11 February 2020

James opens up about his journey with grief

"I was self-destructing and didn’t care, my life was on a downward spiral of despair and self loathing"
Mental Health | Real Stories | In the Barber Chair

"That gut wrenching feeling of disbelief at being back at the same undertakers, at the same crematorium, speaking with the same funeral directors. Like Groundhog Day, we had already done this, just months ago. Once again having to choose another coffin and create another eulogy and choose more funeral music. Why was my family being punished? What had we done to deserve this? The heartache and pain was unbearable, I missed my mum so much and had just spent the previous 6 months grieving her and spiting cancer for taking her away at the young age of 60. But now this, my beautiful nephew, just 10 years old, killed by a brain aneurysm.

I could not comprehend what was happening, so many questions that can never be answered. I didn't know what to do, how to be or how to act. I didn't know how to grieve. All I knew was that I wanted the pain to stop, I wanted my old life back, with the two missing key components back in it. My mum Carole and my nephew Jasper. To hear the word "uncle Jamesy" again and to say the words "mum I love you" out loud again. Simple things that I took for granted and miss every single day.

The physical effects came first, dry skin, mouth ulcers, large lumps appeared on my scalp, very painful cyst like lumps. I found that I couldn't sleep and the little broken sleep I did get I had started to grind my teeth and would wake up with a sore jaw, feeling like I had been punched in the face. My weight fluctuated like a yo-yo, either not eating at all or binging on junk food. 

Alcohol I thought was my friend, it helped me escape my reality, sometimes it even helped me forget for a short time, but it wasn't my friend at all, it was adding to my depression. Instead of talking about my feelings I’d drown them with drink and I'm ashamed to say drugs.

I was self-destructing and didn’t care, my life was on a downward spiral of despair and self loathing. It’s all still such a blur. I can’t say I wanted to die but I didn’t particularly care about living. My friends knew of my bereavement but had no clue of the extent of my unhappiness because I wouldn’t tell them or show them how I felt. I wore a mask when around them. I felt isolated and alone, ashamed and a burden. I felt like I'd let everyone down including my mum and nephew.

I wore a permanent mask around others, a “brave face” mask. I couldn't hold down a relationship and I hated my job. My work life became exhausting due to the fact I was constantly putting on the mask everyday which was getting heavier and heavier to carry. I was in a constant dark place, depressed, tired, no aspirations or desires, I wanted to give up. 

One day not long after the second year anniversary of my mum's passing, I sat at my desk at work and wanted to just pick up the PC monitor and throw it throw out of the window. I clenched my fists and went to pick up the monitor, then I just cried and sat back down and sobbed. I’d finally broken. I couldn’t take anymore, I couldn’t hold in my suppressed feelings anymore. I couldn’t go on like this. I stood up, walked out of that office and went straight to my doctors. I vividly recall how soft and attentive the GP became when I started opening up, and my feelings and thoughts poured out of me as well as the tears. She listened to me, for the first time someone was just listening, not judging or trying to give their opinion. This calmed me down and helped me relax. I was prescribed antidepressants, something I had been avoiding but they helped me get back on track. The doctor was very informative about the meds and the side effects, they also advised on the importance of healthy eating daily and drinking plenty of water.

I started seeing a grief counsellor and discussing my grief, depressive feelings, and my nephew and mother's deaths. I started taking control of my life. Over time I reduced my alcohol intake and stopped smoking and taking drugs completely and I started talking more. It was difficult especially around my family but gradually became easier. This was the start of my recovery journey, I'm still grieving and I still have down days, but I feel I'm winning. I feel I'm more equipped to deal with tough days when my mental health needs looking after. I now know to avoid alcohol, I now know how important sleep is, as well as healthy eating and exercise. Even if it's just a walk or a yoga class.

In March 2019 I started a support group for men and their mental health. I called it Walk&Talk4Men. We meet up and talk about our mental fitness and feelings. We meet in country parks, get some fresh air, walk and talk. It's that simple. By turning my pain into passion I am now actively helping others by giving them a safe, non-judgmental place to talk about their feelings. I'm very proud of this group and the brotherhood it is forming.

Earlier this year I became an ambassador for Movember. My biggest achievement to date, I campaign for helping men live longer with my fellow Mo Bros and Mo Sisters. I am extremely proud of myself and I know that my mum and Jasper would be too.

I changed my career and trained to be a barber, something I really love to do and am passionate about. I am no longer fighting with my mentality and proactiveness.  I try every day to project positivity, for the first time in years I'm career driven, focussed, determined and living my life.

I have a beautiful fiancée Charlotte who supports me in every way, on good and bad days. I’m so lucky and grateful to have such an incredible human in my life. We got engaged at Disney World in 2018, I cannot wait to marry her and start a family with her.

No matter how bad things are, please don't give up, you can still bounce back and achieve your dreams. Anything is possible no matter what you've been through or going through, things can only improve when you are at rock bottom, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Keep going - you’ve got this."