When 35-year-old Liam O’Brien was diagnosed as bi-polar recently, he says that “everything fell into place”. The Crosby father of three, a support worker at Palmyra, a residential home for people living with mental health conditions, had struggled with substance abuse, attempted to take his own life on several occasions and been admitted to a psychiatric unit three times.
But long before he was diagnosed, Liam had already decided to take matters into his own hands and use his own experiences to help others: as a support worker by day, and with stand-up comedy by night.
In his day job, Liam supports people with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and dementia for adult health and social care charity Making Space. His experiences, he says, allow him to really identify with the people he works with. “I can listen and understand where people from and recognise when they’re struggling – I’ve been there.”
And his willingness to explore his own issues with mental health in his comedy routines have earned him praise from the likes of Jason Manford, as well as regular stints at venues including the world-famous Comedy Store.
Before becoming a support worker with Making Space four years ago, Liam had a series of what he calls “dead-end retail jobs” and abused alcohol and cocaine to deal with a traumatic past.
“At about 18 I was diagnosed with depression due to things that happened in my childhood,” he explains. “Since then I’ve battled with depression and anxiety, and I drank and took drugs instead of trying to get to the bottom of my issues.”
After several suicide attempts and three admissions to psychiatric hospital, Liam decided enough was enough. He gave up drugs and alcohol, and made the best of his retail job. “But it was really unsatisfying for the soul,” he says.
So when a friend who already worked for Making Space told him about an opening at Palmyra, a CQC Good rated home just five minutes from Crosby beach, Liam jumped at the chance. “I felt like all through my life I’d never been listed to,” he says. “I really wanted the chance to be able to turn that around and use my experiences to help people who had similar experiences.”
After an interview, Liam was offered a job doing bank shifts. He undertook all the training Making Space offered and was eventually offered a permanent position.
“Making Space have been amazingly supportive,” he says. “My manager is absolutely fantastic and has gone out of his way to support me individually, as well as arrange training for me.”
But there are some skills Liam offers that can’t be taught.
“Until I got my diagnosis, I felt like I never got to the bottom of things or understood what was going on,” he says. “Now I have a diagnosis and medication, everything makes much more sense. Working with people with mental health issues, I feel like I can recognise things in them that I see in myself and see when they’re struggling, which gives me an advantage in terms of early intervention.”
And when it comes to his stand up comedy, Liam doesn’t shy away from drawing on his own experiences – although he is very careful not to make light of other people’s.
“I would never refer to anything that had happened in work, or to any individual,” he stresses. “I’m quite happy to discuss my own experiences though. I believe stand-up comedy is an art, and you wouldn’t ask an artist not to use their experiences as inspiration.”
And if two successful careers weren’t enough, Liam is also studying part-time for a degree in film production.
“I’d like to be able to use that as a tool to further my comedy and write sketch shows and sitcoms,” he says. “But even if the comedy starts to take over, I’ll never give up support work. If I was in a situation where full-time comedy paid the bills, I’d volunteer.
“I have a lot to offer people, and this job has helped me just as much as I help the people I work with. In many ways, this job has saved my life.”