For many people we look at what happened to them earlier in life as a reason for why they are shaped the way they are and for me this is no different. I wouldn’t exactly say I had the worst upbringing ever, but I certainly had a handful of things that you wouldn’t want anyone to go through.
I suppose the first thing was my dad leaving when I was six, that in itself probably wouldn’t have been too bad but it was the whole “taking sides” thing that followed; with me being Team Mum and my brother being Team Dad. The main issue here is that my brother chose to be on Team Dad, but even if I had wanted to team dad only had space for one son.
And that’s the way it went for about four years. I believed the Lee had dad and I had mum and that’s all fine, dad didn’t have space for another kid on his team so it was nothing personal. Then my first sister was born and two years later my second. Team Dad was now four strong and team mum was left to the two of us. I remember the exact moment I realised that it wasn’t that there was no more space on the team, there was just no space for me.
Around this time, Team Mum became “Team Nan” instead, as mum started her own business from our living room in order to keep a roof over our heads (dad wasn’t supporting us financially), and my nan stepped in as my primary caregiver. This was good for a couple of years and I can’t honestly say there was any real struggle, except the crazy amounts of poverty that come with your mum mortgaging the house to launch the business, but I was shielded from most of that at this point too and despite how much she struggled my mum always put food on the table (well actually it was the ironing board, her business was on the table!)
High school however would be the place where everything would change. I went to an ok high school to begin with, I chose to move away from my friends to be in the same high school as my brother… can’t think why I would have done that! The school was all boys though and when there weren’t any girls to distract the early bloomers with they took their frustration out on me, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out if there was a culture of bullying at this school or not, I had a knife pulled on me in the October of Year 8 and I ran away never to return.
Instead I headed to a school which I later found out was the 14th worst in the country. Things went well for a little while, but when another kid followed from my previous school and told everyone why I had left they labelled me a victim and it was like the bullies could smell the fear on me from a distance. I was first beaten up for being poor or knowing the answers to questions (which in the 14th worst school in the country isn’t difficult!) Then I developed an eating disorder and piled on a lot of weight and was bullied for being fat.
I developed a sense of humour as a way to keep myself out of trouble – with the bullies at least, got me in a load of trouble with the teachers but they gave out detentions rather than kicks to the head – and as a result my school grades began to sink. In Year 10 my attendance to school was 32% because I was just too terrified to go in, outside of school was safer, or so I thought.
Then one day I was out playing football (wearing my school PE kit because we couldn’t afford any sports clothes) I was accosted by this one older kid with around 20 of his mates. I was forced to the floor, beaten and forced to eat grass whilst half my school looked on and did nothing. After that day I lost the ability to eat anything green until way into my twenties.
Thankfully after that summer we moved 45 minutes away from Liverpool to a little town called Southport. I turned up with a scouse accent and a shaved head and I’m glad to say bullying didn’t follow me there. However, all of this experience so far had led me to have non-existent self-esteem so in the new school I was wary of everyone and anyone, I made friends, but I was always waiting for them to turn on me or leave me.
The same was true when I finally got my first girlfriend at 17. I was convinced she was only with me because she pitied me and always thought she was going to leave me. So, to stop this from happening, and 100% in the belief that no one would ever love me again, I proposed to her 10 months into our relationship, two months before I was even 18; we were married two years later.
I’d love to call this the happy ending, but I was still 100% convinced it was all a big ruse and the You’ve Been Framed crew were going to pop up at any minute. My entire relationship was based on the idea that I wasn’t worthy of love, that she didn’t really love me and that I was the worst human in the world.
None of this was true, yet. In fact, the first two parts never became true so I had to prove the last one so she could see it and I cheated on her. I told myself all sorts of reasons why I did this at the time, tried to justify it, tried to push the blame away from myself, but the truth is no matter how much she showed love, I was blind to it and when someone else showed me nothing but lust I mistook this for true love.
The affair didn’t last, I’ve too much of a guilty conscience and told her about it literally two weeks in. We broke up for a while, got back together, I cheated again, we broke up, we got back together and finally, knowing that I was probably going to cheat again, I broke it off; she deserved so much more than me but I wasn’t ready to step up.
By the end of the relationship we had two kids together who were 2 and 4. Out of this relationship I swapped a wife who was dependable but reserved when it came to expressing her feelings, for falling hard for another person who would declare their love for me in overt and poetic ways but was chaotic and unpredictable. I loved one side of this, but I couldn’t handle the other.
But hey, I threw myself into it despite knowing that I could not exist with such instability and ended up in quite possibly the most destructive year of my life. I am reluctant to call it an abusive relationship, the truth is we were really bad for each other when we weren’t busy being good for each other. But I was manipulated into a position where I ended up cutting ties to all of my friends and family, and when all I had left was the girl, the girl left.
I know in hindsight that a lot of my isolation has been down to my own actions but I found myself in a position where I literally had no one, with the exception of my two kids who I couldn’t even be a good dad to. They deserved so much better. I hit rock bottom and I allowed myself to believe the worst, that the world and my kids would be better off without me. So deeply entrenched in this belief I concluded that the way for my kids to have a better dad was for me to step aside and make space for one to appear; so in August 2009 I made an attempt on my own life.
I didn’t leave a note, instead I called my mum to say goodbye, we weren’t really on speaking terms due to the whole ex-girlfriend situation, but determined for this not to be her last phone call with her son she, the police and an ambulance soon turned up at my house. Reluctantly I let them take me to the hospital.
Once there my mum was busy asking all the questions no suicidal person wants to hear “how could you do this?” “How could you be so selfish?” “Did you not think about your boys?” I didn’t want to hear those questions at the time, but let’s look back at them now…
How could you do this? Well, I really saw no other option, I was in so much pain and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore. Plus, I believed I had lost ALL my friends and family so I didn’t want to start all over again with no one to turn to and no support.
How could you be so selfish? I didn’t see it as selfish, in fact isn’t it more selfish to want me to live with this pain? When someone is suffering from a terminal illness how many times do we take relief in their death because they’re no longer suffering? Did I not deserve that relief? I’d already alienated everyone so who would have even missed me anyway?
Did you not think about your boys? Yes. All the time. And I believed they deserved so much more than the waste of space that I was. I know you’ll never understand it but in that moment the truth is distorted so far that you can 100% believe that you are doing this FOR them and that it is a good thing. I hate that you can’t understand that, but I also hope you’re never able to because the only way to see this viewpoint is to stand at the precipice yourself.
But as I said, on that day I didn’t want to answer these questions, so I ran away from the hospital. On the way I bumped into one of the friends I had alienated, a friend who himself had been in an almost identical position 18 months earlier when I had walked with him to stop himself from killing himself, held him, listened to him and stayed until he was safe. He saw me, turned to his girlfriend and said “leave him, he’s just doing it for attention!”
Thankfully I carried on walking and ended up at the door of my best mate (who at this point was not speaking to me) and I said to him the words I wished I had said BEFORE the attempt. “Mate, I know we’re not speaking, but I’m really struggling and I need my best friend right now.” Without hesitation he took me back to the hospital and stayed with me until I was discharged, then looked after me for a few days afterwards and continued to check-in with me regularly.
I’d love to say that after being pulled back from the precipice I immediately woke up and was a renewed man, but life rarely works like that. Instead I went on contemplating new ways to kill myself and believed it was only a matter of time. Between this and sleep the only other things I did was play computer games and watch movies, the former passed the time, the latter saved my life.
One night I was watching a French film called The Diving Bell & The Butterfly, a true story about a man with locked-in syndrome who could only communicate through blinking. Using his blinks he wrote a book with the help of a rather ingenious nurse who worked out a system for him to produce words. In the book (and now the film) there is a part where he goes to the beach with his kids, they are running around and playing he, he – strapped into a wheelchair and hooked up to all manner of life support – can only watch as their life goes on and his seemingly doesn’t, that hit me hard.
However, what came next hit me even harder, in that scene he says the following line “Even a sketch, even a shadow, even a fragment of a dad is still a dad”. In that one moment everything I thought was thrown into a new and different light. My kids DID deserve a better dad than me, but instead of moving to one side and allowing this man to emerge I decided to dig in and create the man right where I stood. To turn the sketch into a life model, to be the man who casts the shadow, to take all the fragments and make them whole.
And for 11 years that is what I have done. Baby step by baby step. And as I sit here typing this, I can hear my two boys – now 13 and 15, practically men themselves – play games together (in their respective rooms playing Fortnight over WIFI!). I have got to see them grow. They have got to see me grow too, into the dad that they deserve. That old relationship ended and less than a year later I met the love of my life, a woman who I will be celebrating 10 years with in just over a month. That best friend who took me back to hospital got to be my best man at the wedding and has just had a kid of his own who is my honorary niece. My mum? Well she got to have many more phone calls, many more hugs, a rejuvenated relationship. And that kid who all those years ago was bullied into poor mental health for having the answers in class? Well I know stand up in front of classes of kids and teach them how to find the answers for their mental health.
Dave Cottrell is a mindset coach and public speaker. He is the host of mental health podcast Master the Mind, Master Anything. Search @MindsetByDave on all social media platforms.