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Victor Hooks thought people with depression should toughen up. Then at 53 it hit him like a sledgehammer. This hard-working Irishman with the soul of a poet, and his wife Norma, speak to Sophie Rishworth during Mental Health Awareness week. Their most important message — reach out to people around you, tell someone.
Depression blanks out all the beauty,” says Victor Hooks.
“Even a walk to Kaiti Beach, an amazing place. To me then it was just a big load of sand and a big load of water.
“I was sick of life, couldn’t see any future.
“I’m thinking I’ve let Norma down, I’ve let our boys down, I’m a bloody loser. What’s the point?”
There’s only one solution here, he thought.
Victor was 53 at the time.
One night in 2008 Norma came home from visiting friends and found Victor comatose in bed. She rang an ambulance.
Tears still spring to Norma’s eyes when she remembers how Victor was in the lead-up to his suicide attempt.
Usually a workaholic in his trade as a welder, suddenly Victor wasn’t getting out of bed — sometimes for days at a time.
“I think one of the hardest things was seeing how lost and afraid Victor was,” Norma says. “He was just so haunted looking. Totally lost.
“I tried to talk to him, comfort him, care for him, tried to persuade him to get up. I talked about things that were good.
“Other times I’d be angry. Other times I’d cry. It was a whole rollercoaster of emotion.
“Of course, at the beginning you don’t tell anyone.
“That’s the problem with mental health. People are afraid to talk about it. There is still a stigma attached.”
Norma began to confide in their sons, and in friends. She would meet her friends at Verve Cafe for a coffee. They would sit around the table and cry.
Their support gave Norma the release she needed.
“We were stressed to the max. It’s an important fact that supporters need support.”
Norma also remembers how kind the Verve staff were, even though they didn’t know what they were all crying about.
She persuaded Victor to go to the doctor. He was prescribed anti-anxiety medication but deteriorated.
Their GP contacted the mental health outreach team.
Norma says they were fabulous. But Victor told them he was fine, just moody.
It was when one of the outreach team asked about their sons that Victor broke down and cried.
Norma says it is so important to reach out and tell someone, even though it’s a hard step when you’re in that state.
Their twin sons gave invaluable support to their parents.
Even today, 13 years on, Victor still finds it hard to believe he ended up depressed. It wasn’t something he believed in.
He had a house, job and a wonderful family — nothing to be depressed about.
Looking back he thinks taking up drinking again contributed.
Victor hadn’t had a drink in 22 years.
It was a promise he made to Norma — that when they had children he’d give up the whiskey and lager.
In 2007 they were on holiday in Australia, on their way back to New Zealand after a trip to Northern Ireland. Victor had a pint.
He was struggling with guilt about leaving his home country.
“I felt a bit of shame that I’d gone away. I took the easy way out.”
Victor and Norma Hooks grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during “The Troubles”.
When Victor was 15, one of his friends was walking home after a dance when a car pulled up beside him, a guy jumped out, and shot his friend Adrian Barton dead.
Adrian was one of six mates killed — four were shot dead and two were blown up.
“I think that’s why everyone in Ireland drinks so much, to escape from it,” said Victor.
He met Norma one night after soccer training. They married when Norma was 24 and Victor was 23.
Everyone in Belfast at that time lived in fear, Norma says.
“If Victor was five minutes late home from soccer training my heart would start thumping. We lived on a knife edge and felt like nervous wrecks.”
At the end of their street, three houses had been petrol bombed. To move to a better area only 500 metres away the house prices were three times higher.
So the couple moved to Gisborne, New Zealand in 1982 because they did not want to raise any future children in fear.
Gisborne was chosen because about five years before, a mate John Hill, who played on the same soccer team in Ireland, had emigrated here.
In 1985 Victor and Norma welcomed their twin boys.
As promised, Victor stopped drinking.
He also wanted to give his children a similar upbringing to his, and that meant no TV.
Norma wasn’t so sure but agreed to trial it for six months. Their home stayed television-free for 17 years.
It was re-introduced a year before their boys started university because they wanted to make sure they didn’t OD on TV when they got to uni.
Victor has never had a cellphone, or used a computer. Norma is in charge of all the admin at home.
Victor believes one of the main reasons for the apparent rise in depression and suicide among young people is down to modern day lifestyles — being stuck in front of screens.
When the bottom dropped out of Victor’s world it was an accumulation of things, but he believes alcohol played a big role.
After his suicide attempt, the next two years were made up of the mental health team, a psychologist and a psychiatrist who all worked together to help Victor, with the support of his family and friends.
“After a suicide attempt you get very anxious about what you might find when you come home one day,” Norma says.
It took six months for Victor to even go outside. During that time John Hill would come over and knock at the bedroom window where Victor was lying in bed.
Tears well in Victor’s eyes as he remembers the kindness.
“He wouldn’t go away, and I’d just mumble from my bed.
“John wouldn’t just shout in the window, he would stand there for half an hour to talk, even though I wouldn’t open the door to him.”
Norma credits mental health campaigner Mike King for reminding people — let your mates talk to you even if you don’t want to.
To manage his wellness today Victor does 45 minutes of exercise every morning, and on Sundays he cycles to Pouawa and back.
“I now know when you look after your body physically and keep yourself busy, it’s a big advantage to keep depression at bay.”
He also exercises by walking his two dogs — one of them a black dog, a colloquial name for depression. Bestie (named after Manchester United soccer player George Best) the black Labrador he got a year after the suicide attempt gave him a reason to get out of the house.
Victor says without Norma’s support he would have been lost.
“With all my love to Norma, the rock to which I cling when life’s seas get rough.
“Although I never hit Norma physically I know mentally I was very hard on her and I realise the mental abuse is just as bad as a smack in the gob.
“I’m amazed Norma is still here beside me. I’d just like to emphasise the difference Norma, my boys and John Hill all made to me. We have lots of other friends who were very helpful but those people in particular deserve a special mention.”
Victor is happier than he ever thought possible during his dark times. His three amazing grandchildren — Charlie, Laila and Cormac — have given him a new lease of life.
Thankful: Victor Hooks with his ‘darling wife’ Norma, who he credits for the reason he is here today. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell