Since the inception of The Semicolon Project in 2013, the semicolon has become a symbol for those who believed that their story had ended, but, for whatever reason, they decided that now is not the time.
My name is Stephen Hooper, and my semicolon story is the topic for today’s 22PlusY podcast.
Talking about suicide ideation is hard… very hard. I hope that with this podcast, I can reach at least one man who decides to turn away from ending his story and realises that simply opening up and talking about his feelings and struggles can make all the difference between dying and having a tomorrow.
Let’s start with a couple of statistics.
- The single biggest killer of men in the UK under 45 is suicide.
- One man ends his life in the UK every two hours, so four men will have taken their own life during your eight-hour day at work.
These are figures from Andy’s Man Club, a UK charity founded by the family members of a young man and a doting father called Andrew Roberts, who was so desperate that he killed himself in 2016.
Shocking figures, of course, but also very sad for the men involved and their families.
So, to my story…my semicolon moment.
I’m now 63 years old, divorced and living alone. I’m a father and a grandfather.
Like many men, I’ve made bad decisions in my life, along with a few good ones. My first marriage is an example… I married too young and unprepared for married life. I had misgivings before the wedding, as did my wife, but coincidentally, one person convinced us separately that it was just nerves… it wasn’t. I guess she had already bought her hat for the ‘big day’.
We both worked hard at the marriage but entirely out of the blue, as we were about to go to dinner to celebrate our third wedding anniversary, my wife handed me a letter from a solicitor advising me that she was moving out the following Saturday and taking our boys with her!
That was 38 years ago, and I will never forget the pain of returning to our house and seeing all of my kid’s clothes etc., missing, and crying myself to sleep that night on my son’s bed.
She then fell pregnant by a complete low-life scumbag that abandoned her as soon as he found out. Still, it prompted her to move over four hours away from our town, seriously damaging my bond with my children and imposing a tremendous financial and time strain on my new life.
Fast-forward a few years from the breakup, and I had met the love of my life and was marrying.
Fifteen months later, we had our first son and three-and-half years later, our second.
I was older, of course, but also of an age when I was ready and capable of the responsibilities of fatherhood. By 1993 I had four sons and loved them all, and a wife who was the best thing to happen to me.
We were struggling financially, but we were a solid team and were making our joint way in the world.
Several things then collided. We had a house that was in renovation… lots of seemingly endless work; I had a new job that looked like it would be an improvement but, in reality, took me away from the family far too much, too often; and the Child Support Agency came-in like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.
I had never shied away from my financial responsibilities towards my children and had never considered hiding my earnings. They were my children, and I was proud to be doing my bit as best I could. However, the CSA was then structured such that the staff were paid a bonus for each absent father that they set up an order against (I’ll call them fathers as that was the vast majority). This financial incentive made the staff look for the easy, soft targets… the fathers that were open and already paying, such as me.
Their calculations seemed to include a punitive element. I found myself making a 100% contribution towards my absent children… not the 50% one would expect (half me and half their mother) … essentially, I now had maintenance payments that were about the same as my mortgage. I still had a family that I lived with and provided for.
I had retrained and changed careers and worked my way into a position at my new employer of some seniority. Secretly, though, I was skip-diving at work in the evenings for pallet wood to burn to heat our house. The strain it put on my home life was immense.
My till then, supportive wife was now beginning to resent my children from my first marriage as she saw them taking resources away from ‘her’ children… a completely natural reaction. If you think about it, but as a father to all of them, I didn’t see it that way at the time… it just seemed ‘nasty’.
Fast-forward to 1999, and I lost my dad to lung cancer, aged just 60 – three years younger than I am now. He’d been a smoker since he was nine years old.
I came from a broken home, but my dad was my anchor throughout my childhood. He had been the point of stability in my life, and now he was gone.
Eleven years after losing my dad, I learned from a psychologist I was seeing privately that I had developed PTSD and had not resolved his loss. Thankfully, her intervention made me deal with the grieving, and I fully accept that he has gone. Though I do, of course, still miss him.
When I finally dealt with my father dying, my marriage was in difficulty. I could see this, but my wife saw any problems as a sign of weakness and would not accept it. She was convinced that “there was nothing wrong with her”, and as I had been previously divorced, it must be my “fault”. She couldn’t see that it wasn’t the fault of one of us; it was a problem ‘for’ both of us. We needed to do something to save our marriage.
Our lives were such that I kept trying to save our marriage, but I honestly believed that she had given up. Part of me still believes that she was ashamed to admit that we had problems and would only rock the boat once her father had passed away.
I found myself very alone and very lonely.
At some point, we, as a family, had become involved in a sport, and I had trained as a coach and then continued to train at higher and higher levels of coaching.
As part of this coach training, I needed an athlete to coach and to record/show my coaching and their subsequent progress. My wife had suggested a woman at our local club, and so it began.
We worked hard on the coaching and became close. Often chatting on Facebook about coaching, which then developed into more personal matters.
Eventually, we crossed the line and had a very short affair. Our relationship had felt so real then, and we both told our relevant spouses that we were leaving together for a new life.
Within two days, I realised that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. Not because of the person I was with… she had been very supportive, but I had left my wife for the wrong reasons… reasons that I had not seen before and were things I could have dealt with.
My wife had asked me to return home, and on the third day, I did.
Initially, things were great, but there was a lot of over-compensating going on, and pretty soon, I found myself alone again, and depression had set-in.
My wife would do whatever she could to avoid me, and she had excluded me from any contact with her family, even though I was close to her dad.
She would walk out of a room if I walked in, she would watch the TV in a different room to me, even if we were watching the same program, and if we did happen to be in the same room with the TV on, she would shield her face from me with her hand.
Everything that I did was called out as suspicious or not without motive, and she would make fun of me to our youngest son whilst I was present.
I realised that we were not living, merely existing and that we would probably go to an early grave. Our marriage had become toxic, so I told her I thought we should sell the house and go our separate ways.
The problem was that she was, and still is, the love of my life. I didn’t want us to part; I didn’t want us to divorce. I wanted to get out of the hellhole we had created and grow old together… I just didn’t know how.
A couple of years later, we were divorced. 28 years together just gone.
Between my affair and today, I’ve faced my very darkest hours. My psychologist even called me one Christmas Eve to make sure I was okay and to tell me what to do if I felt that I had reached the end of my story over the Christmas holidays.
It wasn’t that I wanted to die; it was more that I didn’t want to live. I could see no future for me.
- I’d lost the woman that I loved.
- I’d lost my family (my youngest son still hasn’t been in contact after seven years)
- My next youngest son was living a very busy life, and I didn’t factor into it.
- My eldest two sons were living almost five hours away and married, living their lives as husbands and fathers – my first wife had moved them away from me when they were very young, a factor that, as previously mentioned, contributed to the stresses we’d faced when I was newly married to my second wife.
- I’d raised my family and was now redundant… my life had no purpose.
Life was truly miserable for me.
I’d go to bed at night hoping that I would not wake up the next morning, and when I woke, I was angry and disappointed that I was still alive and had to face another day. Anti-depressant medications were doing little to help my depression, and I had yet another day to endure.
I don’t fear death, and I’m not religious. I guess I’m an agnostic atheist.
I don’t believe there is a creator, and there is no evidence that I have seen that there is an afterlife. To my current thinking, being dead will be the same as being unborn… I knew nothing and felt nothing before I was conceived as ‘I’ didn’t exist, and it will, I expect, be the same when I’m dead.
That said if there is something greater than, well, this, I’m inclined to think that it is more to do with an extended consciousness akin to the Buddhist way of explaining interconnectedness. For example, if life and reproduction are purely the mixing of DNA from parents, where do instincts come from?
Why does my dog try to bury a bone? He was never taught this, yet it is something that he has done from the off.
Why does a marsupial foetus leave the womb and climb on the outside of the mother’s fur to continue to develop in her pouch? Can that instinct really just be within DNA?
I’d reached the point where I wanted ‘out’ of this world… out of life.
There was nothing here for me but misery and loneliness.
I consider myself fairly sensible, so I don’t look forward to a painful death, but dying is something that just “is what it is”.
Looking at my options, I worked out a few plans… planning is something I do… for EVERYTHING!
- One was to just disappear. Arrange to die so there was no finding me, no remains, just gone. And I worked out a few ways to manage this.
- Another was to do it in a hotel and in such a way that the emergency services would be notified by employing technology once I was dead.
- And the third was to go silently and cleanly. Set the local scene so that there would be little trauma for anyone who would have to deal with my body.
The first method would leave too many unanswered questions and possibilities that I had just run away and could lead my sons to look for me for the rest of their lives. That would be unfair to them.
The second method could leave the emergency services or hotel staff having to deal with trauma, which would be unfair to them… they had not harmed me; why would I have the right to harm them?
The third was the only way that would work, according to my conscience, so that was the way to do it.
Now, for how.
I work in a sector that provides me access to extremely toxic gases. Gasses that would make the process painless for me and were plentiful.
I devised a system that would deliver the gasses in the correct strength and for a sufficient time to be effective. After this time, the room would be vented to the outside so as to not put anyone at risk that had to ‘deal with’ my body. The emergency services would then be automatically notified of what had happened, when, and where.
I drafted letters to my sons and gathered the equipment that I needed. All that was left was to build the automations for venting the space and notifying the authorities. Fairly simple stuff for someone in my line of work.
About this time, I was still seeing the psychologist, and she must have had an inkling that something was going on because she raised the subject of suicidal ideation with me. Being an honest person, I told her what I had planned but had not yet decided when… I was just getting things ready for the ‘right‘ time.
Incredibly, she didn’t react, didn’t tell me not to; she just asked me why I had started to see her all those years ago and what I had learned from our earliest sessions… of course, it was my eleven years of undiagnosed PTSD from the loss of my dad. She also asked me how I felt about suggesting a divorce to my wife when all I wanted was for things to be different.
Of course, divorce was ‘AN‘ answer, but it was permanent and not the’ THE‘ answer I wanted.
She asked me how I thought my sons would react to my suicide and whether it would impact their lives…
And THAT was my semicolon moment!
My life may not have any real meaning to me, and it still doesn’t, but what right do I have to put others through grief?
They were my sons through my choices and actions all those years ago. To inflict the pain on them that I would by taking my own life would be an act of selfishness and negligence. The ultimate statement of arrogance.
If I were to take my own life, I would be just passing on my misery to those I love… what kind of love is that?
To this day, I still don’t fear death, and there are often times when I just don’t want to carry on living; I just don’t see the point, but there are other times, like when I do see my sons, or hear from them, or when my dog, Joe, does something to make me smile, or I try to understand ‘life’ that I enjoy being alive… albeit sometimes only briefly.
I’m rarely happy and find most things in life, particularly about people and modern society, incredibly frustrating, shallow, and selfish. I am angered by wilful ignorance, so I prefer to keep my own company, despite being lonely.
I do have one thing in my life that is frequent and uplifting: my regular Monday evening meeting at my local Andy’s Man Club (see our article about my first visit to AMC).
Andy’s Man Club, or AMC, is somewhere I can go and be ‘me’. I can speak freely to and with a bunch of guys in total confidence and without fear of judgement.
I would honestly say that AMC has become the most regular highlight of my week, and the relationships formed are, I imagine, akin to a brotherhood. I have never had a brother, but I can lean on these guys and rely on at least one to be there for me should I need it.
AMC has given me something of the missing purpose in my life. I attend, listen to, and support other men that are struggling. I cannot recommend AMC high enough to any man who wants to talk or listen to other men.
Suicide is permanent, is never harmless to others, and is rarely, if ever, the answer.
The wider reach of suicide:
Many years ago, my father was called by his sister-in-law to drop in on one of his closest friends as he wasn’t answering the phone. When he got to the house, there was no response, so he called the guy’s name through the letterbox and peeked through; at this point, he saw the guy’s feet at the top of the stairs. He had taken his own life by hanging himself from the roof and dropping through the loft access. My dad broke into the house and tried to save him, but it was too late.
With his suicide, the guy left behind a young daughter who would have to deal with his death, and my dad never really got over seeing his friend in that way.
His life, my life, your life impacts on someone. Ending your own life may seem like your only choice, but I can assure you that this is because you have not yet understood the importance you play and the meaning you bring to others in your world.
Had I gone ahead and taken my own life when I believed it was the only thing left for me, I would not have been here to help my middle son work out some DIY issues last weekend or to witness another son be selected to represent the UK for the Invictus Games and tell him how proud I am of him, or to feel the genuine affection for me from my Cocker Spaniel, or to be able to help other men at AMC, or harvest some raspberries from my own gardening efforts every morning, or to listen to Cat Stevens singing, or the other many small things that make-up my life today.
What is Project Semicolon?
Project Semicolon is a movement started by suicide survivor Amy Bleuel in 2013 as a tribute to her father, who died by suicide in 2003. The movement’s aim is “presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury.”
What does the semicolon symbolise?
The semicolon symbolises hope and solidarity against mental health issues, including suicide, eating disorders, and addictive behaviours. It represents a continuation of someone’s life and a message to the darkest times in people’s lives that there is more to their lives than what’s plaguing them. It is a representation of strength in the middle of a storm.
Why a semicolon?
“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.” The semicolon represents the choice to keep going, to continue the story, and to not let depression or suicidal thoughts have the final say.
How can the semicolon be used as a sign of hope?
Ultimately, the semicolon symbolises the hope that the wearer is the author of his or her life and is empowered to dictate how to continue their story. It can serve as a reminder of the power of positive thinking and the importance of seeking help when needed.
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Guys, one thing I can assure you of; you are NEVER alone:
As well as ‘999‘, if you just need to talk, any time of day or night. These services offer confidential support from trained volunteers, and not just about suicide. You can talk about anything that’s troubling you, no matter how difficult:
- Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans
- Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line
- Text “YM” if you’re under 19
- If you’re under 19, you can also call 0800 1111 to talk to Childline. The number will not appear on your phone bill.
- If it’s a Monday get yourself along to an Andy’s Man Club (AMC) meeting: