Sunday 22 October 2017

'We never thought it would end the way it did' - two brothers' heartbreak on losing their mother to suicide at an early age

Losing their mother to suicide at an early age, brothers Will and Mick Magee talk of their heartbreak to our reporter, and explain why changing the perception of mental health means so much to them

Brothers Mick and Will have hosted the Light Ball in Sydney for the past three years, raising thousands for charity
Brothers Mick and Will have hosted the Light Ball in Sydney for the past three years, raising thousands for charity
Brothers Mick and Will with their late mother Biddy

Meadhbh McGrath

Will Magee was nine years old when he realised something wasn’t quite right with his mother. After an attempted suicide, she had been taken to St John of God’s psychiatric hospital, and from overheard snippets of conversations, he gleaned that his mum was seriously unwell.

“I think I was kept quite sheltered from it up to that point. I didn’t really understand at the time what had happened. But kids pick up more than you give them credit for, so I had some understanding that it was something to do with her being sad,” says Will (now 31).

“That was as well my first exposure to stigma around mental health, because you’d hear people say ‘he’s mental, he belongs in John of God’s’. That confused me a lot, because I knew my mum wasn’t crazy, she was just really sad.”

Will and his older brother Mick (34), from Blackrock, Co Dublin, explain that their mother Brigid, or ‘Biddy’, suffered with clinical depression for as long as they can remember.

Brothers Mick and Will with their late mother Biddy
Brothers Mick and Will with their late mother Biddy

“It was something that overshadowed her life since our earliest memories. It’s hard to think back to a time when our mother wasn’t depressed,” says Mick.

“She was an amazing lady, she was incredibly intelligent and she did a lot for charities like Aware, but she unfortunately tried to take her own life on countless occasions — it’s actually hard to remember because it was that constant and literally that many times.”

Will recalls an incident from when he was just 13. “I found her lying beside her bed after taking an overdose and she was unconscious. I waved the ambulance in and she was taken to hospital.

“When I went in and saw her the next morning, she was awake and sitting up in the bed, she was smiling and talking to me. I couldn’t really understand it, how someone could be that happy after being so sad. I wrapped my head around it more as I got older, but it was never something we thought would end in the way that it did.”

When Will was 19 and Mick 23, they went on holiday with some friends to Thailand. Their mother bid them farewell that morning as they headed to the airport, but within hours of landing, Mick had a phone call to tell him Biddy had died by suicide, aged 49.

The pair didn’t have any other immediate family in Ireland, and Mick notes that “growing up in the manner that we did helped us to forge a bit of a bond”. The brothers are still very close — they live together, travel together and share the same friends.

“Our upbringing was quite chequered,” Will explains. “When we went back to Ireland, our old man had moved to Malaysia, so it was just the two of us.”

It was 2006, and the pair took on their mother’s lease on a house in Blackrock, but struggled to make ends meet as both were in college. Four years later, in pursuit of a “clean slate”, they moved in with a couple of friends, including Mick’s closest friend, Colin Baker. While Mick was trudging through a JobBridge scheme, Colin found the seemingly endless hunt for work very challenging.

“Colin suffered with his own demons, quite badly as well. I didn’t know the extent of Colin’s illness for quite some time,” says Mick. “I knew he was a stubborn character and he was very hard on himself, but living with him we got to see there was real low self-esteem there. I remember he went on a date with a girl he really liked, and she wanted to keep things going, but he broke it off with her and when his mum asked him why, he’d say ‘what do I have to offer a girl like that?’”

He eventually confided in Mick about how he was feeling, and Mick advised him to visit the local community mental health service. “He reluctantly agreed and went along. They said he needed to shake it off, that it was because he didn’t have the job that he wanted and it was just a phase,” Mick recalls. “Hearing that from someone you think is an authority on this, you think, ‘this is a dead end for me’. When mum went to hospital, and there were a lot more instances than Will has described, I never found that there were the right supports there for her either.”

In 2012, Will came home one night from watching a Euros match in the pub to see his housemate’s bedroom door open, but couldn’t find him inside. The next morning, he discussed it with Mick, who recalled seeing Colin sitting on the end of his bed with the lights on in the middle of the night, and asking Mick for a hug.

“That was very, very unlike him, but it wasn’t until the next day that I thought Col would never have asked that,” he says.

Before Mick and Will went to work, they tried in vain to locate him, calling his phone and his friends to see where he’d been. When Mick arrived home that evening, he heard his friend’s phone ringing from inside the garage.

“We opened the garage and there was nothing in there. We were so relieved, we were hugging each other. But we rang his phone again and heard it around the side of the house.”

They found Colin’s body in the garden. “I’d seen my mum in a lot of positions, but that was really, really tough. Once you get caught in those scenarios, they become very hazy.”

“It was so surreal, we thought, how the **** has this happened twice? You don’t even imagine it to happen once in your life, so what the hell? It was a really bizarre, weird time again,” Will recalls.

A couple of weeks later, the brothers started talking about organising some sort of event in Colin’s memory to bring his friends and family together.

“It wasn’t about pure altruism where you’re just doing something for the sake of charity,” Mick clarifies.

“I always tried to keep my head strong through what was going on with my mum, but with Colin… our house used to be a focal point where our friends would hang out, but nobody came there anymore. I went on a downward spiral after Colin died and I went through my own bout of depression.

“We needed to do something for ourselves as well to be around people. That’s a really important part of getting your mental health right, sharing your experiences with people.”

The Light Ball grew out of this, a fundraising event held in Dublin in 2012 that raised €55,000 for suicide and self-harm crisis centre Pieta House and attracted 820 guests, including football legend Paul McGrath, one of Colin’s sporting heroes.

Shortly afterwards, Mick and Will left Ireland for Australia. “We’d made the decision to up sticks at that point. We needed a fresh start. There wasn’t a huge amount of opportunity and we were just sick of Ireland at that point,” says Will.

Five years later, they’re still in Sydney, and both work in media — Will as a publisher for Australia’s largest legal publication and Mick as an events planner.

They’ve hosted the Light Ball in Sydney for the past three years, and this year’s event — taking place this Saturday, October 14 — looks to be their biggest yet, with an aim to raise AU$250,000 (about €170,000) for Pieta House and Australian charity Batyr.

As well as the fundraising element, Mick and Will say an important part of the event is raising awareness about mental health and tackling the stigma and misconceptions around it.

“I was very close with Colin, so I always knew what was going on, but I was aware other people definitely didn’t,” Mick explains.

“It was a mask, where you show one persona when you have the courage to be out in public, but when you’re holed away you’re someone completely different.”

They describe their mother, who worked in their grandmother’s chain of shops on and off, as similarly putting on a brave face for others.

“Anyone who had known my mum, their mental image of her would have been of a smiley, bubbly, vivacious person, but at home she would be locked in her room and the depression swallowed her up,” says Will.

“But I think maybe people thought she was lazy, that she was sleeping all the time. That’s the difference between now and then — now, people understand that this is a very serious, very real illness.

“The way people perceived it at the time, they might have thought she was being a bit selfish, but they didn’t understand what was happening to her. There wasn’t the same awareness, but hopefully now it’s getting better.”

He adds: “For us, the Light Ball has become a celebration of mental health, it’s a positive thing. When you ask people what is mental health, they’ll often say lethargy or crying or feeling down, but that’s not mental health, that’s mental ill health.

“That perception around it has to be changed. If you can defeat the stigma at grassroots level, it changes everything for the next generation.”

* For Samaritans, call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. For Pieta House, call 1800 247247 or email mary@pieta.ie

* To donate to the Light Ball which raises funds for Irish charity Pieta House, visit mycause.com.au/page/108776/the-light-ball-sydney

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