I remember when my father had a breakdown, caused mainly by intense pressure at work. It was the first time I had ever seen him ill and it came completely out of the blue. In a matter of weeks he turned from being a healthy and functioning 59 year old man into a shadow of himself. The psychotic depression hit him so hard that he became delusional, suicidal and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
One of the things that struck me during the weeks before my father was admitted to hospital was the unwillingness of those around him to acknowledge that ‘this’ was really happening. Everyone was acting on autopilot, pretending that everything would be ok and that my dad would simply wake up one morning feeling fine. I remember feeling incredibly angry that no one seemed to be recognising how seriously unwell my father was.
I was trained in mental health and, whilst I knew what my dad needed, I was also his daughter and it was hard to manage my professional understanding in conjunction with my personal attachment. I remember feeling that my life was changed forever and that the man I had believed could protect me in any circumstances would never be the same - he would no longer be the sturdy force that I could always rely on.
I guess that’s why so many people find it difficult to come forward and admit that they have a mental illness, or are struggling with an aspect of their mental health – like it or not, the perceptions of those around them might change, even those closest to them.
I can remember the fear in my father’s eyes, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone look so lost, it was as if he was trapped somewhere deep within his mind and he didn’t have a key to free himself. One of the most painful parts of my father’s depression was the self-loathing and self-doubt that surfaced within him, he started to believe he was a terrible person, someone undeserving of love.
Visiting my Dad in hospital consisted of the same routine, convincing him that we loved him, that he hadn’t let us down and that we would never leave him. I believe that in spite of the darkness he was experiencing, these sentiments somehow managed to light the tiniest corner of his mind and knowing we loved him was stronger than any medication he was prescribed.
During my father’s sectioning, my uncle, brother and I went into his employers and managed to get him retired – a decision that was very difficult for us. This was made even more challenging when our motives were questioned and we ended up being made to feel as if we were trying to squeeze money out of his employers.
Essentially, they couldn’t get their head around the fact that my usually competent, intelligent and athletic father was so unwell that he was unable to even dress himself, let alone drive a car into work. These perceptions left us having to explain the intimate details of my father’s mental state and, whilst they were ultimately compassionate, it wasn’t without a fight.
I can remember the day I sat before a panel holding my fathers hand as they discussed the possibility of his discharge from hospital. As a family, we were not convinced that being an in-patient was the ‘right’ environment for my father to get well. His desperation to be with my mother and his fear of us leaving became a hindrance to his healing in hospital and we decided we were better providing care for him at home.
I sat there as they questioned us, simultaneously remembering all the times my father sat before my headmistress and teachers as they discussed my own mental health during my terrible teens. My father had never wavered in his love for me during those challenging and painful years; his love and belief in me had always been present and been enough to help overcome the debilitating self-doubt I had back then.
When they agreed his discharge I saw the first real flicker of my father return, he couldn’t believe that he was free to walk out of the ward and refused to return to collect his possessions for fear they would change their mind. My mother and my ex husband were waiting for us in the family room and as we left the ward my mother slipped her hand into my fathers; it’s a scene I will never forget and brings tears to my eyes as I type this.
Probably one of the most defining moments in my father’s recovery occurred moments later in the hospital car park. My father at this point was heavily medicated, shaky and very anxious. As we got to my car I looked at my Mother and she simply nodded to me as I passed my car keys into my Fathers hands. It was, on reflection, probably not the wisest move on a health and safety level, but something in my gut just told me that he needed to feel like the head of the family again. I cannot tell you how proud I was as we travelled home, albeit in a very slow and jolty fashion. It seems such a silly thing to remember, but often it’s these tiny reminders of who we are that breathes life into our broken selves and enables healing to begin.
Sixteen years ago, my father had a psychotic breakdown; it changed his life, and that of my family. My dad never went back to work, but he did get better. It took time – a whole heap of time – and we, as a family, had to convince him that he was loved and worthwhile and help him to come to terms with being retired and considered unfit for work - a difficult concept after 40 years with rarely a day off sick.
What I find most difficult looking back on those months is how my father’s self-stigmatisation and shame around feeling unable to cope prevented him from seeking the support he sorely needed. If he had felt ‘allowed’ to talk about his difficult emotional state, if he had given himself permission to reach out to us all at an earlier stage, then the likelihood is that my father would never have been sectioned.
My dad is now a 74-year-old retired man who has the good fortune to have my mother beside him still. They live more fully than they ever did when my father was working, and he loves his life. Whilst his mental illness may have changed our lives, it in no way changed my opinion of him. He is my father, my constant source of unconditional love and my hero.