The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Age of anxiety?

We live in anxious times, I think most people would agree. Nothing is predictable and potential catastrophes loom whichever way you look. The people in charge either don’t seem to have much idea what they are doing, or seem like cynical crooks. But maybe that’s nothing new?

When I was looking through my mother’s papers, I came across a neatly handwritten draft ‘letter’ that begins very alarmingly: “Tonight I sat down seriously to think whether it would not be the best thing to do to take my life and the life of my children.” Needless to say – being one of those children – I dropped this as though it were on fire at first, and it was a while before I found the courage to read on.

I knew my mother had suffered severe depression on and off throughout my lifetime, and that she had sometimes been suicidal – when we were quite small, she used to threaten to put her head in the gas oven, or lock herself in her bedroom with pills while my sister pleaded with her to come out. But in this letter she was threatening to take us with her – a thought that had never occurred to me in all my terror that she might abandon us.

She continues “I know the verdict of the world would be ‘of unsound mind’. My mind is not unsound, I am not mad. But I no longer know how to go on living.” It transpires that she had just watched a Panorama programme about the nuclear arms race, and its seeming unstoppability. This was in 1968 – my mother was then forty, and had already lived through one ‘hideous war’ as she put it. Her parents had survived two, including my grandfather spending four years as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front.

She had seen the devastation caused by the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The new nuclear weapons were 1000 times more destructive, capable of wiping out hundreds of millions of innocent people, yet the leaders talked about them as if they were merely a game of strategy. “What can I do about people like this – madmen – with such enormous power over my life?”

My mother seemed utterly convinced that the world would be wiped out by nuclear war in her lifetime. Well it wasn’t, and somehow we manage to continue living quite comfortably (or perhaps unthinkingly) with the continuing threat of this kind of warfare, worrying only briefly when powerful world leaders rattle their nuclear sabres at each other. So far, the ‘mutually assured destruction’ theory – that if one side uses nuclear weapons, that’s the end of everything – has held, but it’s no surprise that the acronym for this concept is MAD.

I know that the extreme level of my mother’s fear was of course related to her depression, as well as contributing to it. “What can I do? I know the answer is – nothing. I have to try to live my hopeless life through.” Traumatised as a child by the Blitz bombings of London (and also I believe re-traumatised by her experience of giving birth), she felt paralysed by terror and a sense of futility. She couldn’t even see the point in protesting, since the anti-nuclear marches were ignored, or protesters dismissed as ‘cranks’. “I feel so impotent to do anything to stop the bomb falling that everything else is senseless and useless.”

And no doubt some of this fear transmitted itself to us, despite her decision to “tell them (us) to ignore it – forget about it – until it drops.” Perhaps humans have always feared annihilation – it’s hardwired into us to screen the world for potential danger. Awareness of our own future mortality – however much we try to ignore it in our death-denying society – only contributes to the level of alarm. And out imaginations, which have allowed us to create the most marvellous life for ouselves, also sets out a perpetual series of ‘what-ifs?’ for us to worry about.

But I think we do our young people no favours in continually telling them that the world is terrible place, that we have ruined it for them and that they may have aln abysmal future. What they need most is energy and hope, a sense of positivity that there can be better way to live, and that it is achievable despite all appearances. As parents and elders we must be careful not to unwittingly transmit our own fear of death – which as we grow older becomes stronger – to the generation who are starting out in their lives, but to have faith in them that they will undboutedly find a way forward. Indeed they already are.


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Time bomb

On 14th September 1940, her sister’s birthday, my mother Katharine recorded in her ‘Schoolgirl diary’ that just after tea “the sirens went off.” A week earlier had seen the start of the London Blitz – a relentless campaign of destruction by Hitler’s bombers which pounded the city night after night for nine months. The war, which until then had been largely fought in continental Europe, out on the high seas or up in the skies, had hit home.

My mother’s family lived in West London, close to Heston Aerodrome from where in 1938 Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain had flown to Munich to meet with Adolf Hitler, returning to declare that he had secured ‘Peace for our time.’ It was a brief stay of execution; less than a year later Britain and France would declare war on Germany. During the war Heston became an operational base for Spitfires and Hurricane Bombers, rendering it a frequent target of aerial attack.

Catching up with her diary a few days later, Katharine tells us that “Three bombs were dropped very near us. Our house was damaged”. The family had been evacuated in the middle of the night to a nearby ‘canteen’ as it was not safe to go down to their own Anderson shelter – the half-buried, corrugated-iron structure like a pig arc that her father had installed at the end of the garden the previous year, when war was looming. They couldn’t return to their house because a high-explosive time bomb had fallen “under the concrete round Hens house” and lay there waiting to go off.

The next day, while my mother was at school, the time bomb exploded, damaging houses all around. Her family were at last allowed home to clear the mess and board up the blown-out windows – my mother accidentally cutting her finger on broken glass. “It’s horrible living in the house like this.” she writes. Shortly afterwards, the children and their mother went to stay with a relative in the countryside at Woburn Sands while their father stayed in London, going to his job in the tax office while trying to patch up the house and protect it from further damage.

For my mother, aged thirteen, this was the end of her childhood. Even though war had been declared a year before, things had been relatively quiet until now. Katharine’s diary for 1940, started with vigour on January 1st but as usual gradually thinning out, had up to then contained the typical entries of a school child – “Went to my music lesson”, “Bought a 2d chocolate bar”, “Iris was off school with spots” and quite often “Nothing much happened today.” From that point on, the diaries continue recording her attempt to live an every day, normal schoolgirl life amid the chaos, but most entries are peppered with comments such as “Sirens went at 7.30. Heard a lot of gunfire.”  “We had a bad three-hour raid this afternoon” “Did not go down to the shelter tonight as it was not too noisy.”

What Katharine didn’t know at the time, and possibly not until much later, is that when the time bomb exploded under the hen-house, it took with it seven men from the bomb-disposal squad who were trying to defuse it, blasting them all to smithereens. For weeks afterwards, my grandfather was still picking fragments of skull and human flesh out of the garden hedges; it must have been a grim reminder of the three years he spent as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front during World War 1, tending to terribly wounded and dying men on the battlefield. How must he have felt, having lived through that ghastly war, to be caught in the middle of this new horror?

The house was made habitable and the family moved back in, but would they ever feel properly safe again? Not my mother, of that I’m sure. It would not be until mid-May 1941 that I again find a day in which “Nothing much happened”, by which time it must have come as a blessed relief.

 


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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.

 


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Depression

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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Post-natal

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.

*https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3710585/

 

 


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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.