Our Founder's Thoughts On World Suicide Prevention Day
3.00am on Sunday 11th September 2022
It is 3.00am on Sunday 11th September 2022, the day after World Suicide Prevention Day. I cannot sleep and am inspired to get out of bed and put pen to paper. To be honest I have no idea what the content of this piece will contain.
Today we marked World Suicide Prevention Day at our Empower Gardening & Educational Centre by offering all visitors a 20% discount and giving them a free cake, courtesy of our good friend Esther Anderson of Grahams Bakery, Dromore.
I suppose the day has brought up memories of the times that I tried to take my own life.
Painful memories of excruciating mental pain, feeling separate, disconnected from life, in terror, in blackness and darkness and feeling there was no hope or “way out.”
Following a traumatic period in my life I experienced severe mental illness which lasted for about 6 years. I had 5 hospital admissions to Holywell Hospital and on two occasions the mental pain became so severe that I tried to take my own life.
As I write this, the memories of the darkness and pain flood back into my consciousness. Yet it is following this experience that I decided to have a go at setting up and running a Wellness Centre that hopefully provides support, encouragement and a listening ear without judgement for those who are struggling with depression, anxiety and feelings of being alone and isolated.
Thankfully today I feel much stronger, happier and at peace with myself.
Whilst incredibly debilitating and painful, the experience of having mental illness also a brought a gift. The gift is that I have learned to be my true self and I no longer need to act in a certain way to please or satisfy others.
I believe the experience has also taught me humility, compassion, kindness, generosity and the ability to be far less judgmental in my life.
In many ways before the illness I was greedy, selfish and a lot of the time only thought about me and what I could get from life, rather than what I could give to life.
One of my teachers of demonstrating kindness was a lovely young woman who was in Holywell Hospital. She was abandoned as a child and moved from care home to care home growing up. She had no family and Holywell became her home with the caring and nursing staff her family and friends. She had few possessions and owned little. She received about £30 a week to buy cigarettes and items from the shop. Yet on each occasion I had to go back into hospital she greeted me with a warm smile and affection.
I remember one day sitting on the edge of my bed feeling very down, depressed and abandoned. This beautiful young woman came over beside me and said, “ You are not feeling good today Alan, would you like me to go over to the shop and get you a can of coke and a packet of crisps?" This would not have been an easy trip for this woman as she would have to get a member of staff to accompany her. I remember how my heart was lifted with such a simple act of selfless kindness. This young woman was willing to give me about a fifth of what she owned and she would give it to me with joy and genuineness and was looking for nothing in return. This young woman taught me how to be kind and generous without looking for anything in return. Her love was genuine and true.
In two weeks time we are hosting our fundraising, formal, dinner, dance and auction in the Armagh City Hotel. The event has been organized to help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness especially among those in business and those playing sport.
This week a few tables have cancelled which temporarily took me to a place of anxiety and worry. What if nobody shows up on the evening or nobody is interested in opening up about mental illness?. I faced into my fear. My fear is that I would feel judged and a failure if nobody showed up at the event. Yet, could I still host the event if only one person was present? For me personally showing up will send out a message to those struggling with mental health issues that I am there for you. You are not alone or abandoned and I will not give up on you. When I went to this place, I felt much less anxious about the numbers who show up on the night. It is not a performance; it is a genuine act of support for those struggling.
One of the biggest things in life I crave most is to feel loved and accepted as I am. At the age of 93 my late father Herbie gave me the biggest gift I ever received. I was living with him at the time and on a Friday evening we watched the Ulster rugby games on TV. Following one match, I was sitting at one end of the settee and he the other. He turned to me and said, “Son, I have something to tell you. I have always loved you, I just didn’t know how to tell you.”
He didn’t have to say anything, nor did I, because we both knew it was true.
He was fit and healthy at the time, yet within two months he had died. It must have taken huge courage for him to face his embarrassment of telling me he loved me. For me it was a much bigger gift than any material or financial gift he had given me during his life and he was a very kind and generous man.
I suppose what I am trying to say is “take the risk and tell those special to you that you love them, don’t wait until tomorrow because as Garth Brooks sings, tomorrow might never come.
Growing up I thought that love was a romantic love like tenderly kissing your partner, or walking the beach hand in hand on a beautiful sunny evening. But for me now, the true meaning of love is walking beside somebody who is struggling and offering support, encouragement and a listening ear. Love is to be found in the excruciating pain and disappointments in life.
I went through hell during my experience of mental illness, but so too did my then wife Pat and late parents Hazel and Herbie. Never once did they take their love away. Something you cannot buy with money.
For those who know me, songs can often convey better than what I am trying to communicate. The song “The Rose” by Bette Midler conveys what I believe love is. Perhaps in your own private space, you might listen to the words and let whatever feelings come up.
Finally, as I was writing this piece the date 11th September felt a familiar date. It has just suddenly dawned on me it was the day our whole world went into shock when so many people were killed at the twin towers in America. Maybe it is the souls of all those who died that day who are giving us the courage to face into our own personal pain. To take responsibility for all of our emotions including rage, anger and bitterness and not act them out and to take the risk to love ourselves which in turn will open up the space for us to offer love to all of our brothers and sisters in this world.