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