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The Responder writer Tony Schumacher: ‘Suddenly all I had was my car and my dog’

The writer of new police drama The Responder shares the story of how he became homeless after his police career ended.

Tony Schumacher did many jobs before becoming a writer. But his 12-year stint as a Police Responder was the one that left the biggest mark. It gave him the insight, empathy and authenticity he brings to his screenwriting debut, The Responder, a new BBC1 drama starring Martin Freeman. But by the time he left the police force, his mental health had been significantly impacted by the relentlessness of the work and he ended up homeless.

The job just fucks you up. I’m still affected by it years later. I suppose we call it PTSD. But it’s still in me, you know? I’m just lucky I have got the ability to write about it.

I fell out of the job, I fell out of a marriage and I fell out of a house

Tony Schumacher

I reckon I was in the middle of a breakdown for a few months before I resigned. It was only towards the very end that I realised I needed time off, and eventually decided I couldn’t do it any more. I couldn’t cope. I wish I had been supported a bit more. But there’s a little bit of self-blame as well: “I shouldn’t have had that breakdown.” That’s not how it should be. But you can’t help it. 

My marriage broke down as a result of my mental health. I fell out of the job, I fell out of a marriage and I fell out of a house. Suddenly all I had was a car and my dog. I was living in my Vauxhall Vectra, sleeping in the car. It was incredibly hard. 

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And it’s incredibly hard to ask for help. I was embarrassed. I had gone from being a copper, where all your mates think you are in control. Then you realise you are not, but you don’t want people to know. That is why I’m really open about it now.

It was like a long thrum of anxiety that moves through you constantly. It’s like being swept away by rapids. You grab a big rock, then you grab a smaller one and eventually you can’t grab a rock because the water has got too deep. If we could catch people earlier, we’d need a smaller net – that’s why I agree with Housing First.

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I know lots of homeless people have a moment where it’s like a fork in the road. So I was lucky. I managed to take the right fork.

I reached out to one mate and said listen, I’m really struggling here. I’m living in my car. Initially I was asking for money to get me through my MOT, because my car was my home so I couldn’t lose it. I had no money to fix the car and no money to live on.  

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But he said, “No, I’ll help get you a place to live.” That saved my life. Having a place to live gave me space to think about what had happened and process it. Once I got a place to live, I was able to take stock and feel safe again. How can I re-establish myself?  

For all the grimness and how horrible it was, the experience changed me profoundly. It gave me new empathy and probably made me the writer I am.

The Responder is on BBC One Mondays at 9pm, and iPlayer

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