For the next two nights, Vin McCullagh will be on stage at Echo Echo studios in Derry performing his one-man play. The 61-year-old is the first to admit he wouldn’t exactly call himself an actor.
But ‘Why Am I?’, a moving and poetic account of one man’s experience with manic depression, is all the more powerful because Vin actually lived through the things he has written about.
Chaotic episodes, including a madcap month spent in Vegas, where he existed on one hour’s sleep a night as his life spiralled increasingly out of control, were followed by massive lows, where he would spend weeks on end sitting in the corner of his room, feeling total despair.
“My mental health took a dip when I was in my early twenties,” he said. “It was the mid-seventies, and the IRA had bombed the town hall in Omagh, where I grew up. I was part of the construction team hired to demolish the building, and when a beam I was strapped to collapsed, I fell with it and broke my neck.
“I spent ten weeks in the Royal in Belfast, and during that time millions of thoughts started running through my head, like what could have happened, and questioning what my life was all about.
“My mood started to go down. When I got out of hospital I tried to walk it off, sometimes walking 20 miles a day, but the depression was gaining ground on me all the time.”
Over the next two years, Vin’s life was a rollercoaster of highs and lows. He experienced his first manic episode not long after the accident.
"I had received some compensation," he said, "around £3,000, and I took myself off to Las Vegas. For the guts of a month, I barely slept. I was drinking and gambling, and at one point found myself out in the Nevada desert with some sort of religious sect.
"My head was full of all these fantastical notions. I had convinced myself I could solve world hunger by pumping the effluence of the western world into Africa. It was real off-the wall-stuff.
"From there I managed to make it to New Zealand, where I joined up with a team doing stunts for movies. Eventually, the high burned itself out and I came home."
The pattern repeated itself for the next few years, but one night, when his concerned mother and sister found him in the local social club, dancing around on his own, they got him into the Tyrone and Fermanagh, a hospital that specialises in psychiatric care. It was – and still is - known locally as ‘the Mental’.
“I wanted the staff there to help me make sense of what had happened to me,” said Vin, “but their attitude was very much ‘this is an institution, you do as you’re told’, and though I ended up in there about four times, it never really helped.
“But over that time, something evolved inside me, and in 1979 when I got out I experienced a period of stabilisation and I said ‘I can make something happen with my life’.”
His sister Rosemary was a registered mental nurse, and Vin, perhaps in a bid to try to understand what he had gone through, decided to do the same.
“I applied to do my course at the Mental,” he said, “but with me having been in there as a patient, there was just too much baggage, so I asked to do my studies in Derry. It’s funny how life works, because if there had been no Derry, I wouldn’t have met my wife Noreen or had my three boys.”
Vin had a hugely rewarding 30-year career at the coalface of psychiatry in Gransha, and during his time there he helped a huge variety of people with all types of mental illness.
He saw a lot of people suffering with depression, and unfortunately he thinks that here in Derry we are going to see a lot more over the next few years. As recent events have highlighted, it is a growing problem, particularly among our young men.
With three sons of his own, Vin would worry for them as they started growing up. A great believer in the beneficial impact of sport and physical fitness, he took them up to the Ring boxing club in Rosemount.
Today, his youngest son Tyrone is enjoying a successful career as a professional boxer.
"When young people have nothing to do," he said, "but stand about on street corners or in the city centre, that's where the appetite for drink and drugs is formed. We'd be naive to think that, when there's nothing out there for them, that some of our young people aren't going to get into trouble.
"Getting young people into sport is a great thing, because it gives them an outlet for their physicality and helps gives them a sense of self-worth."
It's this growing lack of self-worth, he believes, that is at the root of the problems afflicting so many in Derry at present.
“Instances of depression and suicide,” he said “tend to be very low during times of great strife. In the two world wars, everybody pulled together, and you saw it to an extent here with the Troubles.
“Because there were no go areas, and young people had to be careful about where they could go and what they could do, there was a sense of togetherness.
“But since the ceasefire, there’s been a total relaxation of this. Young people can do what they want, but that sense of purpose that existed for their parents has gone. They have lost their way.
“I go to the city cemetery and I can see by the dates on the gravestones that there are so many young people in their graves. There’s a reason for this.”
Derry has changed significantly since the Good Friday agreement. But while we may have peace, there’s little sign of the prosperity that was supposed to come with it.
Said Vin: “In Derry, for many, the path through life isn’t easy. West of the Bann we don’t get anything, and we know we’re second class citizens as regards jobs.
“I don’t want to demean anyone who works in a call centre, but from what I understand the regime is fairly rigid and the pay pretty poor.”
There is unlikely to be much improvement on that score while the stalemated parties at Stormont continue with their tired charade, but lack of economic growth, says Vin, is just one of many factors contributing to the problem.
“When someone is depressed they put together all the reasons in their life that are making them feel bad. They might be hooked on drugs, have lost a girlfriend or boyfriend, have a hopeless job or no job at all.
“And eventually that wee sliver of a thought enters their head: ‘my life’s not worth anything – everyone would be better off without me’. They might try and chase it out, but it comes back.
“And then you hear so many times that someone was out at a party or a night out and just disappeared. The chemical they took, whether it was drink or drugs, just tipped them over.
“And the most tragic thing is the people left behind who loved them, they can’t get them out of their minds. Guilt – completely unnecessary guilt – torments them.”
It’s an emotion Vin understands completely. In 2015 his son, Dean, died from liver failure as a result of alcohol addiction. The pain of that loss is something, he says, that will stay raw with him for the rest of his life.
The call for a dedicated crisis centre in Derry is growing stronger by the day. It would be a good thing, believes Vin, if it even saved a handful a people each year who found themselves on the brink.
But it would have to work in tandem, he insists, with a much more proactive attitude from our schools, sports organisations and youth clubs.
He said: “At the centre of everything to do with depression is self-esteem. Young people brand themselves a failure if one thing doesn’t go the way they wanted in their lives.
“I run a boxing and fitness club, and I remember one of our lads got beat and he said ‘I don’t mind losing, but look at all the people here who saw me getting beat’. He was so afraid he’d let his family and supporters down.
“We need to get through to young people losing their self-worth, and the earlier the better. Kids of 10,11 should be getting taught coping skills, we need to be talking to them about ‘what should I do if I feel like this?’ so that things don’t spiral and they end up reaching the point where they feel life isn’t worth living.”
Vin has been there himself. Working as a staff nurse and with a wife and young family to focus on, his mental health throughout the 80s, he says, was ‘excellent’. But in 1991, he suffered a relapse.
He had been doing research on attitudes to mental illness, and the material he was reading triggered something in him. He began to worry that his three sons wouldn’t want a dad like him and that maybe it would be better for everyone if he wasn’t around.
He said: “I went to the Illies (near Buncrana), where my wife’s family live, and I went up to a hillside and took a load of drink and pills and waited to die.”
But a search party was out looking for him; he was found in the nick of time and taken to Altnagelvin. And it was there that Vin turned a corner.
“I had an experience in the hospital,” he said. “I saw my three boys standing in the doorway at home saying ‘come home daddy’, so I said to myself I would get out, go back to work and shake this off and start again - and I’ve never looked back from that.”
Towards the end of his career at Gransha, someone told him he should write his experiences down, and that’s how ‘Why Am I?’ came about.
He showed what he’d written to Felicity McCall at a writers’ workshop, and she encouraged him to develop it for the stage.
“I’ve performed it before,” he said, “but not like this. An Nua, the production company, are very professional and experienced. It’s just me by myself on stage for an hour, so I’m a bit nervous, but I’m hoping I’ll be okay once I get going."
Many of the events of Vin's life have been harrowing, but at the heart of this play is the theme of hope. At 21, society had written him off as someone who would spend the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions.
Yet he turned that around to become not only a hugely respected mental health professional, but, now, a writer, poet and actor.
He said: “It’s important personally for me. One of the most important messages in it is the notion that you are not doomed just because you have mental health problems.
“There is still a huge stigma around depression, and that is why so many young people struggle on in silence and turn to the crutch of drink or drugs. They’re afraid to say what’s bothering them.
“If this play does anything, I hope it can help break that stigma, because if we can break it, and get through to people at a younger age, then they have a chance."
‘Why Am I?’ is on at the Echo Echo Studio (on the Derry Walls) tonight. Doors open at 8pm.
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