EXHALE AND RECOVER

A story of my life, written by Our Life Logs.
**warning contains sensitive and adult content**

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Covered by ourlifelogs.com.

I grew up in the 1990s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the times of “The Troubles.” If you didn’t know, The Troubles refer to a nasty civil dispute that spanned over 30 years between the British and Irish in the country over religious and nationalistic differences. Naturally, this made Northern Ireland a dangerous place to grow up.

When I was eight, riots made their way to Belfast and brought angry people with the intent to cause destruction by throwing homemade bombs into buildings. Well, my family was one of the unlucky houses hit. I remember waking up to a loud crash and the smell of smoke and petrol. My mother, my four younger sisters, and I were forced to evacuate.

Meanwhile, my father was drunk at a pub. When my mother called to tell him what happened, he basically said, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.”

He left us alone to fend for ourselves. Furious, my mother left him but still allowed him to take us every other weekend. I hated visiting him because he used to tell me I was stupid and that he didn’t like me very much, and all he ever did was drink at home, or leave us kids and drink at the pub.

Me as a baby

Having left our father, my mother started drinking every day and every night, leaving me to step up as the older brother. I wish I could say I held the family together, but that’s not entirely true. In some areas I succeeded, and in others I failed. We all just tried to get by.

For a year, our family jumped from one hostel to another until we found a small flat in 1998. By then, The Troubles were coming to an end, but the trauma was irreversible. Living with that fear took a toll on my psyche, and unfortunately, it was just the first of many dominoes to fall in deteriorating my mental health.

My mother did her best raising my sisters and me alone, and I tried my hardest to be helpful. Every Monday morning, I’d collect my mother’s benefits for her from the local post office. There was always an elderly gentleman queued up when I arrived. I eventually got to know him and would look forward to seeing him as he would give me 10 GBP whenever I saw him. To a nine-year-old in the ‘90s, 10 GBP was a lot!

But then, the “how are you’s” turned into strange, inappropriate questions like, “do you masturbate?” I began to see him daily on the streets in the neighborhood. He told me that if I told my parents about the questions, I’d get put in a home and they would be arrested.

One day, the man told me about a toy car that he’d left at his flat. He asked me to come by and get it. Innocent and trusting, I agreed, and that’s when the sexual abuse began. He often tied me to a chair and forced me to touch him.

Looking back, I wish I had screamed, but in a scenario like that, it’s often fight, flight, or freeze…and I froze. This went on for six years, and he kept me silent with threats and gifts. I didn’t want my parents to go away. So, terrified, I never told anyone and the secret weighed down on me until I grew to hate myself.

When I became too old at 15, the abuse stopped, but the years of damage remained. By then, I was struggling to grow into a teenager and figure out my sexuality. There was a duality to my feelings that made me question if I was having thoughts about men because of the abuse or if was I truly curious. I hated it. Not to mention people were being called gay as an insult on the streets as it was a heavily conservative area.

I began to feel like I was contagious and disgusting. I tried overdosing on pills but I had no idea how to do it. The pills I chose just made me sick.

In 2009, in the midst of me battling all the demons that had weaved into my psyche, I was hit with another wave. I learned that my father was sexually abusing a close relative when he got drunk. I was furious and tried to get the police involved. I see the irony of wanting to report others’ abuse when I was afraid to report my own, but maybe this was my offhanded way of getting justice.

Unfortunately, my father heard that I had sought help and got spooked. He killed himself before the police got to him, refusing to face his crimes.

When his family learned what happened, they immediately targeted me, blaming me for his death, saying that the allegations were false. They turned their backs on me, and I, of course, was riddled with guilt. I felt like I was at fault for his death, and having something like that on my conscience made the dark feelings from my past traumas grow stronger. I attempted suicide by overdosing once more but failed.

I was embarrassed that I had failed. It began to feel like I could do nothing right.

I tried my best to move forward despite my mental health crumbling with each hit. I found a job taking care of old folks and I started experimenting with both men and women. Eventually, I fell in love with a woman and married her in 2012. She knew that I was bi-curious, she knew about my father’s suicide and about my childhood (except the abuse), and still, she accepted me.

Our relationship started off great, but over time, she became more controlling. She’d clock the miles on my car and freak out if I derailed from her expected schedule. Then, it grew harder when she fell pregnant only to miscarry. We didn’t talk about the loss. It simply hung in the air around our every movement. She’d dismiss my issues with mental health and tell me that it was all in my head. I began to feel trapped and depressed by the grief and control of our relationship.

Then, in 2015, I had an out-of-body experience where I was cutting carrots with a knife and had a psychotic break. I vaguely remember calling my mother and telling her I wanted to die. My mother immediately told me she was on her way. She was coming from the countryside, so by the time she got to me, I was outside in the garden in my underwear in the pouring rain. When I came back to myself, I was baffled at how I’d gotten out there. That’s when I knew my mental health was getting far worse.

Not long after this experience, my wife and I separated, and while we remained friends, I felt empty.

Then, an angel came into my life—a man named Andrew. We met through Instagram when he commented, “Nice smile,” on one of my photos. We met in person, and it was love at first sight. I told him about my mental health issues, and he embraced me. When we kissed, I knew for a fact that I was gay. It felt right, never like how it was with women. In discovering this, I came out to my mother and sisters who accepted me with loving arms.

Me, my mum and sisters

Yet even a healthy relationship can only do so much for a person still battling self-hatred and repressed trauma. It’s like a band-aid. It stops the bleeding, but the scab always has a chance of busting back open.

I started hearing voices that convinced me I deserved to die and that my feelings were punishment for driving my dad to suicide. In 2017, I tried overdosing again, and just to make sure I succeeded this time, I tried hanging myself too. Thankfully, my partner, Andrew, found me before it was too late. He helped me check into a mental health facility, but being there only made me feel worse.

Ten days later, I checked myself out of the facility and tried to hang myself again, but the belt ripped. Quickly, I grabbed a scarf and tied it to the doorknob. Somehow, the door didn’t stay shut. I failed then too. That was when I took a look at the scarf and the door and knew I needed to accept help, even if it was going to be hard.

I was sent to a psychiatric hospital where I remained for three months. The voices continued until I was placed on psych meds. The voices may have quieted but the meds made me feel numb, like a dummy. One of the only things keeping me tethered to the outside world was Andrew. Through each of my suicide attempts, he stayed by my side. While in the psych ward, he visited me and supported me in my recovery.

And and I

I knew I could completely trust him, and after years of keeping it hidden, I told him about the childhood abuse. Andrew said to me, “You’re never going to get better if you don’t report this and get closure.”

Unfortunately, and fortunately, the investigation proved that the man who abused me had already passed away. I wish I had spoken up sooner to prevent others becoming his victims, but there was no going back. Even so, I felt…lighter. Simply being open about the abuse for the first time in my life was justice I could be content with.

When the doctors concluded I was fit to be discharged after three months, I started seeing a counselor for the sexual abuse and another for mental health problems for the next year. All that was well and good, but it wasn’t until I discovered Recovery College in 2018 that I had hope.

Recovery College is a program curated to educate those struggling with mental illnesses and help them learn how to self-manage their symptoms, help others, and step back into daily life. Through them, I was able to recognize my own strength, practice mindfulness, and develop a self-confidence I’d lost early in life. They helped me see that the bad things that happened to me weren’t my fault, even though it felt like it for so long.

I was so grateful for their help, I decided I wanted to be a part of others’ recovery. I had so much life experience to pull from and I wanted it to be used for good. Through the program, I got qualified, received my certification in suicide prevention, and began teaching there in 2019. I was trained in mental health and acute emergency care, gained specialist skills in suicide prevention, and now work in the SET Recovery College as a peer support worker and tutor and work within emergency acute care within the ED (Emergency Department) when busy. I also volunteer with NexusNI, a charity that provided me with the specialist counselling to overcome the trauma of sexual violence and rape.

I also found the courage to begin blogging about my life experiences and volunteering in the community. In doing so I’ve found healing I never thought was possible.

When I look back on my life, I see how much pressure I put on myself to hold it together despite what I was going through. I wanted so badly to appear normal and perfect, but the truth is, no human is. I used to live a life of holding my breath, but now, I can finally relax knowing that the demons of my past are behind me.

This is the story of James Keenan

James currently resides in a small town on the countryside of Downpatrick County Down, Northern Ireland (the burial place of St. Patrick), where he works as a suicide prevention specialist and writer. Growing up during The Troubles which led to his house getting bombed, James’ life started out rough and continued to be rough including sexual abuse in his pre-teen years, his father’s suicide, a messy marriage, and struggling with his sexuality, which all led to major mental health problems and many suicide attempts. It wasn’t until 2017 that he got the help he’d been needing for years. Since then, he has recovered and learned how to manage his depression. He is now employed in the Recovery College. He is also working closely with other charities and has dreams of starting his own charity. James believes that his biggest achievement to date is fundraising for a Cambodian NGO and twice visiting to build three houses, a toilet, and repairs on other houses previously built—and, of course, having managed his own mental health while helping others through their recovery, trauma, and preventing suicide within his local community.

This story first touched our hearts on June 22, 2019.

He likes to write poetry in his free time and plans to write his first novel soon. He is grateful for his partner who has stuck by him through his recovery and loves him despite his affinity for oddly designed socks. He remains proud of his sibling and says his dear nephews are the apple of his eye. He plans to focus on his future with Andrew, adopting children, travelling, and marriage. He also hopes to start his own business, create his own charity, and focus on writing a novel.

James in Cambodia

| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker | https://ourlifelogs.com/2019/08/01/exhale-and-recover/

A SMILE THAT MAKES CAMBODIA

A journey I made in Cambodia in 2015 and 2016, a little insight through my journey and what you can expect during your visit too.

What’s a holiday without a bit of adventure? If you’ve an inkling towards the exciting side of tourism, Siem Reap has a lot to offer you. Whether it be cycling the day away through the countryside or munching on spiders you thought you’d only ever squish below your shoe, this Cambodian city has something for everyone.

A decade ago, Siem Reap was the place where you stayed, ate and grabbed a beer or two between explorations of Cambodia’s 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat. Now the city that Angkor made is something of a destination itself, luring visitors with a lively and varied dining scene, stylish hotels, genial residents and a laid-back river town ambience. 

There is a growing community of Cambodian and international artists, performers and designers reviving traditional arts and experimenting with new means of creative expression, but please don’t expect dancing animals at Phare, the Cambodian Circus. A height of creativity, the circus runs every evening filled with dance, music, storytelling and circus arts come together in a sophisticated hourlong show staged by students and graduates of Phare Performing Social Enterprise’s Battambang school, which provides free arts education to economically and socially challenged Cambodian youth. 

In the narrow streets or by the town river, you will find stands of tempting iced coffees made up with condensed milk and syrup or you could head to Little Red Fox Espresso, for a taste of luxury expressos. 

At night you’re in for a treat when the narrow streets and open areas expand with lights and stalls of the Cambodia Night Market, a place for Cambodian designers to showcase their admirable work to sell. What makes this market special, its mostly made up with homemade, recycled materials that are fabulous pieces of art, from sandals and bags to wallets and teddy bears.

The best way to avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat is to rise before the sun and venture beyond the main temples. You can travel the fun way by tuk-tuk at 4 a.m. to be at the entrance to Angkor Archaeological Park, however the view is outstanding with the sun reflecting against the old stone of the temples, the experience itself is something magical. You can also cycle to the temples, which is a bit of a track but by goodness its great fun. I did both ways of transport, tuk-tut one day and bicycle the next. The countryside is beautiful, the temples are outstanding, the silence around the temples delivers a sense of peace whilst the surrounding areas covered in green forest with monkeys swinging from tree-tree and elephants walking along the roadsides, connecting with nature appreciating the environment around you brings you a huge sense of mindfulness. 

Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument and is one of the seven wonders of the world. This iconic temple complex in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia attracts nearly 2.5 million foreign visitors annually, a number that continues to grow each year, yet province remains one of the poorest in the country.

The passing tourists can do their part to spread the tourism wealth by staying a few extra days to explore beyond Angkor Wat and contribute to the local economy, conservation projects, and social enterprises that are paving the way towards a brighter future for locals and creating meaningful experiences for visitors

There are so many NGO’s (Non-Government Organisations) that allow volunteers to help make change to the poorest communities in Cambodia by offering your time and a small fee. This was my main purpose to visit Cambodia, an experience that was something I’ll never forget. 

I joined forces with Volunteer Building Cambodia by carrying out a skydive at the Coast of Northern Ireland and a abseil down the most famous and most bombed Hotel in the world in the heart of Belfast City to raise funds. 

The simple, sturdy Khmer-style wooden houses provide shelter and security for Cambodian families living in need. Poor education, lack of skills and a shortage of job opportunities mean many rural Cambodians are still living in extreme poverty with inadequate shelter.

The new builds replace fragile structures that offer little protection from the elements. I seen first-hand how improved living conditions change lives, through better sanitation, increased security, better sleeping arrangements and healthier living. Children in secure homes are less likely to get sick and more likely to attend school. It’s incredible.

VBC have achieved to build and provide over40 wells, 85 toilets, a warehouse, a community Centre with four classrooms, computer room and a library and over 200 houses with the help of volunteers across the world to donate, sponsor and visit to help be part of the organisation raising more than $900,000 in sponsorship.

This is incredible for VBC to be a small, grass rooted organisation that started by one-man Sinn Meang and a small team of builders. 

To think, the poverty rates are high in rural Cambodia, where many people are still living on less than $1 a day. The impacts of inadequate housing can take its toll on these families. I saw children who don’t go to school and many having health problems through lack of sanitation or secure housing and sleeping arrangements, yet their happiness across as if they have absolutely everything in the world. 

These guys prove that all you need is love and a smile to be rich. I couldn’t be prouder of these families for doing what they do on a day-to-day basis, the love is something I have never witnessed before.

I was lucky enough to meet some amazing people during my time there – locals and tourists and I left feeling inspired and that I had helped make a positive difference to the lives of the families that I built for. I loved all of it! It was everything and more that I hoped for. Building with VBC was very enjoyable. I learnt a lot through my experiences, how to appreciate the many blessings I took for granted and how heart-warming it is to give back to society. The smiles on the faces of the locals was my main purpose to keep motivated to continue, the joy was priceless. 

As the sun sets upon the magnificent Angkor temples, the party in Siem Reap city begins. Nightlife in the iconic Kingdom of Wonder offers an alluring variety of pubs, clubs, cocktail bars, and everything in between. In one quick stride down major roads in the city, you can indulge in a cold Angkor draft beer, bust a move on the infamous Pub Street and chow down on a fried tarantula. The Siem Reap nightlife scene offers an abundance of options for all types of travellers for a fun night out in South East Asia.

It’s with people from all over the world filling the streets dancing, drinking, eating, and looking for a thrill, the nightlife has a magnetic energy unlike anywhere else. Due to the city’s small size and concentration of most nightlife options located centrally around Pub Street.

The magic of Siem Reap started when I stepped of the plane, the extreme heat hitting my body, the quietness of the airport and the dirt track roads. The closer I got to the centre of the city, the busier it became with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and bicycles dodging one another, the stands at the side of the roads, children barefoot playing by the rubbish. The blurring music of Pub Street and the night lights dazzling my eyes and traditional dancers performing on the side streets. It was spectacular. 

What about my visit to the Pagoda every evening at 5pm. Wat Preah Prom Rath Pagoda is one of the most beautiful pagodas in Siem Reap. It’s a real beauty and my favourite, located by the river side near the Old Market. The monastery has many fine, colourful wall paintings and you will find many modern statues inside. Often, you will see monks who greet you with a smile and a sign of sampeah.

I visited every evening by walking around the grounds so peacefully taking in the colours of the murals and shrines whilst listening to nature, energizing myself inner self to meditate whilst sitting with the monks of the pagoda and listening to their chants and I closed my eyes and listened. It is something I do at home now.

I set of to Cambodia to meet with a pen pal who moved from Australia to Cambodia after his volunteering stint and he ended up working fulltime at VBC. It was amazing to meet after years of emailing and writing letters. Our meet was special, I felt as if I knew him my entire life. If it wasn’t for Jason, I doubt I would have ever visited Cambodia, so he gave me one of the best experiences of my life giving me hope, adventure, experience, friendship and leaving me inspired. I made many friends, some very close who I love and adore today. 

I jetted of from Ireland to Cambodia with a broad mind, taking everything for granted, my phone charger, a cooker, electricity, school. I knew it was a country experiencing poverty so I thought I would need to do my bit. 

Despite my fear of heights, I took on a skydive on the coast of Northern Ireland and an abseiled down the famous, most bombed hotel in the world raising a fantastic $5,000. 

My experiences extended far and beyond my expectations, I left the Country on my two visits feeling part of the culture of Cambodia. I loved Cambodia that much I could see a future there for me, however with other commitments, I needed to return home. I didn’t leave empty handed, I left this beautiful Country rich with happiness, friends, cherished memories and special moments. I managed to build 3 houses, a toilet, home repairs on another house, made a start on the community centre and left blessed by the Khmer Buddhist Monks.

When I arrived home, I needed to do more, I sponsored a family. A single mum and four children, I donated money for a lengthy period providing them with food and education for the children each month. Receiving pictures of these beautiful people enriched me with sincere proudness.

If you ever find yourself stuck for a holiday, I recommend Cambodia for an adventure of a lifetime experiencing culture, the outstanding natural beauty of the temples and the gift of volunteering, you will not leave disappointed.

James Keenan

MY HOPE TO INSPIRE

By sharing my experiences and beliefs, I hope I can inspire at least one person by giving them hope.

Hi Guys,

I wouldn’t say I am a fully pleadged blogger, professional and making money, i’m just a casual guy who is an amateur blogger sharing his story through words inspired by his lived experiences.

To an extent I will say unfortunately, but I can now see the positive impact of having a mental health illnesses by awknowledging my growing strength and believing in myself, having self respect and embracing courage.

When I first started blogging, I had some ignorant people share their opinions on mental health and suicide, commenting abuse under my posts. These persons and their their input slowly began to affect my want to express awareness.

I deleted blog after blog and started again, changed my name and shared what I felt is important to me. I do understand that a persons opinion is allowed and I fully respect that, I believe in having a right to express opinions however when opinions turn to abuse, it becomes a different story.

It hasn’t been all bad, it’s been powerful over the last couple of years sharing my lived experiences and allowing strangers to connect with me.

Receiving messages of gratitude admiring my bravery, showing courage and creating an awareness is a real joy that leaves me inspired. Reading such comments makes blogging worthwhile publishing.

At the beginning of my blogging journey I had always said if my story was to be shared and only one person was to read it and learn from my mistakes and errors and embrace courage, in sharing my story and showing courage is most definitely a story worthwhile sharing.

The statement that is often repeated in my blogs; “I hope to inspire others, like others have inspired me”  is a statement I strongly believe in and hope that I can inspire at least one person.

My hopes are realistic, I will not be able to inspire millions, but I write from the heart and writing about my life experiences is a method of managing my own recovery in a therapeutic manner to overcome a past of negativity, trauma and pain.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” – Helen Keller

James Keenan