Out of steps

Kevin Edward Turner nearly lost everything when he suffered a severe mental breakdown and was sectioned. Instead he’s used his family’s experiences of it to create a new show

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“I had to build myself up from the bottom and there’s only one way to go when you hit that place and that’s up,” says Kevin Edward Turner, the award-winning co-artistic director of Company Chameleon, a leading Manchester dance company. “I’d hit my rock bottom and I had to put all the pieces back together. What helped me most is my family and friends.”

Turner studied at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance where he gained his first class degree and he has toured the world both as a performer and dance teacher, but three years ago his dance career was halted after he suffered a severe mental breakdown. He was sectioned in a high security mental health unit at Stepping Hill hospital in Greater Manchester.

“I thought that’s it, I’ve lost his trust, he’s never going to believe anything that I say to him again.”

In May 2013 following a second release from hospital, and armed this time with what he says was the “right” balance of medication and a diagnosis of depression and bipolar, Turner set about his recovery by researching his condition – reading books he acquired from his mental health worker and speaking to friends of his who had also suffered with mental health problems. The process was a slow one.

“I had to get a sense of what was going on and become aware of my behaviour. What I always say to people now is that the good thing about putting the pieces back together is that you can choose what pieces you want to put back.”

As well as concentrating on getting well again, returning to work and pulling himself out of his depression, Turner wanted to know how his mental breakdown, and what he describes as his “erratic” and “inconsistent” behaviour during his illness, had affected those closest to him, particularly his mum and his older sister.

“My sister is a very sensitive and emotional person so my breakdown impacted her the most,” he says. So in 2015 he came up with a concept to create a dance theatre show inspired by what he and his family had been through. “My breakdown wasn’t just about me. Even though I was the one diagnosed with the condition and I was suffering, my family were all suffering too. I’m an artist, and dance movement and theatre are the tools I have to express myself. Making a piece of work about it, for me, made sense.”

Lucy Turner Hall, Turner’s older sister, was instantly supportive of his idea, feeling strongly that doing a show would enable her brother to recognise and “own” what he had been through. With her encouragement Turner began a process of speaking to, and recording interviews with, his close family and friends which led to the creation of his dance show Witness, which was shown at the Lowry, Salford, at the end of November last year.

In a tiny room just off his rehearsal space Turner describes Witness, through tears as a dedication to his family.

Turner Hall, a dance teacher at a secondary school, recalls the most traumatic part of her brother’s breakdown for her: “He called me shortly after he was sectioned and said, ‘You’ve got until Friday to get me out of here and if you don’t get me out I’ll kill myself’.” In a state of shock she left work and rushed to the hospital. “I was so scared because I knew I couldn’t physically do anything to get him out of there. Part of me thought he won’t do it because he could act manipulatively at that time but then part of me thought, what if he does and he’s told me and I’ve not done anything?”

Interviewing his family about these experiences, Turner explains, gave him the opportunity to take responsibility for what he did, although his mother Avis Blakeley was quick to reject his apology, reassuring him that he had nothing to apologise for and insisting that he didn’t feel guilty as his behaviour was caused by his illness.

He says it was the love and support from Blakeley that stopped him from taking his own life yet in spite of this support it was his mum who Turner turned against when he was sectioned. After a series of “out of character” incidents – declaring he was a millionaire; letting himself into his brother’s flat in the middle of the day
and waking him up even though he knew he was sleeping from night shifts – putting boxing gloves on and punching his mum’s partner in the face was the final straw for Blakeley.

“I was at my sister’s house and I was in an extreme emotional state called rapid cycling,” says Turner. “This can occur with people with bipolar disorder. I was experiencing hypomania. I was going from laughing, to being aggressive, to crying. It was disorientating and confusing, my mum and sister were witnessing this and they must have been wondering what was going on.”

Blakeley says watching her son in this state she became “virtually hysterical” and she phoned the hospital telling them he needed to see somebody. They advised her to bring Turner in.

It was in a moment of lucidity that Turner agreed to go with her to the hospital on one condition: that she promised him that he would not have to stay in. She agreed.

Blakeley explains she thought that they would go there, get some “magic pills” and then they could go back home. “I had no idea that they were going to section him.” So when staff at the hospital explained to her after a four hour wait that Turner was going to be put on a ‘voluntary’ section she was relieved thinking that this meant her son could stay in overnight and leave the next day. “I didn’t realise that you can’t do things like that with people with mental illness when they are sectioned. I trusted the staff but in my naivety my trust was misplaced because I didn’t know this was what was going to happen and I felt helpless as I have never ever broken a promise to any of my children.”

Tormented still by this memory Blakeley recalls through floods of tears that, aside from telling her children that she had cancer, this was the worst moment of her life. Having raised four children as a single mother she explains they are a close family and that she adopted a policy of honesty and trust with all of them.

“I tried to explain to him that I didn’t know that this was going to happen but he wouldn’t listen. I thought that’s it, I’ve lost his trust, he’s never going to believe anything that I say to him again now and how on earth am I going to help him because how can you help somebody who doesn’t trust you?”

Taken from the corridor to his room accompanied by security guards, Turner screamed at his mum that it was her fault, at which point Blakeley says she wanted to die. Turner then proceeded to remove her as his next of kin and replaced her with his sister who, despite having a young baby, visited him daily for his three-month stay in hospital. “He wouldn’t eat any of the food as he thought that it was contaminated so I used to take him food every day. He wouldn’t let anyone visit him apart from my husband and I,” says Turner Hall.

Looking back now he is well, out of hospital and back at work, Turner considers himself extremely lucky that he had so much support from his family and admits that he wrongly blamed his mum. “This was the best thing she could have done, it was a step in a very painful process.”

For Turner Hall her brother’s breakdown was a sign to her that she had to take control and be the big sister.

“I had to take on the job. I cried a lot, not in front of him, but looking back it’s made me a stronger person and it’s made us closer as a family.”

Witness tours the UK in Spring 2017 (companychameleon.com)

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