His world falling apart around him, and believing the words of his teachers who told him he was a “nobody”, Jay Blades had hit rock bottom and was hellbent on trying to kill himself.
Slamming his foot on the pedal of his battered BMW as he roared along the M5, Jay had decided to smash into the next motorway bridge and end it all in the early hours of a cold April morning.
Jay, now the presenter of the BBC’s hit show The Repair Shop, says that behind the darkest moment of his life, just six years ago, was the realisation that he – the furniture restorer who was an expert at fixing things – could not fix himself.
Now 51, he says: “I was unable to see tomorrow, I couldn’t see myself existing in the future.
“It was everything, the breakdown of my marriage, my business, me not being able to speak about it to anyone."
“At that moment what was going through my head was everything I’d heard at secondary school, that I was nothing, a failure.
“My careers teacher when I was 14 told me it wasn’t worth trying because my life would always amount to nothing.
“All my life I’d put all that negativity in a box. Now the lid had closed and I had entered a world that was dark, completely dark. I couldn’t even think straight about the effect on my kids, who I loved more than life itself.”
Jay firmly believes he would not be here today but for one thing – all the motorway bridges he drove past that morning had crash barriers.
“If the barriers weren’t there you wouldn’t be speaking to me right now,” he says.
Soon afterwards, Jay ran out of petrol. He found himself in a near-deserted car park next to a retail park in Wolverhampton, Staffs – 100 miles away from his then home in High Wycombe, Bucks.
Oblivious to time, he sat slumped in his car for around a week. It was his own foul smell that eventually jolted him out of his stupor.
“I wasn’t eating or drinking. I lost a stone during that week,” he recalls. “When you’re in that zone, normal thinking, like ‘go and have a wash’, ‘drink something’, ‘have breakfast’, all those are irrelevant. I didn’t even know what time it was, it was just a dead zone.
“Eventually I decided to go to McDonald’s. I got out the car and could feel a presence. It was my body odour. It was so strong it had its own postcode.
“I thought there was someone behind me but it was me. That’s when I decided I needed to go and get washed up.”
Jay found a hotel in Wolverhampton and showered before putting his dirty clothes back on.
However, his about to be ex-wife Jade had called the police, who had launched a nationwide search. They had been tracking his credit card, so arrived at the hotel with a psychiatric nurse to assess whether he needed to be sectioned.
The officer told him: “We think you might be a danger to yourself, sir.”
Fortunately they let him go with a friend – the man Jay credits with saving his life – Gerald Bailey, owner of the Diffusion fashion chain. Gerald arranged for him to stay with his mum and stepdad, who became like a second family.
Jay’s remarkable recovery is especially poignant during Mental Health Awareness Week, which began yesterday.
And in his new book Making It, Jay describes the moment he sat in Gerald’s car that day as “the most significant moment of my life”. He reveals: “I sobbed. Proper, shoulder-heaving, gut-wrenching, inconsolable sobs. Everything poured out. I bawled and I howled. I was brought up not to cry, to always act tough. I had never cried in front of another man before.
“When I stopped, the numbness had passed. I was alive again.”
Born in North London, Jay had never had it easy. He went from the hospital to a homeless shelter as his 18-year-old mum Barbara had been kicked out of her home by her stepdad.
His father was not on the scene. Jay calls him The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth, or TMWCTMB for short, and although he has since met him, Jay discovered he was one of his 25 children across different countries. Jay has so far had contact with 11.
Fortunately Jay’s mum got a council flat in Hackney and for a while his life with younger half-brother Justin was blissful. “It was perfect,” he says. “I was living on a council estate, but I had a really happy time skipping to the park, playing Kick the Can, and picking blackberries and plums.”
However, at secondary school he got a first-hand lesson in racism. Not only did Jay end up in fights with bullies, it affected his education.
“I stopped learning. I became a hot-tempered young man,” he recalls. Jay can barely read or write, and at most has the reading ability of an 11-year-old.
After leaving school with seven U grades, there followed a succession of jobs and failed relationships, during which he fathered two sons – including a period where he spent two weeks in a Salvation Army hostel.
It was there he was offered a chance to volunteer for another homeless charity in Oxford, where he first began using his life experience to help others.
After more moves to Luton, Beds, then High Wycombe, he decided to go to university.
He picked criminology, a word he had never heard before, while speaking to the receptionist at the Buckinghamshire New University.
Jay says: “I’ve got a naivety, some people call it stupidity. I never thought I’d have to read a book.
“When I bought the textbooks I couldn’t read half a page. But I jumped in and thought, ‘I’ll deal with that when I get to it.’”
Again, Jay’s life experiences helped him pass with a 2:1 degree, with a final year dissertation he entitled Manufacturing a Black Criminal.
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At university he met his wife Jade, with whom he had a daughter Zola, and who helped him set up a charity training disadvantaged young people in furniture restoration.
It was as that relationship broke down that he walked out into the darkest day of his life in April 2015.
Today Jay, who has made Wolverhampton his home, has beaten his demons. He has a “beautiful” relationship with his ex-wife and his three children, now aged 30, 25 and 15.
He looks back with incredulity at how he has gone from a “nobody” in an old BMW to a successful TV presenter within six years.
“If anyone had told me back then I would have laughed at them,” he smiles. “I would have said, ‘Me? Never. They will never have me on TV. Nope, that is never going to happen.’”
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