Mike's Story reflects on the ups and downs of working within club culture and the influence it can have on your mental health.
I was 26. I was working as a music journalist. I was living in London. My life was a stereotype full of festivals, and fun, and glitter, and all things seriously awesome. It was basically everything I’d dreamed of doing since I was an angry teenager listening to Rage Against The Machine and refusing to tidy my room. I should have been happy. Ridiculously happy. But instead I found myself sitting on the cliffs at Beachy Head in hysterical tears. I hadn’t slept for 48 hours. A day later I was in an acute mental health assessment unit having been arrested under section 135 of the Mental Health Act. It wasn’t what I had planned. But looking back, I should have seen it coming.
My history of mental health problems goes a long way back. About the time I took the step up from shy, anxious kid to teenager, it started with mood swings, apathy and anger: all the telltale signs of a classic pubescent male. And that’s what I put it down to. In fact, I think that’s what a lot of teenage men put it down to. But it was all underpinned by a deep sadness. Something in my gut, that sat, indigestible. I would cry for no reason. Not a strong look in a man. I felt ashamed to be. And I gradually became fixated on negative, destructive, violent and suicidal thoughts. The usual suspects. I would think about shooting myself. Or slicing my throat. Or stabbing myself in the stomach. Or hanging from a meat hook, swinging like a pendulum. I even wrote a poem about that one (So emo, ha). These thoughts would stay with me for life.
But I developed coping strategies. At the top was music. Music was my escape. Music made me feel joy where usually there was numbness, peace where there was anxiety. Music became everything to me. As with many young people trying to figure out who or what they are, it became a part of my identity. And I got on with life. I did well at school. I played sport. I graduated from university. I fell in love. I fell in lust. To your average person on the street, there was nothing wrong. In fact, there wasn't anything to be depressed about. It didn't make sense. Indeed, I often felt confused, ashamed, and incredibly guilty for feeling depressed at all. I was lucky: I had a loving family, great friends, I was able, I was successful.
Yet all the time the shadow of depression was there, but always just that - in the shadows. I would think about killing myself when it was dark, when I was alone and I was trying to sleep, for nights, months, and years on end, but I knew that it wasn’t the right thing to do. It didn’t make sense. I knew that whatever it was, it wasn’t rational. If I had been given the choice of not being alive, of dying right there, and it not affecting anyone - friends or family - I would have chosen to die every time. But I still hadn't crossed that line from wishing I didn't have to live to thinking suicide was a good, rational decision.
But that changed. By 26 I was working as a writer for an electronic music magazine. My life was spent in bars, clubs and fields, late night parties and late afternoon after parties, or in an office with decks in the centre. It was a riot. I was living my teenage dream. I would never say otherwise. But I was getting increasingly less sleep. As a result, my mind, with its carefully constructed coping strategies, was getting weaker. My life became a tightrope walk, the boundaries between work and play becoming ever more blurred. For most people for whom clubbing is an escape from the daily grind, the crash back down to real life on Monday is unwelcome, but keeps your feet on the ground. My weekend didn’t really seem to stop. Yet I was listening to less music, dancing less in clubs. I was present, but no longer for the right reasons. I was afraid of going to sleep at the end of the weekend. So I would stay awake longer. And longer. And longer.
I’m sure there are aspects of this experience that many people who have been involved in the club scene, either side of the decks, can relate to. Suicide Tuesday is hardly a secret if you’re partial to a party. It’s something we laugh about come Friday. But it’s when Tuesday becomes Wednesday, Thursday, next week, that people are far less open about how partying - and everything it involves - is really affecting them. Nobody wants to be the one who can’t cope. Nobody wants to have to let go of something so important to them. And maybe, like me, you just don’t want to admit that you're bordering on a problem that you can’t control. Because admitting you’ve got a problem means you’ve got to change something, and my whole life was wrapped up in that world. I didn’t want to lose it. But I knew I had to do something. So I left my job at the magazine hoping a change of environment would be positive. In fact I just dropped further over the edge.
Then I fell. I started hearing things. People would shout at me on the street. Someone on the bus would hurl abuse at me. My closest friends would scream in my face. I would see them do it. I would see their lips move. But it wasn’t happening of course. And the internal monologue turned up to 11. The voice in my head, “Fucking die, fucking die, fucking die” for 24 hours a day. And I began to plan my suicide. It was a logical process. It was deeply cathartic. Most importantly, I had convinced myself that it was the best thing for my family and friends and me. And I told no one what I planned to do.
One of the things you often hear in passing about suicide is that reaction when someone has held up a train by throwing themselves on the line. “Suicide is so selfish”. Yes, to the rational mind, suicide, depression, mental illness can be a deeply introverted and self-obsessive thing. But to the person experiencing it, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You are utterly convinced that you are doing the right thing. And the more convinced you are, and the more real it becomes, the more secretive you are about it. You don’t want people to know what you are planning because you want to protect them. I didn’t want anyone to have the responsibility of having known, of having tried to help, and ultimately of feeling like they had failed to do so. Of course, in the light of day, with a rational mind, there is no protecting someone from the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.
The day I was arrested I had left a meeting with my psychiatrist having convinced them I had no intention to kill myself precisely because I didn’t want them to stop me. I fought with my father, who knew something was wrong, outside the surgery, and I planned to run. Run so my family wouldn’t have to deal with what I planned to do. It was my parents who called the police. The police chased, tackled, and threatened me with CS spray before arresting me and locking me, handcuffed, in a van for two hours. I hadn’t threatened them. I had just run. It was scary. And my father saw the whole thing, and cried. He felt so guilty. But actually he probably saved my life.
That wasn’t the end, but it was the start of my road to recovery. Three months later I took an overdose of my antidepressant medication at my sister’s house on New Year’s Eve. Evidently it failed. The realisation of what I had done, and the impact it had on my family, was huge. It was a strange feeling to have committed that act and still be alive. It felt like complete failure. But slowly I realised that I, somehow, had to stop myself ever doing it again. The benefit it would do me was far less important than the destructive effect on those around me. And it’s the people around me who have helped me to move forward. The family who let me move home for the next five years. The friends who drove to London to pick me up and take me to hospital a second time when they were worried for me. The staff in the hospital, whose small gestures and kind words made me feel safe when I was a danger to myself.
Indeed, it was experiencing the positive effect that the nurses had on me and the other patients around me, sometimes through doing the simplest of things, that set me on the path to where I am today. Now, as a recently qualified nurse myself, there is no better distraction from the molehills of my everyday life than working with others as they climb mountains. It’s a great privilege to be entrusted with the lives of people at their most vulnerable. It makes me glad to be alive to do so. It’s by finding the meaning in other people’s lives, be they complete strangers, family, friends, my two new nephews, my irresistible godson or beautiful goddaughter, that I’ve found a reason to wake up in the morning.
Sometimes I think the easiest way to explain my problems with mental health is by comparing them to Pandora’s Box. There was always a lot of bad stuff inside, but it was a combination of lifestyle choices, life events, and maybe just bad luck, that opened the box. The thing is, once opened it’s much harder to lock the bad stuff away again. I wonder whether we all have a little of the bad stuff locked away waiting to get out. Whether we like it or not, by having a few more drinks, staying awake a few extra hours, we’re putting ourselves at risk of that happening. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do any of those things. Because having a good time is what life is about.
The last year I have started to really listen to music again in a way I hadn’t been able to since before the shit hit the fan. It was just too sad. But now it’s beautiful again. I’m just a little more mindful of not losing that beauty through the stresses and strains that we can put our minds and bodies through every weekend. Look after your head, there’s a whole lot of fun still to be had.