became more assured and confident, I could feel my ordered world starting to disintegrate.

The bucket had been filled too many times. Now the black water was starting to cascade around me dangerously.

My behaviour became erratic. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I drank too much.

I had never smoked in my life but almost overnight I developed a 40 a day habit.

I went for long walks late at night, with no destination in mind and no expectation I would ever come home. Often I almost didn’t.

Other evenings I would just sit in my back garden into the small hours, drinking and smoking. Often I would burst into tears and sob for what seemed like hours.

But still I kept my behaviour and thoughts from everyone. My wife, my family, my colleagues.

I convinced myself that I didn’t love my family. Perhaps it would be easier for me to get through this alone.

The pressure was intense. But I still kept turning up for work on time. Making decisions, leading a team. Being the reliable one. How I kept going for so long is now a mystery to me.

But the cracks were too wide to be ignored any longer.

One Saturday night I suffered a huge panic attack. My hands began to shake uncontrollably. Finally, mercifully, after all these years, I told my wife what was happening to me.

The shaking lasted for hours. I was taken to accident and emergency where they eventually managed to calm me.

I spoke to a counsellor that night. He listened and was sympathetic. He didn’t tell me to pull myself together or to stop wasting his time.

I was placed in a counselling programme and put on medication. Now that I had finally taken the problem outside of my own head I discovered there were people there who wanted to help me.

That night in hospital I thought about my visit to the doctor 20 years earlier. All the wasted years.

But the truth was I had let things go too far. Much too far. I was now very close to the point where there was no way back.

Two nights later I disappeared for several hours. I remember going for a drink and then walking. Walking. That was always my thing.

I had no thought of the next day, the next hour, the next minute. I had simply given up. I didn’t expect to go home that night.

At some point, very late, I checked my phone. There were over 60 missed calls and messages. My wife and family. Where was I? Pleading with me to contact them.

I remember staring at the phone. Reading a message from my wife. ‘Please come home. We love you.’

It reached something deep inside me. Something I had given up for dead. I was ashamed. I found my car and drove home.

My wife arranged for a doctor to see me that same night.

The doctor and I talked for a while. I told her I needed to be in the office in a couple of hours. She told me that would not be happening.

She started to say something to me. Something legal.

Then I realised what was happening. I was being told that she had the power to place me in a hospital. Being sectioned, I believe it is called.

But she didn’t want to do that. She wanted me to agree to go into hospital by my own force. Of my own will.

Months later I asked the same doctor how she came to this opinion. How did she know that something was wrong?

She told me that I had spent an hour with her that night but never looked at her once.

A second opinion was required. A mental health counsellor came to see me. She also agreed that I needed hospital treatment. That very night.

And so it was. That was how I came to be an inpatient. Ward 12 they called it euphemistically. The psychiatric ward. In my ignorance I thought of it as the lunatic asylum. The madhouse.

Even in the darkest moment humour can always be found if you look hard enough. My wife and I were walking into the hospital. Neither had spoken for some time. All the certainties of our comfortable lives had just been shattered.

I turned to her and said: ‘Well, this is a diabolical development.’

We did all that was left to do. We laughed. We were spent.

As so here I was. In this little damp room with the Scottish nurse. Calming me down. Taking my details.

I thought about my tiny infant son at home. Just four months old. I had failed as a father. Failed as a husband. Failed as a journalist. Failed as a man. Failed as a human being.

Now I was at the bottom.

The nurse assured me I would only be in for a few days. It was just a little rest I needed. A short break from things and then I could go home.

I was taken to another room. This one with a bed. I was told to relax. Try to get some sleep. My wife had gone to get some personal things and I was alone.

The bed was hard. I was utterly exhausted but never had sleep seemed so far away.

I lay there. Terrified. How could I find a way back to any sort of life from this? I watched the clock on the wall.

Soon a man came into the room. Softly he walked to the side of the bed. He shone a torch into my eyes. I was confused.

Then the awful realisation. He was checking to make sure I was still alive. I was on suicide watch.

I shivered and pulled the thin blanket closer around me, but it gave no warmth. I had to get used to it.

For now, this was my home.

* If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog or need immediate help call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000

56 thoughts on “The Dark (part 1)

  1. So well written. Thank you for baring your soul.
    I’m so fed up of the mental health stigma and if people like you don’t talk about it the stigma will continue.
    I hope you get the support and help that you need, stay strong x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Such an amazing piece of writing. My wife came across this and asked me to read it. It had me in tears. It was almost as if I had written it myself.So many parts rang so true with me. I spent 4 weeks in June in hospital under the same conditions you described and it has been my daily struggle for years. Finally I have admitted i needed and got the help I needed so much. Im not there yet but reading this gives me hope and encouragement to keep fighting. I wish you well and hope you are getting there yourself.
    Chris

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    • Hi Chris. Thanks so much for your kind words and compassion. Once you start the process of getting help then things can start to improve. I’m a much happier man now than I was then. Still plenty of tough days but plenty of love and help is there to get me through it. Once I let people in I had a chance to be happy again. Take care my friend

      Like

  3. WOW………..this has really taken me aback… all I could think of reading this was my Alexandras name.for you running thru my head…. “4 years is a long time and from what I’ve seen you have come a very long way certainly not someone who has failed as a husband daddy or human….

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  4. I really hope you now find contentment and peace and you have a happy life and make up for all the time you lost, take care x
    Assumpta

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  5. I read this earlier and had a comment all typed out then lost it (and you talk about you being analogue!), but I just wanted to say how bloody brilliant this was.
    So brave, honest and written beautifully.
    It was incredibly profound to read. My heart ached reading about the initial doctor you saw. How glad I am that society (and medicine) has moved forward now and that you’ve been able to access the treatment you needed.
    More people need to speak out about mental health in order that we keep chipping away at the stigma.
    The part where you described how you felt as though you’d failed was very poignant. I think you’ve done quite the opposite of fail. I think you’ve moved mountains. Having the courage to speak out like this, together with your skills as a writer, tell me that you’re a pretty epic role model for your son. To hell with fancy careers and big bucks. I’m going to roll out the cliche of “do what makes you happy” at this point, but it’s true. I gave up a career as a lawyer to be able to spend more time with my kids and to dabble in a bit of freelance writing. My husband is also cutting down his hours in a very intense job. We’re a lot poorer than we used to be but so much happier. Society can get the hell over it.
    Sorry for the lengthy comment and use of mild swear words. Excellent post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Well done for writing in an honest and very accurate detail of your journey. Its when i read this line after line, there is constant agreement and understanding, but at the same time saying that must be difficult to live with. We are good at advising and helping others but yet we ignore our own demons. Everyone’s journey is different but the tears the same. The silence caused by the stigma around this issue is unfortunately vast. But I have no doubt if those who are silent and suffering were to read this it would break some of the silence. Again well done and all the best for your journey ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I too went on that walk you talked of. Mine took eight days and my companion was the noose I was to hang myself with and the alcohol to ease the journey. But as I stood on the rock under the branch, I found I could not step of it. Each night I tried and each night I failed. In the end the police dogs found me and I went to hospital, That was six weeks ago and now I have the medication and the counselling but the paranoid, worthless running thoughts are still there. The feeling of being trapped and alone with them is relentless.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Long time from we spoke Jonathan. I have read your blog. Could not help thinking of how good a journalist you were and still are. For me, all those years ago, you were a breath of fresh air within media circles. I sincerely hope the treatment you are getting helps you overcome the most difficult years you have had to endure. Being a Father of four and a Grandfather of nine I can assure you, as a Father, the best years of your life can be ahead of you. Good luck and good health to you and your family.

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  9. I found myself this morning sitting in a chapel carpark, liscening to you talk on the Nolan show.
    These things to me were not normal.
    But I believe things happen for a purpose.
    On each word you spoke,it was me in your place.
    It has been over 10yrs gone by,that I gave up my long standing career as a lecturer.
    Although I didn’t spend time in ward 12.
    Everything else was simply me.
    With out the unbridled love of my wife and girls,things could have been different.
    Things in our lives have changed,but changed for the better.
    You summed it all up with one statement,at the end of the radio conversation.
    ” I’m a lot poorer financially,but emotionally richer”
    Thanks for letting me listen too your story,and may your road stay true.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Jonathan, compelling reading, I’m so glad that you are receiving the professional help you need and deserve. I sincerely hope that all will be ok for you and your family. Keep strong.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Such a brave person for speaking and writing your true feelings I sit here reading your story after listening to you on radio this morning with tears in my eyes my heart breaking my husband suffered as you did for years thinking that the world and us his family would be better of without him because of his illness of you met him like yourself you never would have suspected that he had an illness always smiling cracking jokes bad if he seen anyone else feeling down always would have picked them up but behind those smiles the illness was eating away at him even bluffed the doctors to believe he did not need his medication and got them to take him off it he thought it made him less of a man less of a person less of a husband and less of a dad to his sons if he needed medication to get through sadly the illness beat him and he died by suicide a couple of years ago now we are left with hearts filled with loneliness and tears God bless you in your journey but always remember there is always someone willing to listen and don’t ever leave your family with the awful question WHY YOU WHY US x.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Caroline. Thank you so much for reaching out. I am so so sorry to hear about your husband. I can’t imagine what you have been through. You are so very brave and noble to tell me. I hope you are coping. You have all my love and support x

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  12. Wonderfully written and very stark.

    I have been there . And I’m rebuilding as you are . Day by day . Little by little . I’m calling it ‘from the feet up’ .

    Keep on the road , keep the beard 😉 And see how you go with the gym .

    I wish you the best … I’ll continue to follow you

    Take care

    Steve

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  13. I am so glad you not only took the courageously brave steps of getting help, but that you also took the time to write about it so that others might realise it’s ok to ask for help.
    You are so right about rural Antrim and those times….of just pull yourself together and get on with it. I haven’t seen you in years, I think it was in the gym, for me after being on 40 a day and for you pre 40.
    Take care of yourself mate and hopefully we’ll bump into each other again soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Just read this Jonny and it’s amazing. It must have taken so much courage to write about this and so glad you did. Keep going… you’re an inspiration to us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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  16. Dear Jonathan, I totally get everything you have written. As a mother, a graduate, a journalist and writer who found safety in the written word; as a psychiatric inpatient and outpatient and a whole undefined world in between, my heart goes out to you. Years of trauma and abuse from youth which I had covered up very well with Hollywood Oscar-like ability lcaught up with me, As it tends to do. I spent 3 months in a detained ward away from my only child. Then 6. I was a single parent. I was devastated, diagnosed, misdiagnosed, managed and mismanaged. But through it all I healed wounds I didn’t even know were there. The love of and for my daughter, now at uni and loving life, got me through. A bit of prayer and appropriate care didn’t hurt either. As long as you are safe in every way, you’re in the best place. By breaking the silence, you’re mending your body, your heart, your soul and your previous life. You’ll be fine. You’ll get there. One baby atep at a time. Words are a wonderful thing. You can find freedom, control and abandon in them, a licence to love and life away from your inner demons. Keep writing. You’re brilliant. Keep loving. Love heals. Just be patient – pun intended. Thanks for sharing. God bless you and yours, Siobhán

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Siobhán. This is a beautiful response. Thanks for sending it to me. Your writing is gorgeous. Your story gives me hope and lights up my heart. Thank you so much. Take care. All my love goes out to you and your daughter. You are an amazing mother and role model x

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  17. Thank you for this communication of the raw fear of losing oneself. There is nothing waiting behind the truth. So fear cannot grip you long. All the very best. Your story is beautifully written.

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  18. Fantastic. Your exposition is above all else so life affirming. I feel it has resonances with us all…you say what some of us are terrified to admit…that we are finding it hard to cope. Thanks for sharing. ‘In one another we will never be lacking’ Helene Cixous, speaking for all those who feel marginalised. Keep writing!!! Geraldine

    Liked by 1 person

  19. This is so well written it had me captivated. I am one of those folks who can be asked to make that second opinion you mentioned and it is always an agonising decision for me. People are so precious and yet so few feel free enough to seek help for their suicidal thoughts. Thank you for sharing your experience and hopefully it will help to strengthen others

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Dude, I remember you from school… This was very moving to read
    Ive struggled with anxiety for years and I totally identify with developing a persona for the world and not letting people know
    But like you I’ve now learned to admit when I feel, we should never feel that we HAVE to hide our emotions
    Proper stoked you have it in you to express yourself in this way
    … A fellow dalriad 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Pingback: What can I do to make it better? | What's a daddy for?

  22. Rather bizarrely, I’m sitting reading this on the toilet of a hotel room a hundred miles from what used to be home. My legs are now numb but my mind isn’t. I recognise the original doctor, although it was my ex-wife. I recognise trying to be the strong one in a relationship beset with an illness that wasn’t your own. I recognise the erratic behaviour, although mine was nothing as creative as wishing to write a novel. I recognise burying yourself in work as a constant that neither loved you or hated you but promised to relieve you via exhaustion.

    I decided to go it alone.

    Thank you for sharing this and also to Sam McBride on twitter for leading me to your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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