When I was a 9 year old boy, in 1984, my father had a motorbike accident. It put him in a coma for many weeks, and he was on a life support system.
When he did finally come out of hospital, he’d suffered brain damage and also had several serious problems with his motor skills and physical abilities. He had to learn some of his words back, how to write, how to walk, how to use his hands and so on.
Now the details are a little fuzzy, as you might imagine from being that long ago. But there were some days there (maybe weeks; it doesn’t matter how long) where my mother had to go to work at the local supermarket, stacking shelves, and my sister was away.
So it was my job to look after daddy.
There wasn’t a huge amount to ‘do’ as such. Give him cups of tea. Help him eat occasionally. But the key thing was giving him his medicines. He was on a tight regime of drugs. He had about 9 or 10 different ones for different things. And they had to be given to him regularly. Perhaps every couple of hours.
The key thing was that if I didn’t give them to him in the right order he could die. He was entirely dependent on them in the early days after hospital.
Now, however long that lasted for, it was a huge responsibility for a 9 year old to take on. I remember making a sheet of paper with columns and rows on it showing which hour and which drugs, and carefully putting that sheet onto a coffee table next to his make-shift bed in the lounge, and laying out the drugs into the right table boxes so that I didn’t get confused as to which ones were next, and could make sure he got all of them in the right order with none of them missed.
Which I needed to do, because I found the instructions on all the little plastic bottles confusing, and when I was near him I got stressed. His language was foul. He would swear and shout. Not over anything important, and I realise now it was because he was in a lot of pain and confusion. But that was another aspect that was distressing.
His mother, my Grandmother, had offered to care for him at her house. But for some reason my mother refused. I wonder what the reasons for that were. I know that she wanted to ‘toughen me up’, but also she lost her father when she was young and I wonder now if something was repeating itself there for her.
Whatever the reasons were, that was the situation. And I had to deal with it. I could have said no, but I didn’t. I’d been given a job. I had to get it right. And if I got it wrong I could lose my dad. You could say, ‘I would kill him’, because that’s how it felt.
It’s something that I’ve recalled from time to time, and even had therapy about before. But this year, for some reason (possibly because he has now passed away), that memory came back to the surface. And I’ve realised for the first time that surrounding it is a whole bag of emotions.
The emotions in question are a bit like a sliding scale. At the low end of the scale I can just feel trapped and confused. So I have my little coping mechanisms to get me through the day; I check I’ve packed everything in my bag twice before I go out. I plan everything ahead, sometimes rehearsing business meetings days before they happen. And I turned into such a successful project manager that I ended up being the best one on the project management team. Go figure that! Good with detail, forgetting nothing.
Even at that level the modus operandi seems to be ‘preventing a catastrophe’. Enjoyment of my work doesn’t tend to come into it.
Then further up the scale the trapped and confused feelings get a little stronger. I’m great in a crisis (and my sister is, too). But if you give me something mundane to deal with I find it hard. I even remember my piano teacher saying that I found hard music scores easy, and easy music scores hard.
At the top of the scale the trapped and scared feelings reach a sort of climax. And whatever it is that triggers that ‘top of the scale’ the result is a desire to self harm. At the very worst, I start to plan to take my own life.
Whilst that state of mind, feeling suicidal, has only happened perhaps a handful of times in my life, it is a tendency I have and that I live with. So I have been working these last few months to understand where that tendency comes from, and how to make friends with it; how to be at peace with it and forgive it and so on.
I think it first happened when I was 16 and my mother died. She was a passenger on the back of my dad’s motorbike. So he was in hospital again after that accident. Whilst I don’t think I could say that I looked after him when he was convalescing that time, I did go back for a year to live with him. So he would phone my sister (who by that time was at university) to find out how to make omlettes. And I would re-cook the half-frozen pies he had cooked, and iron shirts for him, and I was there as a companion. I offered to stay instead of going away to uni, but he sweetly said, ‘go’.
But I think the second tragedy embedded something in my psyche, because I did want to take my own life then and it relates to a situation involving another motorbike accident, my dad in hospital, and coming out with problems and a stinky temper.
Dads back then…well, it was normal for them to be distant. To let the mother deal with the children. He had been traditional out of necessity in that sense before 1984. And sometimes out of wanting to (he didn’t spend many weekends with the kids). But after 1984 even when he was around he was violent, angry, quick-tempered, foul mouthed. It was hard to love him. And after the later accident he wouldn’t help himself or listen to the advice of others; he didn’t forgive himself. Perhaps on one level he didn’t want to live either. Survivor’s guilt.
When I was 21 and came out as gay I also felt suicidal then. Perhaps the triggers there were religious, but it doesn’t matter what the triggers were; I felt trapped, I wanted an escape route because there was a task I was dealing with here (this time within myself) that felt too hard to deal with. And if I didn’t get the pills in the right order (figuratively speaking) then there’d be a ‘catastrophe’.
And then again when I was about 23 or 24. I cut ties with the church community I’d been introduced to at age of 4. And I hated myself for that. So I felt trapped again. And then again in May 2013 (I had to just check the year in my calendar because I forget important dates) when Dad died, dealing with things after that I got suicidal again.
I’ve been out of work for anxiety and depression twice now. This time round, this year, it was for something different. The ‘breakthrough’ was about many things, but what surfaced was this old bag of emotions; where they came from, what to do with them. What triggers them.
So now when I feel stressed or trapped or confused or like I need to escape, I see that this is because of those 9 year old feelings. And even just seeing that much helps.
It creates distance from them; there is the 9 year old. And here is me now. And the 9 year old deals with things that way because that’s all a 9 year old can do. But I’m not that little boy, so I have different choices now. I can choose a different response to the situation.
I can tell people ‘can you tell me how I might fit that in?’, because I don’t have to take everything on and ‘save it’.
I can observe the self-loathing, curling up inside, fearful 9 year old response and say, ‘I love you, I forgive you, I’m here for you’.
Perhaps I can’t be entirely at peace and present with the present moment of ‘Now’ in such situations (wherever they feature on that ‘scale’) quite yet. But the grip of those emotions is loosening. My modus operandi is changing.
Shortly after the latest spell out of work I realised that the name people give to children who go through this kind of thing these days is ‘child carer’. So I was telling all my buddies ‘I was a child carer’ in the hope perhaps that they’d help me understand some of all this. They couldn’t, of course. And even if they could, it wasn’t theirs to do. And I remember saying to my husband, ‘I could run a half marathon for this child carer charity! What do you think?’, and he said, ‘I think you’re still caring for your dad there.’
So here is me now, not caring for my Dad because he’s gone. And I have already been such a great success in my life because he didn’t die that time. I kept him alive with my effort and my care. So here is me now caring for myself, loving myself, nurturing myself, and knowing it is needed.
(If you are reading this, and do want to help young carers, you could donate to CarersUK or another charity for child carers where you live.)