I’ve never written anything about someone I love longer than a Tweet or Status Update. Certainly not a blog.
But when I think that it might, just might, help those who are trying to understand or come to terms with something, either regarding themselves or those around them, I give it a little extra thought. And in this case I’m driven to write about something I do happen to have some direct experience of. The subject of mental illness.
My Dad used to call them quacks: doctors in general, but in particular psychiatrists. I don’t think he had a particularly high regard of them. His science was a particularly exacting one. I remember him saying that, in all his time as an electronics engineer, he’d never actually got anything wrong. That’s presumably because he made damned sure he always got it right.
Then again, he wasn’t quite so confident when it came to matters not quite so definite or definitive. Like ambition. Or the prospect of managing others. Or his own mind.
He believed in meritocracy. He was on the side who believed that those that know probably should be in charge of those that don’t.
The trouble was, his was the losing side. Because usually the ignorant egoists were put in charge of him. And he hated that. And it drove him mad.
That’s “mad” in old speak of course. Now we say “mentally ill”, don’t we.
I’ve read quite a few articles by those who seem to know what they’re talking about in the last few days. Each attempts to give a cast-iron explanation for why people become depressed or unhinged, excessively moody or morose.
I used to have a very clear view myself, when Dad was ill. I used to think he’d be driven to it. Years of various forms of mistreatment, misunderstanding, lack of communication. Years of intense frustration, pain, disappointment.
Not only was Dad extremely intelligent. He was also charming and extremely funny, the kind of man who could quite frequently make people hurt with laughter. He was a magical mimic and could create a caricature of just about anyone, from Mum’s relatives – “Ey-oop, here’s Ann and Arthur!” – to pompous schoolmasters who’d taught him at Oundle. Germans and the French were particular favourites of his.
He was very kind too. He’d always be on call to pick up a stray teenage daughter or son from parties miles away or be there with a comforting wise word, most usually with reference to the difference between Northerners (good) and Southerners (bad). He was, naturally, a blue-blooded Southerner.
He’d sometimes lose it – that was a bit of a sign I suppose. I remember him kicking me when we were on a beach in France. I’m sure I was being annoying but I’m also sure he was, even then, quite a troubled man.
Troubled became out of control. Again, my clear, young mind thought it was all work-related. A succession of depressing workplaces, with even more wearisome bosses, had eaten away at him to such an extent that he started to take it out on himself, then Mum. When it all became too difficult for anyone to handle he checked himself into a clinic in Northampton, funded as it was by our Uncle Peter, Dad’s cousin. Another ounce of shame for Dad to endure.
Dad had Electric Shock Treatment more than once. It used to frighten me. He’d make friends with the psychiatric nurses – they seemed particularly caring if not particularly effective. The consultants, though, all seemed either useless, rarely available or both.
He went to another hospital – this one seemed no more than a way to keep him out of the house or at the very least to keep him relatively safe from himself.
He stabilised in the last couple of years of his life. But then, as far as I remember, he began to suffer from the early stages of Parkinson’s. In any case, he’d completely lost the vigour, charm and beautiful humour that he’d once had, barely a decade before. In 10 years he’d degenerated steadily but nonetheless shockingly.
He died of an aerobic embolism at the age of 67. He almost certainly wouldn’t have made it past his mid seventies with the heart he had but it’s still my view that his depression and severe anxiety (I think they called it schizophrenia back then – this was the mid-eighties) cut his life short by nearly a decade.
Familiar, eh? A man bordering genius, extremely funny, extremely troubled. Oh – and he could improvise Bach too. So, I remember Dad’s illness well. Something like that is difficult to forget. But I’m no clearer as to what might have been done to help the situation.
When Dad was ill I got to speak to him more than I’d ever spoken to him in my life. I was able to be the grown-up now, chivvying him on and giving him a bit of advice, most of which probably seemed no more than cold comfort. I’m pretty sure it brought me closer. It certainly coincided with a stable and happy time in my own life, so I think there’s just a chance it helped him, on the whole. It seems to me now that just talking and listening were the best things I could have done, no matter how powerless I felt or how pointless I remember it being.
The fact is, the more I think about it now, depressed people need love. They need selfless, unstinting love. It’s a love that makes the tea, that tidies up, that listens and doesn’t talk too much. It’s a love that sympathises and empathises, as appropriate. It’s a love that believes that it’s all going to get better, even if it doesn’t.
I wish I could have got on with Dad more, could have helped him more. Maybe he could have saved himself a little. Maybe he could have opened up more. Whatever.
What I do know now is that it’s a better thing for you to do what’s best when people are around – that’s share the love – than diagnose, pass judgement, feel bad, guilty or proselytise when they’re gone. Because all that stuff, whether it’s regarding a celebrity or a relative, all that stuff is truly pointless.
Jez Kay is a videographer and sound designer who lives in Greenwich, South East London with his wife and daughter.