Podcast Episode: Michael Byrne: Lived Experience Trauma Support (LETS)
Category: Mental health
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MM - Michael McEwan
MB - Michael Byrne
MM On this podcast I’m going to be speaking to the founder and MD at Lived Experience Trauma Support for mental health, Michael Byrne. He is going to be speaking about his new venture and he is going to be speaking about his own experience about mental health.
A health warning. This episode describes scenes from traumatic events that listeners may find disturbing.
MM So Michael, take us back to the start of your illness. What actually happened?
MB Well, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, so a very long-winded diagnosis, but basically the abbreviation is complex PTSD. I was diagnosed with that in May 2018 and that was after a lifetime of traumatic events. Started off with childhood abuse by my parents, leading to seeing some domestic abuse in the house. I witnessed my mother stabbing my father and hospitalising him, and then when I was 16 I started work, came home one night and I found my father strangling my mum. I intervened and our relationship didn’t recover for many years after that with my father, and fast-forward 10 years I came home one night from a Burns do in 1996 to be told that my father had been murdered. So that was a very difficult time and at that point I was 26. West of Scotland boy. I wasn’t going to ask anyone for help. I think the only agencies maybe that I can recall about that time are Victim Support, but you fight, as silly as that sounds, but back then I did, and then just a few other traumatic events. As a result, leading on from that my partner at the time in 2003 lost twins through miscarriage, and then in 2013 I was in the Clutha bar when the helicopter landed, and after that things just really started to go downhill, if they weren’t going downhill already. In 2014 I was initially diagnosed with PTSD, but that’s because I didn’t want to tell anyone about all the other stuff, and then they discovered a tumour in my throat and they thought it was cancer. I had to get the tumour removed and also half of my thyroid. The following year I came home from work one night, blacked out, split my head open, woke up in a pool of blood, back into the Royal Infirmary, patched me up, sent me home, and then on the 1st of April 2017, as I always say, you know that somebody’s kind of messing you about when your breakdown begins on the 1st of April!
MB April Fool’s Day, but on that day I was involved in a car crash, and three or four days later I was hospitalised with a suspected stroke, and basically my mental health breakdown began after that, and as a result of having that mental health breakdown, as part of the diagnosis I was diagnosed with complex PTSD.
MM And we’ll speak about LETS when we go on Michael, but take us back to 2013 – with your permission actually – to speak about the Clutha disaster. What was it actually?
MB What unfolded that night?
MB First of all, it’s hard to believe that it’s almost six years ago. six years ago depending on when this is broadcast obviously, but six years ago now, and so I was friendly with the manager of the group who were playing in the Clutha that night. The band were called Esperanza, and I was friendly with the manager of them, a chap called Gary Anderson. Gary and I used to play football together and stuff like that. So he’d invited me and my mate out to go to the Clutha. I’d only ever been in the Clutha a handful of times in my life. It wasn’t a regular haunt or anything like that, and so I met him in a pub in Glasgow, Maggie Mays, and we went into the Clutha, and we went in on the left-hand door if you’re standing facing the Clutha, what you might remember as the left and right-hand doors. Left-hand door, and I was meeting my mate in there, and my mate was standing around about the right-hand side door, and that’s pretty much what saved my life that night. I met my mate, we stood there, had a couple of pints, and then at 25 past 10 the world changes when a helicopter lands on top of you. So for instance, if you’re my mate and two hours of standing having a pint, everything to my left-hand side and your right-hand side is no longer there, and it’s like an invisible line was drawn.
MB And everything to my left was no longer there, but interestingly enough, the second that it happened it’s almost like my mind took a picture of everything that was going on around me. Like a still. Like a photographic memory sort of thing. An indelible print in your brain, and so I helped everyone get out on my side of the bar and then when everyone was out I stepped back inside using this picture in my mind. I always say there was a girl standing close to me that had beautiful porcelain skin and a boy standing next to her with the same skin, and I remember thinking they must be related. There was a guy standing across from me with a green parka and a table full of people on the right-hand side. So I used these images in my head just to make sure everyone was out, and then when I turned around to leave I found two men trapped under the bar, under the gantry of the bar, and that was pretty horrific to see because my instant thought was that both of them were dead, and then so I ran outside, shouted for help, and 3 people came in. Sorry, two people came in, and then I just remember saying to them, “Right okay, we can lift this bar. We can get it off”, and it’s true that people say that when you’re in some of the darkest adversities you feel superhuman.
MB I don’t remember how heavy this bar was, but obviously a bar and a gantry. I didn’t know there was a helicopter on top of it at the time, but you’re just doing what you need to do, and so the three of us lifted the bar up and we were screaming for somebody to come in. Somebody came in and dragged the chap out, the first chap, and I remember he made a noise and I remember thinking, “Well he might not be dead then. He might still be alive”, and then we’d moved along a couple of feet again and again lifted the bar up for the other chap to get dragged out. It’s just a life changing night, and we went into the Holiday Inn, the muster point, after it, and I always say this, I tell this in my story, that me and my mate went in and I went up to the bar and ordered two drinks just as if I was going into another bar, but it’s because your mind’s taking over, and it’s not like I would do just now if you and I were going for a pint sort of thing.
MB You’re just in a different zone, and I think it was just preservation more than anything else, trying to keep some normality around me, but the interesting thing about that was that it was only when I looked across to the Clutha bar from the Holiday Inn and I could actually see Sky TV within the hotel, and that’s when it said on Sky TV that a helicopter landed on the Clutha. That was the first time I realised that a helicopter had landed on top, because when I was doing all the things I was doing I never knew a helicopter had crashed in, and my background was in housing so my first thought was that maybe the adjoining chimney or something like that had maybe just fallen into the roof. I didn’t expect it to be that, because people often ask, “Did you not think it was going to blow up or anything like that?", but I never knew it was a helicopter.
MB I never knew, so my mind didn’t link to gasoline. I couldn’t smell any fumes or anything like that, obviously because there was none, now that we know the enquiry findings, but the aftermath of it was difficult. It was difficult the first Saturday and the Sunday after it, but my mind-set after it was I tried to trick myself by believing that I was meant to be there to help people, and then on the Monday morning I put my suit on, my shirt and my tie, and went to work. Biggest mistake I’ve ever made.
MM Mmmhmm. So let’s talk now Michael about the brilliant work that you’re doing now to raise awareness of mental health. You wrote a poem. So when did you start doing the poem and was it kind of helpful in a way?
MB Sure. There’s a really dark point to it in that I had planned to commit suicide in May 2018, and it was a Wednesday morning and I had planned it and I had prepared for it. I had plan A, B, C and D, and the morning of doing it was an intervention. The universe or God or whatever people believe in – I know what I believe in – and it changed the course of things for me that morning, but I was in a dangerous place because I still wanted to commit suicide and now I couldn’t because I was watching my son. So my son went for a nap about midday and I picked up a pen and a notepad and I wrote two poems, and the first two poems, I call them “The Final Chime” and “Ember”.
MB Both of them are about me wanting to end my life, but I found it quite cathartic. I found that writing it down was in some small way helpful, to talk about it, to get it out of me, and I continued to write poetry and through one thing and another I had a book of poems published. The book’s called “Poems from a Mod”, and it was published on the anniversary of the Clutha disaster, last year. Now the book’s free and anyone who listens to this, if you go onto Twitter and connect with me on Twitter it’s the posted tweet on Twitter. It’s free to everyone. There’s no barriers, or if someone contacts me through Facebook I can give them a link to it. It’s no problem, but it’s just a book of 23, 24 poems just mainly about my breakdown and trying to come out of it, and I was told it would be quite helpful for people. I found it very cathartic and that really led to me doing what I do now Michael. At the book launch of it, which was rather grand, but it was in the Alona Hotel, and I was asked to do some public speaking and read some of the poems. Just before I went onstage I realised that I could do this. This is what I really love doing. This is what I want to do. I’d been treated so badly by my employer through my mental health breakdown, and after my mental health breakdown my employer suspended me, that I then realised that there must be other people like me who get treated poorly by their employer, or employers just don’t know what the right thing to do is. So I set up my own business called Lived Experience Trauma Support, and the acronym for that is LETS, as in let’s talk, let’s do something about this.
MB And it’s been going great. Since I’ve launched it I’ve done some talks to some really big clients at RBS, Barclays, British Army, NHS. I was a keynote speaker at Scottish Parliament in October there, and it’s great. The message is getting out there that there is an alternative for employers, that if you have a mental illness and so on, that you don’t have to be on the scrapheap.
MB You just need help and support to get through that period of time in your life, and that you still have a value, and that’s the message that I have and it’s also the message for people that if you are struggling with your mental health, it’s okay to start talking about it now.
MB And if I can talk about it – being through some of the adversities that I’ve had – and it just inspires somebody to open up and talk about it, then that’s great. Whether they talk about it to me or their close family or they go and talk to a support group, that’s great, but I think particularly for men Michael, because our suicide rates are so high, that we really need to start doing different things and stuff like that.
MB And I think employers have got a big role to play in that, just simply because if we’re employed we tend to be there for eight to ten hours a day, and it’s a major part of our life and employers have a big impact on the mental health of staff.
MM Do you love what you do, as in public speaking and raising awareness, because I mean I met Michael a few weeks ago and we were talking about this and we were saying that not a lot of people speak of people with mental health issues or disability issues, but I take it you get not so much a kick out of it, but you get a bit of that people are listening to what you’re saying, and the difference is you’ve been through all this so you can speak openly about it?
MB Yeah. It’s real life stuff. I think the difference between myself and an academic – with all due respect to academics – is they talk about what could happen.
MB “Here’s symptoms. Here’s what might happen.” When I do my talks and I do consultancy work I talk about what really happened, and it resonates with people. People can understand that, and there isn’t a talk that I do – with the greatest respect to the audience – that people in the audience can’t relate to something I speak about, because miscarriages, murders, all of these sort of things, I’m not saying everyone’s been through them but they’re real life stuff. They’re things that happen to people in Glasgow all the time and the surrounding areas. So it resonates with people. So when I do it the thing I get from it is that the biggest fear in me for 47 years of my life up until I had my breakdown was the fear of judgement. I was absolutely terrified of people judging me for my mental illness, so I hid it. I hid it as well as I could and I hated the fact that people might judge me because my father had been murdered and all of these things, but primarily I was wearing a mask so that people didn’t know I had a mental illness. I knew I had PTSD. I got diagnosed initially with PTSD in 2014, so for at least five years I hid it, but I hid it really well and I was fearful of people finding that out. I was fearful that my boss was going to sack me when he found that out, and ultimately that came to fruition in some respects when I did tell him, and so what this allows me to do is if I stand up in front of whether it’s one person just like you and I or if it’s 500 people, and I tell them my story, it absolutely eradicates the fear of judgement because if I tell you about it and you’re okay then I’ve got nothing to fear. You’re not judging me, and I think when people hear the story judgement’s the last thing on people’s minds. So it just kind of empowers me to live my life on a daily basis without fear and the judgement of others.
MM So was it your idea to set up your business Michael?
MB Yeah. It’s just me on my own and it was one of those moments Michael where it was just like an epiphany.
MB It was like an epiphany. As I said, I was about to do this talk and there was a psychologist talking just before me and he was talking about the NHS waiting time for mental illness, if you want to see a psychologist it’s like twenty weeks or maybe even more depending on where you’re from, and he basically – I’m paraphrasing – but he basically said, “It is what it is”, and it was at that moment I thought, “I remember those twenty weeks. That’s what led me right up to my suicide ideations in May”, and I kind of thought, “I could do something about that. I could do something about that”, and if me talking about my lived experience of all of these traumatic events and me leading up to the precipice of suicide can help somebody, then I can do something about that. I don’t mean that as like a massive campaign of mine or a self-ego.
MB I think we just don’t talk about that when we’re in that period of time that we’re very vulnerable.
MB You’re given your anti-depressants and you’re told you’ll get an appointment, and for twenty weeks you kind of have to make do, and I always refer to that as my square peg, round hole, because no support group’s going to help me, with the greatest of respect, and I always say, I joined a walking group up in Dennistoun and it was like 90-year-old women walking round Alexandra Park, and it was lovely. They all wanted to take me for a cup of tea and have a blether, but it wasn’t the help that I needed. I was just trying to get out of the house and get company around me, but bless them. So I thought from my point of view when I heard that it was like an epiphany for me. I scribbled the name of the company down, my business plan, and it was all on the back of a fag packet. Sorry, it was just a piece of paper. I came up with the idea of calling it LETS because it’s a doing word, and a couple of lines and that was it, and then that was November. This time last year perhaps. January I went to Business Gateway classes, which were free and a brilliant resource, and then in April I launched my business. For the first few months I never charged anyone for the talks. I was going to big corporate organisations, and then in August I took the plunge and started charging organisations, and there’s ones I don’t charge. There’s charities like as I was saying earlier I did a talk for Barnardo’s, I’ve got one planned for NSPCC, and there’s plenty of other organisations that I help out and do things for free, but for me it’s about the corporate world, because that’s where my background is.
MB 33 years in the corporate world. It’s about trying to change the attitudes towards mental health in the workplace. Work one boardroom at a time really.
MM And do you think it’s getting better?
MB My own personal experience of my employer shows me that it isn’t getting better. My employer was very cynical about my mental health illness, and I have a report from him that very clearly says how are they meant to know, because I turned up for work every day and performed well enough, but they knew all about the Clutha, the tumour and all that stuff, and it’s a bit of a copout. I would understand that if I was turning up for work every day and maybe I was having a bottle of vodka in the house at night and that was hidden, but they knew I’d been in the Clutha. So for me I think it just really comes down to a choice about employers. You can either choose to care about your staff or you can choose not to care and just see them as performers. So do I think that there are some employers who now care more than they did? Absolutely.
MB But yeah, I still think there are employers who don’t really care and see people as performers.
MM What about people listening to this, and it’s a very inspiring story Michael. If people have got a mental health issue but they’re scared to come out of their comfort zone, or bubble as it were, to speak about mental health, and you’re doing fantastic work about raising awareness, what would you say to people that are basically starting the journey of kind of mental health? Would you say it’s okay to speak about it?
MB Absolutely. For me the way I look at it is that the foundations of I think everything in regards to mental health and other illnesses is that you really want to talk to somebody who’s been through something similar.
MB Or is going through it at that point in time. The academics are fantastic. They’re a great resource and I absolutely acknowledge them and they’ve really helped me in the past as well, but in the early stages if you can talk to someone who’s been through something similar, because when you’re struggling with your mental health you think you’re the only one.
MMB You think that nobody’s going to understand you, and that’s generally true because the people around you, whether it be your parents, don’t understand it because they’re not going through it, but what you need to do is realise that there are people like you. All you have to do is find them, and once you find them that then becomes the network of support that you’re looking for. So contact me. You can Google me. Get me on Facebook just through my name, Michael Byrne, or you can get me on Twitter, whatever. Just find me and you can talk to me and we can start it from there, but believe yourself. Believe me that when I say to anybody, see if you’re struggling with your mental health, the last thing you are is alone.
MB You’re not alone, and that’s not me preaching. The stats show that one in four at any time will be struggling, and if you take that in the context of Scotland that’s one and a half million of us.
MB And even in Glasgow alone that’s over 100,000 of us are struggling with mental health at any time. So you believe you’re on your own because generally the people around you, whether it be friends and family, don’t have what you have, aren’t struggling with their mental health. What we need to do is just almost link in with people who do, and there are loads of us doing it. So there are support groups. There’s male support groups. There are other support groups. There’s Time Out Scotland, a great resource in Charing Cross on a Wednesday night. I would recommend that one, and there’s Brothers in Arms Scotland, who are more digital-based but they have fantastic resources, and also there’s a support group which I attend on a Saturday afternoon in Barmulloch. It’s called Barmulloch Men’s Anxiety Group. As I say, anybody who’s listening to this, if you just want to catch me on Facebook or something like that I can signpost or whatever. It’s not all just about business for me. We’re all everyday people at the end of the day. That’s the way I look at it.
MM Mmm. One more question for you Michael.
MB Of course.
MM Do you think that there’s still a big stigma about mental health in schools? Do you think that we’ve got to go into schools to speak about mental health, because I mean maybe it starts earlier than school but when you’re in school you know that you’ve got the peer pressure off your pals?
MB Oh absolutely. Yeah, I mean I think that the earlier that we can start it, the better. I think that definitely for my story it’s really a story for fifth and sixth years because it talks about deaths and murders and stuff like that, and indeed I’ve spoken to a high school local to me and to their fifth and sixth years, and recently I’ve just got an invite to go and talk to the same age group in another school in Coatbridge just on the outskirts of Glasgow. So yeah, definitely. I always say that the kids nowadays are the kids that can change everything about mental health going forward. I’m 50. I’m doing my bit from the perspective of a man who’s got a lot of lived experience of mental health, but this generation are the generation that can make it absolutely acceptable at a young age to start talking about mental health. I kind of always refer to you remember what it used to be like when somebody got diagnosed with cancer maybe fifteen years ago and everybody kind of said, “Oh it’s the big C.” You never wanted to mention the word because you thought you would get it, if you said “cancer” you thought it was going to be contagious, but now everyone understands that more people survive cancer than not now, and it’s okay to talk about it. It’s not always life-threatening, and my hope is that through the younger generation that in ten or fifteen years’ time it’ll be perfectly acceptable for people to say, “How are you doing? Is your mental health alright?”
MM Mmm, yeah.
MB Just the same as it would be, “Are you keeping okay? Are you out doing exercises?", or whatever the conversation. “Is your mental health alright? Are you looking after yourself both physically and mentally?” We don’t ask those questions because we shy away from asking that, but how enlightening would it be if somebody actually asked you, “Is your mental health okay?”
MB It would make you think. So yeah, the earlier we start, the better. Certainly for my story there has to be a level of maturity to hear that story, it’ll be fifth and sixth years, but I have a 3-year-old son and I really hope that he grows up in an environment that it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about mental health through school. Obviously it will be in my house, but through schooling, absolutely.
MM Okay. Thanks Michael.
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