'I wake up today free for a few moments of my daily horror: Michael is dead. Michael is dead'
Phyllis MacNamara’s husband, Michael, was a successful solicitor in his late 50s. Following a period of panic and anxiety he took his own life. She is now dedicated to spreading awareness about the problem of suicide, writes CARL O'BRIEN, Chief Reporter
IT WASN’T exactly love at first sight. “He looked very peculiar,” Phyllis MacNamara says with a laugh. “He was wearing a cardigan with suede insets. And I thought, Ugh, where did that come from?” She was 14; he was 15. Michael was over from England, visiting relatives in Galway. It was a few years later before they met again, in first year at Trinity College Dublin. This time it was the beginning of a friendship that would lead to an enduring romance.
“I felt so lost there and was thrilled to see him. We became best friends. I was always going on, telling him how lonely I was. He’d tell me about who he had asked out. We had a very happy platonic friendship for the next four years.”
They both had boyfriends or girlfriends, but their parents could see they had developed a bond that reached much deeper than friendship. “They’re in love,” Michael’s father said to his wife one day, “and they don’t even realise it – but they will. They’ll marry and be very happy.”
A month later Michael’s father died suddenly. Phyllis’s desire to comfort Michael was so intense that it dawned on her she was in love with him. Michael’s first thought was that he needed to be with Phyllis to get through the grief of his father’s death. “We both realised we were in love with each other on the day his father died, although we didn’t say it at the time,” says Phyllis.
The following year she and Michael married. She says she almost ran up the aisle of Galway Cathedral. “It was very strange, going from a platonic relationship to a married relationship with someone I knew very well. It was a kind of a slow climb, and I think that’s what made us have such a fantastic marriage. I married my best friend. We adored each other.”
MICHAEL WAS, SHE SAYS,the most even-keeled of people. At college he was meticulous about studying and was always well prepared for exams. It extended to his professional life, where he became a successful and sought-after solicitor. He was known to be methodical and careful. During the madness of the Celtic Tiger years he didn’t take silly risks.
At home his big passion was the garden and antiques; he loved restoring old furniture and gilding picture frames. Phyllis’s sister often said how lucky she and Michael were to have so many shared interests: going to auctions, cooking, books. He often helped her source antique jewellery for her business. “We had more interests in common, I think, than most couples. He adored home life. Our home was our hobby and passion,” she says. “It was amazing how we shared everything.”
Their restored house and garden became their pride and joy. It was the home of Phyllis’s dreams, a run-down Georgian house that as a child she had hoped to live in one day. Michael created a garden with loving care and restored a Victorian greenhouse in the grounds. They had their first and only child, who went on to a successful career in London. Business flourished. They couldn’t have been happier.
IT’S HARD TO SAYwhen the warning signs started. Leonie, a close friend of Phyllis, spotted them first. She noticed Michael had lost weight and wasn’t getting pleasure from his hobbies. Looking back, Phyllis says, the change in his working environment appears to have been the catalyst for his growing anxiety. His workload was increasing and he was spending longer and longer in the office.
“I think he felt there were lots of young people doing their jobs, working on computers, doing their own typing. And he still had two secretaries. But he made no allowance for his own experience. It’s heartbreaking to think of now, but he was there each evening when he came home, trying to teach himself to type.”
Although he had no money worries he grew anxious about the extraordinary financial risks clients were willing to take. Signs of anxiety began to creep into his behaviour. He found it difficult to sleep, which added to his distress. He insisted it was the amount of work that was keeping him awake. Phyllis eventually persuaded him to get sleeping tablets, but the anxiety didn’t go away. “I thought I could fix him with care and love, but I was wrong,” she says.
Phyllis thought a holiday would help. Three months before he died they visited India. On the way back to the airport they passed a colourful spice market. “I was saying, ‘Oh, Michael, look! I wish I could stop and take a picture. I wish I could smell all this. We have to return here one day.’ And he wasn’t interested at all. It was the first time I really noticed him being terribly detached.”
After the holiday he began doubting himself at work, convinced he had made mistakes and was no longer up to the job.
The panic attacks started. He bought a book, When Panic Attacks, and underlined passages, trying to understand what was happening to him. His bookmark is still in it, a third of the way through.
A week before he died he was behaving very erratically. His driving was either too fast or too slowly. In the final three days his speech deteriorated badly. His words were jumbled. His mind was confused. When he went to the supermarket he looked through a hand-written shopping list, came to the word “rosemary” and stopped. He didn’t understand what it meant.
Phyllis had taken to doing jigsaws with Michael to help occupy his mind. The puzzles were getting progressively easier. She remembers handing him a simple piece, with an obvious space for it. He couldn’t figure out where it should go. “That night, the night before he died, we were here in the sitting room. I was sitting in this chair, and he came over and sat in it with me. He said, ‘I’m so frightened.’ And I said, ‘What are you frightened about?’ He said, ‘I don’t know: I’m just so frightened.’ ”
Phyllis didn’t know what to do or where to go. She had called friends for advice. She knew her husband was having a breakdown and needed immediate help, but where? They visited the GP and had an appointment with a psychiatrist, but Michael was reluctant to seek help. “The thought that he might kill himself never entered my head. This is Michael: I know every cell of his skin, every hair of his body, every bit of him. He’s almost part of me. It just never entered my head.”
IT WAS A THURSDAYmorning in early April. Michael had brought Phyllis a cup of tea in bed; he sat down beside her. “You know, I’ve made so many mistakes,” he said. “I’m thinking of the mistakes I made that I can’t even remember, or giving people the wrong advice.” Phyllis answered: “You haven’t: you feel like you have, but you haven’t. You haven’t made a mistake about me, have you?”
“No. You’re the best wife any man could have. I love you completely,” Michael said.
“You’re easy to love,” Phyllis replied.
He went down to the conservatory, where, he said, he would finish off a jigsaw. When Phyllis went to look for him a short time later there was no sign of him. She ran around upstairs, then downstairs. She felt suddenly that something horrific had happened. His car was still outside. Out across the yard the two red doors to the barn were open. She ran over and stopped at the entrance. He was hanging from the rafters. She knew immediately he was dead.
“The first thing that came into my head was the word “now” . . . “now” . . . “now” do you see how bad he was? I was in complete shock, shivering, shaking, looking down at my skirt and remembering every detail and pattern on it. I rang my friend Leonie, Michael’s business partner Billy, my father, the police, and after that I don’t remember who I phoned.”
The days afterwards were horrific, indescribable and inescapable. Her diary provides a graphic window into the waves of grief over the following weeks and months.
IT’S TWO AND A HALFyears since Michael died. The recovery process, Phyllis says, can be like a game of snakes and ladders. You’re going up the ladder one minute and slipping back down it the next. But she has made progress. The bereavement group Console has helped her through the darkest days.
“It’s been a place where I could go and scream and scream and cry and cry. And it’s where I learned to deal with the most upsetting things, the triggers, sadness and misery. I can recognise the triggers now, and I have learned to avoid them. The people at Console have been marvellous.”
Those blackest of days, combined with the white heat of grief, have given Phyllis an insight into the kind of turmoil that Michael must have been going through when he died. In those dark times she even considered taking her own life. “I’m grateful for that, because now I know how he felt. I didn’t think about my beautiful son and the devastation it would cause him, I didn’t think about my father, my sister, my friends, the devastation. The effect of my death would be so horrific to all of them, in the midst of their sorrow.
“I remember thinking, It will be so easy, I’ll just go into the bathroom, put my head under water and it will be all over. I didn’t think of anything else. And I am very grateful to have experienced that. Now I know there’s a difference. You can have suicidal thoughts, and you can think about suicide,” she says.
“Anyone can end up doing it. It’s like you’re caught in a wave and you don’t know whether you’re coming up or going down; you’re going round and round and round, but there is a force pulling you. And that’s what it’s like. I’m not imagining it: I know what it’s like.”
PHYLLIS IS NOWdedicated to opening up the topic of anxiety and depression and giving people the opportunity to talk about it. “We need to create a space where people can talk openly about their feelings and look for help. There is lots of work to be done. We need to make it okay for people, especially men, to talk about negative feelings about themselves and know they won’t be judged.
“Michael had a breakdown. He felt going to a doctor about a mental-health problem was the greatest disgrace. He actually couldn’t live with it, so he took his own life. He shouldn’t have felt like that. It’s our society and environment which make people feel like that. A mental-health problem should be no different to an illness affecting any other organ of the body.”
Phyllis says there is an urgent need to ensure there are approachable support services for people in crisis. A fear of committal persists around mental-health services. “I didn’t know what to do when facing this crisis. I want to save people from these situations. I would die happily if other people know what to do when confronted with crisis like this. I have a new vocation now. This is my calling: to open up, be honest, share my experiences and, hopefully, makes changes which can save others from Michael’s fate.”
Phyllis is continuing to make progress, one day at a time. She also feels hopeful that as a society we can make progress in tackling the problem of suicide. “After Michael died I would walk down the stairs and think, Another day, I’m not sure I can do it. Now I walk down the stairs and think, What can I do today? There is so much I have to do. I have been blessed with skills to aid my recovery. I have my gardening, reading, my business. I have a wonderful circle of family and friends who are there to listen and help me through.”
One of the most helpful pieces of advice she recalls hearing was from the abbot of Glenstal Abbey, in Limerick. “He told me: ‘You are in the darkest place, and there is no place darker than this. Put your hand up and scream for help, and help will come.’ And he was so right. It’s a human condition that people like to be asked for help. It gives people a sense of being worthwhile, of being able to do something,” she says. “So I put up my hand to God, to people around me, and said, ‘Please help me.’ And it has been the best thing.”Phyllis MacNamara's diary
April 23rd, 2008
I wake up this morning free for a few moments of my daily horror: Michael is dead. Michael is dead. The clocks ticks to six thirty. Time to get up. But for me this is the worst time, the time of realisation that Michael is dead. I want to remember the feeling of loving him, just loving him, wallowing in him, feeling all his strength, but all I feel is that he slowly ebbed away from me and left me.
May 8th, 2008
A month ago today Michael pushed apart the two red doors, climbed the ladder and murdered our marriage with a blue rope. He murdered all future happiness and family life. Cups of tea, glasses of wine, reading on the beach, lunch in the sun, picture hanging, garden planning, early-morning touch, late-night comfort. He left me with an empty brown V-neck jumper to love.
May 16th, 2008
London for Ben’s first communion. Goodbye at departures. They ask me to remove my necklace. I can’t open it, so I stand and cry. Tears run down by face. Fresh sobs shake my body; my body is heaving. There are people behind me in the queue, but there’s nothing I can do. I cry as they check my things; I cannot move. Someone brings me to a chair in a quiet place. Tea, kindness. Another bout of grieving over.
June 4th, 2008
Phyllis McNamara is dead. She died on April 10th at 10.42am. They found her body: she looks the same; older, thinner. She still walks and talks, but she’s dead. Her interests died when she died. Books, music and beautiful things. Now she finds beauty in trees and flowers. Somewhere inside, a tiny seed of a new person is waiting to be born.
June 8th, 2008
Grief is like surgery done in a public place without anaesthetic. It opens your body with a butcher’s knife; a serrated edge cuts through your flesh. The first organ to go is always your heart. As your body lies open, grief flings out other organs, and flies and disease devour what’s left. But grief differs from surgery. Grief leaves your wound open and exposed. With grief there is always some kind person who takes you and puts you to bed. Sleep now, forget your horror – and remember, it all starts again tomorrow.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs someone to talk to, the following organisations can help:
- 1Life (1life.ie)Call 1800-247100 or text HELP to 51444 for one-to-one text support.
- Samaritans(samaritans.org) Call 1850-609090 in the Republic or 08457-909090 in the North, or e-mail email@example.com.
- Pieta House(pieta.ie) Call 01-6010000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Console Thischarity for people bereaved by suicide has a free helpline at 1800-201890, or see console.ie.
- Aware, which helps people with depression, has a helpline at 1890-303302, or see aware.ie.
- National Office for Suicide Prevention, part of the HSE, also offers advice and information on efforts to tackle suicide. See nosp.ie.