My father died when I was 21. He had been in a psychiatric hospital for some time due to what was diagnosed as early dementia in addition to Parkinsons. In fact it was probably Lewy Body Dementia. I only realised when it was too late that the antipsychotic drugs he was given shortened his life and insufficient physical care led to pressure sores and septicemia. I have tried to access his medical notes to be told they were destroyed by fire at the old asylum-type place he was in. I feel angry. They let him down. I let him down.
It is important to me to tell his story. He has no memorial, his ashes were scattered by the lake on Hampstead Heath where he used to swim as a young man. My parents divorced when my brother and I were young and our mother’s ill feeling towards him coloured my sense of him despite him being a good father to me. Although I was the only one to visit him in hospital I hadn’t realised at the time how wronged he had been, how tough his life was and how desperately sad but proud I would be once I was emotionally mature enough to see things beyond my mother’s narcissistic lens on the world.
My father was born to an unmarried servant girl, Annie Alexandra who worked at Hadleigh Rectory, Barnet, North London. I am aware from his paperwork that he had tried to trace her towards the end of his life but to no avail. I know little of his life apart from fragments. He was put in a home for waifs and strays when he was a small boy and went on to do an apprenticeship at De Havilland Aircraft as a draughtsman. I have his admission contract for this and sadly the section mentioning his time in care has been scrubbed out as though he found it painful to recall.
I’m lucky enough to have his meticulously written engineering books and drawings, mostly marked with A grades, he was a perfectionist and very intelligent. I have memories of him trying to help me with my maths homework, his love of the subject evident but I do recall my frustration at the time as I just wanted help with the answer and not the related aspects.
I know my father spent time in the Army, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, and references were made by him to my brother and me of mental illness and surgery for it. He told us he had a brain operation involving his skull being drilled. I can only conclude it was a lobotomy on the frontal lobe – experimental surgery conducted widely at the time, often without consent. It is possible he was suffering from anxiety or depression. My mother’s knowledge of this time in his life is either patchy or disinterested. It would have been before she met him, though ironically her later training as a psychiatric nurse did not spark her interest or her compassion. For her, he was cold and unaffectionate, presumably this was his character when she met him and I have since read that the type of psychosurgery he probably had caused marked character change and dampening of emotions.
The father I remember did not hug us or say lovely things, but I remember more and more the caring things he did like brushing my hair or trying to diffuse my mother’s anger if I’d spilt something at the breakfast table. He did seem to notice us and be present for us in a way I don’t recall from my mother. He bought me a new bike when mine was stolen. It was my father who took time off work to take me to frequent orthodontic appointments and I’m not sure if this was a factor in his subsequest redundancy, but he experienced this on several occasions in his working life and in the years leading up to his illness he was unemployed despite trying hard to find work. He never missed maintenance payments, kept up with mortgage payments while my mother who then remarried, and I, now at college, lived at the house. My father lived in a bedsit up until he was admitted to hospital.
I wish my father could have had the love and care he deserved and needed. Despite his own difficulties he was a good father to me and worked hard all his life for us. I wish I knew his story.
In these more enlightened times mental illness is seen differently by health professionals and employers, but there’s still a long way to go.
I have experienced debilitating depression in my twenties and thirties, unaware that it had a name or that there was treatment. To my mother it was laziness. I was being a miserable cow, I was a bad person. Her own early experiences robbed her of the capacity to feel the necessary sensitivity towards those closest to her. I am now a Counsellor and psychological therapist but am filled with gnawing sadness at these lives. Despite now understanding it, nothing removes it from my core.
Thank you for the opportunity to do this, with love to us all.
Lisa Edwards works for Re-Gain, a mental health project in Cornwall and is a Counsellor in private practice.