On the night Sam Stephen turned 30 last summer, he plummeted from his balcony.
The actor, dancer and singer isn’t sure what was going through his mind at the time, but he had been plagued by poor mental health for years.
In our interview, Sam lifts the lid on:
- The traumatic experience in London years ago that began his downward spiral
- How he reached rock bottom last summer
- His stage career, which led to a performance in front of thousands in America
- How he is now on the mend, mentally and physically
The bone-shattering drop didn’t kill Sam, with paramedics battling for nearly 90 minutes at the scene to keep him alive.
There followed five days in a coma and his recovery remains an ongoing process.
But at the start of this year, the “born performer” made a resolution to “get the show back on the road” – despite still relying on crutches and a wheelchair as he re-learns how to walk.
He has started doing his own podcast series in an effort to get more people to discuss their problems, and recently took to the stage at Tedx Aberdeen to share his story in a hard-hitting talk.
By this time next year, he wants to be dancing again.
What led to darkest moment?
Sam now works part-time as a dance developer with the City Moves school, based in the former Aberdeen University anatomy rooms at Marischal College.
It’s in the old dissection room that he settles into his wheelchair after a class departs and opens up about his emotional journey.
His earliest painful memories came from being bullied at school, while growing up feeling like “the odd one out” in Aberdeen and “being encouraged to not be myself”.
Even those who the former Oldmachar Academy pupil counted as his friends would tell bullies where he was at lunch time so they could verbally and physically attack him.
How theatre offered Sam hope
He finally found his salvation in the performing arts – spending hours in his bedroom learning dance routines from music videos and singing along with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Sam completed a year of study at the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance in Dundee and, when he was 17, set off to London to pursue his stage dream.
His ambitions burning brighter than ever, he made friends with performers in the shows he grew up adoring.
And when he stepped foot in Soho, Sam felt like he had found where he belonged.
On his first night out there, he went to the bank to get some cash and never made it back to the bar.
The wide-eyed teenager, who thought everyone was “friendly and welcoming” in the London district, was lured into a corridor off a busy street.
He woke up two days later on the other side of town, having been drugged and raped.
Sam felt “humiliated” by the horrifying ordeal and he describes the following years of his life as “chaos”.
As he struggled to come to terms with what happened, he spiralled into addiction – developing dependencies on alcohol, drugs and food.
“Life grew smaller and smaller and smaller, and I started to forget who I was,” Sam told the audience at his recent talk.
“I just felt fear, and I played around with the idea of taking my own life.”
At one point, he found himself sitting on a bridge in the English capital contemplating whether to end it all.
The steps he eventually took home that night were his first on the long road to recovery.
Years at home helped Sam bounce back
Sam went back to Aberdeen to regroup, spending three years between 2017 and 2020 becoming “an expert on himself” – and developing a new passion.
This time, he became devoted to sharing his love of performing with disadvantaged children.
He said: “I built a great career specialising in a brand new sector of special needs education, and I loved it.
“It was everything I needed to fill my soul.”
The role included touring about a dozen Aberdeen schools every week to help children find creative ways to express themselves.
In one case, that involved Sam having to “think on his feet” as one young girl wanted to learn how to rap.
Around the same time, Sam’s stage career picked up.
In front of 18,000 people at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Sam followed in the footsteps of legends like Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston and Elvis with his performance at a cosmetic company’s event.
The largest crowd he had performed in front of before that had been about 2,000 people.
It’s a moment Sam looks back on as he continues to recover; and he wants to reach that pinnacle again.
“It was amazing, it really was,” he smiled.
“And now I am working towards that, using that big moment as a reference point in my life.”
Return to London dredged up old feelings
Last year he decided to make another go of “chasing the bright lights” in London.
It didn’t take long for his old feelings of despair to return.
Desperate to follow his childhood ambitions, Sam soldiered on despite spending much of the journey south wiping away tears.
Soon after, he and his friends there marked his 30th birthday with a summer gathering at Battersea Park.
It may not have been the ideal celebration, but it’s a way many of us managed to meet up with pals during the pandemic.
And as Sam waved goodbye to his friends, none of them would have suspected anything was amiss.
Sam struggles to explain drastic decision
Addressing a roomful of 100 strangers in his recent Tedx talk, the 31-year-old described what happened next.
“I had some choices now, and I chose wrong over right that night.
“By the time my legs had climbed over the balcony… I wasn’t cognisantly aware of who I was, or where I was.
“And I certainly wasn’t aware of what I was about to embark on.”
It was in that state of confusion that he went over the side.
The list of injuries Sam suffered is extensive – including various fractures in his legs and broken ribs, along with several broken vertebrae.
There followed seizures, and he was diagnosed with a subdural haematoma on the right side of his brain.
Getting better, one step at a time
Someone saw Sam’s fall and called 999 so help arrived immediately.
Sam had eight surgeries over the subsequent fortnight, and remained in hospital for the next three months.
But the important thing is that he survived to tell the tale.
And that tale has never been more important to tell, at a time when suicide rates and mental health problems have been exacerbated by Covid restrictions.
‘The difference a year can make’
At the start of the year, he started his own podcast called Headphones In.
Sam said: “I’ve had quite a lot of therapy over the last year, I’ve spoken to a lot of people.
“And the podcast is a continuation of that, it’s cathartic.
“It’s a way to keep the conversation going… After you have overcome adversity, what happens then?”
Taking to the stage at Aberdeen Arts Centre for his Tedx talk, Sam felt at home in the glare of the spotlight.
He added: “Someone said to me yesterday that this time last year I was not a very well person, and this year I am.
“That’s the difference a year can make.”
You can watch Sam’s talk in full below –
If you need someone to speak to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123. Everything you say is kept confidential.
The Samaritans also have an app you can download to your phone, which can provide self-help tips.