Neil Yates, the father of two young children, made headlines recently when he was found after an absence of six months. Torn between the pressures of a demanding job and looking after his family, he vanished. He and his wife are now back together and claim that everything is fine; but what happens when someone walks out and then walks back in? According to Dawn Green, life is never quite the same again.
Like Neil Yates, Dawn's husband just couldn't cope. "He panicked," says Dawn simply. "He just couldn't face up to everyone. He was in trouble. In the state of mind he was in, he just totally panicked, and thought, `I am not worth being here,' and just ran away, like a teenager who feels the world and its problems are on his shoulders. He couldn't confront everything."
Dawn was distraught when she found the note. She was quite sure that he was not having an affair, that he had simply run away. "My first reaction was, `Oh my god.' Within 15 minutes I was in the car, looking for him. I thought, `He'll need money,' not realising he'd taken some from our Christmas tin we'd been saving. So I went straight to the minibank, then to the bus station, then to the train station. It was pouring with rain, it was dark, I was driving round, I was up and down the train platforms looking and looking."
Dawn, 39, and her 32-year-old husband live in Yorkshire. Their cottage is immaculately tidy and the living room is full of pictures of Dawn's teenage daughter. Dawn is pretty, very slender and fine-boned - too slender, she would say: "I'm not usually this thin but I've lost a lot of weight with all this."
She notified the police at once but she had no idea where her husband might have gone to. "I didn't have a clue. Because he was over the age of 18 and had gone voluntarily, with money and clothes, there wasn't much the police could do.
"I felt helpless. I didn't know what to do. Would he throw himself in a canal? It might sound silly now, but I know him and I was worried for him. I was also extremely angry. Having the two reactions at once was really hard. I couldn't help thinking, `Oh, how could you leave me to deal with this, you coward?'"
With her 13-year-old daughter to look after, life had to go on, says Dawn. But she didn't eat or sleep for several days. It was, she says, "a total blur" of panic and shock. "It never stopped the whole time - thinking, `Where is he? What's he doing? What's going through his mind?' You don't know how long it's going on for: a few days, a week, a month, forever. You don't know if this person is dead or not. I tried to carry on but I was up all hours of the night, trying to think, writing a list of what I could do to find him, who to contact." It was, she says, worse than a bereave-ment: "It's the not knowing."
When her husband tried to withdraw money from a cashpoint in Kings Cross a week later, Dawn at least knew that he had fled to London. "My first thought was that he was alive, still alive to do this. I kept saying to my daughter, `He's alive! He's alive!' She supported me so much. She was upset herself but she was a real little brick. She was especially worried because of what she'd seen on the TV about homelessness. She had this vision that he was going to be in some shop doorway somewhere."
Dawn contacted the National Missing Persons Helpline (NMPH), who offered to publicise the case. "It was such a support for me from the minute I rang them. I felt that there was somebody who was going to help me. They said I could ring any time if I was desperate; I felt they were genuinely interested in me and my case."
This is quite a feat given that the NMPH receives more than 100,000 calls a year. Of the 250,000 people reported missing in the UK every year, most return home safe and sound within 72 hours.
But thousands do not; the NMPH resolves 70 per cent of the cases it works on, but has 20,000 unresolved cases on its books. According to NMPH figures, both Neil Yates and Dawn's husband were classic "missing persons".
Stress and anxiety are very high up on the list of the problems that cause people to disappear, along with others such as abuse, debt and depression.
And the group most likely to disappear is males aged 23 to 32. Dawn's husband was one who came home. He was back with the family for Christmas. He finally phoned from a London callbox one evening. He had been walking the streets and sleeping rough; he was frightened and distressed. "He didn't know what reaction he was going to get. You could just hear him slump with relief in the phone box when he heard me saying everything was all right and he wasn't in trouble and I still loved him. He had rung to say sorry and goodbye. He didn't think I'd want him home. He was just crying and crying and crying."
Dawn jumped in the car and drove for five hours to pick him up. She found driving in London a terrifying experience, but made it to Kings Cross with her daughter map-reading in the passenger seat. "I saw this man running towards the car. I opened the door and he fell to his knees beside me. We were just hugging and crying, holding the traffic up. He was thin, drawn, dirty, unshaven. It had been a dreadful experience for him. He actually showed me the benches where he'd slept."
Dawn was relieved to get her husband home. "We were lucky," she says. "Not all stories have a happy ending. But I'm not saying mine is a happy ending. It doesn't end when the person comes home. Life is never quite the same." They have discussed the situation endlessly. Her husband feels desperately guilty about the ordeal he put her through. "We talked for weeks: what happened, where he went, what he saw, what went through his mind. We both needed to talk about it. I wanted to know everything that had happened between him leaving and me finding him. It took weeks because I didn't want to pressure him. There'd be no purpose in finding him just to let off steam and have a go at him." He had, she says, no idea of her frantic attempts to find him. "He feels he will be indebted to me for the rest of his life, but I don't want him to feel like that."
There is always, at the back of her mind, a niggling fear that the same thing might happen again. "I still think, `Would he go to pieces again?' Then I think, `No, he wouldn't.' But if he's late, if he's gone out in the car, especially if we've had an argument, you think: `Has he done it again, has he gone off, and this time in the car?' I think it's only time that will get rid of that feeling, and it's still very early. There's still a question mark in my mind and there will be for a long time." She says she is closer to understanding why he went.
"His self-esteem was so low. He hated himself. He had lied to me and he just felt he couldn't tell me. He had started by digging himself a little hole and it had got so big he couldn't climb out. He felt so guilty, but put more guilt on himself when he disappeared."
One thing that has been brought home to them is that their lives have to change. Although his job was kept open for him, Dawn's husband has handed in his notice - much like Neil Yates, who says he is going to move house, give up his job and look after his children while his wife goes out to work. Dawn herself is now frantically looking for a job - any job.
"I used to do secretarial work but I'll take anything that's going. I do think, `How will we manage, how will we pay the mortgage?' But I can see the difference in my husband - he's got a spring in his step now. What he thinks now is that whatever is making you unhappy, you should change it: don't let it get to the point where you get so desperate that you do what he did. We're going to struggle but he's got this change of attitude." Although hard times are ahead, she feels hopeful.
"If we set our minds to it we can do anything. We will come through." But, she says, even if things turn out, it was not worth the ordeal she went through. "So many people go through this, but you can't understand what it's like until it happens to you."
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