I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years talking about mental health and sharing my story. It seems that for whatever reason I have been dealt a hand of life experiences that have qualified me to talk about the subject. It is also fair to say that since I began sharing my story – and talking about my feelings openly – I have never felt better.
I was seventeen when my brother and best friend, Simon threw himself from the top of the local multi-storey car park. My younger sister and I were woken in the small hours of the morning to be told that he was intensive care, having broken every bone from the pelvis down, and every bone in his face. He was nineteen and miraculously, he survived. It would be another thirteen years before he finally succeeded and took his own life at thirty-two.
At seventeen, I had no idea how to deal with the unexpected impact of my sibling's attempted suicide. The family didn't talk about it. This is no criticism, we didn’t talk about it because we had no idea what to say. Instead, we all focused on getting Simon back to full health and the reasons behind the original suicide attempt were never discussed. They were pushed to the back of the cupboard and the door – bulging with unanswered questions – was squeezed shut. Physically he made a full recovery. Mentally he didn’t. But life continued, and things seemed okay.
As my brother recovered, my little sister began to suffer in the same ways. It was terrifying. I was certain that she was going the same way as my brother. I spent night after night by her side talking, comforting and counselling her deep into the early hours of the morning. Her life collapsed on several occasions and it took many many years for her to finally get a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
And so, as the years passed, I found myself slipping into my own dark world of anxiety and depression. I held down a successful job but suffered from difficult bouts of not being able to get up in a morning and not being able to cope with the world outside. Each day was an unbelievable effort. The weight of life was enormous. There seemed nothing to live for.
I wanted to talk, but I didn't feel there was anywhere to go. I had therapy and counsellors who all helped but really I wanted to speak to my parents, my friends and ultimately my brother. But there was always the seemingly impossible issue of bringing the subject up. Nobody wanted to open the cupboard door again. In addition, I did not want to be the third child to worry my parents. They had more than enough to be concerned about. So, I didn’t speak.
And then, suddenly almost without warning, I returned home after a short break with my wife and daughter to find that Simon had hanged himself in my kitchen. Just like that. He had forced his way into the house and taken his own life. My marriage broke down shortly afterwards and I was alone.
And this is when the ultimatum arrived. I could no longer live with the darkness in my mind. I had two choices, speak out or well, you can imagine. I've always loved writing - I self-published magazines and sold them at school when I was twelve. Throughout my adult life I've collected journals, notes and scribblings everywhere I went. I felt that this was the only way that I could express myself. I had always promised myself that one day I’d write a book and in some ways I saw this as a legacy. A little bit of unfinished business to tend to.
In 2009, I began to write the story that became The Radio. It tells the story of a father coming to terms with the suicide of his son. I set up my garage as an office, planned the story in my mind and began to write. Of course, I had no idea whether it was any good or not. What mattered was the feeling of total relaxation I felt as I brought my characters to life. The real world paused each time I wrote and instead I was able to leave the real world and enter the world I had created. The years of congested feelings poured out and there were so many times where a writing session ended in me sobbing at my desk. But the sadness and tears were far outweighed by the feelings of achievement. I now spent my days thinking about what to write next, instead of focusing on the past and how things life could have somehow been different.
I was fortunate enough to be nationally shortlisted for The Radio, and a publishing deal came soon after. My third novel, A Tiny Feeling of Fear deals directly with my experience of anxiety and depression. The lead character decides the only way to save his life is to be open and honest about everything he feels. It is a story of hope.
And it is drawn almost exclusively from my own life, because through writing, I can allow my mind total freedom; total calm and above all, total honesty. This brings me not only a release from the real world but also a cathartic way to deal with my feelings. Now, after writing this book and being totally honest, I have been lucky enough to have GPs and other medical professionals thanking me for helping them to understand how sufferers actually feel.
I am now committed to getting people to share their feelings, whether by writing or verbally. I find it so much easier to speak about these issues now I have finally released them from inside me. I speak openly in schools, libraries and colleges about my story. We also made a documentary short, “Hidden” which accompanies A Tiny Feeling of Fear which has been received very well – you can find it below.
In it, I discuss mental health with my children and encourage them to talk about their feelings. I am on a campaign to get people talking and will be speaking on a roadshow with the BBC about my journey. I want to promote the message that if at that moment you don't feel you can say it, then write it. It really does help.
My fifth novel, Drift Stumble Fall is out in April 2018. It follows the story of two men who live across from one another, separated only by a few metres of tarmac. Both acknowledge one another with a wave but have previously never spoken. Yet, both yearn for the life of the other. It was originally inspired from hearing conversations between people who never seemed happy or content. They were always looking over their shoulder, convincing themselves that they would be happier if only they had what next door had. The neighbours in Drift Stumble Fall are willing to swap lives with no real understanding of what they are swapping for. The consequences of this are enormous.
In some ways, I feel privileged of the experiences I have had. I truly believe that writing saved my life, and I am great believer that the main way to health is to get the feelings out whether by talking, through a journal or some other way. I want the world to know of how we can all do better and help to remove the stigma surrounding mental health, so that someone somewhere will hear and know they are not alone.
We're always so incredibly humbled by people who can turn something so horrendously negative into a positive and Jonathan has clearly done that. Has your family been impacted by suicide? Either from a family member or close friend? How did you cope with it? Let us know in the comments below.
We've also got a fantastic interview with Jonathan on the site (coming next week), so look out for that. You can find out more about Jonathan on his website over at mjonathanlee.com. You can also keep up-to-date with him on Twitter, where he's @MJonathanLee or via his Facebook page which is facebook.com/JonathanLeeAuthor