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

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The Next Big One

I think we were all kind of expecting someone else to go. I’ve found myself internally semi-squinting, waiting for ‘the next big one’ – the next person to go who would prompt national outpourings of distress. As my eyes trawl across some digi-obit or other I’ve muttered little mortality mantras – “Not Tom Hanks, Not David Attenborough, Not Judi Dench, Not Dolly Parton.” – ticking off names of people I love like prayer beads. This year feels steeped in the energy of portent, we might as well see the rest of it out without expecting some sort of cosmic kindness to kick in now.

I’ve had numerous conversations with friends about who we’d hate to hear had died. We compiled depressing little lists of awesome people whom it would be a great shame to lose. But of course the worst losses are those people who die ‘too young’. The people who don’t make it past an age of general acceptability, which gets a little older every year such is our insistence for living longer.

We were wrapping up our Christmas night, drowsy from our day of food and booze, when I saw that George Michael had died. 53. No age at all. I was staying at my mum’s so I ran up to her bedroom and shared the horrible news with her and my step-dad. That’s a nice way to thank them for a lovely day isn’t it; being the bedtime bearer of bad news. We chatted for a couple of minutes and then I went back downstairs and sat for a bit. It felt sort of apt hearing the news while I was with mum. We listened to George’s beautiful album Listen Without Prejudice over and over again together when it came out.

As I got ready for bed I tried to block out the horrible inevitable thought that one of the great Christmas songs, Last Christmas, was forever going to be tinged with a horribly apt sadness. George had just had his last Christmas. I’m sure we all were thinking similar. I’m sure a lot of people made the bad jokes too soon as well. Some people can’t resist thinking they’re some sort of great wit when actually they’re just a great twit and should stay quiet and resist the dreary puns gushing around their brains like sloppy shit.

It’s sad to lose people at Christmas.

But of course it’s just an ordinary day for the human body. A weak heart or a tumour or a blood clot won’t wait for the new year out of obligation to festive family feasts and our urge for sloth-like contentedness. Death waits for no one. It doesn’t just stand in the corner looking for the nod. There is no respectful time for our bodies to sever themselves from us, and that is what it is, a sort of parting of ways – our mind and our body. One day the body says “No, this is not how it’s going to work anymore, and for all your wonderful strength, dear Mind, you are powerless. I’m in charge now.”

Perhaps some of us feel these Christmas losses deeper because there is usually a strange sense of all normal business coming to a standstill for a day. When someone dies on or around Christmas, we feel betrayed, like security has been breeched, like fair play has been abandoned. The child inside us still believes in a great overarching fairness, despite everything we learn to the contrary in adult life. We unconsciously demand immunity from being mortal for the day, fool ourselves we are in closer contact with some sort of great magic, whatever our religious beliefs, there’s still surely some sort of magic, please. It is a day we trick ourselves we are somehow untouchable, swaddled in a sort of sanctity we are desperate for, like babies. “Just give us this one day in our impenetrable bubble.” We all want that, as the year draws to a close and the new year stretches out before us like the not-so-distant present with a bow on top.

But our bodies are still just our bodies, wonderful beautiful miraculous, intricate frail and finite, a gift we never quite make the most of before they bow out.

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A Crossing Bell

I rang the bell. I had been about to pass it, having heard it rung, mostly by children, almost constantly for the past two days. Something called me back, to approach it. Maybe it’s because no one else was around and I saw my chance. I rang it. It sounded louder than when other people rang it. I felt naughty somehow. So I rang it again. It had a clarity, as though it had found exactly the right points around it to bounce from to make itself sound important; drew them in like coordinates of the perfect pitch then sent them pealing out to the clouds.

The bell is A Crossing Bell – an art installation at Tilbury Cruise Terminal by Professor of Sound & Landscape Angus Carlyle who has worked in residence at Metal, an arts organisation with a big heart in a big house in a pretty park where I am lucky to work. He is also a part of Estuary Festival. Passengers are invited to ring the bell while offering a prayer for a crossing – their crossing or someone else’s, a friend’s or a stranger’s; a prayer to ward off the bad or wish for the good. Angus’ hope is that the bell’s unamplified peals suggest other crossings, other times and other places. And they do.

I only remembered then as I rang it that right there, down to the deck to the waters between Tilbury and Gravesend, that my dad had been moored here in the 60s. I have the last diaries he wrote as a teen in the Merchant Navy. 1964. After months of sailing more exotic waters – Biscay, Suez, Arabian Sea, Muscat, Persian Gulf, Abu Dhabi, Calcutta, Trincomalee, Colombo, his list goes on – they drifted… into Southend-on-Sea. My hometown. A strange town that Dad could not have known then would be the place he’d later move to in his fifties to be near his daughters, and then soon after where he would take his life. He stayed four days in 1964 then sailed on to Tilbury, and one night – “went ashore to dance in Gravesend with lads. Got really pissed.” The next morning, he got up at 8.15, and “just read papers all morning.” Then the diaries come to an end, and as far as I know he never wrote any others. Or certainly none that he kept and passed on. Perhaps these were the only ones that he wasn’t ashamed of. The ones that only chronicle small details of ship life – no truths of his character or feelings at all that might be of use in the puzzle of a dead bi-polar man.

I had just been thinking the week before, as I walked past the road where he lived and died, that I felt pretty cool about him being dead, now. I felt tough. Over it. Cool. I walked past – as I do most days, I live a few roads away now – and felt ‘nothing’.

But I didn’t feel nothing when I rang the bell. It was like a brass hammer to the sky, cracking open the clouds to say hullo to my father, there on the very waters where he had written in his tiny blue scrawl. Maybe only meters away from where I stood, now, ringing it. Maybe if I could call to him back then – me on the deck, him rocking in his bunk – he could have heard me. Was his ship that close? If only time could allow me that experiment. Distance and time and death. Science. What huge impassable relentlessly factual things keep people apart.

Earlier that morning I had been up at 5am for a dawn performance by a vocal artist named Caroline Bergvall, who wove her mesmeric voice with that of a vocalist Peyee Chen and a backing track of collected sounds. Raga Dawn. My job was to capture it for other people, but towards the end I just lay down on the deck behind the audience, my spine falling between one of the broad gaps in the planks, the breeze surging up through the fibres of my jumper to my skin, and the sound of the heavy lapping water beneath my head. What do we think in these moments of reflection? Our thoughts trip on to one thing mostly. To how we feel, to people, to those we have lost. To love. To loss. To death. I often wonder if anyone can ever pass truly blithely through life without thoughts of death; whether it is a dialogue that can be completely avoided. Whether the ‘mentally ill’ can shut out awareness of it with a complete efficiency that we, the ‘more normal’, the ‘well’, cannot.

I suppose it comes as a not-too-great surprise that artists are drawn to water and to death. It tells not only stories, captures our thoughts, loves, and fears, but it also inspires a sort of peace that must be made before we ourselves go. A peace with ourselves. Estuary Festival is full of work by countless artists of dizzying various disciplines that observe a similar theme, but it is this piece – A Crossing Bell – that spoke to me, because it spoke for me.

I didn’t tell Angus during our multiple chats as he milled around in a nice blue jacket that I had rung his bell and been moved. I felt shy. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wanted to keep it for myself. Between me & Dad & the river.

The bell did its job. A hullo was said. And a small patch of the Thames that was new to me became familiar, like Dad was with me for a while, strong and tangible as bronze, invisible yet potent as sound waves saying “I was here.”

 

 

Estuary Festival runs until the 2nd October in various places in Tilbury, Gravesend, and Southend. For more – go here.

For more on Angus Carlyle, go here. And the bell – here.

For Caroline Bergvall & Raga Dawn, go here.

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