I’m not sure if I’m allowed to repost this, but here we go. This is an article about my blog and my life here in Malta written in FIRST Magazine which comes free in the Malta Independent Newspaper. It’s no cover of Rolling Stone but I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud of something. I feel like I’ve done some sort of justice – the least I could do for my dad. Have a read and share it with your mum.
BRENDAN MCDONNELL’S father committed suicide when Brendan was just 15 years old. But, in learning to overcome his father’s suicide, Brendan learnt that helping yourself can be a way to help others. He speaks to Veronica Stivala about his quest to spread awareness and positivity.
Suicide is one of the most difficult subjects to contemplate, let alone talk or write about. But 23-year-old Brendan, an Australian living in Malta, has set up a website where he does precisely that.
Brendan’s father committed suicide some seven years ago. Brendan makes no secret of this and the first thing visitors to his website see is a ticker, showing the years, months, days, hours, minutes and even seconds since his father, Damian (often referred to by his nickname ‘Herman’ on the site) killed himself. The website’s homepage features two pictures: one of Damian, and one of Brendan, who bears a striking resemblance, including physique, to his father.
Through the written introductory text, Brendan tells us that he was 15 when he found his father’s body, and that this is his story. But perhaps the next piece of information that follows is the most important: “I am an Awareness Spreader,” says Brendan. And he wants to “spread awareness like Aussies spread their Vegemite (the Australian version of Marmite): THICK”.
Brendan defines an Awareness Spreader as someone who makes the road to finding happiness a little smoother. He explains how through the battle to overcome and understand his dad’s suicide he has gained “the gift of awareness”. “It’s taken me across the globe and enabled me to do what I love every day,” he explains. He adds that he wants to share this gift with as many people as he can, hoping to raise awareness – not only in respect to suicide bereavement, but how it transcends every part of our lives: what are the things we do, why do we do them and how do they make us happy?
A powerful video on the website introduces this concept, taking viewers through Brendan’s life today, a life he stresses he created after having been left ‘alone’. From clips of the well-built handsome man with short, brown, curly hair pulled tightly back, diving into 14 degree water, lifting heavy weights, jotting down notes in his diary, to riding a motorbike on the grass, practising Muay Thai (Thai boxing), reading at sunset, doing design work on a computer, getting a tattoo, calling his mum and running barefoot on the soil, we are given insight into a man who clearly has a passion for life, who loves nature and who faces everything that life throws at him with arms open wide.
We discuss the difficult subject of Damian’s suicide. One particular phrase that recurs in Brendan’s videos and writings, and that I struggle with, is that his father committed suicide so that he “didn’t have to feel his pain”. This is what his father actually wrote in his suicide note. What does Brendan make of this and why does he keep bringing it up in his blog?
“For a long time, I felt my dad killed himself and left me behind,” he says. He goes on to explain how he managed to turn his perspective around to a positive one: “Once I began resolving the emotions tied to the experience of finding his dead body I was able to see what he did and why he did it clearly. I realised that his choice was selfless. Constant reflection of the experience and the letter he left me caused my perspective to shift. It allowed me to remove sadness from the words he wrote so I could see them for what they really mean.”
Brendan continues to bring up his father’s words in his blog because he wants to share the positive shift in his perspective. “Through greater awareness of my dad’s suffering I have developed a greater capacity for compassion. I want to show that if I can, you can too.”
Brendan has had many people who have experienced someone committing suicide reach out to him. People have shared their most personal experiences, some for the first time. And with this Brendan tries to take their story onboard and to empathise with their pain.
“I thank them for reaching out to me, feeling honoured that they choose to share their life with me. I don’t have the answers to everything. All I have is what I’ve done. I do my best to share what I’ve done to overcome similar situations that people are presenting to me,” he explains.
The key to being able to help others, reveals Brendan, is to help yourself first. And actually, in helping yourself you are helping others because you set an example for change. Brendan cites the story of his eldest brother, who suffers from bipolar disorder. For a long time he struggled with his own independence and no one seemed to be able to facilitate growth in his life.
In order to overcome the problems associated with Brendan dad’s death he had to change himself. As he began to understand more about himself, he began to understand more about those around him. “After almost 10 years I was able to empathise with my brother’s suffering. I was able to facilitate change in his life because I changed myself. I helped him change his lifestyle, lose 30kg, and he now lives alone and is almost fully independent.”
Brendan originally hails from Adelaide in South Australia, so I am curious to find out what brought him all the way to Malta – which is evidently so far away and so little known on the other side of the world, that his video explains that Malta is ‘below Italy’. It all started in November 2013, when Brendan began travelling around Europe, looking for somewhere to focus on his personal development.
He got fed up with the cold weather and Malta was warm so he came here for a visit. Since then, what he has found is that sharing yourself in hope of facilitating growth in another is among the only real things you can do for anyone. He says his work is almost done, but he has found a new reason to stay: “I met a beautiful half-Maltese, half-Swiss girl a year ago. She supports me and has joined me on this journey. She is what keeps me here now.”
Of course, Brendan has to earn a living and he works at Lord’s Gym in St Julian’s, where he teaches Muay Thai. He also designs for a hostel in return for accommodation in a nearby apartment.
At a minimum Brendan writes a list of what to achieve each day. He takes his journal with him everywhere and when he feels confused, has a moving experience or comes up with an idea, he writes about it. When he was younger, he struggled to articulate his thoughts verbally so during conversations he would read things he had written directly from his journal.
“Writing has helped me overcome this and I now speak freely. The journal plays a lesser role in my life, but I still take it with me wherever I go. I type out my notes occasionally if I write a letter for my girlfriend or to share on my blog,” he says.
Brendan explains that he is someone who has turned a tragedy into a vehicle for spreading awareness and into a basis for self-renewal. “Finally I’m able to share this with others. Thank you for this opportunity.”