Paul Shanks killed himself aged 51 in 2007, leaving behind his wife Vikie and their seven children, four of whom are on the autistic spectrum. Now the focus of a new Netflix documentary, Kingdom of Us, Vikie Shanks recounts to Good Housekeeping UK the time up to and after an event that marked her life.
On the morning of September 15, 2007, my husband was supposed to be meeting one of the clients of the entertainment business we ran together but he never made it to the appointment.
Shortly after he was expected, I got a call from the client, who was confused about the missed meeting.
Two of my girls went to look for him and found his car parked near the woods and returned with a suicide note folded up. I couldn't bear to open it. Everything began happening quickly after that.
I barely remember the details of that afternoon. All I remember is the deafening buzz of helicopter blades. Today, I experience post-traumatic stress whenever I hear that sound. I hear helicopters coming from miles away; my brain seems to tune into them wherever they are.
I met Paul in 1984 when I was 25, he was two years older; I thought he was a real idiot the first few times we met. But the more we hung out, I realized we quite liked each other.
He had an unusual personality—in a good way. He was an entertainer so he was outgoing, he was funny and loved to joke around but then he had an intense side, too. I loved how passionate he could be—but sometimes it crossed a line.
A few months into our relationship, while on holiday, I accidentally called him by my ex-partner's name. He became so angry that he threw the bed across the room. But then, we went down to the beach and were madly in love. It's hard when you're in that world to realize what's going on, and I made excuses for him.
I would spend years making excuses for Paul.
Paul and I got married when I was pregnant with the twins. We'd already had Jamie in 1991 and Kacie a few years later but Paul suddenly decided that while it was okay to have two children outside of marriage, it was not okay to have four.
All seven of our children have 10 letter, double-barreled names: Jamie-Jodie, Kacie-Kimie, twins Lorie-Lanie and Mirie-Marie, Nikita Nina, Osborn-Oran and our youngest Pippa-Peita. Paul was very specific when it came to the kids' names—I had absolutely no say in it. I could choose a couple of the names but only if they fell within the constraints of his rules.
Six of our kids are on the autistic spectrum, four have an actual autism diagnosis. Paul was very up and down: Either he was the greatest dad on the planet or really ignored them and had nothing to do with them. It was one way or the other. And he was often in denial about their health challenges, so trying to find help for them was often left up to me.
In 2001, I became really worried about Paul's mental health and suggested he talk to a doctor about his contrasting moods. Every time I brought it up, he would often react badly or not talk to me for weeks, so there was no point. I eventually dropped it, and he never did make it to a doctor. You had to be so careful with Paul, it was like walking on eggshells. Since he died, Paul has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Looking back, I can see how controlling he was even when we weren't arguing.
For example, I'd say I was seeing a friend and he'd say: "We're too busy." Gradually, I lost contact with my friends and family—according to Paul, there was always something more important that had to be done.
A couple of friends have since said they were concerned by the way he kept me so isolated. People wondered but the figure he projected to the outside world was so different to the one behind closed doors. He seemed like this fun, all-together guy so they brushed off the fears they had for me, assuming they were wrong.
What my loved ones didn't know was that Paul was violent, as well. One time he pushed me into a corner and punched my kidneys, another time he trod on my foot hard enough to try and break a bone. He was intentional—he would leave marks where nobody would notice. He wouldn't have ever directly punched me in the face.
There were times I was really frightened. He was very strong even for a slight man, and it wouldn't take a lot for him to injure me badly. But I was also quite gutsy, I would try and counter his physical violence. It was an instinct to protect the children and make sure he didn't put the violence onto them.
Eventually, Paul's behavior became so erratic I was driven to tell him we needed to separate for at least six months as a trial. Deep down, I knew the relationship couldn't go anywhere, in my heart I knew it was over. The next thing he'd filed for divorce and the proceedings started. We had agreed to sell the house and were about four weeks away from completing it when he died.
Paul had been threatening to kill himself virtually since I met him. The problem is when someone says it as often as Paul did, you get to the point where you don't notice anymore, which is awful. Even when the police came and told us that Paul had called them to say what he was planning to do, I thought he'd be around somewhere. I thought it was a cry for help. I didn't for a moment think he would follow through with it. He'd been saying it for years but he'd never actually made a suicide attempt. I thought it wouldn't be real and it was.
The days after his death feel like a blur now. My feet didn't touch the ground, I was trying so hard to keep it going on a practical level, while also supporting my family emotionally.
My children were very different in how they all reacted. Osborn was very philosophical, it was like a delayed reaction. Pippa, who was only 6, had no idea what was going on—she thought funeral was a party. Being autistic and grieving makes it a lot harder, too. The autistic brain doesn't do abstract and death is a very abstract event.
After the funeral, when we returned to our routine, the magnitude of my new reality struck me—and I was terrified. We were struggling to hold things together when there were two parents—how was I going to deal with everything alone?
I didn't know the extent of our financial debt until he died. There were secret bank accounts and gambling accounts. He told me he owed people one amount and, after he died, I discovered it was four times more. It was really frightening, and I had no way of paying it back. The banks wrote off some of the things in his name, thank goodness. But, as for the personal debts, there was nothing I could do.
One of the most shocking things to happen within the days after his death was a note Paul wrote which my daughter Jamie, who was 16 when he died, and Kacie, 13, discovered, detailing plans to kill the children, me and then himself. It was horrifying to think he was in that state of mind. I gave it to a relative in the immediate days after as I didn't want the other children seeing it. Over time, myself, Jamie, and Kacie had all convinced ourselves that the plan wasn't real. It was only when we came together we realized we had not imagined it.
It would take years before I could confront the other message Paul left us: his suicide note. Two years after his death, I noticed a "PTO" at the bottom of the copy I had of the suicide note, the police had taken the original so I didn't have the back of the letter. The front mainly talked about how most of it was all my fault.
Eight years later, I managed to get the original letter, all it said was "Sorry." It was almost as heartbreaking as the suicide itself. I'd hoped it was a really nice message for the children, I wanted it to say how much Daddy loved them. "Sorry" just didn't cut it, really.
I have incredibly mixed feelings when I look back at my life with Paul. At his best he was absolutely fabulous, at his worst he was terrifying and impossible to have a relationship with. He wasn't one person, he was a kaleidoscope of all these different people. Some were amazing, some were terrifying, upsetting and hard to cope with.
Over the years, I've been so worried about the children that I was very defensive, which made me forget the man I fell in love with. Filming the documentary has been an evolution, for a long time we didn't know why we were filming but we said we would only ever do it if it was very honest. Making this film has been quite cathartic and reminded me that without Paul I wouldn't have the children, which would be awful.
The children still very much need me because of their disabilities, but I'm starting to think about my life and how I'd like to move forward.
My passion is talking about mental health and trying to get people understand, I did a TED talk on it. We need to look at things in a different light. Too many people are dying from suicide and suicide in people with autism is very high, so I'm working on figuring out what can be done.
I want to make a difference, if I can change one life that would be amazing. That's my mission.
If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. You are not alone. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8225), call 911 or call a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.