THREE’S COMPANY: The inside story of a polyamorous relationship

By Thomas Carter

They say ‘two’s company and three’s a crowd’ – but for Hayley, Mike and Ian it’s a real-life relationship. They are a happy polyamorous unit. How does that work? The trio let Thomas Carter into their life of love without limits.

It’s a rainy lunchtime in an East London coffee shop and a half-eaten sandwich lies on the table. The triple all-day breakfast sandwich is too much for one person. This is not the case, however, for the people sat opposite.

They subscribe to the belief that most things in life are better in threes – especially when it comes to love.

Hayley, Mike and Ian are in a polyamorous relationship, having made the decision seven years ago to ditch conventional monogamy in favour of a new domestic arrangement.

Polyamory is the practice of having more than one intimate romantic partner, a way of life built on the ideals of consensual promiscuity, freedom and sexual exploration.

“People think we’re crazy, but they just don’t understand what being poly is like,” says Hayley, 39, a former teacher from Liverpool. 

Hayley is a short woman, naturally warm and intelligent. She looks like a normal, regular person which, she insists, she is – she just has an unconventional love life.

“We walk through town holding hands and see people stare, sometimes even laugh at us. You just have to brush it off,” she says.

This unusual story began when Hayley met Mike at university, and the two were together for nine years before she “came out” as polyamorous – much to the surprise of Mike.

“I was definitely shocked,” laughs Mike, 40, a smartly-dressed yet slightly nervous IT consultant.

“I mean, what do you say when your girlfriend tells you she wants to see another man?”

This is where those outside the world of polyamory tend to take issue with the culture, says Mike.

One could easily make the point that the addition of another person to a couple isn’t a relationship anymore, and romantic activity outside that couple is surely cheating. For this triad, the reality is quite the opposite, they all insist.

Hayley claims she “never fell out of love with Mike”, but instead felt she had “more affection to give and needs to be satisfied.” This is where 42-year old marketing manager Ian entered the relationship.

“I never knew I was poly growing up. It wasn’t something I knew about or even considered until I met Hayley,” he says, holding her hand and smiling.

“It can’t have been easy for Mike to see me arrive, but we all had a long talk and decided we loved her too much to both lose her. He allowed this arrangement to happen, and for that I respect him a lot.”

Mike is also holding Hayley’s hand. He smiles, but says nothing.

“Not many people were supportive of our choice,” says Hayley. This was especially true for her parents. Having grown up in a Catholic home opposed to anything but male-female monogamy, it was clear she found comfort in sharing her story to someone who wanted to listen. The coffee shop today, and this interview, almost acts as her confessional.

“Knowing my family would reject my lifestyle was really difficult. It held me back for so long, but now I have a life filled with love, the way I want to live it, regardless of how my parents feel,” Hayley says.

Of all the factors that make this trio intriguing, their observation of ‘kitchen table poly’ (a system whereby all members of a polyamourous relationship can coexist in the same room) is arguably the most unique.

“Everyone always finds this weird,” chuckles Mike, his partners joining in the laughter.

“I’ll admit it was a little strange at first, but now we have one big bed and we’ve all got our spots. I couldn’t imagine it being another way.”

The three sleep with Hayley in the middle, flanked by her two boyfriends. Perhaps instinctively, they sit at the table in the same position.

“Intimacy was our biggest hurdle,” explains Ian, looking to the group for mutual agreement.

“There were a lot of things to figure out, like how long we’d each get with Hayley. It can be complicated, but we do our best to divide up times that fit everyone’s needs.”

Out of the two men Ian is the ‘meta’, meaning he is the newest addition to the group, which makes Mike the ‘alpha’- a peculiar naming system for a relationship that Hayley maintains is “non-hierarchical.”

“We use the labels when discussing our relationship with others who are poly, but they mean nothing in practice,” she says, as if to reassure the partners beside her.

“I love both of them equally. Neither come above one another, and that’s how it will always be. We’re a team, a family.”

The use of this phrase was particularly thought-provoking.

While this trio is not conventional, the love on show here is clearly boundless, in every sense of the word. At no point during our conversation did they ever stop holding hands.

As the interview came to a close, it was obvious Hayley, Mike and Ian only ask of  “acceptance and respect” for their choice – to show that three can be the perfect number.

They even picked up a triple sandwich as they left.

‘I often feel like I’m being strangled, like I am stuck in my body just watching over myself’

Abby Brookes, 22, suffers from Panic Disorder. In this revealing interview, she shares her story with Sophie Watson on her ongoing battle with the condition – and how the disorder affects her life.

It’s almost 1am on a Saturday morning, and while what sounds like the rest of the students in Abby Brookes’ new built apartment building are having the time of their lives, she is trying desperately to hold onto hers.

“Remember what your therapist told you. Breathe in for three, hold, breathe out for three. Again,” Abby whispers to herself, as she feels her racing heart beat with her right hand.

She would always do that, feel her heart palpitations, knowing it would only make her symptoms worsen in exactly three, two …

“Why is my heart racing? My whole body feels shaky. Surely that’s not normal,” Abby begins to fill with familiar dread.

“I know this is my brain’s natural reaction to danger, but I’m not in danger. I don’t feel anxious. I’m in bed. My bed is my happy place.”

And that is the wearily familiar narrative that takes place, multiple times a week, multiple times a night, until Abby, trembling from every limb, eventually calms herself down and her symptoms subside – her sweaty palm always resting against her chest as she sleeps. If she can sleep.

“It can only be described as a constant, monotonous cycle of distress and panic that never seems to go away,” Abby says.

You can’t help but wonder if the panic hides in the creases of her fingers and sinks into her veins when she’s not looking, slowly suffocating her entire body into paralysis.

The first time Abby had a major panic attack was when she was 12-years-old.

She was at an aquarium with her mum and they had to go in an elevator, despite Abby being claustrophobic.

The elevator was glass, so they could see all the fish and the sharks, which they enjoyed. But then they suddenly came to a stop on the 10th floor. They were stuck there for half an hour.

“I had a full-blown meltdown. I was crying. My heart was racing. I felt like I was going to be sick in front of all these staring strangers,” Abby says.

“All that because I couldn’t get out. My mum was trying desperately to calm me down but when you’re in that state of mind, it’s almost impossible for the brain to take in information.

“I just felt like something awful was going to happen.”

Despite multiple attempts for a formal diagnosis, Abby was assured she was just experiencing anxiety. It was only when she turned 18 that she was diagnosed with Panic Disorder after being rushed into hospital with crippling chest pains.

During her first year at university, she visited the hospital complaining of chest pains more than 10 times. It was a relief to finally understand what she was experiencing, and why.

“I actually researched Panic Disorder months beforehand and realised it best explained how I felt,” Abby nods firmly.

It’s easy for Panic Disorder to be mistreated as anxiety because it is a form of Anxiety Disorder. They have similar symptoms, such as heart palpitations, worry, and feeling a sense of impending danger. But, for Abby, there is one clear difference.

“Anxiety comes and goes but panic consumes me. I often feel like I’m being strangled, like I am stuck in my body just watching over myself. It’s such a strange and uncomfortable feeling, especially when the attacks are so regular. It’s almost like they become your life,” Abby admits, timidly.

“They come from anywhere. At any time, often without an ounce of warning. One minute I’m out with my friends having a brilliant time, the next I feel overwhelmed with panic and I’m in an Uber back home.”

Certain things can trigger her panic attacks, such as being in small places, around lots of people and insomnia.

“Sometimes I can sense a panic attack coming on because I start getting pins and needles in my legs, and I quickly become to feel quite dizzy and overwhelmed. Before you know it, my coat has come off and I’m burning up,” Abby says, as she rolls up her sleeves.

She would often to this to ensure she didn’t get too warm.

“It can actually be very lonely when your friend rings you up for a catch up and you feel like you can’t tell them how you’re actually feeling,” Abby says, as she looks towards the wall covered in photographs of her best memories with her friends.

“How do you explain to someone that you feel like you’re going to die, when they just saw you laughing yesterday?”

After her diagnosis, Abby decided to seek professional help and referred herself for therapy.
Although she had to wait four months for the initial phone call, she had 10 sessions with an experienced therapist who taught her not only the science behind the panic attacks, but how-to best cope with them.

“Accepting I have Panic Disorder has been the best thing I have done to help me live with it. Not being mad at myself all the time, or confused. Just allowing myself to feel what I feel. It allows the symptoms to subside faster,” Abby says.

“Controlled breathing is also the biggest way to not only prevent an attack, but also to stop it. Meditation is also very useful to me, such as listening to the sound of waterfalls before bed. It’s so relaxing.”

Although Abby has been prescribed traditional medication for her Panic Disorder, she believes CBD products should be prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.

“Prescribed meds didn’t really help me at all. I felt like I was sinking into the floor until I found CBD (cannabidiol) products such as oil and gummies. These are the products that have helped to change my life,” says Abby.

“I feel a lot calmer when I use them. They actually treat my anxiety and reduce stress, in ways which my prescribed meds don’t,” Abby adds.

“My advice for anyone suffering with any of these symptoms, who believe they could have Panic Disorder or something similar, is to seek help. Talk to your doctor, refer yourself for therapy.

“But just as importantly, live your life and enjoy every bit of it. Every second is precious,” says Abby, as her smile spreads across her face, clenching tightly onto the photograph of her and her best friend.

It’s almost 1am on a Saturday morning, and while what sounds like the rest of the students in Abby’s apartment building are having the time of their lives, Abby knows she is doing the best she can to enjoy hers, too.

“He was sitting on his chair at the pub and keeled over. Everyone thought he was just drunk, as usual. Then he didn’t get up”

Hector Pearson talks to Nanci Rawsthorne about losing a family friend to alcoholism, the impact it has had on his life, and his desperation to be different.

Hector looks sullen as he sits down on the sofa, preparing himself to remember his dad’s best friend, an important figure from his childhood. He wants to remember the man who taught him how to play pub games and took him out shooting – but all that sticks in his head is the yellow-skinned, sunken-eyed man who died alone in his hospital bed.

Hector Pearson, 20, is an Audio and Recording Technology student at DMU. Originally from Essex, he grew up with his parents, his younger brother and his father’s best friend Charlie.

He was only 13 when Charlie died from alcoholism.

“His parents died and he just spiralled,” Hector says. “He was riddled with guilt that he’d been a burden on them and had killed them off early. So, he turned to drinking.”

For most people, constant drinking is unsustainable. To be able to fund this, you would need a full-time job, a place to stay, independence. But Charlie was 30. He was already retired and had a small fortune inherited from his parents burning a hole in his pocket.

Hector says he used to see Charlie all the time. He was always coming over to their house to spend time with them. He was almost a permanent fixture in the Pearson family home.

Charlie and his unapologetic love for music is what encouraged Hector to take it up as a career. He cites Charlie as the inspiration behind his choice to study audio engineering at university.

“He would play all his favourite bands for me. The Cure, The Clash, AC/DC. He could talk for hours about the intricacies of melody and harmony, and his eyes would be so bright and full of life,” Hector says.

And then, one day, Charlie stopped coming over.

Charlie lost all his family and friends, as he refused to get help for his excessive drinking. The only person who stayed by his side through it all was Hector’s dad.

Hector sits up from where he is laying, slouched, across his chair. His voice cracks.

“He was my dad’s best friend,” he says. “He was my best friend too.”

Hector and his younger brother were not allowed to see Charlie when his drinking got bad. Hector remembers seeing him only a few times during those difficult times.

“His skin was yellow, his eyes were sunken, he stumbled around and shouted a lot,” he says. “I remember being scared of him. This man that I’d known and loved and trusted my whole life. I was scared of him.”

Before Charlie started drinking, he would take Hector and his brother Dougal out shooting at his farm.

“One time, he dressed my little brother up in this huge trench coat and flat cap, and sent him running into the woods with a big stick to hit the bushes and trees,” Hector smiles, his eyes crinkling in happy remembrance. “Me and Charlie just shot the hell out of everything that flew out.”

Recounting a singular enjoyable time at the pub, before Charlie’s excessive drinking consumed him, Hector smiles.

“He taught me how to play the pub game ‘Shut the Box’,” Hector says. “Still mentally astute, he would win against me every time.”

“These were the times Charlie would stop after three or four beers,” Hector sighs.  

Sadly, these are the only truly good memories of Charlie that Hector has left, as most other things are tainted by his drinking.

Hector reminisces about his other memories with Charlie. Now he is older, Hector recognises that sometimes Charlie was only fun because he was drunk and often these fun memories would soon turn dark, with Charlie getting angry or crying hysterically.

“Often, when he would drink, he would cry at the same time because he thought, if his parents could see him, they would be disappointed,” Hector says.

It was in the pub, drinking and crying, where Charlie collapsed and ended up in hospital. Hector’s dad recounted the event to his sons when they were a little older, and they were more able to understand.

“My dad sat us down to say Charlie was in hospital,” Hector’s voice cracks. “He was sitting in his chair at the pub, he keeled over and fell off. Everyone thought he was just drunk, as usual. Then he didn’t get up.”

Charlie spent two months in hospital, with regular visits from the Pearson family until Hector’s dad was too grief-stricken to see his best friend in such a state. He was being kept alive by machines until they couldn’t do anymore, and he passed away.

Hector’s life was changed drastically with the passing of Charlie. He misses him greatly, to this day.

Neither Hector nor his brother are allowed to drink until the age of 21. Not even a glass of wine with dinner or a WKD at a sleepover with friends. Due to the trauma of losing their best friend to the vicious grip of alcoholism, his parents were so anxiety-ridden with the thought he would follow the same route as Charlie, they did everything in their power to try to deter Hector.

 “Seeing Charlie in this heart-breaking state was enough of a strong deterrent to stop me from drinking,” says Hector. “He looked awful; gaunt and yellow. It was tragic. I never wanted to end up the way he did: in the hospital with no family or friends left, just wasting away.”

Charlie Willis was barely 40 when he died, laying in a hospital bed waiting for a liver transplant he never got, wishing he could have made his parents proud.