When Kevin Braddock, today’s Guest bloggers, hit rockbottom, he had every intention of killing himself. He recounts what happened next – and reveals why so few men ask for helpIt was a Monday when Robin Williams killed himself three years ago – Monday 11 August 2014. His death was shocking even if in hindsight it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the world’s funniest man might also be the most sorrowful, too – a person despairing to the point of ending it all.
It’s a date I remember well because I’d spent the previous day trying to do the same thing. I was in the psychiatric ward of the Berlin hospital which I’d been manhandled into by friends the day before, and I was waiting to see the doctor who’d asked me to promise that I wouldn’t kill myself.
In her consultation room, I’d thought about it for a while; I’d already told her all I could about what led me to try to die. I’d described the methods looping ceaselessly through my mind as I was slumped on the pavement near Berlin’s TV Tower: the gun, the noose, the blade, the pills, the bottle. The gun, the noose… the mantra that would not stop. Since the only thing to hand was the nearby spätkauf (off-licence), I’d resolved to drink my way to unreality.
I’d told the doctor my history of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, drink, drugs, meds, love and fear, my crises of faith and existential dread, and all the other things that seem to go with being human in the 21st century. I had few words left in me, but mumbling through endless tears with my hands in my lap, I’d mouthed the words to her: “I promise.”
I hadn’t gone through with the act, but God knows I’d wanted to – wanted to end it all and wanted it all to end. I was outpatiented for a while, and friends and loved ones looked after for me. Three years later, they still do.
How had things got so bad? In 2009, fed up with London, I bought a one-way ticket to Tegel with vague plans to hang out for a couple of months and run the Berlin marathon. Two months turned into six, then a year and eventually half a decade in that beautifully confused city. In the teeth of this current crisis, I’d been struggling to hold things and myself together at the magazine where I was working. I’d begun, falteringly, to deal with the dependencies that had got a grip on me (I’d long been a heavy, problematic drinker, and Berlin is an easy city in which to hedonise, although by the standards of Berghain regulars, I was a total lightweight).
Meanwhile, depression and anxiety, old adversaries which I’d suffered incapacitating episodes with at 21 and 30, had begun ranging back on to my neurological horizons. I’d also caught glandular fever, fallen in love, and turned 42 which, as readers of Douglas Adams know, is the meaning of life. I was perpetually stressed, exhausted and despairing at work and it didn’t take much for the cascade to begin: yet another work problem, a row, some piece of bad news.
Looking back, I’m surprised at how fast I unravelled, how the energyless fog of depression condensed into an electric psychosis, how despair became madness. One day, one of my editors had asked if I was all right. I said: “No, I’m not,” and started listing conflicts and confusions. (I was also surprised that she asked: I mean, it’s generally not the way that bosses look out for their employees.) A few days later I was in hospital.
Madness comes at you fast, to paraphrase the social media cliché.
None of this is to equate my life or story with Robin Williams’s in any way, apart from to say that I made it through what the doctor wrote down as a “schwere(major) depressive episode”, whereas Williams didn’t, and I’m thankful that one of us is around to talk about this stuff. Above all, I’m grateful I found the courage to ask for help.
Facebook gets a lot of stick these days, but in one sense it kept me alive, because Facebook was where I asked for help in a status update that Sunday afternoon which read: “I’m at the bottom now, can a German speaker come to St Hedwig’s with me, I need help,” along with my phone number.
I don’t know how long I’d been there, or how many bottles of Augustiner beer to the worse I was. But I do remember an alternative thought forming from the cognitive murk: I could ask for help. Sure, everyone would see what a pitiful, drunken, helpless, tearful state I was – the opposite of what I’d prefer to project, yet also the truth. But the thought came: there’s another way. I couldn’t speak, I seemed to have been silenced, but there was my phone – I could test the limits of this thing which helps people (and I quote) “connect with friends, family and other people you know”.
After a few minutes the phone went red hot, bleeping, flashing and ringing. I was hardly in a suitable frame of mind to process these messages, but looking at them a few days later, they said things like: “You’ll get through this”; “Stay positive”; “You are loved”; and simply “Love you”. Some friends offered places in which to recuperate, others offered to come over. Not only was I ashamed at the alarm I’d caused, I was also shocked at the volume of support that came through. There turned out to be more in the world than blank nothingness after all.
Help came, and rapidly. Friends took me to the hospital, and my life began to change.
Whether it’s an effect of social media or not, recently there’s been a wave of men admitting to anxiety, depression or addiction, or of having attempted to kill themselves, or knowing someone who’s seen the act through, problems which respect neither class, race, age or status and which, statistically and anecdotally, seem to be on the rise.
When Stormzy or Prince Harry admit that they, too, have feelings, struggles and doubts, these confessions challenge the Strength Myth which men have long laboured under. They also represent a tacit plea for help, a kind of “Save me from what I’m supposed to be,” which usually means autonomous, successful, potent, dominant, along with all the other clichés of what’s been termed “hegemonic masculinity”.
And when another male celebrity – Ant McPartlin being the latest – checks into rehab, you sense that the work being done by organisations such as the Campaign Against Living Miserably (which aims to raise awareness of mental illness and prevent suicide in men) or Tom Chapman’s Lions Barber Collective (which is turning a worldwide network of barber shops into safe spaces for men to open up in) is vital.
“People are opening up more instead of hiding; things are getting better,” says Chapman from his salon in Torquay. “Men are starting to feel comfortable talking to one another about their worries, problems and self-doubts, or going to see a GP or a health professional.” Chapman decided to set up the Lions Barber Collective as a charity engaged with men’s mental health awareness after a friend killed himself. “There’s something about the relationship between a barber and their client where there’s complete trust,” he says.
The Campaign Against living Miserably cites figures from the Office for National Statistics that suicide currently stands as the biggest single killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2014, there were 6,109 suicides in the UK, of which 76% were male. The ratio of male to female suicide has shown a sustained rise over the past 30 years. In 1981, men accounted for 62% of suicides, with the figure rising to 70% in 1988, 75% in 1995 and 78% in 2013.
All of which is why it’s heartening that in recent years the conversation on the meaning of masculinity has been growing in volume, running parallel to a wider openness on mental illness and health in society today.
The Royal Foundation’s Heads Together charity harnesses Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge to a mission encouraging people to open up about these problems. At a speech given on World Mental Health Day in October 2016, Prince Harry said: “Too often we think mental health problems are things that happen to other people, not us. But we will all experience pressure on our mental health at some point during our lives. The more we accept that, the better we can help each other. Catching it and recognising it early saves lives. It’s time we ended the shame around mental health – the fear of judgment that stops people talking or getting help.”
A few months after my breakdown I returned to the UK and spent a deep, grey winter with my tirelessly patient parents, in the room where I grew up. News arrived one day of a family friend who’d taken an overdose – thankfully she survived. And on a train one evening I fell into an initially sheepish conversation with a woman in her 50s, each of us cryptically tiptoeing around what we both guessed was going on in each of us.
“Well, I’ve been… ill,” I told her, rather euphemistically.
“Me, too,” she said. “Er… mind if I ask what kind of ill?”
It took some gentle work to overcome a barrier of shame between us, but once we had, the talk became extraordinarily candid and affirming. She’d been visiting her support group. She recounted details of her own psychotic episodes and an attempt to kill herself, then handed me an A4 pamphlet simply entitled “My Story”, which was heartbreaking along with being one of the bravest, most honest stories I’d ever read. We made friends and resolved to stay in touch.
My own story developed, too. I spent a year living monastically in a friend’s boxroom in Bristol, discovering that recovery is a process rather than a destination, a project of constant modifications and setbacks with modestly miraculous breakthroughs that convince you that life is worth living. Things that have helped me include: learning, sobriety, therapy, meds, volunteering, tai chi, vitamin B, walking, talking, working and much more.
Something else helped. A few days after being taken to hospital, someone I hadn’t seen for a decade read my Facebook message and wrote to say: “From now on, Kev, be completely honest and open about this stuff. Confront it all head on. And seeing as you’re a writer, write it all down.” I was consoled by his concern, but also perplexed as to why he was so adamant about this tactic. It turns out his sister had taken her own life.
Recently I was back in Berlin to share the story I wrote down with the people who picked me up and kept me going. It turned into a book I made with my friend Enver, called Torchlight: a Publication About Asking for Help, which details my experiences of breakdown and recovery.
If that sounds like a rather crass sales pitch at the end of a story of common human dysfunction, I’d counter that by saying that while we are overwhelmed by digital technologies these days, there’s a striking lack of social technologies to assist people in asking for help, talking about their experiences, or sharing the methods they use to deal with the darkness. Facebook offered me the chance to ask for help, but any recovering I’ve been fortunate enough to do has been social in the original sense of the word: person-to-person, with friends, family, therapists, study groups, recovery fellowships, sympathetic employers and colleagues, with people I met randomly on trains or in rooms, always in collaboration with others. Recovery is a social exercise that can be assisted but never replaced by digital technologies.
Something else I know now is that we fall apart, alone and in private, but we heal together, with others, the ones who aren’t shocked or scared by what they see when the mask of shame is removed. Together, with others, the ones who aren’t shocked or scared by what they see when the mask of shame is removed.