Friday 20 October 2017

A million times better

Stephen Kelly tried to drown himself but thankfully he failed. He tells Ciara Dwyer that seeking help is a sign of strength.

HONEST: If Stephen Kelly has a problem, he’ll tell someone about it. Photo: Tony Gavin
HONEST: If Stephen Kelly has a problem, he’ll tell someone about it. Photo: Tony Gavin

Ciara Dwyer

Stephen Kelly is a cheerful man. He laughed a lot when I met him. You'd never guess that we were talking about his two suicide attempts in the summer of 2012. His attitude is testament to his recovery. But there were dark days when he couldn't go on.

"I decided that everyone was better off without me," he says. "I had convinced myself that I was utterly useless and an inconvenience to everybody. I didn't want help because I felt that I wasn't worth helping."

After his marriage ended, his life had been on a downward spiral. He was neglecting himself. A night-shift worker, he would sleep very little and go for days without eating. He survived on coffee and cigarettes.

There was a series of low points. He remembers not turning up for his son's First Communion. He apologised to him afterwards, but he knows that his son would have sensed that something was wrong with him. It got to the stage where Stephen isolated himself. He would ignore phone calls because people could hear the despair in his voice. And he abandoned his job. He had debts and to clear them, he disastrously tried gambling. His parents saw how bad he was and brought him to stay in their home. But while they were away on holidays, he packed a bag and left a note saying that he was going to stay with a friend. His plan was that his body would be washed up in the Irish Sea.

"In the book, The Perfect Storm, there's a description about drowning," he says. "I read that once you take a gulp of water into your lungs, you pass out quickly and your whole body will shut down. It seemed painless enough and I don't like pain. I'm not a great swimmer, so I thought that once I get out of my depth I'll be fine.

"I went out to Sandymount one night. I walked out for miles and I kept thinking, it's happening, it's happening but the water only went up as far as my shoulders. It's on a sandbank, so it never gets deep enough. I was going to get hit by a ferry before I was going to drown."

It shouldn't be funny but as he tells me this, we are both laughing.

"I got out of the water and thought, 'You useless git, you can't even do that properly'. Then I decided that I'd try again the next night. I walked out but it was the same again. I must have been out there trying for almost an hour before I came back in. I was freezing cold and wet. Then I decided that I'd wander around and not eat."

For a week, he slept on walls behind Dart stations and picked up cigarette butts from the ground.

"When someone looks dishevelled, people don't notice you. I became invisible and it suited me. Each morning, I was disappointed to wake up."

One day, on noticing a storm brewing, he walked inland until it passed. Looking back, he says that this decision made no sense as he had been wet all week. He sat at a bus stop on the Merrion Road and his brother Sean and sister, Jillian pulled up in a car. They had been looking for him since he had disappeared. "It was meant to happen," Stephen says.

While his family was hugely relieved to have found him, it didn't seem good news to Stephen. He remembers feeling the burden of all his troubles back on his shoulders. Jillian could see that he couldn't talk to them but that he needed to talk to someone. She persuaded him to contact Pieta House. From then on, life improved. He did counselling for 15 weeks.

"After a couple of sessions, I realised that I could get through this," he says. "I had to take a long hard look at myself and how I dealt with things and people. I had to understand what was going on inside. I was constantly telling myself that I was useless and those thoughts become so much stronger. The counsellor asked me if I ever complimented myself about anything. She said that if I did a nice clean shave, I should say to myself that I did a good job. I rebelled against a lot of it but when I started doing it, I noticed that it re-wired my way of thinking."

These days, Stephen works daylight hours. He always makes sure that in some part of the day he has time for himself. He made a new bunch of friends when he did a course to improve his work skills. He deals with what he can and accepts his limitations. On the day that I meet him, he is off to the Dogs with a group of pals. He enjoys going for walks and recently, he started reading the classics.

"My attitude to everything has changed. I don't hold stuff in anymore. If I have a problem, I'll tell someone about it. This is a huge change for me. Seeking help is a sign of strength. If I'm having a bad day, I know that it's not going to last. This is who I am now, and it's a million times better."

Sunday Independent

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