Mam loved to watch soaps. From radio to television, she listened to and watched them all. Her favourite was Coronation Street. Whenever it was broadcast, the cry in the house would be “Coros on” and everything would stop. After she died I continued to watch them until I became bored with the repetitive nature of their plots. I now only watch Holby, which has recently been running a storyline on mental health. This week it reached a climax with one of the main characters having a full breakdown. I watched with tears in my eyes as it revived a memory that I have suppressed for many years.
It happened in the early 1980s, around Dad’s 60th Birthday. We had been for a meal at a restaurant run by an ex-boxer. Dad was in a good mood as he ate and drank and shared boxing stories with the owner and chef. When we had finished our meal we returned to my house in Coventry. His mood began to change. Something had upset him. It didn’t take much. Slowly a darkness descended. Mam tried to calm him but he wouldn’t listen. He became agitated and angry. He stormed out of the house shouting and swearing at us all. He had his car keys and was going to drive home to Leicester. He was in no state to drive so my brother and I tried to restrain him. Even at 60 he was too strong for us. He got into the car and attempted to drive away. I stood in front to stop him. I hoped he would realise who I was. He saw me through the windscreen and hesitated. My brother tried to break the windows with his fists. We were all crying for him to stop.
He eventually got out of the car and walked off into the dark cold night. My wife went after him. We followed behind in a car. She managed to calm him and persuaded him to return to our house. He left with Mam early the next morning. When they got home, she called the doctor who diagnosed a complete mental breakdown and prescribed for him some strong sedatives. He said that they turned him into a zombie and after a few days he threw them away. He tried to deal with it in the only way he knew how. To tough it out. I now know we should have persuaded him to seek further help.
When I think back we should have recognised the symptoms. He had talked about problems at work. The stress had become too much for him culminating in the events of that night. In the following weeks he applied for early retirement on medical grounds and never worked again. I now mark his slow physical and mental decline from that night. Except for the occasional glimpse, the Dad I knew had gone forever, never to return.
He had a number of what were then called “nervous breakdowns” in his life. This is not surprising as he had experienced many things which would now be considered as triggers. He was raised in poverty in the Depression in the north east. His mam abandoned the family of 8 when he was young. His dad was unemployed for many years and often absent. Dad kept the family together and was the sole breadwinner. He was very intelligent but left school at 14 to find work.
Until he met Mam when he was 17, I don’t think he had ever experienced true love and affection. He loved her dearly and he found the long War separation very difficult. His eldest daughter was 3 when he was demobbed and she didn’t know him. After the War, he had many jobs and lived in many homes. He was always restless and could not settle. He was frustrated as he believed he had never reached his full potential. He felt life had held him back. He was a tremendously proud man and his pride was severely dented when we were homeless for 9 months in the 1960s.
He also drank. Not daily but heavily at weekends. This often triggered his deepest depressions and his bouts of anger. Sunday afternoons were very difficult when he often stormed out of the house and threatened to “jump in the cut”. I still hate Sundays. It was even worse at Christmas. I think it is the reason I remember so few of my childhood Christmases.
At the time we didn’t know what was happening. Dad was just in one of his moods. He was never physically abusive to any of us. But Mam and my older sisters bore the brunt of his mood swings. I can’t imagine what this must have been like for her. There were times when he was almost impossible to live with. His mood swings could be so severe that he was hospitalised at least twice when I was young. No one ever said why he went away, or whether it was voluntary, or if he had been sectioned. We now know he had a mental health condition. I am not sure what the diagnosis would be today. Perhaps some form of bipolar? We didn’t know then that he was ill and of course he would never admit to it. He would have regarded it as a weakness. I don’t think we ever really talked about it. Even after that night at my house.
There were tears in my eyes as I watched the programme on the TV. There were tears in all of our eyes as we watched Dad that night. This issue affects us all. My brother has a number of mental health problems including bipolar. I am not sure if they are linked to Dad. His campaigning on mental health has taught me that if these issues are ignored or left untreated, they can destroy lives and families. I am proud of the work he does on mental health in spite of his disability and illness. I am also grateful to Holby for raising awareness in such a powerful way and I thank my friend Aileen Bushbell for making it a key theme in her presidency of The CIH.
It is too late for Dad. It is not too late for my brother and millions like him. I have never written about this before. I had forgotten how painful it is to remember. I had forgotten how difficult it was to watch the man we all loved and admired disintegrate in front of our eyes. I regret hiding it away for so long. He will always be my Dad and I will always love him. Just as I know he always loved us. I wish now I had understood these issues more at that time and that we had done more to help him when he needed us most.