Mikey Boy and the Time to Talk
Turning the corner into my mother-in-law’s street, it finally hit me. Michael’s car wasn’t there. Which meant Michael wasn’t there. And Michael wasn’t there because he was gone and none of us would ever see him again.
We wouldn’t hear him laugh, we would never again be the butt of his jokes, or share in his generosity. It was all too sad to contemplate.
We used to gather at his mam’s to watch United when they were on TV. Each occasion was a truly happy family get-together, where brews and gags flowed and we shared stories and quips, with the crowd noise from the TV acting as a backing track to the pantomime taking over the living room. And Michael was always at the centre of it.
Parking up that day, I had to stay in the car for five minutes, breath, and stop myself from crying. For the previous month or so I hadn’t allowed any emotional heartache in. I couldn’t. I had been concentrating on everything that needed doing, from organising the funeral to getting legal advice on what would happen to his very limited ‘assets’. I’d had to search his house for an eclectic array of items – from bank statements to a T-shirt my wife had bought him for his birthday and wanted as a keepsake to hold on to, now her dear brother was no longer with us.
As I sat parked up, I had flash backs to when I entered his house in the days after his death. His closest friends, inseparable from childhood, were unable to re-enter after they had been the ones to find him upstairs. Unable to believe he was dead, his best friend had attempted to hold him, screaming at him to ‘wake up’. On the wall opposite, he had written in black marker pen ‘I’M SORRY!’
During that first visit to his house, my father-in-law had accompanied me, as we stepped over the thousands of unopened letters littering Michael’s hallway. Equipped with bin bangs we walked into the back room. Stubbed out cigarettes covered the floor. My father-in-law, a man’s man from one of the toughest areas of north Manchester, sobbed on my shoulder and muttered ‘Our Michael… Dear god…’
I wouldn’t allow my father-in-law upstairs as I had a rough idea of the scene that would greet me as I stepped onto the landing. The means for his suicide had not been cleared away by the police and that message on the wall was jumping out like a neon sign.
After searching his house, it became apparent that he had been suffering far more than we could imagine. He told us he was depressed one Christmas after an uncharacteristic outburst. He told us he’d bought a rope. It was a shock as he was your typical ‘lad’ in his mid-40s – tough, hard-working, street wise and the life and soul of any social situation from parties to ordering a McDonalds breakfast.
I tried to help him. I reached out and told him about my own battles with depression, but he dismissed me and never mentioned it again.
I also found evidence that his benefits had been sanctioned, due to him missing one appointment. The bastards had cut every means of financial support he had been receiving because he had failed to attend ONE appointment. He was expected to get a bus to Cheetham Hill to sign on and be interviewed and he’d failed to do so on ONE occasion.
He hadn’t even wanted to claim dole. He had worked all his life, as a fitter and had latterly been learning the design element of his trade. But he couldn’t stick being patronised and cajoled by people who were far less intelligent and talented than him, so he gave up job after job, rather than lose the plot and be sacked.
His depression was a big part of this. But still he didn’t get help. He only went to the doctors to discuss his problems when the dole office required proof he had a mental health illness. It made no difference, they wanted him to get unpaid work as he looked for employment.
In the spare bedroom, he’d made into a makeshift office, there was a pile of CVs aimed at charities to try and secure this ‘free labour’ imposed by the DSS. Also I found a certificate from the Open University. He’d achieved a first class honours degree in Applied Mathematics and he’d never told any of us. We knew he was doing a course, but he was very bashful about it. His lowest mark for any of the modules was 97 per cent. Reading tutors’ comments about his assignments they were glowing in praise and spoke of a ‘horizon-less future’ if Michael applied his mathematical abilities to future employment. It sadly never happened.
In a draw by his bed I found pictures of family, of past loves and happy times he’d spent travelling the world. He’d lived and worked in Sydney, Holland and Germany, among other places. It was these experiences and his constantly whirling mind that led to him feeling like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and trapped in a north Manchester rife with social issues, with seemingly no way out.
He had no money left. Despite having saved over the years through his various jobs. Since the dole had cut him off, he was relying on a credit card to live and eat. Too proud to ever ask for help, the alarm bells had begun to ring in the weeks before his death as he accepted a tenner from his mam and admitted to not eating for days. He would never accept a pint from anyone, never mind money and so we knew something was up.
And still we couldn’t help him. It haunts us daily. My wife and I had only spoken during the week of his death about going to Tesco and doing a big shop for him. Life got in the way.
It was this week that I took the worst phone call of my life. Michael’s mam, my mother-in-law, rang our landline, which was a rare occurance and a sign something was amiss, and she tearfully delivered the news. I was up early for the commute to work, but my wife was still sleeping. I had to wake her as her dad was on the way round to speak to her.
Half asleep, standing in our kitchen, her dad broke down as he told her the devastating news. Michael’s friend, a hard lad who often worked as a bouncer in town, had accompanied my father-in-law on the drive to ours. He began to shake uncontrollably. I went cold and just stood still, unable to move. Immediately, I began to think practically. I needed to look after my wife and make all the arrangements to make it easier for the family. I didn’t for one minute think I may need to grieve too.
This was all stored away in my head. I had never spoken about any of it, as his family and wide circle of friends were collectively distraught and I didn’t want to make it worse.
Back in the car outside my mother-in-law’s I was computing these visions and feelings for the first time. No stranger to bereavement, I had lost two close friends and all my grandparents by the time I was 16. I’d lost more close friends in the intervening years (subsequent therapy would reveal the extent of this when I finally talked about each one individually), to the point I had become blasé about death. This was not healthy. At least this parked-up emotion was starting to reveal itself, even if I must have looked deranged, sat shaking and tearful in a car on a council estate in Harpurhey.
At that point I made the decision to seek help. I had been through CBT and had been on medication due to episodes of depression and anxiety I had suffered years before. But I had got that under control, until now.
My doctor put me in touch with a service run by Greater Manchester West Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (now Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust) in Broughton, near to where I lived.
There was a waiting list and those weeks until my first appointment dragged on, as I battled to control my feelings and keep myself together for the sake of my family.
Although I was far more accepting of mental health issues than Michael had been, I was still extremely sceptical about ‘talking therapy’. Like many men I had never been comfortable talking about anything even semi-serious, regarding feelings and emotions.
My first session with a therapist was slightly painful. She was lovely, reassuring and patient, and quite possibly the tallest woman I have ever met, but I genuinely found it unnatural to talk. I believed I was ungrateful to feel depressed when I had a lovely family, decent career, my own home and my physical health. I also thought death was part and parcel of life, so common it had been for me. I didn’t believe I should be affected by losing so many people.
My therapist was clearly shocked by my dismissive outlook to the things I had been through and she told me that it was no wonder I was experiencing depression, anxiety and mood swings. It was the first time in my life that someone had told me that I had every right to feel bad and to feel hopeless and down. She told me there was a reason for it all and it wasn’t punishment for anything. Until that moment I thought I was weak, spoilt and selfish for feeling down, when so many other people in the world had nothing.
I would not claim the subsequent sessions saved my life. Rarely, for someone with my illness, I have never seriously considered suicide. Even prior to Michael’s death. But those sessions, the treatment I got and my therapist’s kindness and expertise fundamentally changed my life. To the point that whereas I didn’t used to be able to talk about feelings at all, I would now happily chat to a stranger at the bus stop.
I became open about my battles. I raised money for mental health charities. That experience with GMW ultimately led me to working for the Trust, as I do now. I wanted to help others who had suffered and prevent any family going through what we had with Michael. I genuinely don’t want anyone feeling as desperate as he clearly had.
Despite the therapy and medication, I still live with depression every day and the battle continues. With that in mind I enrolled on a GMW Recovery Academy course to further help with my own coping mechanisms, but to also share with others, my experiences and theirs.
The ‘Living with Depression and Anxiety’ course, was a sobering and thoroughly worthwhile experience. Hearing other people, who suffered far worse than me, talk bravely and openly really helped in dealing with my own personal demons. But it also helped me think about how I interacted with other people who suffered with their own issues. How important it is to not become too ‘self-involved’.
One person spoke about how leaving the house that morning was an epic battle and each night she went to bed and she didn’t know if she would ever see another day, such was her low mood. A course facilitator spoke about her experiences of being depressed since childhood partly as a result of her mother’s alcoholism and absenteeism. She now suffered with severe eating disorders, but she applied a humbling barometer to judge achievement. For her to get up, leave the house and come to speak to people at the Recovery Academy was an absolute example of bravery, I couldn’t even contemplate. Life had not been kind to her, but here she was talking about her experiences, listening and caring about the other people in the room who had also suffered. We swapped coping techniques.
The treatment and Recovery Academy experience have helped me deal with deep-lying feelings of hurt and loss. Before taking part in the Recovery Academy, I had been unable to write about Michael’s death. I tried so many times. Even going as far as to have an informal agreement with my former employers at a national broadsheet to write about our family’s experiences. I just couldn’t do it. The course enabled me to face up to it and to put it on paper.
Whenever I am at my mother-in-law’s now, I look up to the wall above the dining table, where she has a framed picture of Michael from our wedding day. I look up and I wink to him and thank him for the time we spent together. I show his picture to my two-year-old daughter and tell her about the uncle she will never meet. She is very like him – funny, revels in being the centre of attention and intelligent. Michael’s death made me and my wife decide to start a family – we came to the realisation that life is too precious and time too finite to wait for the mythical ‘perfect time’. Whenever I ask my daughter ‘Where’s uncle Michael?’, she points at the sky. And I smile.
We will always miss him, but his experience can act as an example of the importance of getting help and our family’s recovery can act as proof that there is hope and broken hearts and minds can begin to mend, if only we seek help in whatever guise that may be.
We often think about what he is up to now, if indeed we do go anywhere once we pass from this life. Knowing Michael, he will be propping up the bar on the piss with Georgie Best, one of his red heroes. They will be swapping stories about their colourful lives. Mike will definitely be getting the round in.
Visit the Time for Change website for more information on talking about mental health issues and experiences.
Visit Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust’s website for all kinds of advice and details of courses to help deal with mental health problems.