The start of 2010 saw the beginning of a series of very difficult events, and from this point until February 2012, my lovely family went through tragedy after tragedy. It was as though a dark cloud was lurking over us, the gods were frowning or the stars were colliding in a way which meant that we were to be subjected to a horrendous time. The events felt completely unrelenting – no sooner had one thing happened and left us reeling that something else came along. It was like trying to fight 12 rounds with no training – we didn’t stand a chance and it was impossible not to emerge injured and changed forever.
The first thing which happened was that my beloved Poppa died from bowel cancer. We knew this was going to happen and he was in a hospice when he died, comfortable and cared for. We had his funeral and it was very sad, of course, but it was expected and we were able to prepare for it. However, seven weeks later to the day my Nanna, Poppa’s wife, died unexpectedly in very sad circumstances. Suddenly we were back at another funeral, and my poor mother had lost both her parents in seven weeks.
I am not sure how this affected Ian, he was certainly knocked by it and it undoubtedly made him think about some larger life issues. He spoke about how both losses made him reflect on the concept of family – Nanna and Poppa’s marriage of 62 years, two children, five grandchildren – and it had highlighted once again how far away he felt from finding that network. I tried to chivvy him along, but I could not truly empathise with his anxiety as I had my husband and we had a baby, and I believe this made him feel all the more alone.
We weren’t finished yet. The next thing, a month or so later, was that my Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. With an operation and a course of radiotherapy, thankfully the prognosis was good. This did not stop it from being a horribly worrying and sobering time, and utterly exhausting for Mum and Dad in particular, bearing in mind the two recent losses. It was during Mum’s treatment that Ian had his most major depressive episode since 2004.
There was one particular phone call which brought things to a head and resulted in one of the only times I got frustrated with Ian. He had called me a few times in a short period, and I could tell he was getting lower and lower each time. I had tried the passive listening, the gentle suggestions, and the bossy sister mode, but eventually I got to the point when I did not know what he wanted me to say and how he felt that I could help. I began to feel it was unfair that he kept calling and unloading on me, especially when he knew I was limited in the support and advice I was able to get from others, due to his secrecy around the issues. Prior to motherhood I had felt more able to cope with his phone calls, but at this point they had begun to cause me notable stress. They came on top of me being a full time working mother to a 15 month old baby, trying to cope with working shifts in a stressful job and a husband who worked away a lot, a general unease about my parents not knowing the full story, and at this particular time also worrying for my Mum and her health.
During this one particular call, Ian disclosed that he had been having intrusive thoughts of ending his life and that he had recently written a suicide note. I felt desperately worried, powerless and out of my depth. For the first time I really pushed him, and was insistent that he needed to find robust support from other sources. It was probably a long time coming. I have reflected a lot about whether I had been something of an enabler prior to this, not encouraging him to take responsibility for his life and his feelings. As is a recurring theme with my feelings regarding Ian, I feel a sense of guilt about this… but deep down I do know I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and that my intentions were good even if with hindsight I might do things differently. At this point, I asked Ian to promise two things – that he would speak to his manager at work and that he would make an appointment with his GP. He took what I said on board, accepting that he needed to do both of these things if things were ever going to permanently improve.
Ian’s manager at work – a mental health professional herself as Ian was a mental health OT – was surprised when he went to speak to her and honestly explained his struggles. She had no idea, such was the effectiveness of his facade of being ‘OK’. She was, as you would hope, helpful, sensitive and sensible – at that point and at many other points in the coming year. She continued to be a great support to Ian, right until his death.
He also booked a GP appointment which resulted in him being started on anti-depressants and being referred to the CMHT for an assessment. The day before the assessment was scheduled, Ian called and asked me to go with him. I had recently started a new job – I think it was actually my first week – and I did not feel that I could ask for a day off so soon after starting in order to make the journey from Somerset to Southampton. Again, this is something which haunts me and which I continue to feel a burden about, but at the time I know I based my decision on what were reasonable factors. It also felt – and actually, it still feels – important that Ian did this for himself. Instead of attending, on Ian’s request I sent an email for him to take to the assessment which summed up my thoughts and worries and which provided something like a witness statement. This seemed to give him confidence, validated what he needed to say, and I guess gave him a starting point if words failed him. Previous appointments regarding his mental health had been difficult as Ian found it hard to begin the conversation, and he had a recurring fear that he would not be believed. In the email, I wrote in black and white my fears that Ian would slip through the net due to his ability to pretend he was OK, and that ultimately he was at high risk of dying by suicide. I do not know the ins and outs of the assessment, but soon after Ian began group CBT counselling and had access to the CMHT Crisis Team.
He also felt at this point that it was time to tell Dad about what was happening. Mum was in the middle of a month’s radiotherapy, so we decided that it would be best to wait until this was over, and at this point Ian sent an email to Dad explaining some of the things which had happened and the fact that now he was receiving treatment. I felt positive that things were on the up and that, now Ian had professional help, his mental health could not fail to improve.
Things seemed fairly settled until spring 2011, when Ian started expressing some worries about work and about how life was panning out. He couldn’t decide whether he should try and get on to a government Help to Buy scheme, as living in shared accommodation continued to bother him as he felt he was not where he ‘should’ be in life. He was unsure about what direction he should pursue at work and I felt concerned that he was burning out. He seemed to be getting low again but reassured me that he had regular contact with his GP, the CMHT and that he could talk to his boss at work too. Alarm bells rang quietly in my mind, but alongside my concerns there seemed to be positives. In May 2011, Ian decided to use some of the inheritance we got from our grandparents to go to New York. It was a fitting way to honour them as we all suspected that, given the chance, our Poppa would have loved to have travelled more. I do recall being concerned when Ian said he was going to the States alone. What with him having expressed feeling low I was anxious about whether he would be ok. I even worried that he might disappear, or be planning a suicide attempt while he was there, almost as though the trip was part of a grand plan to do something reckless. I don’t know why I had this anxiety, but I suppose I felt that if he was so far away from everyone who loved him, then emotionally he might be able to cut off in a way that meant he could harm himself.
Needless to say, I was thoroughly relieved when he returned home safely having had a fantastic time. He talked about it and showed us his photos and videos with pure excitement, and although he continued to talk about feeling low in the next few months, he seemed to be proactively organising adventures to keep the Black Dog at bay. During the summer he did a bungee jump which he loved, he went on a cycling holiday in the Isle of Wight with his oldest friend, and just the weekend before he died he cycled the Way of the Roses – a 170 mile route between Morecambe and Bridlington. He certainly was not a classic picture of depression. The last time I saw him was in July, about 8 weeks before he died. We got together as a family along with our Granny, cousins and uncle to celebrate what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday. We had a picnic on the hills and it was a truly lovely day – Ian was great company, loved seeing my son and our cousin’s two little boys and was on good form. The photos of that day are of course particularly special to me.
Time crept quietly on with no glaring signs of concern, to the day when everything exploded and our lives were never the same again. My Mum, Dad and sister saw Ian a fortnight before he died, as he visited them for the first time in their new home. Our parents had retired to Gloucestershire from Norfolk, and Ian spent a lovely weekend with them at the end of August. Their life was just beginning a new chapter, but we had no idea about the turn which was about to occur and which would change their chapter beyond all recognition from the one they had imagined. This is the point I will come to in my next blog.
Until next time, thank you for reading.