The Maitlands – Iain, Tracey, and their three children, Michael, Sophie and Adam – were a happy family living by the sea in Suffolk. Their eldest son Michael then went to university and everything changed.
Whilst there, Michael suffered from anxiety and depression. He kept this to himself. His family did not know what was happening. Eventually, Michael’s mental ill-health led to anorexia, hospitalisation and a five-month stay in the Priory.
Michael went on to do an MBA and marry - he then became unemployed and divorced because of his mental illness. He moved back home to start over. Today, he is happy and fulfilled and works as a tattooist. Michael and Iain are ambassadors for the teen mental health charity, Stem4, and the authors of Out of the Madhouse by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Here, they talk about their journey.
Mental ill-health can strike anyone, any time, and you don’t always realise it until it’s got its claws into you. I just thought I was low and felt lonely (when I went to university) because I’d moved away from home to a new environment and lifestyle. But it was depression, and by the time I recognised that, I had all sorts of other related issues too.
I became anorexic as eating food – or not eating – was the only thing I could control. The anorexia was what led to me going into hospital; that, the pneumonia and the collapsed lung. I thought that was the worst moment of my life, but it wasn’t. The Priory got me back into the right BMI range and I went home, but the depression and all of that was still lurking, and it came back and ruined everything. It was only when my wife broke up with me, I lost my house and went back to my family’s home that I hit rock bottom; my ‘live or die’ moment, really.
Getting better was a long, long haul; it took me two years. At first, I just felt completely empty and pretty much wanted to die as I had lost everything. My dad kept on at me to see someone, a therapist, and I went to a hypnotherapist called Suzanne who talked me through everything. That was a huge help. Getting it out in the open and talking it through was a big relief. Talking is so important with mental health.
Other things helped me too – I tried to have a structure to my day, eating regularly, exercising, and keeping busy-ish. I have always loved art and focusing on sketching helped me relax. Playing computer games took my mind off things too. Seeing friends is important as well. I had good friends who came back into my life at this time. My family were supportive and we went out to the cinema a lot. They were always there in the background, not too close, but around if I needed them. It’s good to have support that’s nearby but not suffocating.
Today, I work as a tattooist in my home town of Felixstowe. I work with a close-knit team who are like a family to me and I feel good about myself. Experts say that mental illness never goes away, but it’s been a while now since I felt depressed and I am hopeful for the future. Like anyone, I have odd moments of stress and stuff and I have breathing exercises that I do. I go to the gym before work. I also set aside time to relax and meditate. When I go to bed, I like to fall asleep to music; these little things all help keep me balanced.
My dad and I are ambassadors for Stem4 (Stem4.org) – they have a brilliant (and free) Calm Harm app for when you feel stressed. We go into schools and colleges to talk about mental health and our book, Out Of the Madhouse. I read the book again recently (it was published on 18 January), my diary entries in the Priory and when I came back home; it’s so weird to see how down I was then, close to suicidal. It’s been such a turnaround.
I am always asked two questions when I do a talk to students or parents. One, ‘how can people spot mental ill-health?’ The answer is it’s not always easy. Quiet people may be suffering. So too might the ‘life and soul of the party’. Over-the-top, almost forced cheerfulness can be a disguise. You can look for changes – personality, demeanour, manner, body language – between what someone is like now and how they used to be.
The other question is, ‘what can you do to help someone with mental ill-health?’ Getting mental health issues out in the open is really important so that people feel they can talk about them more. There is such a cliched sense of ‘masculinity’ in society but it’s changing, albeit slowly. It’s good to see ‘strong’ men such as the actor David Harewood speaking out about their mental health. There’s still a stigma. Mental health matters need to be normalised. Talking and listening and ‘being there’ without trying to impose your own thoughts or solutions is very important.
The question I’m asked most about Michael’s journey goes something like this – ‘how could your son go to university, become depressed and anorexic over a five-year period and collapse and be rushed to hospital whilst you stood by and did nothing?’ And the honest answer is, I don’t know. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Guilt and a sense of failure probably don’t help much though.
I think the answer is a complex one. We were a happy family and had no knowledge of mental illness. It never occurred to me that anything like this could happen to Michael, even though I know now that it can happen to anyone. He did not know himself for ages – maybe two years – and he felt embarrassed and ashamed. He never wanted us to know. And anorexia? Well, that’s for teenage girls isn’t it? At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Ignorance, that’s what that was – men, and not just teenage boys, suffer too. Arguably, it’s harder for men – they have to be ‘tough’ and ‘strong’. Nonsense really.
Looking back, there were plenty of red flags – the ‘changes’ Michael talks about. The signs were all there – he changed his appearance dramatically and repeatedly, he was more distant with us, he stopped engaging, he hid himself away, and he became stick-thin with lots of layers of clothing. And still we didn’t see. I don’t know how.
I wish – and I always tell parents this – that I had been a more open, emotional father. I saw myself as a good father – picking my children up, dropping them off, sitting in my car for hours whilst they did this and that. And, as they grew older, I made sure they had enough money, their cars had MOTs and all of that practical stuff. But we never talked, not properly – I shied away from it. Lots of men do; it’s not helpful.
The advice I give to parents I talk to is much the same as Michael’s. Watch for anything ‘different’ about your children. Perhaps they chop and change their minds a lot, cannot settle; maybe they no longer talk to you or confide in you the way they did. It may be something and nothing – but it could be the start of something more serious. It’s easy to mistake changes, as we did, as part of growing up; it’s not always the case.
Spotting an issue is one thing, dealing with it is another. I talk to a lot of parents – they come up to me after a presentation and share their, sometimes tragic, stories. A common theme is that Dad goes in too strong, ‘This is the problem you have, son. Do this! Do that! Now! There, that’s fixed that!’ This may work if you’re teaching them to kick a football or climb a tree but it’s about the worst thing you can do with mental health.
We learned fast what to do when Michael came home. We had to, we thought he was going to kill himself. We took advice from anyone we could speak to (GPs are a good place to start, those who work in self-help groups and who have experienced mental illness themselves are better). The sufferer has to want to get well – Michael did – and they need to find their own way through. You have to be there to support them.
Michael said he was on the mend for a long time before we believed him. We spent months tip-toeing around him, being gentle and saying the right things. Eventually, we all sort of relaxed together. Writing the book was a positive experience; reading Michael’s diary entries was shocking at first but gave us an insight into what he was thinking. It helped us to understand him better.
As for the future, Michael really enjoys tattooing and will be doing that long-term. I have spun off to write dark, literary thrillers. The first, Sweet William, was published in November and the next, Mr Lamb’s Secret, is out at the end of the year. We continue to go into schools and colleges for Stem4 and will do that for a while yet. We are also working together on an illustrated book, Stick Boy, which should be published in 2020.
Michael and Iain’s book, Out Of the Madhouse is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing, available here