II’ve always had trouble with the concept of asking for help. It seems to me like acknowledging failure, raising my hand, and declaring myself inadequate. Mental health is in the news every day; In theory, it has never been more acceptable to talk about it, but I still feel nervous as I write this. On the surface I am eternally positive. I am someone who likes to make people laugh. I joke a lot. That’s the me that I like people to see and remember. But I also have the ability to self-destruct with spectacular style.
I work hard, but to the point where I become obsessive. Writing a book can feel like life or death. I was a fan on my A-level review and then the night before my economics test, I got so drunk I woke up in the hospital. I did not go to the University. He had no idea what he wanted to do. So I bounced from job to job. I worked in supermarkets, bars, I sold electrical wiring. It was when I was throwing out brochures that I was mugged.
I was 19 years old. The assailant wasn’t particularly bulky and I didn’t want to give him my particular phone number. I punched him. We had a fight. It was pretty even, until he pulled out a kitchen knife. I did not run. Now I wonder why that was. I don’t think it makes me brave, and I would certainly tell my own kids to run away in that situation. He stabbed me a couple of times in the side; I still have the scars. And then he raised the knife and aimed at the center of my chest. I grabbed his hand. He dropped the knife. I dropped my phone. He picked them up and ran. I stood there bleeding until he left.
Reading that now, it sounds pretty traumatic, but at the time I remember thinking it could have been a lot worse. Bad things happen every day, we all know it, we just hope they don’t happen to us. Wrong place, wrong time. For a while I thought it was okay, and then everything went terribly wrong.
I stopped sleeping. Stop eating. I desperately wanted to shrug my shoulders and move on, but I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I remember trying to read a book and getting stuck on the same page for an hour. I was trying to watch a movie and then I completely forgot about the plot. I tried running, but ended up running so far that I had to take a bus back home. Even now, it’s hard to put into words how bad it was. I stood in front of a mirror and didn’t recognize myself.
I started drinking and taking drugs, often alone, because for a while I didn’t feel anything. He didn’t know how to deal with what had happened, or how to ask for help. He didn’t even want to ask for help. I just wanted to die.
Outwardly, there was no preamble to my suicidal thoughts, no cry for help. And yet I don’t think it would have been a big surprise to those who really know me. I sat down, took out a paper and a pen, and wrote. It wasn’t a great goodbye, not even an apology, it was just me writing my story in hopes that it could help my parents understand.
That night, for the first time in almost a year, I slept properly. The next morning I woke up and wrote some more. It wasn’t a quick fix, magic pill type. But the more I wrote, the better I felt.
It was a long year before I gave any thought to the future. I read an article about a stockbroker and he had an amazing life and he was driving a Ferrari and he looked happy in the picture.
“I’m going to be a stockbroker,” I announced to my brother.
He looked up from his cereal and frowned. “You suck at math and you screwed up your A levels.”
I paid for my exams with my credit card, entered the city, and managed to find an entry-level job. I launched into my new career with the kind of enthusiasm that left no time to think about the past. Eighty hour weeks. Sleeping on my desk.
I was happy, I was making money and my bosses were happy. I made jokes and people laughed. My parents were proud of me. I felt that I had turned a corner and had left behind that boy who was afraid to look in the mirror. I climbed the ladder and finally made my way to an operating table.
And then I lost a million pounds.
I broke my business boundaries, then channeled my inner Nick Leeson and hid the loss. He was young, stupid, and largely unaware of how dire the situation was. Inevitably, they caught me. I sat with my bosses as they contemplated going to the police. They certainly could have. Instead, and I am eternally grateful for this, they agreed to let me work to pay back half.
He owed them £ 500,000. He was in his early 20s.
I stopped sleeping. Stop eating. I didn’t tell anyone. I got engaged and we planned a wedding. I started drinking and taking drugs to get through the day. He still maintained that happy and successful facade, but behind closed doors he was in serious trouble. During the day we would see churches, at night I would review the terms of my life insurance policy. Writing saved me. It helped when nothing else could. He punished me, even on our honeymoon I would sit and write when my wife thought I was sleeping.
I started simply by keeping a journal of how I was feeling. From there I revisited the past, the trauma of being attacked. Only this time I changed the people involved to fictional characters and also changed the outcome. I closed my eyes and squeezed out all the details of that day, from the trees I could see to the color of the houses next to me. I worked and reworked the scene obsessively, until every sentence brought me back. I guess it gave me a level of control that I didn’t have at the time.
It took me years to work through the debt, but I did. And again I was the person I wanted to be. I succeeded. My parents were proud. But then I started to slip again. This time there was no reason for it. Although I kept writing, often just weird scenes that didn’t happen together, most so horrible I could barely read them, I didn’t seriously think about writing a book until I found an interview with John Hart, one of my favorite authors, who had been given Turn your back on a successful law career to follow your dream.
My friends thought I was angry when I quit my job. My wife was pregnant and a student at the time, but she needed the change. He needed to start living.
“I’m going to live in Spain to write a book,” I announced to my brother.
He looked up from his beer and frowned. “You suck at spelling and you don’t speak Spanish.”
In Spain I wrote every minute of every day. The writing turned into this crazy and maddening quest to find the perfect story, the perfect paragraph, the perfect word. And, although I didn’t know it at the time, the years of practice had given me a good foundation for creating a story. On our return to London, my first novel, Tall oaks, was pulled out of the slush pile and I got a publishing contract. The book was shortlisted for a Dagger from the Crime Writers Association. I went to an elegant awards ceremony and faced the best sellers. To my amazement, I won.
I still write constantly. I still let the novels drive me totally crazy and I still have trouble sleeping. If I’m honest, the fear of slipping again is my constant companion, whispering in my ear when I’m feeling bad, moderating gains when things are going well.
Besides writing, I now trade the stock market from home. When it’s not closed due to coronavirus restrictions, I also work part-time at my local library. I recently received an email from John Hart, telling me how much he enjoyed my new novel. I resisted the urge to tell him that he probably helped save my life..
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted by calling 116 123 or emailing [email protected] You can reach the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
• Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End is published by Zaffre (RRP £ 8.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
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