Here's when I reached rock bottom, and how I got back up
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW). Some 1 in 4 people in the UK will be affected by a mental health issue each year, with anxiety and depression being the most common problems. All this week, JOE will be publishing a series of stories, videos, and personal accounts to engage with and widen the discussion about men's mental health in the UK today.
This story contains instances of self harm and discussion of suicide.
I’d been unemployed for six months. The thing about being unemployed in London is that it's a city that punishes “losers”. It’s a city that likes to reward with one hand before picking your pocket and kicking you in the shins and taking it back. London is a place where “What do you do?” is more than just a bit of idle small talk. “What do you do” becomes an out-and-out threat, a “show us you are of of worth or this conversation is over” challenge.
And it’s thoroughly shit when answering that question when you don’t have a job. After one month you can just about pass with a “oh, I’m between jobs”, or a “oh, I’m looking for things”, but after five or six, “just looking” for things doesn’t cut it.
There was a point where I started listing all my job offers in a spreadsheet. Every time I sent one off it’d get logged with the date I sent the application, how much I want the job, and if I got an interview. Green meant interview, orange meant they responded, and red meant rejection.
There was a lot of red on that spreadsheet. A swirling mess of “we decided to go with another candidate”, of “we didn’t feel you had enough experience”, or the particularly painful “you have too much experience so we figured it’d be a waste of time”.
There were times where I thought I was poking my head out the hole. I got temporary shift work that involved me waking up at 5am every day to cross London for a 7am start. All my money went on transport so most of my lunches involved me eating chickpeas or lentils from home as hot food from the work place canteen filled my nostrils and mocked my spirit. I became close friends with another guy who ended up working there between jobs. Looking back on it, he just said: “It was the time we’d get lunch and cry all the time”.
After the Christmas rush the shifts dried up. With everyone back happy and healthy after time with their families, the temporary staff weren’t needed anymore. We traded time with our families in the hope of impressing, only to get blustered “we wish you all the best in your future endeavours” emails and phone calls.
When you’re in the hole it does things to your head. Anxiety goes through the roof when you know any added bill can see you completely out of money. You learn to recognise the letter from your energy supplier on sight.
It messes with your body too. You lose weight for long periods, only to pile some back on at weird points in the month due to all the cheap processed pap you eat. You finally scrape something together to go out and feel human, only you get blasted by service charge on some pizza, or a £5.60 pint of Strongbow in a trendy pub.
It’s worse than just being sad or low all the time, because it goes out and taints any time you are feeling good. You become superstitious, touching wood any time you mention a job offer out loud. Friends birthdays became events to dread as you had nothing to contribute. Magpies quite frequently fly around the areas I live. I remember waking up on Saturday, seeing a single magpie out my bedroom window, and going back to bed. The day was fucked. I was fucked. There was no point to do anything.
I properly hit bottom at the end of January. I had a job interview for a magazine company, so the night before I went out to Stratford Westfield to try and pick up the latest copy to revise. WH Smith didn’t have it. Morrisons didn’t have it. Every reasonable book store in Europe’s biggest shopping centre did not have this magazine. I’d failed. I was going to go into this interview blind, bungle a bunch of questions about what I liked about the company, and end up back on the shelf.
Stratford Westfield is the worst place in London to have no money. Westfield is Europe’s biggest shopping centre, it is an airport’s duty free run riot. It is wealth and a cinema and a restaurant and a Topman and a designer gym on top of what used to be on of the more deprived areas of the capital.
Stratford Westfield, shiny beacon to Nu-London where crime is down and housing prices are up. Stratford Shopping Centre is where locals sell their old laptops in the hope it’ll help them make that month’s rent. Stratford Westfield is where you go to drop the best part of a grand on a new wardrobe after getting a pay rise. It will not tolerate those without money. Its 1.9million square feet is swarming with people with money; it has no time for failures who can’t afford a magazine.
Via Verne Ho.
I slunk up to the top floor of Westfield, sat under an escalator that takes people to the cinema and a range of “nicer” restaurants, and burst into tears. Big, fat blubbery tears like I was five years old and I’d lost grip of a balloon. Because to me that’s what I’d done by messing up with the magazine. I’d let a good thing slip.
I cried and I cried and left my coats sleeve streaky with snot and sadness. I got out and decided to go home. On the way to the bus stop I saw a car gunning to beat a red light.. And I took a step. Not a big step. But a step. A step down. A decision I really hadn’t thought through properly.
The driver braked quickly. He called me some sort of swearword. I froze and said sorry before blaming my loud headphones. I got to the bus stop, cried some more on the bus home, and called the CALM helpline to try and figure out why I had took that step.
Via The CALMZone
The CALM helpline is brilliant. They ask for what name you want to go by. They never judge or pry, they’re just a bunch of nice people who genuinely want to help those in need.
“You did a good thing not taking another step Robert [I gave a fake name]," the volunteer said. "Because this job stuff won’t last forever, but if you had gone in front of a car, that would have been”.
I was still crying. They recommended to try and get some sleep before I ended up all bloodshot before my interview.
The interview went ok. Better than expected in the end, but that’s not how I began to sort my head out.
That was two weeks later when I met someone who tried taking the same step in Stratford.
I was trying to get home one Friday night after saying goodbye to a friend who was leaving for Berlin. Having missed the last train, I ended up waiting for a night bus back in Stratford at 1am.
Stratford in the early morning is a bizarre place, with Westfield shut and tourists sleeping. The only people roaming the place are tired workers trying to get home after a night shift, or the drunk customers they’ve been serving and cleaning up after. If you grow up there, you get accustomed to seeing some odd stuff.
I was sat on a bench minding my own business when a man in his twenties came up to me, shaven head covered in blood, and asked me if I had a cigarette. I threw him a lighter and asked how he ended up bleeding when he responded, cool as you like.
“I did it. I’m going to kill myself when I get home tonight.”
With so many people just wanting to get home in Stratford on an early morning, people quickly band together to help a lost soul who doesn’t want to. Someone steered the bleeding man to a nearby chair. Someone else produced some tissues to help clean up his head wounds. Two women talked to him and asked him how he felt he got into this point. I made a call to the Samaritans to make sure he could speak to an expert.
Strangers looking after after a stranger who thought the world had forgotten him. Trying to help someone who thought they were worthless. It was an act of mass kindness I’ll never forget.
It took a while and a few of us missed a couple of night buses before a member of Stratford police helped us find him an ambulance. I’ve messaged him once or twice after the incident to see if he’s ok. He hasn’t responded. Maybe I’m sat in his Facebook “other” folder. Maybe he’s in a good place too now. I hope he is. I hope none of us ever get into a point where taking that step seems like a good idea, someone reaches out to help us.
Knowing someone is in your corner is half the battle when you’re feeling blue. Sometimes you don’t realise you always have somebody there, even if it is a sudden army of strangers to help you get back on your feet.