The Great Below

living the feeling life


All about my mother – part 2

my motherI’m writing this in a lovely flat lent to me by friends to work in. It’s set in a former mental asylum in Wales – an impressive gothic stone structure surrounded by well-tended grounds dotted with octagonal wooden gazebos, with views all around of the distant green mountains. In it’s nineteenth century heyday, this place housed a community of over a thousand patients – ranging from the seriously insane to people with epilepsy and more than likely several ‘fallen women’. A beautiful place with a sad history, and a great environment to re-engage with writing about my mother’s depression.

Summer is not a good time for writing, I’ve discovered that time and again. My head is simply not in a place of concentration – sometimes I even find it hard to read. But as autumn sets in and that ‘new school year’ feeling brings freshness and resolve, I can pick up this blog and my book again. I like to think that fallow time is not wasted – it’s a space to let things settle and to explore what else needs to be considered.

One outcome of this summer ‘break’ was the chance to go through some boxes of papers that we had stored in my sister’s garage eight years ago, while clearing out my mother’s house when she moved into a nursing home. There wasn’t time to sort out much of it then, as we needed to sell the house quickly to pay for the care fees, so we simply gathered anything vaguely interesting and put it away for later. It got buried for a while under the accumulated junk of modern life, but finally this summer I persuaded my sister to retrieve the – now slightly damp – boxes for me to investigate.

I hadn’t been certain that there would be anything of use to me, but what I found proved to be a revelation. My mother never really kept regular diaries – except for three years during the war when she was a schoolgirl – but she did from time to time write down her feelings and experiences on scraps of paper, often in scribbled pencil. She wrote from the heart, with scant punctuation, as one would a diary – and yet some of these pieces I’m sure were intended as short stories, as there are occasional notes showing that she intended to expand a certain section or give more detail at a later stage. Pages are missing or badly stained, or written on a shaky train – sometimes the handwriting  is just indecipherable, so reading them has been a process of guesswork at times.

While occasionally descending into romantic cliche (she was a great reader of fiction and had clearly absorbed some of its tropes) her writing has amazing freshness and immediacy – it made me feel almost breathless at times with the powerful emotions both expressed and reflected in her description of the landscapes around her. In these writings she describes a painful affair with her married boss – the love of her life – as well as a later romantic encounter on the beach of Nice with a penniless drifter, when she travelled to the South of France as a young woman. There are sad reflections on her marriage to my father (‘the story of the marriage that died’ – although they did stay together) and some very troubling pieces from her later years of depression.

What interests me is that these are what she decided to keep – there must have been more, as I know she attended a creative writing class for a time, but very little evidence of that exists. My guess is that these pieces express the most vivid and deeply-felt times of her life, and were also probably the best writing, writing she could well have been proud of. What a pity she didn’t do more.

All this has reinforced for me that the purpose of my writing this book is to find out ‘what happened?’ This young vibrant, creative woman, passionate in love, full of promise – where did she go? Somehow she got buried inside the mother I knew who was sad, angry, embittered, lonely, unable to break out. I feel a great need to honour and reclaim that young woman, to explore her life and understand the challenges she faced, and perhaps finally to set her – and myself – free.




What is depression? A recent BBC programme with Alastair Campbell, a longtime sufferer, delved into possible reasons and new treatments for this very human condition, though it was rather inconclusive. What the programme showed very well, however, was what it was like when the ‘black dog’ suddenly hit – seemingly irrespective of what was outwardly happening in Campbell’s life.  There was a window in the stairwell at his home looking out over the garden, by which he gauged his state of mind – on bad days, he felt unable to raise the blind and face the world, let alone shave and exercise.

If you have never experienced depression – and many people don’t – it must be hard to imagine what it feels like. Even when you have been depressed and are now feeling better, the two states seem to have almost nothing in common; it’s a bit like trying to recall the pain of childbirth – you know that it really hurt but you can no longer quite imagine it. Campbell described his depression as being ‘unplugged from life’: unable to experience joy, love, or comfort even at the heart of his loving family. It’s clear that depression can affect anyone, no matter how much they seem to have in their lives from the outside.

I chose the above image – and all such illustrations have an inevitable whiff of cliche about them – because when I am depressed the principle feeling is of extreme existential loneliness. I continue to function, and might even seem outwardly to be having a busy and social time; I understand objectively that I am loved and have many good things my life, but it’s as though I can’t feel or touch them. It often seems that I have discovered, or remembered, the bitter truth of life – that there is no point to anything and we are all ultimately on our own. One way I have found to endure is to be extra kind to myself and try to remind myself that ‘this too will pass.’ And, usually within a few weeks, it does.

I’m lucky. I’ve know many people who suffer far more extreme depression than me – my mother for a start, who struggled with severe suicidal bouts throughout her life. Other friends have had varying encounters with depression – bi-polar swings, reactive depression brought on through grief and trauma, drug and alcohol addiction in an effort to cope, or having to live with persisent dysthymia or ‘low mood’. Some have chosen to take their lives when, like Virginia Woolf, they simply could not face going into the darkness again.

For me, these relatively short periods of depression come and go in my life with no obvious pattern – although having just come through such a spell, I recall that I have often experienced springtime depression in the past. It feels so ironic, when nature is bursting into life and people are taking advantage of the warmer weather to enjoy themselves, that I can go into a kind of mental and physical shut-down. The wind goes out of my sails, I can’t find motivation to do anything except lie on the sofa, or see any point to life apart from just getting through it. There’s a grim sense of injustice, too, and incomprehension, that other people are able to feel so differently to me – from where do they get their energy, their joy in life, their goddam happiness? Why can’t I find some of that in myself?

Where depression is concerned, although there are certain common manifestations,  there are probably as many causes as there are people. This article explains that it is most likely a combination of genetic susceptibility,  brain chemistry, life experiences and who knows what other factors such as insufficient gut bacteria or systemic inflammation – the latest suspects in the search for an answer. Different things work – or don’t work – for different people. I have never chosen to take anti-depressants, on the basis that by the time they start to be effective – often a few weeks or months – I will probably have started to feel better anyway. Perhaps taking them could protect me from the tendency to periodically ‘crash’, but I’m not sure the side effects are worth it. My mother had electric shock therapy, a popular treatment in the 1960s which is still in use today, and although it temporarily helped her mood, it left her with post-traumatic stress. There’s no perfect answer.

Fortunately we are much better now at talking openly about mental health and emotions, and there’s no longer so much shame in ‘not coping’, or seeking help. The mere fact of telling someone (or in the case of television, everyone!) how bad you feel can be an enormous relief, and for me is often the beginning of turning things around.


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This week I watched a TV programme where Louis Theroux spoke to women in a mother- and-baby psychiatric unit about their varying experiences of post-natal psychosis and depression. These women were on the most severe end of the spectrum, hence their being admitted to full-time care, often under section. I found the programme upsetting to watch because it chimed with what I know of my mother’s experience, although at the time her condition was largely unrecognised and almost never treated.

Though even less understood, there are as many women who suffer from depression during pregnancy as post-natally, and frequently both. My mother was first officially diagnosed with clinical depression in 1958, when she was pregnant with me. She was in her early thirties and had been married to my father for six years, during which time she had been trying not to get pregnant, always insisting that she did not want to be a mother. But my father’s persistence, along with the vagaries of the ‘rhythm method’ contraception they used, meant that she had already conceived once, losing the baby at three months. I don’t know how she felt about that miscarriage – perhaps because of her ambivalence it was a a relief, though she was very angry with my father for abandoning her in hospital to go off on a business trip the next day.

My mother always blamed the hormonal changes of pregnancy for triggering severe depression, as she experienced it every time she became pregnant, but I doubt it was purely a physical or chemical process. Being effectively co-erced into motherhood against her will, with the underlying social expectation that being a mother was the most, if not only, fulfilling life choice for a woman, must have been a grim experience. Of course if she’d had her way I would not have been born, which I can’t wish for, but it’s clear that our whole relationship and the course of my life has been marked by the fallout from this unhappy time.

What is it like to be a baby in the womb of a depressed mother? There is some evidence* that such babies are more likely to experience depression themselves in later life, though it’s not clear whether this is genetic, environmental, or due to changes in foetal development from the mother’s depression. I also got very depressed for a time during pregnancy, even though I had spent five years being treated for infertility, so my son’s conception (through IVF) was much longed-for.  Perhaps my brain chemistry was triggered in a similar way to my mother’s, or perhaps external events – my relationship with my husband was very difficult and distant at this stage, which meant I felt very alone – contributed to feeling low when I might have been expecting to feel very happy.

Things didn’t get any better for my mother after I was born: the birth was very traumatic as I came out three weeks’ late, very large and she had to be cut in order for me to be born. The gas and air she was given for pain relief made her hallucinate and this, combined with her own anxiety and terror, convinced her that there was something seriously wrong with me and she refused to see me for the first twenty-four hours. Even when my father persuaded her that all was well and I was a healthy and beautiful baby, she still believed that I was somehow damaged. She later described it – to me – as ‘the worst day of my life’.

When I watched some women in the programme say that they were able to feel nothing for their babies, even though they seemed to be caring for them perfectly adequately, I understood that I had probably been on the receiving end of this maternal indifference. How terrible must it feel not to love your own baby? Luckily for me I bonded instantly with my son and loved him to distraction. As a small baby I at least had my father and grandmother, who we lived with, both doting on me, and I look perfectly cheerful in all the photographs. My mother was obsessive about my physical care, especially cleanliness – apparently she bathed me and washed my long hair every day. However I never felt that I had bonded properly with her until towards the very end of her life, when she became like a child herself. It’s not her fault, or mine, but there’s a loneliness inside me, a sense of never having been properly received on earth, that I have never managed to assuage.





Does mental illness run in families? In the past, people were prevented from marrying – and thus procreating – if they were considered to come from a ‘tainted’ line. In the 20th century, theories of the heritability of mental illness fed the development of eugenics and the horrors of Nazi ‘experimentation’. Latterly, scientists have found that there is indeed a genetic element in the predisposition to certain mental illnesses, albeit influenced equally by the social and emotional conditions of a person’s life.

On my mother’s side several generations have suffered from psychiatric illnesses. My great-grandmother was diagnosed with ‘religious melancholia’ and was in and out of hospital, until ultimately dying in an asylum at the age of 61. She would prostrate herself in prayer for days at a time, refusing to eat until she began to hallucinate and hear voices. In past eras she might have been considered a visionary, or joined a strict religious order: think of the ‘anchorites’ of the Middle Ages, a majority of whom were women, who were literally walled up in small cells for a lifetime of prayer. But my great-grandmother had three children, a husband – she could only withdraw through madness.

Her condition might today be called ‘scrupulosity’, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder characterised by pathological guilt and the fear of divine judgement for perceived sins. But the word ‘melancholia’ also suggests depression and the hallucinations and voices something more. Recent research has found a significant genetic link between depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia*. My mother suffered from severe lifelong depression, and a young male cousin of hers hanged himself at sixteen in what was at the time passed off as an ‘accident’, suicide being illegal at the time, as well as a source of shame and opprobrium. Alzheimers disease, which also has strong links to depression, has affected three generations of my mother’s family, including her mother and her sister.

In my generation, one of my cousins has schizophrenia. She is the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother, who was herself a youngest daughter – it’s as though the illness has trickled down the female line to land in her lap, which sounds rather like a bad fairy-tale. Our understanding and labelling of mental illnesses keeps changing, as well as the degree of openness with which they are discussed, so I may well have other family members whose conditions remained secret or who I simply do not know about.

The recent science of epigenetics has begun exploring how what we experience can alter how our genes work, leading to changes in the brain and how we manage stress hormones. It’s not yet conclusive whether or how that alteration is actually passed on to future generations through the DNA. What seems certain, however, is that trauma can be and often is passed on through the generations by psychological means, especially trauma that is unresolved or unacknowledged. How a parent responds to their child, how they respond to events, how they teach their child to respond – either deliberately or by unconscious example – all shape that child’s psychological development and how, in turn, they will parent their own offspring. Even trying to parent differently, as most of us attempt in one way or another, does not always alter the underlying pattern – as a friend once commented: ‘180 degrees from wrong is not necessarily right.’

You could argue that there is barely a family without trauma in its background: poverty, displacement, early death, loss of children, sexual or physical abuse – these are the stuff of human history and you don’t have to look very far to find them. Above all, in the past century, there is war, on a scale and of a magnitude unprecedented in history, and wars encompass all of the other kinds of trauma imaginable, and add plenty of their own. We are all children of war, in one way or another, whether or not our families were directly involved, and it is the cumulative effects of this trauma in my family and society that is the main subject of my book.




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All about my mother

A couple of years ago I started trying to understand my mother by writing about her life.  It came out of a conversation with a friend – I was telling my usual story about how I had been emotionally neglected as a child because of my mother’s clinical depression. “Why was your mother depressed?” she asked. At first I thought it was a strange question: depression is an illness that can befall anybody and to me it was simply part of who my mother was – a woman whose state of mind ranged from low-grade gloom to downright suicidal misery, with a throbbing undercurrent of unacknowledged anger. As a child, you breathe in the the emotional atmosphere of your family like the air – no matter how damaged or damaging it seems normal, its variations and troughs part of the weather-system of home. Mummy and meBut why was my mother depressed? I began to think about her life and her family history a bit more closely. To begin with, there is a susceptibility to mental illness that runs directly through my maternal line. My great-grandmother sufffered from what was called at the time ‘religious melancholia’ – she would prostrate herself in prayer for days without sleeping or eating, until she began to hallucinate and hear voices. Perhaps in an earlier age she would have been considered a mystic, but in Victorian London she was hospitalised and died young in an asylum; her children barely had a mother. That thread runs down the female line: the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of her youngest daughter – my cousin – has schizophrenia.

Mental illness may be partly hereditary, but so is trauma. My mother’s father spent four years in WW1 on the Western Front as a stretcher-bearer, whose job was to scrape up wounded and dying men, carry them across mud-and blood-drenched battlefields to the dressing stations, all the while trying to keep them alive long enough to get treatment. It must have been one of the worst jobs in wartime and of course, like most soldiers of that terrible war, he never spoke of it. Whatever trauma he had suffered – and I’m assuming there was plenty – was buried deep inside and only manifested in occasional outbursts of temper. But we now know that buried trauma does not go away, it resurfaces throughout the generations until it is fully dealt with.

My mother’s early childhood, although she always remembered it as a golden era, was no doubt overshadowed by this trauma of war, not to mention a strict upbringing with little tolerance for expressing personal feelings. Then when she was twelve, Europe went to war again and her world was shattered – in a sense literally as living in London, she was at the heart of the Blitz bombings. This war blighted her teenage years, destroyed her school and thereby her chance of a decent education, depriving her both materially and pyschologically and leaving her with a lasting sense of foreboding and fear.

She became a young adult during the 1950s, probably one of the worst decades to be a woman, when in addition to contentedly performing the role of domestic goddess, women were supposed to be sexually attractive at all times and even seek personal fulfilment through pleasing men. Their choices in life were severely circumscribed – my mother got married and had children almost despite herself, possibly as one of the only ways open to her to leave home.

Depression seems to have set in with a vengeance at the point where she became a mother – she suffered from both pre- and post-natal depression which went untreated. When she finally sought help, the only treatments on offer to her were strong anti-depressants, tranquilisers or electro-shock therapy. At no point did anyone suggest, or she know to ask for, psychotherapy or counselling. How different might her life have been if someone had been able to explore with her what was wrong? On the other hand, having been brought up not to express or even acknowledge ‘bad’ feelings, it might have been impossible for her to open that Pandora’s box.

Taken altogether, then, there are many factors that make my mother’s depression unsurprising. We still have a tendency to view mental illness as an individual pathology, divorced from personal history or life experiences; a chemical imbalance which can be medicated out of existence. Even psychotherapy, while focussing more on the early life of the individual, rarely looks further back into family history to trace the threads of who we are and where we come from And who we are is, inevitably, bounded and to an extent created by the society within which we live. What started out as a personal exploration turned into a work of forensic research into the social, emotional, and political history of our past hundred years.

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Intensive Care on Radio 4

I’ve been listening avidly to this week’s 15-minute drama on Radio 4 about a man whose wife suffers a brain haemorrhage. Usually I avoid these kind of programmes, particularly on the BBC, because they quickly irritate me in how unrealistic/over-dramatised/or just plain worthy they are. This one is different – it is so well-written and clearly based on someone’s (though maybe not the writer’s) direct experience. I am re-living every moment of Michael’s last few days as I listen – the bafflement, the fear, the absurdity of it all: daily discussions with well-meaning doctors in the ‘bad news room’, fraught with the contradictory desires to clearly understand what is happening and yet not to hear anything awful; the juggling of relationships with friends and family members in their reaction as events unfold. The sheer sense of unreality, of having been abruptly thrown into a parallel universe.

One thing I learned from the first episode, is the extreme unlikeliness that Michael could have recovered from what happened to him. Half of everyone who has an ‘intra-cranial bleed’ dies, and of the half who survive there is only a minute chance of complete recovery. The rest will be left somewhere between ‘able to live independently’ and severely brain-damaged. This comforts me a lot; I think I have always felt guilty (and I know that guilt is part of the landscape of bereavement) that I didn’t somehow fight harder for him to survive, that I too easily let him go – as if it were ever up to me what the outcome would be. I miss him every day and mourn his absence in my life and my son’s, but it would have been far far worse had he lived on without the capacity to be himself in all its weird and magnificent manifestations. A nightmare for him, and the end of our life as we knew it.

The big difference between this drama and our story is that Cath, the wife, does finally wake up from the coma induced after her brain is operated on, which of course Michael didn’t. I haven’t heard the last episode yet, and I suspect the ending will be somewhat upbeat but that’s OK; lucky them.

The loss of keening – singing for the dead

Good programme on Radio 4 this week, about the old Irish tradition of ‘keening’ (literally ‘crying’) for the dead. Particular local women were known for their skill in keening at funerals – a way of expressing and helping others to express their sorrow. By the mid twentieth century, it was seen as a bit primitive and had been edged out by the more ‘modern’ habits of biting back your grief and ‘bearing up’.
For me, the saddest comment in the programme was that perhaps we are no longer so affected by death in general, because of our overexposure to it at a distance in news broadcasts, films etc.
Of course, when you are deeply affected by a death close to you, it’s a different story, but it seems we no longer know how to express our feelings of grief and loss, and there is little encouragement to publicly mourn. (Or sometimes even for writing about it!).

The Somme centenary and taking sides

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins - stretcher-bearer at the Somme

My grandfather, Frederick Hawkins – stretcher-bearer at the Somme

I’ve been trying to think of a way to write about this momentous World War I centenary – a hundred years since the beginning of the disastrous battle in which more than a million young men would lose their lives.  All the British soldiers involved in the Battle of the Somme had volunteered to join up: they were fighting out of patriotic duty, for king and country – motivated by an abstract ideal of heroism which likened war to a game of sports. To die for one’s country was still seen as a glorious death.

Yet these were ordinary men, wounding and killing other ordinary men over the control of a few miles of muddy ground. Of course they fought at the behest of governments and military leaders, but also backed by a groundswell of public opinion which had roundly rejected any idea of a compromise peace with ‘the Hun’.

A hundred years later, I feel we are still being exhorted to ‘take sides’. Are you with us or against us?  is the prevailing sentiment and I have been caught up in it too – in the Brexit vote, in the realignment of political parties, even in my local neighbourhood. At times this year I have felt very angry, despairing, betrayed, fearful.

I am usually more of a fence-sitter, trying to hold onto a sense of (what I see as) the middle ground while the extremes pull in both directions. I’m often astonished by the strength, ferocity and above all certainty of other peoples’ beliefs and opinions.  Maybe I’m just woolly and indecisive, but I prefer to think of it as  a kind of noble doubt.

If I believe something passionately and you believe the opposite – where do we go from there? Am I ‘right’ and you ‘wrong’, or vice versa? When Nigel Farage (erroneously) stated that the battle for Brexit had been won ‘without a shot being fired’,  he was alluding (somewhat threateningly I think) to the violence that such passionate beliefs stir up in people, such that they might be willing to kill and inflict harm on fellow human beings for having a different opinion.

Somehow we have to find a way to work with our differences, not to get ‘entrenched’, stuck in the mud of our own side’s supposed superiority. Otherwise, how far can we really say we’ve come in the past hundred years?

Death of a young mother

This morning another young family woke up to the sickening knowledge that they have lost a parent. My heart aches for them, for the painful and terrible journey of bereavement which is just beginning and will take them into the years ahead. I feel the same every time I hear that a mother or father of young children has died; it reverberates with my own experience twelve years ago, which while devastatingly sudden and unexpected was in no way as horrific and shocking as this senseless killing.

Jo Cox’s husband and children are beginning the journey in a glare of media and public attention. It will be a comfort to them in many ways to know that she was so loved and valued, that her short life – if not her death – was not ‘in vain.’ But it can also be extremely difficult to locate your own grief in the tsunami of everyone else’s feelings.

Grief is anyway a very complex emotional landscape – it doesn’t fall neatly into ‘stages’ as some psychologists would have us believe, but meanders and weaves and crushes and occasionally uplifts us in unexpected and often shattering ways.

One thing I’m sure of is that this poor family will remain frozen in shock for a long long time – a sudden and unexpected death, especially a brutal or shocking one, is not easily assimilated into the mind and the adrenalin of survival, which kicks in to protect us, also shields us (mercifully) from the full truth of loss for a while. Yet until the reality of a death begins to sink in a little, it is almost impossible to start mourning.

Salt will be rubbed into the wound again and again as the country debates the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of this tragic  killing; there will be an inquest, a trial, a constant dredging up and rehashing of the details. The children will forever be children of a murdered mother – this is their story now, and with the resourcefulness and strength of children, and the deep love of those around them, they will make it their own.

The first year of bereavement

I had an article in the Daily Mail today about surviving the first year after bereavement, inspired by BBC2s new comedy/drama “Mum”, about a 59-year-old woman who loses her husband. The programme, being a slightly ‘grotesque’ comedy about an askward subject, considerably overeggs the pudding. But it does get some things exactly right – the way people don’t understand what you need, feel too awkward to ask, and end up sometimes saying or doing something clumsy or unhelpful. It’s great to see a middle-aged woman as the heroine of a drama, and Leslie Manville plays the part superbly: she is the still centre of the mayhem, trying to put a brave face on things, but occasionally letting her true feelings show, especially in poignant conversations with old friend Michael who clearly carries a torch for her.