The experience of watching Crisis, episode 2 of the Bedlam series on Channel 4 on Thursday night, confounded my expectations.
I'd seen the film twice before, privately. I'd admired the art and the craft of the film makers Paddy and Alice, and of the editors; but deplored myself, as I sound and appear. I think a lot of people have that sense of disquiet when they hear or see recordings of themselves on screen or through speakers. Seeing and hearing yourself as other people do-it's unsettling.
Then there was the subject matter too. Me, deranged and struggling to appear normal, immediately after suicide attempts, detained in a secure hospital ward for psychiatric patients. My family, upset and confused and horrified by the situation.
People around me, fellow patients on the Triage Ward at Lambeth Hospital, also unwell, confused and upset.
And now this film was going to be broadcast to more than a million people, maybe more. As the hour approached, I began to feel more and more uncomfortable. Why was this happening? Why did I want to expose myself to a huge audience at a time of such unfathomable vulnerability, despair, desperation, pain and shame? What twisted exhibitionism provoked this?
Right from the start I have been absolutely certain that agreeing to be in the film was the right thing to do (see Dominic's story). That certainty of purpose has never wavered and didn't on Thursday night. What was in doubt was my reaction to a new level of reality suddenly kicking in, as my story became public property. It's not exactly something to be proud of, being mentally ill, repeatedly trying to kill oneself - not necessarily the way you want to appear to the world.
I was nervous, anxious. My family are all in the film too. How was that going to work out? Some good friends advised strongly against us being involved during the filming, warning of long-term harm to the children in particular. I felt uncomfortable, remembering this. As if they hadn't already been damaged enough by me and my illness, my suicide attempts...
What if this resulted in them feeling or being bullied or ostracised, stigmatised by proxy? I had to remind myself constantly: what was the point of doing this again?
Ah, yes. To help make the subject of mental illness more acceptable as a subject for discussion: to help fight against the possibility-and reality-of being stigmatised or ostracised or bullied simply for being or being associated with a common illness.
Holding on to that truth kept the nerves under control, more or less. As did the certain knowledge that the decision-making and approval process for my and my family's inclusion in the film had been rigorous. Constant checks for permission and reassurance, repeated and ongoing family therapy sessions, lengthy and thorough consultations with senior psychiatric doctors - all that 'could' be done to ensure commitment to the project 'was' done.
So my last-minute edginess was not founded in any genuine doubt. I just wanted it to be over. The family, minus eldest son, away at university, gathered at 9pm. Four of us were armed with connected devices for the purposes of second screening the broadcast; only my wife, a social media recusant, shunning the opportunity to 'watch' in the dual dimensions of TV and Twitter. They'd all seen the film before, too, part of the aforementioned approval process, which made flipping between the big communal screen and the little personal screen easier. We all knew the rhythm and the tone of the documentary, where each of us appeared, and what we said and did.
On Twitter, following the #Bedlam hashtag, it was clear from the outset that the audience was engaged, interested, fascinated even; and overwhelmingly sympathetic to the joint and collective plights of the patients being filmed. A minor strain of old-fashioned 'Coo err' voyeurism, as at a Victorian freak show, pervaded the collective online text commentary; but in the main the comments expressed a sense of kindness, as well as of being gripped, and terrified.
I tweeted only once during the showing, to express mild surprise at the fear factor; although being a patient on the Triage Ward was undoubtedly one of the strangest experiences of my life, I did not feel fear while I was there, except as I arrived, which was fear of the unknown rather than of anything or anyone on the ward - even Rupert.
Ah, Rupert. Such a great human being. It was wonderful to see him again, even if only on screen. He was my first friend on the ward, and although he got moved on only two days after I arrived, he made a phenomenal impression on me. Although we have appear to have little in common, we soon discovered a shared love of music, poetry, London...
And although he was struggling to speak clearly at the time, we had some excellent conversations once I'd adjusted to his diction. In particular, Rupert's sense of humour, especially about the situation in which we found ourselves, was such a boost for my lowering spirits. He cheered me right up, and I was sorry to see him go.
Back on Thursday night, as the documentary rolled on and my own story was replayed, I began to feel uncomfortable again. I could remember the strain I was under, the almost-obliterating sense of confusion and desperation. Seeing myself holding it together, recalling falling apart-that was tough. Some of the tweets turned hostile: how could he do that to his family, to his 13-year-old daughter? Just how selfish do you have to be to try to kill yourself not once but twice?
The answers came back unbidden: do you think he could stop himself? Look how much he loves them all - do you think he made a sane decision to hurt them? There was a lot of good will and willingness to understand what mental illness involves, the helplessness of the genuinely suicidal depressive, the loss of sanity. There was also a great deal of humour. My favourite moment was when someone, following Rupert's and my duet of Once In Royal David's City, tweeted 'Dominic and Rupert for Christmas Number One'.
Then it was over. We were all laughing, reading out the tweets to Rachel. I took a picture of the four of them, my daughters, my younger son and my wife, and posted it to Twitter in response to those concerned about the effects of these crises on my family's health and happiness.
Of course damage has been done. Of course my suicide attempts have traumatised my family, and friends. Bad things happened. There's no getting away from that. Nor should there be any attempt to get away from that. Assimilation and learning are the keys to the doors that lead to a healthier future - not ignorance or pretence.
The broadcast of the Crisis film has helped enormously with that. It was cathartic, healing, the tangible closure of a specific period in my illness. As a family we have watched ourselves going through what can reasonably be called 'hell' together, and witnessed ourselves coming through it together. That has bonded us, made us closer, given us something uniquely awful-and amazing-to share.
Do I wish I hadn't got to that point, that I hadn't tried to kill myself? Of course. Am I glad that there is a permanent, public record of the process of healing that began in the Triage Ward, and in my own home? Emphatically, yes. Am I grateful to SLaM, Paddy and Alice, The Garden and Channel 4; and everyone who watched, commented and got in touch with me as a result; and everyone who now feels that little bit more tolerant and less scared of mental illness, as a result of the film?
More, much more, than I will ever be able to say.