Ray Cunningham (33) lives in Castlewellan and runs a lighting company. He is now voluntary director of Mind Yourself Mind Your Mate (MYMY), a charity helping others with troubled lives. He says:
It is difficult for anyone, particularly a man, to admit that they are lonely. I can honestly say until I was in my 20s I never had any proper friends. To combat how I was feeling, I surrounded myself with material things. I got into the property industry at a young age and made a lot of money, but I spent it all on the best of everything.
I had the most expensive designer clothes, flash cars and nice things. I thought material things would help me feel better and help me gain popularity, but the more I got, the more I wanted and it became a vicious circle. At the same time I was also hiding my loneliness by abusing substances such as alcohol and drugs – again as a way of trying to win friends.
I felt so lonely that I became depressed and the worse my moods got, the more I would abuse substances. I know now deep down I was hiding trauma from my childhood.
My father was an alcoholic until I was 10, and I grew up watching my mother struggle to hold the family together and my dad fight the demons of his disease. It had been a very destructive environment although he later stopped drinking and spent his life making it up to the family.
I didn’t know what was going on. I never felt safe and I didn’t want anyone outside to know what was going on so I never let myself get close to anyone. I was completely alone and isolated in my own head.
My brother Laurence also abused substances. I hid behind him and didn’t let anyone in the family know I was being destructive as well. I just made sure everyone focused on him.
Things came to a dramatic halt five years ago when Laurence took his own life. I think deep down I knew it would either be him or me.
When he died I was so lonely, but I knew I couldn’t turn to the crutch of drink and drugs any more, as I saw the devastation it had caused, so I decided to take matters into my own hands and begin sorting my life out.
I knew I needed proper friends and support in my life. I had no one to talk to, so I started up a small support group of men meeting in the Malone Lodge Hotel in Belfast once a week to discuss issues that were going on in our lives.
This was a turning point and for the first time in my life I found myself being open and honest with people.
I started reading a book by Lorna Byrne after my brother died called Angels in My Hair, and so many people stopped me when they saw me in a cafe reading it that I decided to start a book club and used it as the first discussion point.
I teamed up with two ladies from the area who were at the time running a branch of PIPS (a support group for those who have attempted or thought about committing suicide) in Newcastle. We started holding meetings which were attended by people from all walks of life who were suffering from so many different problems and we were able to discuss our lives.
Out of this, Mind Yourself Mind Your Mate was born in Newcastle and we began offering counselling services to local people.
I became the voluntary director and our aim is to help people spiritually, physically and emotionally.
My advice to anyone who is feeling lonely is to find like-minded people that you can talk to, people who encourage you to follow your dreams. Get rid of people in your life who are holding you back or encouraging negative thoughts and behaviours. Talk to people and be honest about what is going on and you can help and encourage each other. Join a club and get out and about and do something. Find new interests and new hobbies. I have true friends now for the first time in my life and am very close to my mum and two sisters, Rosaleen and Laura. Sadly my dad died of a heart attack last year, but we grew very close over the years and I think he would be proud of me and how far I have come.
I have a partner of two years, Tanya, and she has completed my life. I hope one day to have a family of my own.
Life is good and I am truly happy. In the end Laurence, through his death, gave me the gift of life and I’ll always be thankful for that.
No one has to be lonely. There are plenty of support services out there and good people who want to help you on your journey.”
For further details about MYMY, telephone 028 4372 7549 or log onto www.mymy.org.uk