Football/Soccer

Seeing the bigger picture: How, after turbulent times, Dessie Loughery found light behind the lens

In the second of a two-part interview, former Irish League footballer Dessie Loughery tells Neil Loughran about his journey from the depths of despair to finding one of the loves of his life…

Dessie Loughery was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his mid-40s, long after his soccer career with Ballymena United and Coleraine had come to an end. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

‘Beep beep, beep beep, beep beep’

THERE was no sound Dessie Loughery dreaded more than the pager going off. The second he felt the initial vibration, his heart would sink.

“Ma’s away here again…”

No matter where he was, or what he was doing, it was dropped. Getting back to Dunmore Place by whatever means necessary, without a second to spare, was all that mattered.

“My mother was left with massive epilepsy after the brain haemorrhage - we called them Alice in Wonderland fits; she saw things; things that didn’t exist but were so real to her.

“Now, ma was a big strong woman. You imagine that woman running round the living room, battering doors, pulling the hinges off, doing everything in her power to get away from this person she thought was trying to kill her.

“I was the only one who could work with her. My da was okay but it used to get him really down because of the things she would say or do… she would’ve pulled off all her clothes, saying she was on fire.

“Another time she thought her arm was cut off and she was squealing as if she was getting murdered, that she could see her arm on the floor.

“We had to get reinforced windows in the house because one day she picked me up - I was probably only 17 or so and light as a feather - and tried to jump through it with me.”

He half smiles as he recalls one particular instance in the early days when the family was still coming to terms with the sheer severity of his mother’s fits.

Long before he first met Annemarie, a teenage Dessie was at a friend’s house getting ready for the local disco at the Gorteen. It had been all the talk among his social circle for weeks – tonight was the night.

And then the pager went.

“F**k,” he thought, cursing the timing as he looked down at the device beeping in his hand. But duty called.

“I was all dressed up, next thing I was running like the blazes, my ma was in this fit, she had pulled things off the wall… da looked really flustered, and I went in the room with her and whatever way she grabbed me, she grabbed me by the nose and was dragging me about.

“I just let her do whatever she was going to do, then after it all ended I remember my da saying ‘you’ll not be going to no disco tonight’. I looked in the mirror and my two eyes were black all the way round, my nose was swole up.

“When she came around I told her I’d got into a fight down at the disco, I had to come home. No matter what, when she woke up, we tried to have everything back together to make it as normal as possible.

“If she thought she’d have hurt you, it would’ve been a disaster, so you protected her from that as much as possible.”

In the early stages those fits struck every single day, and could last for anything up to five hours. Eventually, with the help of medication, they were limited to one a month, but it was always there, hanging over his mother. Hanging over them all.

“She took those fits until the day she died, and every single fit was different.

“At the start, I saw Limavady United come and ask me to play football on a Saturday and I couldn’t because I had to look after my mother. She came first.

“Nottingham Forest came looking at me when I was 15 or 16 and I wasn’t able to go because I had too much responsibility.

“You were stuck in the back garden, eight foot square, and you stayed there most of the summer because you had to help look after your brothers and sisters.

“It’s just what you had to do but that kind of thing, it shapes the person you are. It has an effect, it has to, whether you know it at the time or not.”

Bernadette Loughery battled on bravely, even in the face of the lung cancer that struck in later years. When she passed away in 2012 at the age of 67, followed by Dessie snr from cancer of the esophagus just nine months later, there were no tears from their eldest son.

Just that feeling; that horrible, sickening tightening of the stomach he could no longer escape.

**********************

BY the time the whistle was hung up for good, the rot had already started to set in. The energy that coursed through him, craving that sense of purpose, had nowhere to go, instead building and growing within.

It wasn’t for the want of trying but, no matter what Dessie Loughery turned his hand to, nothing could fill the void.

Golf?

“Naw, no way. Far too slow sir. I actually got down to a 12 handicap but I couldn’t handle that walking behind people and waiting, and when my patience went, my game went.”

Fishing?

“He went out with my brothers once,” explains Annemarie, “and when they came back that night they said ‘Annemarie, I don’t know how you stick him’. Dessie would’ve sat for a while and if nothing happened, he’d have been saying ‘right, come on up here’. If nothing happened still, he was up and away again. They just wanted to sit and chill out, have a nice relaxing day, but naw…”

Mountain biking? It was okay for a while, and then…

“Ah, I’d a real bad accident at Mamore Gap. On the way down I forgot to take a corner and went out over the handlebars and down the hill; broke my arm, had eight stitches and took a lump out of my ear, put my elbow through the joint.

“I just needed something… to do.”

The search continued, but things were increasingly feeling off. It might have been something small, verging on insignificant, but to Dessie these more frequent episodes were gargantuan.

He was losing control, or at least that’s how it felt; as though his grip on life was slipping. Never had he been more frustrated, or more scared.

“I was starting to forget things. Starting to forget my passwords into the computer at work, starting to forget where I was going. Then because I was starting to forget things, I was starting to get annoyed and there was this whole build up inside me.

“The only way I can describe it is like when you drive over a bridge real fast and you get this… whoooosh feeling - almost like your breath being taken away.

“I was having that feeling all the time and I couldn’t control it, and when I’m not in control, I’m in bother. If I’m driving down the road and I take a wrong turn, I’ll go off my head because I’m not in control.

“When my ma was dying, when da was dying, I wasn’t in control. You were at the mercy of somebody else… I can’t handle that.”

The tipping point came as he approached the Foyle Bridge on his way to a work meeting in Derry city one autumn day. It was a route he had travelled countless times, along a road he knew like the back of his hand.

Then, out of nowhere, nothing.

“I forgot where I was going… just clean forgot. I could’ve pulled the f**king steering wheel off the van. The frustration, that feeling was built up inside me and this is what was happening all the time.

“I went on to the bridge then, stopped the van and stepped out. I can see myself on Binevenagh mountain; I had dreamt about this all the time. I can see myself closing my eyes and stepping over, and the feeling is just… relief. Serious relief.

“That’s what was going through my mind that day on the Foyle Bridge – ‘just step over and get rid of this feeling’. Two or three cars pumped the horn at me, a boy stopped behind me and says ‘hey sir, are you alright?’”

Head down, he mumbled to the concerned passer-by and walked back to the van. There was only one person he wanted to speak to.

“Annemarie, I need help.”

Within a month Loughery had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The initial medication recommended left him “like a zombie”, and it wasn’t until beginning a course of cognitive therapy that the fog began to clear.

Every Wednesday for two years he would meet his counsellor, John McCann, and talk. Just talk. He found the whole process cathartic; when he got home, tears he hadn’t cried in years would flow uncontrollably.

Somewhere in his subconscious, a pressure valve had been released.

“I don’t know what stopped me from doing it to be honest with you. Maybe the weans, the grandweans, Annemarie… I love that woman so much it’s unreal. She’s the best in the world.

“After those sessions with John I’d have slept for hours, just completely burnt out, but they were so good for me. I’d recommend that therapy to anybody because, if I had kept on those tablets, I’d be dead, I honestly believe that.

“But talking saved me.”

Talking did save him, so too did the love of his family, but they weren’t alone. In the midst of all the madness, Dessie Loughery finally – finally - found what he had been looking for.

**********************

Worth the wait - the kingfisher that Dessie Loughery tracked patiently for six weeks before capturing this picture

FROM the boy who couldn’t settle for two minutes in the classroom to the man who will happily sit in one spot for hours on end, barely moving a muscle, it has been quite a journey.

The irony is not lost on him given those wild younger years, and it wasn’t something he could ever have foreseen - but that is what photography has brought Dessie Loughery; peace of mind, and a sense of purpose once more.

Since the moment renowned snapper John ‘Curly’ McIlwaine first invited him to fire off a few frames after 90 minutes of hard graft for Ballymena, he was hooked. Family commitments and the cost of equipment held him up initially, but he got there in the end.

Now Loughery can be seen on the side of the pitches he once graced, working for some of the leading photographic agencies in the north.

In truth though, his real passion these days lies in the crackle of the branches rather than the buzz of the crowd.

“I was always a wildlife person because I was brought up with it, and there’s a local landowner here that lets me into his estate.

“Down there I have a 300 gallon oil tank with a couple of holes cut out and that’s my hide. There’s a drainpipe too with a mesh at one end.

“I’d be very thorough, so the buzzards and birds of prey, I’d start to study them – what they do, set things out so they would land. You have to have your homework done.

“I’ve seen me leaving the house in the darkness, sitting on a hedge and not moving, putting out a bit of bait and sitting there from maybe five in the morning and the bird landing at three in the afternoon…”

At that, Dessie scurries off down the hall before returning with a large, glossy calendar of his work. Every picture is stunning in its own right but, as he flicks over to a striking image of a majestic kingfisher perched on a piece of barbed wire, a wide smile beams from ear to ear.

The thrill of the chase, the constant pursuit of perfection; it was all there in one shot.

“When I was playing football, everybody says there’s nothing as satisfying as scoring goals. They’re wrong.

“From the day I first saw that kingfisher down by the river Roe to the day I took that photograph, it was six weeks; every day for six weeks. Every night after work I went down and sat at that river bank until it was dark. Five hours a night, every night for six weeks. That’s gospel.

“The day the kingfisher landed, I took a day off work and I went down to the river bank at eight in the morning. I had a wee stool and a bag hide I put over the top of me so you couldn’t see yourself - I knew this kingfisher was coming to land on this bit of barbed wire because I had seen him on it twice.

“By three in the afternoon he hadn’t landed. I hadn’t moved, I hadn’t gone to the toilet, I hadn’t ate, I’d just sat there. My back was getting sore, so I stood up to stretch…”

And when he did, the kingfisher landed. Dessie recalls the sense of horror as he stood mouthing the same three words over and over again.

“You stupid bastard”

“You stupid bastard”

“You stupid bastard”

“I sat down and the kingfisher flew away. Six weeks, five hours a day, every day; I had my head in my hands, giving myself what for. But then when I lifted my head up he was sitting on it. I got three frames and he flew away.

“Now, you see when that kingfisher came back, I nearly started to laugh with excitement. That beats the buzz of scoring a goal. I sat on for another two hours in case he came back, and in that two hours I must’ve looked at that photograph a thousand times.

“It was just… magic.”

Loughery thinks nothing of making the five-hour journey to the Saltee Islands off the coast of Wexford to photograph puffins, and eagerly recalls the time he hopped in the car and headed down to Portlaoise after receiving a tip-off that a pine marten had been spotted in a certain place at a certain time.

He even goes up Binevenagh every now and again in search of peregrine falcons.

“It took me a long time to find it, but it’s the perfect thing. I’m at the photography 10 years, and it has made me the person I am today. I’m not too bad now, y’know? I have good days and bad days, but before it was a lot of bad.

“I’m not cured, I’ll never be cured. I’m going to have this until the day I die. I know when I’m down, I know when I’m bad. Stupid things make me feel weepy.

“But hopefully now, I know how to manage it. That’s all I can ask. The day on the Foyle Bridge, I was out of control - I was letting it beat me.

“And nothing ever beat me. Not ever.”

If you or someone you know is in distress or despair, call Lifeline on 0808 808 8000. You will receive immediate support from qualified counsellors on the phone. The helpline is available 24/7 and is free to call from landlines and mobiles.

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