Life Mental Health

Sunday 17 December 2017

The day Superman was found lying in his boxers, very cold and dead

It was his eldest son's birthday last Tuesday, but it was really a sad day of reckoning that told of years of trauma and love

Daniel with his brother Marcus
Daniel with his brother Marcus
Daniel out in the Wicklow Hills over Christmas
Daniel holds his sister Laura in the bath
Daniel poses more than 10 years ago while on holiday with his sister Rachael
SON AND PROUD BROTHER: The order of service for Daniel Spray’s funeral, with Torrisdale Beach in Scotland in the background
Campbell Spray

Campbell Spray

Last Tuesday I woke early in a hotel room a 20-minute train ride from the home of my eldest son in Leeds. It was Daniel's birthday.

What should I wear? I had brought both casual and formal clothes across from Dublin. I decided on a suit, light blue shirt and patterned brogues with cloth inserts. They were exactly the shoes that Daniel would laughingly deride as being very "yah" along with the red trousers I occasionally wore.

Nearly ready, I finished by putting on - with a full Windsor knot - the smart, striped tie that had been one of his favourites and which I had found among his clothes. After downing a poor breakfast, I walked across the centre of Wakefield to meet Daniel's mother and stepfather for a quick coffee near the Cathedral. On the way I slightly regretted wearing the suit, it was a lot tighter since the day in May I wore it when seeing Daniel for the last time.

Yet I wasn't dressing for his birthday, although by right I should have been; he would have them no more. I was getting ready for the inquest into his death.

By the time it was over, barely two hours after I had knotted my tie, I knew almost too many facts about my beloved son.

I knew that his brain weighed 1757g, and his heart 382g. The lungs came in at 877g right and 724g left, the liver made double at 1609g, the spleen 290g and the kidneys 135g right and 142 left. All the main parts of the body were listed, from tongue to rectum and most labelled normal. The hair was around 5cm in length and was grey and had "male pattern baldness". They were the two facts I knew, both inherited from me.

According to the post mortem reports Daniel Morrison Spray was found on April 9, after police had forced an entry, in the front room of his Leeds flat "laid on his back … wearing boxer shorts only ... stiff and cold to the touch, paramedics attended and pronounced life extinct at 23.50 hours."

The report records that "on a desk was found a couple of empty plastic 'dealer' bags, there were some electronic micro scales and a 'crack' pipe. In the bedroom there was a significant quantity of 'non' prescribed medication on the bedside table (Diazepam, Seotiapim, Quetiapine, Fluoxetine, Disulfiram)".

Daniel out in the Wicklow Hills over Christmas
Daniel out in the Wicklow Hills over Christmas

At the inquest consultant pathologist Lisa Barker recited the long list of drugs found in Daniel's body, and under the compassionate questioning of coroner David Hinchcliff gave an understanding of Daniel's last moments of life as heroin took hold and the "brain ends sending messages to the lungs and they stop working."

If the ending was easy, the last few years hadn't been. I was given a copy of the long psychiatric assessment of Daniel over the last years. There were references to bulimic behaviour to control weight, massive drug and alcohol use, gambling, suicide attempts and play-acting of ways to take your life.

There were references to being bipolar, trying to cope with alcohol addiction, an overdose at 19, another at Christmas 2010 - shortly after he broke up with his partner of 14 years­ - with suicidal intent, low self-esteem, a 20-year history of mood changes and a long history of poly-substance abuse including heroin, crack cocaine and cocaine. As his mother eloquently wrote "in 2010 Daniel's lifestyle became, at times, very chaotic".

There were many concerns about a high risk of suicide last year when Daniel had taken heroin with a friend, but only he woke up. The psychiatrist wrote of Daniel's feelings of guilt over that and being "obnoxious" to people when drunk. There were calls, a few weeks before he died, to a late night crisis service when he had drunk two-thirds of a bottle of vodka and injected cocaine. However, when contacted the following day "it was noted that he discussed a promise he made to family to keep himself safe and he reported that this continued to be important to him".

Daniel holds his sister Laura in the bath
Daniel holds his sister Laura in the bath

The last sentence of the psychiatrist's report, referring to the crisis call and the follow-up, reads "it was noted that Mr Spray thanked the duty worker for their call and said he would contact services again if needed, as he had felt supported."

The coroner read into the record the statements I and his mother, from whom I had separated when Daniel was three, had sent his office. Gradually I tried to pull it all together in my mind and remember the person whom I saw as a baby, boy, lad and man and reconcile those thoughts with all the reports I had just read with the cold body I had kissed and held, again stuffed with the organs that had been taken out and weighed, on the morning of his cremation on May 6, four weeks after his body had been found.

Daniel Morrison Spray was always high risk. He was lucky to even be born in 1976. Helen had been sent for a D and C when a radiologist friend decided it would be worth having another X-ray. Daniel was found, just an hour before he would have ended as discarded tissue.

I had left Helen, Daniel and his baby sister Laura three years after his birth because I hadn't grown up since our marriage seven years earlier, my relationships with women and friends were chaotic and without boundaries.

Daniel poses more than 10 years ago while on holiday with his sister Rachael
Daniel poses more than 10 years ago while on holiday with his sister Rachael

I felt bringing them to Dublin would be an insult to Helen's intelligence and welfare, taking her from the support of her family and friends. It wasn't easy. I knew no one in Dublin and I was very much an outsider. One night my feelings of guilt got too much and I wouldn't be alive today save for a colleague breaking into my flat and rescuing me.

She had become concerned talking to me earlier that night.

Yet Helen was incredibly supportive of all my contacts with the children. I would go back regularly to Leeds to see them and they would be taken over regularly to Ireland by friends and relatives until at six they could fly over themselves. But, yes, I was there for the good times. Birthdays, holidays, trips, days out. Helen married again when Daniel was six and her husband Dave accepted the children with open arms, but while the younger Laura soon saw him as her "dad", the more emotional Daniel never did.

SON AND PROUD BROTHER: The order of service for Daniel Spray’s funeral, with Torrisdale Beach in Scotland in the background
SON AND PROUD BROTHER: The order of service for Daniel Spray’s funeral, with Torrisdale Beach in Scotland in the background

My son was beautiful. There was no doubt he had the looks and manner to die for. The longest eyelashes imaginable and an attitude of vulnerability mixed with almost Galahad derring-do that was irresistible. He was strong, talented and very bright.

In retrospect, even at high school he began to throw it away. I'm sure drugs and lifestyle were more important than studies. However he always had good friends and he was massively popular with both men and women, as the turnout at his funeral attested. He made university in Manchester but within six months, having spent the student loan and having barely gone to a lecture, he was out.

But there is resilience about us Sprays. He got a good job in the financial sector, a supportive girlfriend and over the years travelled the world twice and worked as a well-paid paralegal. But there was always drug use and too much alcohol. He worked and lived with people who burnt the candle at both ends and - if they could - in the middle too.

He told me of paydays when his team would go out drinking after lunch on Friday, hit the casinos and lap-dancing clubs and be down a couple of weeks' salary when he woke up Saturday afternoon. Internet gambling began as a way of cutting his losses. He would gamble all night, but then mountain-bike (without a helmet), drink, drug and go to work. Yet this man/boy/lad/son survived. He thought he was Superman, nothing could kill him.

We didn't see or didn't want to. His mother was incredibly supportive. As friends died from alcohol or drugs and his girlfriend left, a melancholy set in but he went on. He was witty, knowledgeable and compassionate. He enjoyed climbing, walking and diving. He trekked through Nepal just as he did the Scottish Highlands. He had current affairs nous to beat the band and when he saw that our Paul Kimmage needed a fund to defend his allegations of wrongdoing in cycling Daniel was quick to contribute out of what then was his dole.

Yet Daniel was no saint. He could be aggressive, he could hurt and he could be pathetic. Even in his 30s he might bum money off me and say it is "pay back time." But I mostly loved his company. It was challenging. I wanted him to control his demons, but too many of them were my own or inherited through my alcoholic but beautiful mother, a great nurse in war and peace.

I remembered the boy who slept with his first trout under his pillow, the son who cried if chastised by me - his now mostly absent father (but the person, who because of working nights and late evenings, could mind him during the day through his first years )- and the young teenager who hid up the hills after railing against my new relationship with someone he grew to love.

I took such delight in the way he got on with my two Dublin children, Marcus and Rachael, in his frequent visits here and theirs to England. As they wrote for a book made up for his funeral: "he was the archetypical big brother."

Marcus, who now works as an economist in London, relished visiting him and at the time of his death Daniel was planning a trip to the UK capital. Marcus now rides the bike Daniel was so proud of, to his central London office.

This last Christmas Daniel came to stay in Dublin for it and for my significant birthday the next day. It was a wonderful time, so different from the horrors of earlier that year and those yet to come. Daniel was engaging, fit and happy. He seemed to be looking forward to the future, making plans and hoping to get back to work after a couple of years on the dole. He also wanted to get back dating; he knew only too well that "no one wants to go out with an unemployed bum".

He was drinking, but I am sure not taking drugs. I had told him that he would be out if he did.

He admitted the last few years had been bad. He had been briefly in jail for attacking me when I had picked him up from a police station. He had woken up next to his dead friend but he was getting himself together and working part-time at a Citizens Advice Centre.

But was he really? Just how much wool was this highly intelligent and plausibly articulate man pulling over our eyes? His mother and I had probably been in denial for years. I wanted him to be the social Daniel, I loved going for a pint with him.

I had grown up in a hotel with the horrors of drink all round me and a mother who broke my heart and trust with her addiction and lies. There was also my hero military father who had never had a proper family upbringing and at times survived on two bottles of brandy a day. Yet he changed and lived in the North of Scotland until he was nearly 93. But I embraced the family's demons too readily as a journalist. Maybe I was an enabler.

You can scrape yourself raw with guilt and the "what could have been". With my partner I have been retracing the route we walked in the mountains last Christmas Day. Trying to understand what might have been in his head the last time we would be alive together. You attempt to lift your mood at times but there is a unwillingness in your response. He is dead, perhaps you failed, maybe you didn't but nothing can undo it now. Death is nothing more, nothing after. The finality of just having to deal with it. Take the guilt or rid yourself of it. He isn't there to judge.

I f***ed up, he f***ed up. Unfortunately with all the drugs he f***ed up too much.

As I write this I pull bits of paper out of my pocket. Jotted thoughts, memories, crazy notions, pathetic pompous thinkings, sad, depressive moanings. It all gets too much. In writing this article I am trying to be a writer, a journalist doing what I have pretended to be for 40 years and more. It is different when you have to do something important.

This isn't my usual fare, organising a paper, reviewing cars or plays or even talking about a therapy you have undergone. You are now dealing with the nub of your life, its meaning and the death of your son.

I'll take the kindly coroner at his word, as he gesticulated with his Mont Blanc pen just like the one Daniel gave me for my 60th birthday. He saw no suicidal intent in Daniel's actions this April. All we know is that a most beautiful, intelligent and caring person had died. He was a "known heroin and cocaine user". On the night he died he had taken a lot of heroin and other drugs, but a regular user might have survived the amount. The coroner teased out the idea with the pathologist that someone who had not taken heroin for a while would go back to the status of being a "naïve user" and an ordinary amount could be fatal. The purity of the drug was also an issue. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Peaches Geldof both went the same way.

That was the verdict, Daniel died from heroin toxicity. Yet my son Daniel killed himself. He was on this journey for years. A mother's love and dedication wasn't enough to save him. A missing father didn't help despite all his later posturings, affection, phone calls, visits and concerns. But at the end of the day one Daniel Morrison Spray took the drug, believed once too often he was Superman, and died.

And that's how in a bizarre twist of fate I came to be wondering on his birthday what I should wear to his inquest.

The last sentence of the pathologist's report drew attention to the "origin of the right coronary artery was a congenital abnormality… sometimes associated with sudden death." In this case it was "an incidental finding".

I told you he was high risk. I loved him more than anything.

Anybody affected by issue raised in this article should contact The Samaritans on freecall 116 123

Sunday Independent

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