A luxury holiday rental in the country, an open fire, a fabulous meal prepared by a private chef on the Saturday evening, a spa trip and three generations of family - all the ingredients for a special birthday weekend. As I left on the Sunday afternoon to catch a flight I reflected on a fabulous couple of days celebrating my mum’s birthday - but the phrase ‘making memories’ was ominously at the forefront of my mind.
That was over a year ago - little did I know that next time I would see my mum, something would have changed - and within a month her personality would be unrecognisable. What then followed I can’t get my head around. Somewhere early December it was as if a switch flicked and mum suddenly slipped deeper and deeper into clinical depression and acute anxiety. This seemingly came from nowhere - she had no history of mental illness… and surely this doesn’t happen in a loving Christian family? The sad reality is that of course it does - looking back now, I can see a number of smaller things happened at the same time - which perhaps when put together, caused the brain to seemingly short-circuit. We just didn’t notice the impact, and now it’s impossible not to wonder ‘what if we had noticed...?’ Suddenly, without warning, the last 12 months have been a fast-tracked course in learning about mental health issues, and realising that there seems to be an absence of practical advice to support carers.
I have learnt so much since last year, and perhaps a few of these thoughts may be helpful to others.
We use the term ‘depression’ so easily in today’s society - perhaps a sad reflection of the prevalence of mental health issues. Many of us know someone suffering with a form of depression - but depression is on a spectrum … from the milder forms which when caught early can be helped with talking therapies or medication, to those which are completely debilitating and stop the sufferer from living life - where the complete disinterest in facing the day for months on end causes physical side effects and challenges which are almost more difficult than the depression itself. With such differing forms, there is no ‘one size fits all’ in terms of treatment, and so making comparisons isn’t appropriate.
Powerful campaigns such ‘Heads Together’ have taken steps to break the stigma that surrounds mental health issues - and in a bid to normalise it, analogies can be made with breaking a bone in the body. They take time to heal and so does the brain but that is where the similarities unfortunately end. If only mum had begun to show some progress in the time it would take for a broken bone to heal. Sadly this has not been the case.
I have learnt that I am someone who wants to fix things - but with this there is no formula and that is so frustrating. There will be times in the last 12 months where I have said the right thing - but often I know I have said the wrong thing. Those moments where frustration spills over are the ones that I kick myself for when I drive away from a weekend visit. Seeing someone I love change almost overnight is tough - I long for the day to come when I can phone my mum up for a chat … and even though God seems very distant on this subject, I keep praying that that opportunity will come again.
When I grow up (I’m 43 now?!) I want to be like my dad - seeing how he has gone about life in the last 12 months blows me away. So patient, so loving - so prepared to put everything on hold to look after my mum - he is the person I want to be, and I hope that he finds some comfort and support from my visits. We’ve always been close - we share a passion for people being the best they can be, and so the fact that we are in uncharted territory is difficult for both of us. Many a Saturday morning in the past year has been spent chatting over an extra coffee - wondering how long we leave it before he tries to persuade mum to face the day.
Perhaps the biggest thing I have learnt is to be thankful. Thankful for precious time spent with my inspirational dad. Thankful for the tiny glimmers of progress and the fact that once when I visited in the past year mum felt up to a short trip into town. It happened only once and she stunned both dad and I by agreeing to stop for a coffee - something that we ordinarily take for granted made my week! Thankful for some amazing friends who listen to me, pray with me, understand that planning ahead is impacted by me wanting to visit mum and dad frequently - or who drop me a text out of the blue just to check if there is any news. Thankful to be in a job I love - and I know I work for someone who cares. She has the gift of knowing when to ask about mum, and when not to - but I know that whether she says anything or not, she is watching out for me.
In my role away from my day job as a life coach, I have come across a number of people with mental health challenges - but I now know better than ever before to treat those individually and make no assumptions or comparisons. I am also acutely aware of the need to take care of myself - so in the midst of a demanding job, making time for me, exercise and healthy eating, needs to be more of a priority.
As I write this mum has had six rounds of ECT treatment - that was a huge decision both for her and our family. Early signs are encouraging - and I am daring to hope that it is achieving something that none of the combinations of drugs have managed. For the first time since this started there are some small signs of progress. It’s my birthday next week - and if I could have one thing, it would be to go out for a coffee and cake with mum. I am daring to believe that might happen. Life will never be quite the same again. I suspect there will be many more chapters of this story to be written, but I am praying that we can go on ‘making memories’ taking it one step at a time.