The journey to homelessness was not a sudden one for Alistair McNab. It crept up on him slowly, unexpectedly, following years spent battling depression and the painful worsening of arthritis in his neck and hips.
Things came to a head for the Scottish firefighter in September 2017, when he tried to take his own life while en route to a shift at his station in Pollock, East Kilbride.
“I just felt worthless,” he says. “While cycling to work, I just had this instinct to end things, and I deliberately swerved my bike. Luckily, the driver behind me was switched on and managed to steer out of the way. But that was it, I’d purposefully tried to take my own life. I just felt like I was at rock bottom.”
When someone at his station suggested contacting The Fire Fighters Charity, Alastair bravely picked up the phone and, after he completed his application, was offered a residential stay at Jubilee House, our centre in Penrith. A few weeks before he was due to attend, however, Alastair found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. A strong wind dislodged a tree branch which came crashing down on him, hitting his head and severing two muscles in his arm. This set back meant that he was unable to take part in as much of the physical exercises for his arthritis as he had hoped during his stay. Instead, however, it enabled him to focus on his mental health and to explore mindfulness as a tool to help him cope with some of the more intrusive thoughts he’d been feeling.
“It was absolutely brilliant,” he recalls. “You’d draw out your clouds on this big white board, all the things you carried around with you in your own wee bubble: stuff like hopelessness, dread, anxiety, and then talk about ways to deal with them. They taught me the acronym RAIN, which stands for ‘realising, acknowledging, investigating and nourishing,’. It gave me the tool to use when things were playing around in my head, turning each cloud into rain. They gave me back my mind, and that was the main thing.”
And once his injury was healed, Alastair returned for a second visit to us, this time to focus on his hips: “I didn’t think I would get much out of a second visit,” he says, “but they built on the processes put in place during my first visit and gave me both physical and psychological tools to help. Both the physical and psychological therapists were just fantastic. I still wasn’t 100% right, but I definitely left Jubilee House feeling better about things.”
However, things were going on at home that Alistair had not told anyone. Having split up with his partner and been off work due to stress, his finances had depleted and he found himself going from one sublet to another. In the summer of 2018, with warm temperatures and long days, he decided to move into the summer house in his mum’s garden.
“I thought it would be okay, because it has electricity so I could have a TV, and has double glazing and looks out onto trees,” he says. “I built a wooden cot, and folded a mattress up against the wall to make a sofa bed. It was quite snug, and to begin with, felt nice.”
As summer turned to winter, Alistair’s mental health again took a dip, especially around December. “You’d spend more and more time alone, and you’d just think, I’m 48, living in my mum’s shed, this is where my life is. The only remnants of a Christmas I had in there was an old tree box propped up in the corner. My kids didn’t want to come and visit me there, so I wasn’t seeing much of them, and I just felt worse and worse. Plus I had issues with alcohol at the time, which wasn’t helping things.”
Alistair was told about our Welfare Services Team, which is in place to help fire and rescue service personnel with the unexpected sides of life. So he reached out for support to see what they could do.
“I spoke to Carrie Pearce (Welfare Services Lead) and she explained that, because of my essential worker role in the fire service, I could apply for council housing, helping me with my application,” he says. “A month later, I got the flat and moved in January 2019. But I had barely any belongings and was looking at the prospect of having an empty property with no way to afford making it a home. Then Carrie told me they could give me Argos and Asda vouchers to furnish it. I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have a clue that the Charity could help people like this. And things just started to look up from there.”
Through the initial vouchers to buy some basics, impressive DIY skills and some savvy browsing on second hand websites, Alistair has managed to turn his flat into a home, and is now regularly visited by his daughters and grandson.
He gets emotional when he reflects on how different his Christmases now are to a few years ago: “I’m a wee bit tearful, because it just makes me think back to how it could have been, or where I might be now without the Charity. In 2018, I was living in a shed, but now I have a home for my kids to visit me in. It’s made a major difference to everything.”
“I was worried about taking money from the Charity, because I didn’t want to be seen as some kind of sponger, and I struggled to accept that’s just what it’s there for,” he says. “I thought if people found out I’d taken money from the Charity… well, it’s a pride thing. I didn’t used to talk about the support I’ve received, because I was worried about criticism. But I had no choice other than to accept help, I felt I had no other option whatsoever. So I started to tell people about the help I’ve received, encouraging others to get in touch with them and pay in each month. Since then, I’ve not stopped talking about how good the Charity is or how much they did for me.”
As a way of saying thank you for the support he received, Alistair – who recently retired from the fire service – has held numerous fundraising events on our behalf. “It was important to me to do something to raise money and say thank you,” he explains. “So I’ve completed a static bike ride covering the equivalent distance of Land’s End to John O’Groats. We did it in the foyer of a couple of different Morrison’s stores, and over 10 days raised £4,720. So that’s made me feel proud to be putting stuff back in, rather than feeling like I’m just taking. But on the same hand, if I hadn’t had the help I did at that time, there’s no way I’d have been able to do this fundraising, so being able to do it shows my ultimate appreciation.
“I’m not ashamed to talk about what happened to me anymore. I wanted to share my story to show that I needed it, because other people might as well. You just never know. We all need to support the Charity, because you never know when you might need it. I’d have liked to have said I’d go my full career or whole lifetime without needing The Fire Fighters Charity, but I did, I had to use it and I’m just so lucky that it was there for me.”
We can only be there for people like Alistair because of our supporters. So if you already donate regularly, thank you. And if you don’t, maybe you could consider starting?
If you’re struggling with a change of circumstance and don’t know how to cope, let us help. Call our Support Line today on 0800 389 8820 or apply for support online.