A heartbreaking legacy

18 years ago today I got engaged to Paul. But he took his life after years of depression and drinking. If I had known then what I know now, the outcome may have been different, says Joan Mitchell.

I was 28 when he died. That night I asked my mother if I could sleep in bed with her. I was too scared on my own

PAUL was my first love. We used to meet in our local hotel, after the dance on a Sunday night, and snog in his Transit van before he dropped me home. I was funny and carefree, but arrogant for 18. I was going to college in England and I didn’t need a joiner from ‘bally-go-backwards’. Even when he made me learn his address by heart, I knew I would never write.

In June of 1988, Paul, my Paul, married an Irish girl in New York and I knew I had made the biggest mistake of my life. At the end of every night out, I would cry in the toilets to anyone who would listen. In Easter of 1992, Paul came home, divorced. My legs shook; my head spun; I felt like jelly. I did what I should have done years before — I wrote him a letter. I was back in Ireland, at college, and that weekend I didn’t go home. Late afternoon, the phone rang; he would get the train down and be there at 7.10pm.

He arrived and it felt like a dream, our big romantic dream. He had married, discovered the error of his ways, and had run back to me. Well, not quite: she threw him out, as I would later discover, for drinking — but I was in love and could see none of it. We got engaged on this day — 18 years ago.

Paul went to work drunk one morning and fell 30 feet from a ladder onto a cement floor. He smashed his ankle, and from such an innocuous injury his unravelling began. His ‘work hard, play hard’ philosophy became ‘drink hard’. I loved him. He was kind and funny, and he laughed at my jokes and had the one-liners to nail my witty conversations. We had a great time, but there was the undercurrent of getting alcohol — off-licences, beer gardens, pub lunches, blue grass sessions, trad sessions. There were so many excuses to drink. I loved the party atmosphere at the beginning, but it was draining me. I was the most positive person, but I was feeling the downward pull of Paul’s problems and of trying to fix them. I was sinking slowly.

Paul went to rehab and lasted a few days, and called for his brother to collect him. He was going down further and further. The pain in his ankle was excruciating and he could no longer walk without his calliper. He never talked about depression; we talked about marriage, and we talked of a life together. I would have said we were open and that we talked about everything, but we never talked about what mattered to him — his increasing dependence on alcohol and his mental health.

I arrived to his house that frosty December morning, and the wave of emotion caught my breath as I met his brothers and then his poor, poor parents. I learned that day what heartache is. The first time I was alone with him, at the coffin, I lifted the covering and looked at his ankle — pain-free for the first time in more than two years. I touched his face and saw the scar; he had slipped in the ice a few weeks earlier and the cut was not healed on his ear. It never would heal, now. I looked at those strong hands and fingers, which would never hold his tools again, nor wear our wedding ring.

I was 28 when he died, and that night I asked my mother if I could sleep in bed with her, as I was too scared to sleep on my own. All night, I kept rewinding his life as if it was an old video tape, but as I learned when I woke up, there was no rewind button for us.

I went for counselling to Al Anon — for family and friends affected by alcoholics. I went to learn why I had chosen an alcoholic. I had fallen in love, in my teens, with a young man who later became an alcoholic. I don’t know why he became an alcoholic, but alcohol got a death-like grip on him and changed him into someone else.

I listened to women, at a suicide support group, share what had caused their sons’ deaths. They talked about addiction, being too sensitive, mental-health crises. But what struck me was that those who had died by suicide had been determined.

So, for years I consoled myself that I had done as much as it was humanly possible to do. I tried to look forward five years and I would be over Paul’s death by then.

I met a wonderful man who loved me without limits. We got married and had two healthy, beautiful children. I made life changes and became a writer, then a journalist, and was asked to research suicide. I felt I had the experience and empathy to give the article depth and compassion. I wasn’t prepared for what I would learn.

When I called Pietà House, I spoke with Cindy. She listened to my professional reasons for researching this piece and was extremely empathic, and supportive of my story.

When I asked about how they measure success for their clients, she said, calmly, that it was difficult to tell me, given Paul’s suicide, but 85% of people who engage with their services survive suicidal depression.

I made her repeat the statistic: 85% of people who seek help survive. I was dumbfounded. That harsh statistic rattled around my head for days.

In 1995, I had felt there was nothing more I could have done, and nothing more he could have done until he recognised he had a problem. It was up to him. When I think back now, my heart slows with sadness.

On his birthday, one year, I dreamt I was down home and called into a neighbouring town to a motor factor shop, and there behind the counter was Paul. He had finally had the amputation and had his artificial leg on. He had set up his own business and, as we talked, a curly-haired toddler came out to look for his Daddy. At the time, I felt heartened by the dream: in some way, somewhere, things had finally worked out for Paul. But, now, I think completely differently. I think I could have done more; I should have talked to him about what he felt before he took alcohol, how he felt on a morning after, how he felt about everything, really. I knew all about the pain in his leg, but nothing about the pain in his head.

I was approached to write this from a personal angle, and I was initially reticent, as I didn’t want to bring focus on someone’s brother or uncle.

I had moved away a few months after his death and had never lived ‘at home’ since, and I also had changed my name when I got married. When those two sisters died in Donegal, I felt I was right back at the emotion of Paul’s death. I feel, if someone reads this and gains hope, just because someone talks of suicidal depression, all is not lost, there is a way to survive and come out the other side: 85% of all those feeling suicidal who engage with Pietà House survive. How I wish Paul could have been one.

Keep that statistic in your head. It is the most hopeful number you will hear this year, or possibly in your life: 85%. I think about Paul most days since I started this article, and wonder and wish I had done more.

* www.pieta.ie

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