Purple Meets Blue: Remembering my brother

This is the time of year for people to make commitments and resolutions. Most of these involve behaving differently in some way. A New Year, a new outlook, a new me. Some of the difference involves moving away from bad habits, others are ethical, life changing and defining.

This year I have resolved to be more authentic. That means looking at my entire self. Bringing together all the things that have happened in my life. So that I can celebrate where the success is and commemorate where there is loss. This year, that means celebrating and commemorating the life of my brother Paul. He died at the age of 18 by suicide. Like me, he was Care Experienced.

I’ll be celebrating and commemorating Paul publicly. On the 24th of January, I will attend a memorial service in Renfrewshire for those who have been bereaved by suicide. I’ll do this with new friends and I hope, with old friends too.

In October last year, I marched in Glasgow, carrying a blue heart. I marched for my belief that Care Experienced people deserve and need to be loved. In the home and the society in which they live.

In January this year, I will be carrying a purple heart. I’ll have written the name Paul Browne on it. It has been a long journey to get to the stage that I feel comfortable and confident enough to do this and I want to say a little bit about why that is. I understand that this blog could be difficult for people so I looked at The Samaritans Best Practice Guidance for discussing suicide.

Like me, Paul grew up in a disadvantaged area. Our streets were run down, the crime rate was high and people lived with poverty and deprivation. My mum struggled to look after us and we were taken in to state care at the age of 3 and 4 years old.

Paul was moved around the care system. Support was put in place to help my mum but it wasn’t enough. He was then in and out of foster families, children’s homes, respite care, long and short-term foster care both with private providers and in local authority care. He returned home to live with my mum when he was 15, something that was never going to work out.

By the time he was 16, Paul was homeless. The supports were gone and there were no safety nets in place. His life consisted of living in homeless accommodation with older adults, many of whom had drug and alcohol dependencies as well as mental ill health. It wasn’t so much that Paul had left care, it was that care had left him.

I remember visiting Paul in the homeless accommodation he lived in. The front doors had video cameras, recording who came and went. The flat was very basic, sparse on the things that make a house a home and he had little food. We made our own entertainment though. I’d arrive and we’d take all the cushions off the sofa and wrestle, like wee boys. Then Paul, because he was the adult with a house, would make me dinner. Craft cheesy pasta. A bright red box and some milk was all we needed.

I loved spending that time with him. Looking back, however, I realise that Paul was just a child in an adult world.

He had no money, no support and little prospects. After a short period of time living alone, Paul suffered from poor mental ill health. I saw him physically change from a muscular, fit and driven young person in to a lost, lonely and searching soul. Paul was never clearly diagnosed; however, Doctors and Psychiatrists said it was likely that he was schizophrenic.

He spent weeks and months in adult psychiatric wards between the age of 16 and 18, most of the time heavily medicated. I looked up to Paul my entire life. He kept me safe in care and was there for me in my times of need. He stopped other young people when they were picking on me and and protected me at home when bad things happened. When in my saddest moments, the staff in our residential home decided to physically restrain me, Paul always made the most noise about this not being okay.

That’s why his decline was hard to watch. He was my safety net, my resilience and a loving person.

One day when I was visiting him, he said the words “I am going to kill myself”. He explained what his plan was to me. I didn’t properly understand.

I remember going back to my children’s home and telling one of the staff.

They were quick to reassure me not to worry:

“He is an attention seeker”

“Don’t listen to him”

Not because they had a plan to help him, but because it felt like they’d heard it all before.

These were statements they made after months of Paul self harming and being open about his intent. He had the scars on his arms to prove it.

During another moment of planning to take his own life on a bridge, the police arrived in time and Paul was detained under the mental health act. He was 18 and he was placed again in an adult ward.

I went to visit him and immediately saw locked doors, windows, sign in procedures and lists of do’s and don’ts.

I took Paul a CD when I visited. We listened to music like we usually did and I spoke with him about keeping fit and my training regime. Things I knew he’d like, seeking his advice, guidance and approval. He just looked drowsy, distant.

The next day, when I woke up, my other brothers foster parents asked to speak with me. He had found an excellent foster family and, informally, they had taken me under their wing too. Ed and Marion were good people and I knew when they were serious. I felt something was wrong. Ed told me

“Paul is dead”

I remember tears in Marion’s eyes and the feeling of instant physical pain in my heart. I fell to the floor, struggled for breath and searched for words. All I could say was

“No, no, no”. The funeral was bleak, difficult and defining, I was now the oldest in our family and it was my duty to tell my younger brothers that Paul was no longer in this world. That day changed me forever. I decided and still believe that it wasn’t Paul that took his life, it was his circumstances. It was loneliness, homelessness, lack of support, his complete lack of social capital. It was the fact that after getting involved in his life, the care system was allowed to opt out. It was our society, failing to claim him.

After an investigation into his death, the NHS accepted that they were negligent and offered my mum £17,000 to settle the case out of court. My understanding is that two nurses were dismissed and three more were disciplined. There  was no Fatal Accident Enquiry.

Paul was on suicide watch and should have been under 24 hour supervision. He wasn’t checked for over 5 hours and in the end, his life was valued at £17,000. My mum was exhausted and desperate to try and move on. She took the money and split it between me and my 4 brothers. To this day I still find it hard to accept that this was the value placed on a life, my brothers’ life. Less than a luxury car, less than some people spend on their wedding.

With time and distance, I now understand my mums’ circumstances and the way in which people with power and money exploit those who are poor and uneducated. We grew up in the most deprived area of Scotland with a 10-year difference in life expectancy compared to more affluent areas. Our chances were fixed from the start.

After Paul’s death I struggled with the grief, loss and pain. I spent the next year isolated mainly in my bedroom. I asked the staff in my children’s home to bring me dinner to my room. I couldn’t face being around people, it was too painful.

At that stage, like Paul, conversations were happening about my moving on. At 15, I was asked to fill in my first housing application. Between the ages of 16 and 18, I was continually encouraged to leave care.

I left care at 18 and found myself in my own flat. I was half a mile from the homeless flat that Paul had made me cheesy pasta in. From the flat he told me he wanted to complete suicide in.

I spent almost 10 years coping with the loss on my own, mainly tormenting myself. Paul had used the CD I brought into the mental health unit to cut up his bed sheet and used them to complete suicide. What if, what if, what if. Blame, anger, guilt and hatred, towards myself.

After 13 years of not speaking to anyone about this I went to my GP and told her how I felt.

Before this conversation, I tried to fill every minute of every day with keeping busy, blocking it out. I got closer to care in a professional context as I knew that Paul’s experience was not the only one who had been left. I worked with the Children’s Commissioner in Scotland, become a safeguarder, an independent advocate and completed a Degree at Strathclyde University. All of this was useful and necessary but never removed the sadness, feeling of loneliness and isolation in my own mind. Like many people I was raised to survive and survive I did. Fake e smiles, false confidence and inner pain. That changed when I decided that I wanted help and to work through what I was feeling.

When I spoke to my doctor after 13 years she listened, a little. When I said I was having suicidal thoughts of my own, it was enough to have me referred for an assessment. The only problem was that it took over three months for me to be able to access supports and in this time my mental health was worse that it ever had been. Before leaving, my GP told me I would have to register with another surgery because of a change in address. I received our final message, at a moment of sharing my most intense vulnerability, as “thanks for coming, however you now need to move on to someone else.” I never fail to be surprised at how quick people are to give their systems precedence over a person’s well-being and the relationship they have with them.

Then came Joan.

Joan was a clinician who supported me for almost 2 years with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. She challenged me, supported me and stood with me, alongside my children and wife. Emotional support, the warm words of people who cared about me, was not enough. I needed expert support and therapy.

This transformed my life. In therapy, I started to work through many issues related to my childhood, like not loving myself, having low sense of self, not being able to name and communicate my feelings. I grieved in those sessions for a childhood that was stolen from me by adults, systems, processes and people. After working through many theories, concepts and lots of trial and error, we faced the grief of losing Paul too.

I was encouraged to go to a local group called SOBS (Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide).

The group is teaching me to connect with people who have similar experiences, to share our stories and draw strength in one and other. The group also helps to challenge the stigma that still surrounds suicide, as well as breaking the isolation for those bereaved by suicide. After 16 years I am finding a freedom and comfort in a space that I have never been in. I’m only able to move closer to the authenticity I want because I’m confronting the parts of my life I’ve been encouraged to leave well alone.

Paul took his own life in 2003. He is not the first Care Experienced person to do so. Because of the work that I do, I also know that he was not the last. It’s too much. How do we account for the human cost of our clunky, process driven, wrongly configured systems? Paul is gone and he has missed out on so much. And because no one wanted to talk about the circumstances leading to his death, to face up to the systemic errors, I was left for more than a decade trying to reconcile my grief, loss and sadness.

This service I’m attending on the 24th of January is a chance for us all to remember those who have died by suicide in the way we want to, on our terms. My blue heart was about hope for the future, my purple heart is about facing up to the past. I’m combining those as a  show of love and respect for our friends, family and loved ones who will be in our hearts forever. I hope you’ll join me.

Whatever you are going through, you can call The Samaritans for free, from any phone, on 116 123

With thanks to Scottish Local Authorities, funding partners and donors who make our work possible.