Just our mums being our mums

On Mums. Extract from something…

I have never taken for granted that my body was capable of making (with help) and growing and nourishing and hosting and birthing (with help) a baby, I’ve never taken for granted that my baby and I received diligent free care in hospital until Marcie was strong enough to leave, that my baby came home and stayed big and strong and healthy and grew to walk and talk and make us laugh and sing childhood songs and feel joy. That I felt that sweet victory of learning the mysterious dance of chromosomes had listened to my silent wish and given me a daughter, which felt like such a win for women and myself, which is so silly of me I know. That I get to look forward to her being my daughter every day. That I get to feel the exquisitely sharp pain of such love, to feel the immeasurable privilege of such a sweet duty. That weightless weight, that boundless realm of being her mother. And I have never taken for granted that I am still here, changed but unbroken, alive and able to love anything.


I do though know of something I’ve taken for granted. It’s taken becoming a mother to know it, though maybe it would have happened naturally with age. I know that I have taken Mum for granted. Not in a rude, demanding ‘never saying please or thank you’ sort of way. But just by being so casually always loved by her. So flippantly adored. So nonchalantly supported. So assumptive of her dedication to me over everything else. Being loved can make you lazy.


We can be so blind to our mothers’ own womanhood. We are never tender enough with their bodies. We never hug them then let our hands drop to lovingly pat the place that was our home for nine months. We never look at the faded knot of our belly buttons and think how that once was the channel that fed us, the tube that fused our bodies together. We never rub their lower backs and think of all the ongoing aches they’ve had because of us. Of their hips and pelvis that need Pilates, their clicky knees, their tired feet. The hands and wrists they twisted and repetitively weakened by carrying us and playing with us. The relentless daily wear and tear of loving us so efficiently we’ll never know how much they’re doing and feeling and hiding. We never think of their less-full breasts and their stretch marks and their scars and their changed relationship with their female parts, that whole unseen world inside them, their altered role in intimacy, their sisterhood and secret competitiveness with other women, their perception of their own beauty or sexuality or desirability. The thinned hair and the eye bags. We don’t think of Them Before Us – their bodies, their freedom, their smoothness, their time, their old hobbies, their much more carefree brain. We think we thank them, and we sort of do on their birthdays or Mothers’ Day or with flowers on a Sunday just because, but also we don’t. Not really, in a dedicated ‘I am actually thinking of every thing you’ve been through to be my mother’ sort of way. Because we couldn’t think of all of that in full expansive reverential detail, on one day, in one thank you, if we tried. We couldn’t do it. And they probably wouldn’t want the fuss if we could. Because they are just our mums being our mums.

Letter to Dawn French

FIRST PUBLISHED IN STANDARD ISSUE MAGAZINE IN SEPTEMBER 2014

 

I don’t do fawning or bowing to fame. Humans are humans, I reckon.

From seeing Bros waving out of a West-end window as a kid and numbly thinking “Huh. Their heads look really tiny.” as hundreds of girls screamed their larynxes out around me, to spilling wine on Derek Jacobi (and getting away with it), I’ve always felt quite casual meeting people who happen to be famous. I quietly search for the things hidden just beneath the illusion of their renown; a shyness in the way they move, or a bit of sandwich in their teeth. Looking not for faults, but for real things. The humans they are, not ‘the thing’ they do.

Perhaps I am slightly deadened to the thrill of meeting people who have been glazed with the dubious gilt of celebrity. You get to meet a lot of people when you shapeshift around the worlds of comedy, telly and theatre as a character writer and performer, and a few years of doing the Edinburgh Festival can be enough to permanently snuff out any sense of magic you may still have for familiar faces. Everyone all wallows around together like pigs in swill. It has a democratising effect; if you saw John Cleese in Tescos up there, you’d sooner be telling him to “get to the back of the queue, Granddad” than trying to force a silly walk and an autograph out of him. (Which is as it should be if the cheeky bastard is pushing in.)

 

But recently, I sought an encounter with a well-known person because I just had to know what it felt like to meet her. Someone I knew was tour managing Dawn French. He offered me tickets; asked me if I’d like to meet her. I squealed and said yes, yes, a thousand yeses. That casual question of his brought up a lot of things I had been quietly sitting on for some time, and resulted in this letter.

 

Dearest lovely Dawn,

 

Firstly, DON’T BE FRIGHTENED – I’M NOT MENTAL.

Secondly, hullo!

Re the first point again – I am a chum of Adam’s, I’m not a complete random writing to say I have every picture ever taken of you pasted to the wall of a secret Dawn French annex in my attic. As I say, not mental. I’m coming to see you at Southend tomorrow and thought I would write in advance to say how much I loved the show, even though I’ve not seen it yet. I know I will.

 

This is my third attempt at writing to you. The first still exists in a notebook somewhere, and the second was deleted with an accompanying slap to the forehead from a book I am writing. Over the past few years, I’ve done a lot of work with the very silly man that is Al Murray, which is how I know Adam. One of the many silly things I’ve done for that lovely beer-slosher was ‘play’ the female guests in his live theatre rehearsals for Happy Hour. Of all the women I vaguely attempted to impersonate in some token way – Lumley, Holden, Von Teese, some posh bird I’d never heard about but looked up on Wikipedia –  you were the only one I didn’t even try to ‘do’. I knew I wouldn’t get close, and didn’t want to try.

 

I wrote the first letter to you to put in a card and send to your dressing room at the Happy Hour record, but I bottled it because I didn’t want to be nauseating or annoying. So I just sent you love in my head instead. Now I’m actually going to go through with being nauseating and/or annoying. Apologies.

 

One of my other jobs in the uncertain world of writing (plays and columns) and acting (stoopid) is working part-time in a bookshop. I’ve wandered in and out of its cosy embrace throughout the years; it’s like my second home. When your autobiography came out, I stood leaning over the counter like a total slacker, chewing gum and shooting surly looks at anyone who interrupted my very important ‘work’, which was reading your lovely words with the biggest grin on my face. My grin soon left. I didn’t know that your father had ended his own life. I was heartbroken for you, and felt savagely protective of you.

 

My father committed suicide when I was 23, ten years ago, and at the time of reading your book I was a little way into writing a book about him. I had to write it I think or I would always have been trapped in grief, like a fly in amber. It’s been gruellingly difficult but I think it may be the most important thing I have done for my head. Still tinkering with it. I secretly wonder if I want to finish it at all, because that will mean I have to move on in a new way; another kind of goodbye.

 

My Dad had always struggled with depression. Bi-polar, they later told him. He was found with his head in a gas oven at thirteen, and then it was always there. Like you, I was always kept from it. Mum and Dad split up when I was six, so he was ‘holiday’ Dad. ‘The odd week in North Wales’ Dad. I only got to see him when he was chipper. I never knew. He was a difficult controlling bugger, a clusterfuck of financial mess and woe, but god was he wonderful too. He instilled so much in me, and was obsessed with me being everything I could be; he knew the importance of living a good life because he knew that dark pull of wanting to give that life up. He is in everything I do, and I’m so grateful for it all. Even grateful for his death sometimes, because you have to take things from that too or you go a bit mad, don’t you.

 

I grew up loving you, doing skits to the class with my best friend Vicki, intent on being the school’s French and Saunders. Then I forgot I loved comedy and started writing poetry and plays as a teenager, later became a drama teacher, and a month after I started teaching in 2003, Dad died. Teaching died for me too, almost immediately I think. I shuffled through it for a couple of years, then had a cataclysmic breakdown and left. Started working in the bookshop once I’d dusted myself off, then got pulled into acting and comedy via writing, met Al, and remembered that I’d always loved it; it had always been there, and that it started with you. That’s when I wrote you a letter I never sent.

 

The letter told you that you had been there – years after inspiring silly sketches, one of the happiest times in my life – in my lowest moments too, after Dad went – wrapped in blankets on the sofa, in the deepest depths of wracking grief, not wanting to be alive anymore. The Vicar of Dibley was one of the few few comforts at that time. I watched DVDs of it over and over again. A veil pulled over it all. Its warmth and strangeness and occasional darkness. And the vibrancy of you – reminding me what it felt like to smile, even in the middle of all that hopelessness. (The words ‘thank you’ for that aren’t enough.)

 

Then years later I ‘played’ you. Failed to send you a letter. Looked after your book in the shop instead. Never dropped it. And I still always make sure you’re faced out. No snugly hidden spine for you. You’re with me a lot as I bustle about dropping expensive hardbacks on my toes. I think you’ll always be with me.

 

Anyway. I just wanted to say…all that. Sorry. But mainly I wanted to hug you very tight with words. Hope that isn’t your definition of mental after all.

 

I’m coming to see you tomorrow. So if you feel the theatre beaming extra bright and hot somewhere, that will be me. Quietly bursting with lots of things for you. (Actually – I say quiet – I have a hideously loud laugh. I will attempt to keep it down so you can concentrate. That’d be bloody typical after this, wouldn’t it; ruining your lovely show with my squawking.)

 

With just the right healthy sort of love you can feel for someone you don’t know,

 

but undoubtedly love,

 

Sadie

 

****

 

 

The letter got delivered to her. I felt like a complete nobby doofus, but somehow better for the purging. The next night, after her show, Dawn asked to meet me. And there in her dressing room it ended – after all that time, after all those things – in the best way. Not with any awareness or acknowledgment of her fame, but with two women, talking, understanding, and hugging.

Mostly I Fear the Fuck out of it

THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN OCTOBER 2015 IN STANDARD ISSUE MAGAZINE

 

I did a little choke when I saw that it was Bi-Polar Awareness Day on 6th of October. The little choke held within it a dark bark of a laugh and a bit of held-back bile.

 

You could say I am already quite aware of bi-polar on October the 6th. Because it is the day my bi-polar Dad topped himself. Thirteen years ago now. I am aware of it in the preceding weeks as Autumn creeps in, I am aware of it the day before when he was planning it, I am aware of it on the 7th when he was hanging in his flat alone, and I am aware of it on the 8th when he was found, when the police knocked on our door, when my mum delivered the line “He’s finally gone and done it”, and when my life changed forever. I am also aware of it all year round, in the media, with friends who have it or think they have it or friends who wouldn’t dare to consider that they might have it. But the 6th is pretty much D-Day, bi-polar awareness wise.

 

I first heard Dad had ‘something wrong with him’ when I was about 18 or 19. Manic depression was the more fashionable term for it back then. I got told that he often got ‘quite down’, and that was about the extent of the explanation. I didn’t live with him so it was easy for him to hide it, and I was in no position to question him. It remained this opaque unspoken thing. He told us he’d ‘had a small stroke’ then retracted it. Another time he told us he had six months to live but wouldn’t tell us why despite our begging. Six months came and went. He was still alive. But he wouldn’t talk about it. An “inoperable tumour” was mentioned but nothing more. I never heard him use the language of depression for it. He was ashamed. He didn’t give medication a chance. After he died we discovered his flat was full of pills he never took, all stuffed into empty cigarette packs.  Hidden, like his condition, like his truth. A guilty secret.

 

Then there was a condensed period of a sharp decline in his mental faculties, the downward slope of a handsome man giving up on the world, smelliness, shabby clothes, dull skin with pothole spots that always bled, dull eyes, financial mess, stints in a mental hospital, then eventually, exhausted, I stupidly ignored the last voicemail I ever got from him and a few days later he was dead. After lying about dying for so long, after years of manipulation, violence, fraud, a thousand other things, the most wonderful loving generous confusing mixed-up twisted fuck up of a man I knew but never really ‘knew’, gave up. He didn’t take his life, he threw it away.

 

Now I look back and see these ‘grand lies’ of his – customary checklist things of the bi-polar – as flags stuck in his timeline when he thought he was going to ‘do it’; as him readying us as best he could without explicitly telling us “I am going to kill myself”. The boy who cried wolf kept changing his mind until eventually he got swallowed up by the beast inside.

 

Since Dad’s death there have been many phases to grief, making sense of and making peace with his suicide, a lot of questions, a lot of finding no answers. But I haven’t explored bi-polar itself as a condition very much. Done no real reading or talking about it. Because I swing from thinking there are no real answers in the ‘still quite vague’ science of it all, to annoyance at people who bandy the condition about like a handy label, to fearing that I won’t like what I learn about it.

 

A big fear when you lose someone to bi-polar, to suicide, someone who gave you half your genetic heritage, is that you might have it yourself. Particularly when you have spent the best part of thirteen years wading through grief. What is grief, and what is ‘it’? That’s my awareness of it. The fear of the black dog in the shadows.

 

Do I have it? Bi-polar? My reflex is to say no. “No.” (Even to laugh.) But I can feel something dark turning over in my guts like a subterranean creature as I say it, spiking me with rough fingers, seeking acknowledgement. It’s a ugly thing. It wants me to say yes. But is this just the fatalism of a daughter’s gothic heart? Is it a foolish romantic tribute to Dad? Do I want it, for him, because it’s a link, and because all links are proof of where we’ve come from, and we all want roots? Because I don’t want him to have been alone in it?

 

Or do I have it? Do I actually have it, is it a real inherited thing, as much my own as a passed down family sea-chest or box of silver spoons, mine until I pass it on, a genetic gift? As I move further away from grief and settle more into my natural adult self, as I feel the push and pull of these dark moods, as I recognise various things that appear on the bi-polar checklist, I wonder. I wonder.

 

Mostly I think – No, surely I can’t have it. I was a happy child, full of light. I didn’t know desperation til much later, after Dad. I wasn’t found with my head in a gas oven when I was thirteen like he was. I never felt even close to down or wanting to die. The worst I ever felt was the strange vileness that can take over a girl when her hormones turn her a bit mad. That’s not bi-polar, that’s being a woman. That strange cycle lassoed to the moon that turns some of us near-lunatic for a day or two in every twenty eight. And all that crying I did over films, books, the news, soup adverts, history and literature lessons at school – that was just a young human getting to know the world which is big and crazy and scary and too sad to make sense of. And the patterns in the highs and lows is not remarkable, they’re just natural fluctuations because humans aren’t set to a constant level, because we’re not fucking robots. And all the other tickable things – shitness with money, flashes of intense libido – that’s just normal shit. That doesn’t mean one day I’ll go to the car and take out some blue towing rope and wave goodbye to the world with my hands and feet jiggling like an Al Jolson puppet. Does it?

 

I think all that and comfort myself.

 

But mostly I fear the fuck out of it. Because who wants to wind up like their dad, dangling in a doorway?

 

I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. For now. Perhaps if another depression ever bites me really bad I will need to talk more, get to a doctor for answers, perhaps I will need the labelled condition to give me comfort with its cold classification, I will need to reveal myself. Be who I am and let someone help. Let someone be kind, let someone be strict. Let someone peer into the darkness with a torch.

 

But we all have dark days. I have days where I fear all is lost, all is ruined, all will never be the same, that everything is about to end, that I just want to not be here anymore. So does everyone. Living in the outside world with all its shit can be enough for this, you don’t need inner demons to make you feel desperate. Sometimes I don’t even have a reason for feeling lost. I can be euphoric one moment, beaming on a bus just because a song in my headphones is beautiful and the sun on the buildings is fucking beautiful and oh look at that funny mental old man in the street shouting at cigarette butts, isn’t he strangely beautiful, and then can be hurled down, smack. Into the cellar like a kidnapped fairytale character, a woodcutter’s daughter taken hostage, left staring up at a crack of light and wondering why she’s not outside warbling with sparrows anymore. Sometimes the light grows so faint it’s like it’s gone out completely. It just comes that way. And then it passes. The light comes back.

 

Are the sudden shifts to blackness just due to outside factors triggering latent memories? Is my sub-conscious full of landmines, ready to be stepped on at any moment; no knowing exactly where they are? Will I spend my life learning to spot them, to spot their shape under the dirt and avoid them? Is it just my psychology, my experiential map that might be charted with time and patience? Or is it chemicals in the brain? Is it that ever-common thing, bi-polar, that more and more people seem to be grabbing hold of like ballast on a sinking ship, because it somehow makes sense to them, of them? What’s worse; our topsoil morphing psychology, or a baser condition underlying it all? We’ve all got to have a thing or two or ten; why shouldn’t bi-polar be mine? I’m not self-diagnosing, and I seldom have much respect for those who do, and most of the time I still mostly think ‘not me’ – but why should I be spared its inconvenience simply because I have suffered its effects with my father’s death? There’s no fairness in any of this stuff, is there. Why shouldn’t I maybe even be killed by the same thing one day? Something has to end me. Why is it any worse than the cruelty of cancer, which has no sense of propriety in the way or time it takes us, at any age or state of readiness?

 

But I persist in hoping. That it is not something I share with Dad. Whose death almost took me itself. I came close, but I came back; stepped away from the darkness. And whatever I am now is what I am for now. I will change again. Life while I have it will see to that.

 

This week will be tough. It always is. But the light will come back. It always does.

Patchwork Time – for World Mental Health Day

I had a go at stitching my patchwork quilt the other night. It’s pretty old now. Dad gave it to me years ago.

I spread it on my bed every year, around the time Dad died, because that’s when it starts getting nippy. Early October.

I’ve been meaning to repair it for ages, not wanting it to fall apart, tricking myself it’s because I think everyone should have a cute patchwork quilt that lasts for their lifetime, when really it’s simply because he touched it and touching it makes me feel like a part of him is still here.

Quite without planning the other night I found myself reaching for the sewing tin to begin to sew up the jaggedy rips. It was only as I stopped stitching that I realised it was a funny night to be doing it; the day he was found dead. Two days after he’d done it. The 6th, 7th, 8th of October are always grim days. Picturing him hanging there. This year, I’d been quietly proud of myself all day that I hadn’t been a mess. That I even felt happy. Having a daughter has been fantastic medicine for many things.  My subconscious must have reached for the blanket then; a practical way of acknowledging this new phase of grief; a cosy handling of time. In control. Not too sad. I never thought I’d reach this stage.

Dad bought the blanket for the spare bed in 1999, when my sister and I went to stay with him in Wales. It was Christmas. We were sulky to change our usual Christmas tradition of staying in our cosy burrow at home with Mum, but more than that, we were shitting ourselves. After months of bearing the load herself, Mum had told us that Dad had six months to live. She didn’t know why, he wouldn’t tell her. He wanted us to go for Christmas so he could talk to us.

So we had a sort of Christmas. But he said nothing. And then we left, got a succession of trains home to Southend, our brains so confused I can’t remember what I felt anymore. Months passed. He never talked. It was like he had never told Mum he was dying in the first place. Out of necessity, I just carried on, trying to finish a degree I no longer gave the slightest shit about. Numb. One day he gave me the blanket like a gift. Over the years it has become just another lovely thing my Dad gave me, that I’m glad to have, but really, at its source, it is the backdrop of the time I waited to hear what I thought would be the worst news I’d ever hear, not knowing the worst news would come a few years later, in 2003, when he hanged himself. Another unexpected development.

Dad was an ill man. I had been kept from the troubling spots of his bi-polar character and phases my whole life, and then shit got real. That Christmas, when we waited for him to tell us he was dying. Perhaps he was going to lie and say he’d got a massive tumour or something. I don’t know. Perhaps he was planning on killing himself then; preparing us in the only way you can without saying “FYI: I AM GOING TO KILL MYSELF. NO, DON’T TRY TO STOP ME, I REALLY AM SET ON IT. SOZ.” Perhaps having some time with his children made him realise he couldn’t do it, then. It got delayed.

He was ill. Not consistently – very often he was joy and activity and fun and inspiration and kindness and support and sharp intelligence and love – but the illness waited for him, and he waited for it. Mourning him and puzzling over the act of his suicide has made me ill many times through the years. Grief feels like a mental illness because although it might be spun from the circumstances of losing someone rather than inner chemical workings, it is still a mental trap; a dark labyrinth that takes years to find your way out of, often feeling like you don’t have the strength to keep going. Then there’s the worrying you have ‘the same thing’ as you father. The fear of that legacy.

The blanket began as uncertainty and confusion, then it became epic darkness seeming to have no end, then it became merely sadness and fondness and nostalgia and memories, until it became comfort, warmth, a winter friend. Time and I have worked together on it, not always getting along.

And now my daughter is bunny-hopping over it, it’s changing again. It will be her Grandfather’s blanket, the one she’ll never know. She’ll grow up seeing my crude stitchwork, puckering the fabric like scars. My very imperfect attempt at fixing something. And one day maybe I’ll use it to tell her that things change, and how they change, and that they can keep changing. Maybe one day it will be with her when she feels ill, comfort and warmth, maybe it will be with her when she keeps going, a stitched together reparable thing, a winter friend.

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World Suicide Prevention Day

For World Suicide Prevention Day. An extract from the book I’ve spent far too long writing, about my father’s suicide and life after it.

It’s a chunk about going to visit him at Runwell Hospital, the ‘loony bin’ we all used to laugh about when we were cruel kids who knew nothing about sadness, which I never envisaged having to visit one day. It’s shut now. Houses have been built there. People’s bedrooms occupy the same air as dormitories once did, people chop vegetables for their children where men played out their most depraved acts. The ghosts of broken minds are everywhere.

It occurred to me, in Runwell’s absence, and presumably the closure of other hospitals around the country, with people struggling to see counsellors quickly enough on the NHS, and not everyone able to take themselves off to places like the Priory, that there is going to be a growing chasm between our emotional intelligence and literacy on the subject of mental health, depression, and suicide, and our ability to seek or encourage professional help. The topic of depression has never been spoken about so candidly as it is today, too late for my father, but its free clinical treatment, due to cuts, may stop being an automatic kindness. Mental health, just as we get really get good at talking about it, might become a luxury item on the NHS’s brochure. A privatised habit. Having a therapist might be as unattainable to the normal person as buying Louis Vuitton luggage for all-occasions. People might not be able to afford to overcome their depression ahead of their suicidal urges. They will talk about it less.  They will feel more alone. Things will happen.

We really are and will continue to be even more reliant on ourselves to feel able to speak up when we feel low. Reliant on the mental health climate on social media – a dangerous melting pot full of false experts as much as it is a common comfort – to foster a place for us to be able to express or to read things which may be helpful. Reliant on loved ones to somehow find a way to see through the opaque strangeness of depression to the possible risks of suicide, and to feel compelled, strong, and equipped enough to reach out. It can be a scary subject to broach with someone. So big; so few concrete answers. The fear of risking further harm by talking. But it really could make the difference between someone living and dying.

My father phoned me a few days before he took his own life. Left a voicemail. I was busy, and we’d had problems the few months before which left me less quick to respond than usual. I was tired and sad. He was a difficult controlling man, who never spoke about being bi-polar (manic depressive as it was called then) because it was shameful to him. He hid it very well. I never listened to the voicemail, a weekend passed, and then he was gone, and so was the voicemail. They didn’t hang around long in those days; they got bumped off the phone as new stuff came in. I will never know what he said, it may have just been a seemingly meaningless hello, his way of saying goodbye without stirring suspicion.  I will never know whether my response, even if just a cheery hello, could have stopped him doing what he did. I don’t blame myself, I believe after years of analysing every tiny detail he left behind that he wanted to go and would have done it anyway. But at times, at night, the what ifs are mountains to be trekked over before I can carry on the next day.

I don’t know how you stop someone from ending their own life. I didn’t get a chance to try and I don’t know what I would have done if my father had felt able to voice his thoughts feelings and fears to me. I like to think an inner wisdom would have kicked in simply because I loved him and surely that should be enough. I like to think I would have made a difference. I like to think he would have stayed.

Talk. Let people talk. Never think that the more demonstrable behaviours of depression are needy, attention-seeking, or inconvenient. Sometimes they are the precursors to quiet and private behaviour, the more dangerous times, when people get lost down the cracks.

 

***

Spring, 2003

I’ll be honest – I’d never, even in my maddest dreams, imagined ever having to help my father escape from a loony bin.

It was perhaps that day, there in the mental hospital now playing home to the man I most admired, that I began to suspect something had gone seriously amiss. Perhaps I should have noticed it sooner, but reality cracks open slowly in some people like an egg left to boil, firming up unseen on the inside before breaking the shell apart. And so it was only as we were scurrying like runaway rats through the carpark to his Volvo, (me with the added image of being wrestled to the ground into a straitjacket, screaming “I’m just visiting, you bastards – it’s him that’s bonkers”), that I thought to myself: “Crumbs. It’s all gone a bit…odd; Life.” Yes, sometimes it takes a while to realise these things, and sometimes you only get around to it when you’re summoned to an asylum on a Sunday afternoon.

I remember the particulars of my visit in random snatches of varying degrees of import. Non-existent is the memory of the news he’d admitted himself a few days before. Blurry is the telephone call Dad made to get me there. Blurrier the journey there. Less blurry is standing in the hospital conservatory, surveying his face for change. Less blurry still is waiting for him to somehow reassure me that despite this unexpected new development, everything was going to be okay.

Dad wanted to go to the pub. It seemed churlish to deny him. He suggested the plan in a low voice and then steered me to the glass doors, all the time talking like we might just be going for a stroll around the grounds. We kept going, his eyes down at his feet, out and round to the car park, to the Volvo. I asked no questions, just matched his gathering pace. He unlocked the car and we slid in, slammed quietly. I fastened my seatbelt, aware of the irony that we had just scarpered rather gracelessly out of a place called Runwell.

I didn’t ask him any questions. They always come too late as a rule, don’t they?

I don’t suppose Dad would ever have allowed me to visit him there at all, but he’d needed some things. I’d turned up at the hospital with a box hastily cobbled together to satisfy his list. My eyes bored into that box as I was led to the visitor’s lounge where he was waiting, and saw the tiled floor passing in squares. Ordered coolness. I lined up my feet with the grouting so I knew I was walking straight, because I wasn’t sure if I should look around me. I didn’t know the etiquette of this strange new place, and – more so than anything, I suppose – I was scared. I feel guilty for that. I guessed it was a safe ward as Dad wasn’t in there for psychotic sex murders or believing he was Satan’s hand-puppet, so I hoped that logically that meant he was on a ward of similarly harmless cases, but I still wasn’t sure. I was scared of what it all was, but more so, what it all meant.

I’d brought books (the diaries of Noel Coward I’d bought him one Christmas – I thought the charm might be a nice escape from communal farting), toiletries, and “something that smells nice, please”, which in this case was the Jean-Paul Gaultier he’d taken to wearing as an eccentric alternative to his Boots cologne.

Did Jean-Paul ever imagine, as he was climbing the ranks of the fashion industry – from his earliest days pricking his finger sewing his first rubber corset, through his catwalk debut to scandalous success, through then to the glory of Paris, France, the World – un range du parfum! – his iconic glass busts moving like unstoppable de Miloesque chess pieces, shunting onto the fragrance counters of the world, all his smooth boob-or-bollocked atomisers poised so that were we all to spritz at the same delicious moment, wait for the convection of the air to flutter it aloft and, in an olfactory butterfly effect, might sneeze together in unison – did Jean-Paul ever picture in all this that one of his pretty little soldiers would be smuggled into a ward for the terminally sad, then squirted hurriedly onto the jacket of a man sneaking away for a stolen lunch?

Though my heart was thundering, Dad pulled away with a stubborn slowness given the fact he was now classified AWOL. I wondered if he was safe to be driving on whatever drugs they’d been giving him. Especially now we were going to be whacking beer into the mix. Oh well, I had to think. Oh well. What else can you think? I’d want booze too if I was shuffling around in slippers with men who talked to their own shit.

We went into Wickford close by. An uninspiring town, its mood perhaps overshadowed by the dark lore of the local madhouse. We parked up and went to a pub called The Hawk – a traditional boozer that might once have been nice, but now was a bit shit. Sat down, surrounded by the wood and the brass and the fake plush and the hardy swirling carpet, I began to breathe normally. This was what we did; pubs, not hospitals. This was us. I remember him dragging deeply on a constant succession of fags and me being unsportingly cross that I would go home stinking. Funny how you can still be cross with your Dad’s old bad habits while at the same time you’re craving normal service to resume.

Dad had steak pie. I think I had scampi. He had two pints of bitter and said he’d better not have any more what with having to drive. Inside I smiled at the thought that if we got stopped by the cops I could just explain I was escorting an escaped nut-job back to the madhouse so it barely mattered if he was half-cut. I remember nothing of our conversation, but I felt the usual pressure to keep things light. I knew better than to question him, and I just wanted him to relax, to be normal, to have a nice time. Before he went back to Bedlam, which presumably wasn’t much of a hoot.

My words for the place are a little casual, I realise. It is easier to accept the strangeness of going on a daytrip to such a place if you front it out a bit; gather black humour like a cloak. Brash words can distract you from your own fragility. It isn’t quite bravery, but it’s close.

I suppose it comes with a prickle of fear too – of what could befall me, could befall anyone. My mother’s mother had been given electric shock therapy here in the 1950s because they didn’t understand her eclamptic fit, my mum had had group therapy at its sister hospital in Rochford close by, I would in time come to have therapy myself, though I never dreamed it then, and now my dad was here, skedaddling off for lunch with his eldest and most indulgent daughter. What the fuck was I doing?

We drove back in silence. I stared outside at the things passing by – green blurs, grey blurs, road. Road, green, grey. I kept hurling my eyes out further. Inside, the familiarity of the Volvo, the nearness of him, would only have clogged my throat with that hardness that kept welling there. I swallowed it down. As we passed through the gates, overhung by spring-green trees, I imagined he was simply one of the doctors there, and that I was just going to work with him for the day. He’d look good in a white coat. He’d suit the clipboard. Do psychiatrists have stethoscopes? He would look good with one of those too. He’d need to get a fucking haircut first though – he looked a right state. And probably not be…quite as mental.

We parked up in the same space and save for now facing the other way it was like we’d never left. I walked back in with him, not knowing quite when to sever the visit. We were wordless all this time, as though we had only just met and were struggling to think of smalltalk. The walls seemed to whisper “Don’t speak, don’t make a fuss. Go quickly and don’t look back.” But despite the unusual setting this was perhaps our most common mode. I had been accustomed to saying goodbye to him since I was five; every holiday, a big grin and a cheery wave for his benefit, knowing that when he was out of sight, down the road in his Volvo, both our smiles would falter. Kids of divorce seem to either instinctively act in a way that will make their parents happy, or in a way that demands happiness from their parents. Givers and receivers. I doubt that both instincts can exist in the same child. I was so bloody chipper all the time it was like I was permanently tap-dancing to make sure everyone was fucking happy. The world’s not fucked; look. Look at my fucking jazz hands.

And what did Dad feel, then, that day, during our two hour interlude in his month’s sojourn? What was he thinking as I arrived, uncertain and smiling, as I hugged him? What surged through his heart as I handed him over a box of his things? Love, or shame, or both? Was his decision to sneak out for lunch with his daughter a spontaneous one or had he planned it? Was it bravery or cowardice; thoughtful or selfish? Did he want to say more than he did; why did he fail? Was he fobbing me off or protecting me? How present was he in those moments? Could he see through my bravado? Was I his friend, or his daughter? Was every good thing in his life reduced or invalidated by this slump in proceedings? Did he have any idea what would come next? Could he taste his pie or was it all just one big nothing?

Somehow we said goodbye. I remember the smell of him – like bland biscuits soaked in the bileous precursor to sick. A warm acidic version of his natural odour. The staleness in the lambswool collar of his leather flying jacket, not quite sweat but deeper, something from out of the bones not the skin. Is this what unhappiness smelt like? I edged away, glancing guiltily through to the ward.  Whatever part was still supplying me with humour had me half-expecting to see Sid James and Charles Hawtry sitting up in bed with boiled eggs, wide-eyed at Babs’ boobs. I listened for a Kenneth Williams “Ohh!” chastising a torpedo-titted Hattie Jacques. Carry On Cracking Up. How odd that cracking up can mean both laughing and going mad. How fine the line.

It was like – no, it was – a dormitory. A big school-style hall divided into tiny cubicles, pretending to be homely. Curtains and bedside tables and duvet covers brought in by family, from home. I had a stab in the guts that I had not thought to bring in some bedding. Dad was one of the men with standard issue pale green. The generic shade of pastoral bleakness. Unvisited. My numbness threatened to fall away. I wondered why it should be that a man in his fifties when reduced to a single bed should seem so undignified. That his sleep should be restricted by the dimensions of a bed for a child. He should be spread out on a kingsize, hogging the diagonal from a loved one, limbs overlapping, slumbering in memory of a life well lived, dreaming peacefully. He should rise to warm creaking radiators and a dog stretching and the papers. A kitchen table of toast and tea. He was not this. He was better than this. But. But he had earned this. I knew it then, though I would defend him to the death. I did defend him to the death, and do still. Loyalty is knowing someone is wrong, but not caring.

I wanted to stay with him. I didn’t want him to be alone. I wanted to sit on his bed and chat and feign that I was alright with it all. I wanted to eradicate the sadness of his surroundings by having a laugh about the man in the next bed, who had a toupee and sang ABBA songs to his socks. I wanted to absorb it all for him. I wanted to watch people and see into their lives and hope my thoughts reached them like a hand stroking their teeming minds.

How had they all come to be here, these poor sad fucks? All these diminished men who once were empty and ready for filling with fresh things, who all had had childhoods that could have led to something else, who all had laughed and loved and felt a sense of promise prickling their skin, once. How had they all come to be together in a dormitory, their histories mixed like a bad grey stew? It seared my insides. There were bodies bulking out the beds, solid mass under those sheets, real men, induced to sleep the day away with whatever unpronounceable drugs had been picked out for them. Is this their life now? Strangers watching them sleep? Ultimate vulnerability. They had their backs to the door. They were curled, their necks frail like dead birds. They looked like boys, these tired men. Why were there no lullabies? Why is there just this awful administrative mumbling? My eyes fly over their things. Books and a porcelain dog. Flowers. Papers from an outside world. If I see it all can I take it away, like a bedpan of piss? If I type it now, can I make it better? Flashes of their lives whoosh through me like the ghosts of their spirits, their biographies like bogus sprites wanting to wrest from me, what? Pity? Love? Smuggled-in forgiveness on behalf of a bigger thing for all that they are? I want to suck it all in. I want to siphon it all out, take it outside, and puke it into an unreachable sky.

God. People make you fucking hurt.

Make it kind – Mental Health Awareness Week

I haven’t written about my father, his suicide, grief, or mental health for a while now.

I felt I should just ‘stop’. Let him rest, let it be, & stop picking the scab. But grief never really goes. It just changes.

In the last few months Dad has been present throughout my pregnancy thoughts, & now that my daughter is here my relationship with him has shifted again. During the last 15 years I have never thought ‘how could you do that to us, to me’. Tenderness battled anger and always won. Now I have a daughter, I can’t help but re-examine my feelings. How could he do that to us, his daughters? I couldn’t do it to her. I never want to leave her for a second, & the thought of being the source of her biggest sadness makes me want to be sick.

So how could he do it to me?

But of course, the answer is, mental health. It can make a man leave the loves in his life because he absolutely cannot face being alive anymore, because he cannot function, because life seems a long and unbearable journey, because it seems unfixable, because he even believes he is doing the best thing for people by leaving. Because the power of depression is sometimes so strong it even outweighs love, that beautiful thing that we are taught is stronger than anything. It’s terrifying when we discover it isn’t.

Grief changes all the time. I have struggled with losing Dad for years, the sadness very nearly made me give up myself at times, and just as grief got easier, I will now struggle with the thought that he would have had so much more love to give and receive if he could only have believed that there was help out there; in medication, in people, in good old fashioned kindness, in miraculously powerful time. I will struggle with the fact that Marcie will never meet my father, one of her granddads, but I will make sure she knows all the good things about him. And one day I will have to talk to her about mental health. I’m not sure what I’ll say yet, but I know it will be kind.

#mentalhealthawarenessweek

More things I’ve written on similar themes

Body

Sitting on the bed just now, jumble-headed & waiting for my eyes to clear enough to get up for a wee, I looked down at my swollen tummy and really looked at it. What a change. I thought about the inner intricate whirrings & industrious processes, makings of a life that i can take no credit for with my knowing brain. My body has taken over. My body, which I have never loved nor even liked much. I have been unkind to it every day.

Some people love their bodies during sex, or in the act of dressing or displaying, of styling or posing or playing or sporting or pushing themselves beyond a limit they refuse to accept; love themselves in the freedom of private pleasure, of solitary nudeness, in childish unconsciousness or the unthinkingness of orgasm; in relief, in the defiance of unacceptable sickness, in healing, in surprise at still being here, in joy they ever were, in determination to stay and be and live while they still have a body to carry them around, to permit them the grace of their fleeting existence.

I’ve still never liked my body much in any of that. But I just realised in the half-dark, with a little thing stirring awake beneath the massive earthlike arc of my skin, that I really like my body. Love it, even. Not the look of it, but the fact of it. Its new purpose.

I don’t know how I’ll feel about it in the last few weeks of pregnancy. I don’t know how I’ll feel about it during birth, or immediately afterwards, or soon afterwards or long afterwards, until it starts to age and ail me as it will. But for now, the biggest and strangest and most natural-unnatural I’ve ever been, I really love my body. And I will love loving it, for a while.

Up the Duff & Terrifyingly Fine

I told everyone I was pregnant yesterday. It wasn’t a prank or anything. It’s true. I’ve just been keeping it under my hat for 22 weeks. Well, it started under my hat then when it got a bit bigger I had to admit defeat and transfer it to my tum and honour the traditional gestational process. (Turns out a uterus is definitely better for that sort of thing than a beret.) And now it’s grown even more and there’s no getting around it anymore. Especially in confined spaces with a rucksack on. I am with child. Having a baby. Knocked up. Preggers. Up the duff. In the family way. Expecting. No longer able to say I just ate a lot of pasta.

There’s a little human growing inside me. A girl. Holy smoke.

And this is literally the best way I could think of telling people. A sort of jocular awkward kind of joke about hats and pasta, because I actually feel really shy saying anything about it at all. The kind of shy that people would scoff at and say “Yeah alright, Hasler. Shy. Course.” But I am. Because for all my splurging about sometimes intensely personal things, half a decade of writing a pretty open book column, talking about being pregnant feels like the next level of sharing. Writing columns or articles about suicide, grief, depression, other big dark things, is fine; they’re important to me, part of my guts and nerves and heart and pulse, but I’m not protective of them. I just say what I think and out it goes. But I am protective of this little thing that’s wriggling about in my big round belly. That’s a completely different thing. A creature. A living thing. Something that I must look after with every bit of strength and love and determination I have. Every good thing I possess must go into making this human grow and learn and be happy. I will have to learn and grow more in order to do a better job. A job and a devotion I must honour until I die. I’ll have to keep five steps in front of her, half a watchful step behind, and a silent step to the side, by her side, all at the same time. Until death us do part. That’s an unfathomably massive thing.

I cannot believe they’ll only let people drive a vehicle after months of expensive lessons and a big scary test, but this – actual creation – we can just crack on with on our own after a bottle of wine on a Friday night and a couple of pregnancy tests a few weeks later in the bog at work. I keep expecting someone to say “Sorry Hasler, the results have come back and you’re not cut out for it after all. That’s it; put it back.” And I wouldn’t know where to start with putting it back. I can’t even get cereal back in the box after it’s spilled on the floor. (Not that you should, but I do hate waste. Five second rule and starving kids in Africa and all that.)

And here I am, still joking about it, like it’s a box of Cheerios I could adios.

When it’s the least funny thing I have ever known. Having a baby. It’s the biggest, realest, scariest, loveliest, most important thing. I am insanely wired on the all-consuming seriousness of it, and already ready to kill for her. I am protective of her eyelashes and fingertips and her tiny little pouting mouth. I am protective of her tiny doll parts as all this sexual abuse stuff still blows around in a gale. I am protective of her heart and her receptiveness to the world and her experiences and all the people she will ever love and all her future joy.

I am having a baby. I can feel her kicking and I’ve got a feeling that’s what it’s all going to be about, for me, for the rest of my time from now on. And that is terrifyingly fine.

VTndEGR

Taking It Back

Dear David Amess MP,

I’m really glad you retracted that moronic statement you allegedly didn’t write. The one that said that “The recent revelations that countless starlets have apparently been assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein are dubious to say the least”, that “this sudden flurry of alleged inappropriate advances beggars belief.” and then, a faeces grenade from left-field, “Just as with claims against Jimmy Savile here in the UK, why did no one say anything until now?”

Wow. A sideswoop Savile defence. That’s classy, Dave.

I’m glad though that you had the guts to blame a member of your staff because you really shouldn’t be expected to take the flack for the idiocy of someone you’ve wilfully employed to be your mouthpiece when you’re busy on other matters, like making sure Southend is shown off at its best in its year of being self-appointed Alternative City of Culture. (Only two months to go til the as yet undisclosed special end of year celebrations! I hope it’s something on the end of the pier. As you well know Dave it ain’t even a thing unless it’s on the pier.)

I’m extra glad you’re putting “instructions in place to prevent this happening again”. Do keep us posted as to what happens to this churl in your employ. After all, as much as I’m loathe to accept you are there by elected means, whoever is doing your job for you is not. If they’re messing up and they weren’t even elected, get them out Dave. Liability. You don’t need any more bad press to make you look like a numptie.

The fact it was a press release presumably means you/they thought your/their two-penneth on the Weinstein matter was write-and-share-worthy.
A question for you Dave. Who asked you? No, really – who did ask you? When was it an obligatory part of your day, paid by us, to comment on the goings on in Hollywood, or to put aside your sandwich to make sure gobby women everywhere got a sharp elbow in the ribs? That’s not in your remit is it? A knee-jerk reaction to a man you don’t know getting slammed for his consistently deplorable behaviour around women? Did you/your employee think it was high time that some of these women who got all uppity over being objectified and intimidated be put in their place, by you? What is their place, Dave? On their knees, not making a fuss?

Re the laughable “why did no one say anything until now?” – you do know that it is almost never the instinct of a raped or abused woman to march straight to the police to report it, or to even mention it to family and friends, don’t you? You do realise that by the time most women can stand and breathe and talk after an attack the DNA has passed from their bodies? You do know that because of the way Everything Works most women have absolutely no faith that their claims would be taken seriously and are reluctant to expose themselves to even greater vulnerability and pain? Furthermore, you do realise that cretinous comments like yours make you complicit in the further silencing of victims?

Let’s just suppose for the sake of optimism that you really didn’t make this statement you allegedly didn’t make. Let’s assume the person who issues your statements feels like they know you well enough to comment in lieu, that they really think you’d want to stick your head above the parapet to express sympathy for a rich man who is attracting overdue universal wrath, to attempt to give the unfortunate reputation of poor Jimmy Savile, loyal friend of the Tories, a bit of a polish, and to blanket victim shame? Because that’s worrying Dave. Because they’ve either got you wrong and should be immediately dismissed, or they’ve got you right and you’re the one who should be immediately dismissed. Which is it?

Sincerely,
Most Women

The Bunnyman

When Hugh Hefner died I rolled my eyes. I automatically pre-empted how many people (ok, mainly men) would bore me that day with strange grief for someone they never met, with misplaced respect, tedious jokes, and flimsy validation of a dubious man. How many male friends would make me sigh deeply with their throwaway laddishness in the name of an easy joke, or more worryingly, because in their eyes Hugh Hefner represented true male ideals that ‘ordinary men’ simply couldn’t get away with. This was their day to say it.

This vague dread wasn’t the cause of me deleting Facebook from my phone that day, I’d been thinking of doing it for a while, but it was a really good day to make the cut. Delete. Breathe. Stop wanting to throw things at people.

But it would have taken moving to Mars to remain oblivious to the outpourings of post-humous bilge about the man. I get that he did some admirable things; that he single-handedly built a magazine from his kitchen table, went on to employ some of the finest writers in America, offered a platform to the under-represented, interviews with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, that he used the Playboy to make some bold stands for civil rights. Great. I wholeheartedly believe that he thought all these things were important. But also, deflection is a powerful thing. What does a magician do when he doesn’t want you to see something? The bad things, the mechanics, the truth? He directs your attention elsewhere. I’m not saying the positive aspects of his character were a trick, but let’s not all be bunnies in the magician’s hat; playing our submissive part in a big man’s grand illusion. Hugh Hefner is responsible for a lot of bad stuff; a list of crimes against women and their far-reaching consequences too long to go into here. Just because he was a stand-up guy to the injustices perpetrated on black people does not mean he did not systematically reduce women to graded cuts of meat.

Rolling her eyes at Hefner does not make a woman a prude either. I’ll fly the flag for sexual liberation alongside any bawd or bunny. I know that our sexual mores are as varied as our tastes for food, for leisure, for music, for clothes, for all the other pleasurable things in life. And of course those girls wanted to be there; they wanted to live in the Hef’s bunny hutch. But in that sentence is part of the problem. Our instinct is to call them girls. Not women. Their entry into the Playboy bunny world of “privilege” (and it was a kind of privilege, luxury-wise and self-attainment wise; it could not have been an easy job to get there, nor to stay there) came with the condition that they be willingly infantilised and homogenised. They were little more than teenage daughters; they had to ask for their allowance; they had a bedtime curfew of 9pm. They adhered to a way of looking (the same as each other and countless others before them) and acting (a lot of their own personality must have got left at the door along with any flat shoes).  I’m guessing they weren’t allowed gentlemen callers or meaningful relationships unless they were green-lighted by Hefner himself, who considered their amorous attentions best turned to himself, or on occasion to like-minded (and like-moneyed) friends who attended his parties. These women were treated like girls. And I even get that. I get the female desire to be looked after; I even get, though would not want for myself, that sugar daddy thing. Our base infant drive for our needs and desires to be met don’t end when we grow up and leave home, they move with us into the adult realm and hide themselves in all sorts of chaotic mysterious behaviours. I get why a lot of men openly or secretly think he’s the total fucking don of all life. Most men want to feel like gods. They want to feel attractive, powerful, desired, virile. A lot of them don’t; aren’t. The lure of unquestioning constant praise, attention, and gratification is strong. I get it.

People are complicated creatures. We can never reduce them to a bottom line or a few convenient bulletpoints that lay the case of their entire being to satisfying rest in one article.

Hugh Hefner was a man to be admired and respected as well as questioned, suspected, vilified, maybe even pitied – we don’t know what lurking sadness or insecurities drove his subconcious or shaped his way of life. I think I might even have liked him in certain scenarios; chatting on a sofa about writing maybe, if not observing him on a kingsize with his medically engorged penis and saggy-mouthed geriatric air of expectation.

But how I love the boys and men who said things about Hefner that didn’t make my legs clamp, my brain die and my heart sink. Who barely blinked when they heard that he was dead. They are the real rich men, in my eyes.

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Happy bunnies?