‘Mum’s dead’: Family tragedies that inspired us to help others

We lost our mum and friend to suicide. We wanted to do something to raise awareness

Will Magee (right) with his brother Mick: 'We hope we’re inspiring others to speak about their own journey, and confide in those around them.'

Will Magee (right) with his brother Mick: 'We hope we’re inspiring others to speak about their own journey, and confide in those around them.'

 

Will and Mick Magee lost their mother and a close friend to suicide within a few years of each other. Following their deaths, the brothers wanted to do something to open the conversation about mental health, and started the Light Ball in aid of Irish suicide prevention charity Pieta House. The annual event now raises thousands of euro in Dublin and Sydney, their adopted home. Here, Will shares their story.

I was kept quite sheltered at a young age from my mum’s illness; Michael, my brother, has told me there was stuff going on I had no idea about as a young lad. My first memory of it all was being given the news that Mum had gone into St John of God’s Hospital in Stillorgan because she wasn’t well.

Children take in a lot more than you give them credit for, and after hearing she was hospital, I knew it wasn’t for a “normal” illness.

In the mid 1990s, when I was eight or nine years old, Mum’s hospital visits started to become more frequent. St John of God’s was just up the road from our house, so I visited her every day on my summer holidays.

People used to say quite flippantly, “Oh, sure so and so belongs in John of God’s, he’s mental”, which drove me mad. I knew my mum wasn’t crazy, she was just really sad. This was my first exposure to the stigma surrounding mental health.

Years passed and things got worse. I suffered terribly with nightmares. I ended up lashing out in school, and on one rugby trip, I told the vice principal to f*** off, which led to me being expelled.

By the time I was 12, my mum had remarried and I was living with her and her partner. I knew by then the extent of mum’s illness; but I had not been exposed to it fully. One evening I found my mum lying unconscious on her bedroom floor after an overdose. Her husband called an ambulance, and I saw them whisk her away.

Next morning, she was sitting up in the hospital bed smiling and chatting to me. It was so hard to understand how this illness could drive my mum to do such a thing, but that she could smile when talking to me the very next day.

When I was 14 on holidays in Spain, it happened again. I was old enough by then to be able to talk about it properly with family, but it still wasn’t something I felt comfortable talking about with friends or anyone else.

I started in boarding school and spent a huge portion of my teenage years away from family. Being in a positive school environment turned my behaviour around. I finished school and started college, and after my first year my brother Mick and I booked a trip to Thailand with friends. I was so excited; Mum bought me a big travel backpack and it felt as if I was really growing up.

We landed in Bangkok and made our way to the Khaosan Road where the older lads had been before. They told me all about buckets - a cocktail that came in a plastic bucket full of powerful alcoholic ingredients that got you beyond drunk. I was apprehensive but excited. We parked ourselves in the Shamrock Bar and bought a bucket each. Mick nipped off to call his girlfriend from a phone shop.

I was chatting with Mick’s friend when he came back and grabbed me. His face was completely white, his eyes red with tears. I immediately thought “It’s the buckets.” He wanted to say something to me but couldn’t get the words out. Then he said the words I’ll never forget.

“Mum’s dead.”

I didn’t want to believe it, I kept saying, “No, no, no, she’s not man,” but then it started to sink in and I broke down. How could this be happening?

When we got back to Ireland, our friends were waiting at the airport. They were a great support for us in the weeks and years to follow. But myself and Michael never really spoke to each other about what happened, except for when we drank too much together; the typical Irish way of dealing with it I suppose, bottle it up and don’t talk about it.

We got through college, and both got degrees. We had great friends, but not much money. We still socialised a lot but things were terrible from a job perspective. Everyone our age was feeling it, and it was just that little bit harder for us, because we had no support structure to lean on.

In 2010 we moved in with some friends, including Colly Baker, who was Mick’s age and a very old friend. Colly and I had bonded too over our love of Liverpool, when I was younger.

Colly was a great housemate. He was clean, never fought with anyone, and had stylish clothes you could nick from him. He was unassuming and honest. But he also had incredibly low self-esteem, and suffered from depression, which most people didn’t know until quite late on. I knew about his self-esteem issues, but it wasn’t until I had been living with him for a year that I realised the extent of his illness.

As Michael and I had been through a lot with our mum, Colly confided in Mick about how he was feeling. I knew it was tough for Colly to open up because he was a proud, tough guy, and the culture in Ireland was to keep things bottled up. Mick advised him to see someone at Cluain Mhuire, a part of St John of Gods, which he did.

They thought maybe he was just going through a bit of a blue patch, because he wasn’t getting the jobs he had been going for. He kept reading self-help books and looked to improve his mood.

One night during Euro 2012, we were in the local pub for the Ireland vs Croatia game. My girlfriend and I went home before anyone else. The next morning I saw Colly’s bedroom door was open, and he wasn’t there. My brother didn’t know where he was either. We started making some calls.

On the bus on my way into town I got a call from Mick. He had found a note in Colly’s room. My heart sank. I told Mick to keep ringing around and I told my girlfriend to scour the house. But Mick called again. They had found Colly’s body in the field beside the house.

I bolted out of work and made my way home. I couldn’t believe this was happening again. The guards and paramedics were there when I arrived. I stood in front of the house, unable to bring myself to go around to the field. You just never think it’s going to happen. But it did.

Weeks passed and Mick and I started to talk about everything; we decided with a group of friends to do something to remember Colly, but more importantly for us at the time, keep all our friends together and positive after such a horrible tragedy. We met in a pub to bounce a few ideas around, and settled on the idea of a black-tie ball. The Light Ball was born.

We had heard great things about Pieta House, so the money raised would go to supporting them. It sounded like a homely, down-to-earth spot where people could deal with their demons in a relaxed setting.

The Sydney Light Ball Committee at the 2016 event launch at the Tea Gardens in Bondi.
The Sydney Light Ball Committee at the 2016 event launch at the Tea Gardens in Bondi.

I had experience working in events so I was able to transfer some of that knowledge. Others had connections with drinks companies or sports stars we could hound for signed jerseys for the auction and raffle. Between us, we managed to get the event off the ground. In no time we had sold out, 820 tickets.

Paul McGrath was there, and Mary Byrne from X-Factor blew the crowd away with a few belters. Best part of it all though was the feeling of a groundswell. Everyone was speaking openly about Col, about mental health, about their own experiences. People were talking to each other about their family members and friends going to Pieta House. It was a world apart from the environment a couple of years earlier, when no one would ever dream of telling the world about their own or their family member’s mental ill-health.

Joan Freeman from Pieta House spoke on the night, as did Colly’s dad, John. Both speeches moved everyone, but overall, the night felt like a celebration of mental health, rather than a sombre affair. We raised €55,000 for Pieta House. We felt incredibly proud.

Will and Mick with Colin Baker's family. His sister Ali is now on the Sydney Light Ball committee, having recently moved to Australia.
Will and Mick with Colin Baker's family. His sister Ali is now on the Sydney Light Ball committee, having recently moved to Australia.

By then, Mick and I had already decided we were going to leave Ireland. My uncle in Sydney had been badgering us for years to move down there. After Col passed away, we both knew we needed a fresh start.

In 2015 I joined the Sydney Darkness into Light Committee, to help support Pieta House from Australia. We welcomed 1,600 mental health warriors to Bondi Beach for the dawn walk, which now takes place in cities all over the world; the atmosphere was electric. It was the motivation we needed to get a Light Ball going in Sydney.

Mick Magee at last year's Light Ball in Sydney.
Mick Magee at last year's Light Ball in Sydney.

The Sydney Light Ball committee, like the one in Ireland, was just a group of mates. We weren’t qualified practitioners in mental health and we all came from different backgrounds, mostly Irish, but also a few British, Canadians and Aussies too.

The first year, we sold out Doltone House in Sydney with 820 people there, including Kerry GAA All-Star and All-Ireland winner Tadhg Kennelly. We raised $78,000 (€51,493), split between Pieta House in Ireland and Beyond Blue in Australia.

In 2016 we planned the Sydney ball for the same night as the Dublin Light Ball. It was the first time a black-tie ball had been run on the same day in two different hemispheres, albeit 11 hours apart. This time we chose a smaller local charity partner, batyr. Their mission is to kick the stigma around mental health, particularly among young people. Their slogan, “It’s okay not to be okay” really resonated with us. In a classroom of 30 young people in Australia, seven at any given time will be suffering from mental ill-health issues. Only two of those seven will ever talk to anyone about it and five suffer in silence. The statistics are scary.

batyr try to break down stigma by sending people into schools and universities to chat to kids and teenagers about their own experiences. More than 50 per cent of mental health issues begin before the age of 15, they say. And that grows to 75 per cent by the age of 25, meaning it’s vitally important to get the message across earlier in life.

Last year, 1,000 people packed out the Dockside Pavilion in Darling Harbour and we raised $135,000 to split between batyr and Pieta House. It was magic. And we are doing it all over again in Sydney this Saturday, and for the first time in Melbourne next February, and Abu Dhabi later in 2018.

Both Mick and I are so glad our tragic circumstances have flourished into something so positive. Long may it continue, as there’s a lot more work to do in this area. We hope we’re inspiring others to speak about their own journey, and confide in those around them. Once you start to speak about it, it will get better. Tomorrow is always another day. There is hope.

This year's Light Ball takes place at the Australian Technology Park on October 14th. Tickets cost $189 from thelightball.oztix.com.au, including a three-course dinner, drinks, live music from the Martini Club, special guest speakers, a raffle and auction, and an after party. Donations can be made at mycause.com.au/page/108776/the-light-ball-sydney, and people can follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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