‘When I was 19, my eldest brother Colly Baker died by suicide’

I received great support in both Ireland and Australia after my brother’s death

Ali Baker with her dad John, mum Paula, brother Dave and late brother Colly’s friends Will and Mick Magee, who now live in Sydney.

Ali Baker with her dad John, mum Paula, brother Dave and late brother Colly’s friends Will and Mick Magee, who now live in Sydney.

 

When I was 19, my eldest brother Colly Baker died by suicide. It was the worst day of my life and came as a complete shock.

I come from a very close family from Stillorgan in Co Dublin. With two older brothers and a 10-year age gap between us, I was spoiled but also very protected. I was never made aware that Colly had problems with his mental health; I was the youngest and my family wanted to shield me from it. To me, Colly was the life of the party and a very happy person. He had a great personality and everyone loved him.

I’ll never forget the morning Colly died. I was staying in a friend’s house when my dad called. All he said was, “you need to come home now”. By the tone of his voice, it was clear not to argue, I just knew I had to leave. As soon as I got home, he sat me down and said “Colly is gone”. I had to ask him what he meant. He explained that Colly had died by suicide, but as I burst into tears it still didn’t make sense. I had texted Colly the night before, and he had seemed fine.

As reality sunk in and time began to pass, my parents explained more about Colly’s mental health. He had low self esteem; Colly didn’t think he was good enough for anyone and he believed he would never find love.

If only he realised how special he really was. In my eyes, my brother was the most amazing person who loved football, going to the pub for conversations about politics and current affairs, and spending time with the family at our weekly dinner get-togethers. But he was in such a dark space, he couldn’t see any other way out.

Trying to forget

There was a period of time after Colly passed away when I couldn’t say the word “suicide”. Emotions were too raw. Instead, I would tell people that Colly had “decided to go himself”. Most of my friends were in Canada for the summer, which made me feel even more lonely, but I had a few amazing friends still at home who helped me through.

I didn’t cope with the loss very well in the years after. I didn’t want to see friends unless it was for a big night out where I could get drunk and forget about it all. I wasn’t happy in college, struggled with studies and making new friends as a result; I felt lonely and isolated. When I started my career, there was a slight uplift in my mood as a result of having a routine and purpose in my new job. It gave my life structure.

By 2014, two years on, I was struggling. I found socialising difficult and I was constantly fighting with my parents. I used to sit on my bed holding Colly’s t-shirt to feel close to him. There were a few nights I really scared myself; my thoughts would wander to a dark place and I began to think about life without me in it.

My parents sat me down and asked if I needed to talk to someone. We decided it would be best I went to Pieta House, a charity centre with locations across Ireland. Mom or Dad came to every appointment, and my work was really understanding. Seeking help was the best decision I ever made. I’m not sure where I’d be now if I hadn’t sought help.

While I didn’t spend long with Pieta House, it helped me in so many ways. It felt like a comfortable environment, from the receptionist to my therapist, it was like going for a chat with someone in a home rather than someone’s office. I am still not perfect and I definitely have off-days, but I left there with the tools to help me through the tough times ahead.

Fundraiser

Not long after that, the Light Ball was created in memory of my brother. At the time of his death, Colly was living with his friends; two brothers, Will and Michael Magee. They too had been through suicide in their own family, the passing of their mum. After Colly took his own life, a few of his friends decided to create something positive from a terrible situation, and hold a black-tie event to raise funds for Pieta House, and help chip away at the wall of stigma surrounding mental health.

Ali Baker with her femily at the Light Ball, which has raised more than €400,000 in Ireland, Australia, and the UAE for Pieta House and local mental health charities.
Ali Baker with her femily at the Light Ball, which has raised more than €400,000 in Ireland, Australia, and the UAE for Pieta House and local mental health charities.

The Light Ball gave them and other friends a chance to grieve while raising awareness about mental health, and getting people talking about this “taboo” subject. The first Light Ball was a huge success with nearly 800 attendees on the night, raising €55,000.

Will and Mick moved to Sydney in 2013. With a large Irish community in Sydney, and after witnessing the success there of the Darkness into Light 5km sunrise in aid of Pieta House, the Magees knew there was an appetite to create another Light Ball in the southern hemisphere. Since then, Sydney has seen three iterations, with its fourth happening this year on October 20th.

Light Balls have since been held in Melbourne, Abu Dhabi and soon London, all helping to raise more than AUD$650,000 ( €404,000) for Pieta House and local charities.

Move abroad

I moved to Sydney in 2017. I wanted a change of scene and applied for a visa to come and see Australia. The move was initially very overwhelming, as I had never lived away from my parents or even out of the family home, never mind another country on the opposite side of the world.

'Sure, we all speak the same language here and there are many links back to the UK and Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.'
'Sure, we all speak the same language here and there are many links back to the UK and Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.'

But I was warmly welcomed by Will and Mick, who are my big brothers away from home here. They introduced me to their friends and the Bondi circle, which helped a lot. Sure, we all speak the same language here and there are many links back to the UK and Ireland, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. I came out on my own with no group friends around me. Joining the Light Ball Sydney group was hugely helpful. I’ve made many new friends through it, which has made settling a lot easier.

I’m so proud of how the Light Ball has brought so much positivity and hope to so many across the globe. If the whole process has saved even just one life, it will have been worth it. I’m grateful for everything it has given me; the security, the friendship, the love, from being on the first committee in Dublin in 2012, to joining the Sydney team.

Each committee has been made up of inspirational people from Ireland, the UK, Canada, Australia and the US, who do this in their spare time, between work and their daily lives. But at the root of its success is its Irishness. Ethnic communities stay together and look after each other in foreign lands, but none do it quite like the Irish, where everyone gets a “Cead Mile Failte”. I don’t believe any other tribe on this planet could have done what the Light Ball has.

For more on the the Light Ball, see www.thelightball.com or @thelightballsydney on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

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