A ‘like’ on Facebook was my last contact with Dan. It was before you could react with a ‘wow’ or a ‘love’, which is what his art work deserved. Dan posted this lovely Goldcrest picture, which he’d created using a digital painting app, on 19 January 2014.
Later that day, he took his own life.
I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think anyone did.
I found out about Dan’s death while I was at my desk – the place where I’d had most contact with him over the years. I knew Dan through work. He worked for a graphic design agency that I worked with regularly, and his designs graced many of my projects.
Dan and I got on well and had a lot in common – two dads, a similar age, both creative people, both Christians, sharing a love of wildlife and bad jokes. As well as talking about the work we were doing, we’d chat about various other things, have a chuckle together, and we became friends. The last time I’d seen him, we’d met to talk about some communications work he wanted to do for his church in Hull.
Back in January 2014, I was at my desk in York and the phone rang. It was Dave, Dan’s boss. Dave didn’t sound his usual jolly self. That’s because he was ringing me to tell me that Dan had died. He’d left home at the weekend, driven to a favourite beauty spot, and taken his own life.
There was something else Dan and I had in common – our battles with mental illness, and how we hid it behind our smiles and jokes.
Dan hid it better than I ever knew – he’d fought severe anxiety and depression for 12 years before deciding he couldn’t carry on fighting it. I had no idea he was struggling, or the extent of his illness.
He’d shared that Goldcrest picture on Facebook, and we’d been exchanging dad jokes only a few days before. I seem to remember one of the last things he said to me was “Got to love Little Mix”, and I had to agree he had a point.
His death shook me, for a few reasons. Firstly, because it was so unexpected. Secondly, because it was Dan – a friend; someone I knew; someone who’d seemed on top form. And thirdly, if this could happen to Dan, could it happen to me too?
When Dave hung up, I sat numbly for a few moments, until a friend asked if I was OK. I explained, fighting back tears, then went off into the park next door to walk around crying for a while. I have a crystal-clear memory from that walk. As I was wandering around aimlessly, something caught my eye – a Treecreeper scuttling up a tree trunk just a few yards away. I thought about how much Dan would have appreciated that charismatic little bird.
After that, I took an early lunch break and walked into town. I called my manager to tell her what had happened, and became a sobbing mess in a quiet corner of the Museum Gardens.
Dan’s death shook my faith in recovery. I was doing reasonably well at the time, having come off my antidepressants the year before, after taking them for four years. I was to discover that recovery from depression and anxiety is not a clear-cut, straightforward thing. It’s full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and constantly having to learn new tricks to manage whatever the dastardly duo of depression and anxiety throw at you next.
I don’t know what was going on in Dan’s mind before he died. I never will, and I’m glad of that. One of the first things I thought when I heard the news was that maybe if we’d had chance to talk through it, he might not have got to that point. It was hard to concede that we would never get that chance, and that there was nothing anyone could do.
You’ve probably heard the statistics about suicide and mental health. I can’t recall the numbers myself; nor do I need to. Because what’s important to remember is that behind every single number is a person – someone like you; someone like me; someone like Dan. Someone who needs and deserves kindness, dignity, respect and compassion, and support in hard times. It can happen to any of us, so let’s all pull together and help each other.