Earlier this year I was driving my teenage son to piano practice (he is a talented musician). We put on some music as usual and he said, ‘Dad, I’ve got something to tell you…’ I think for most parents this is not a good sign. ‘…You know I’ve been down lately…’ For the previous six weeks he had become increasingly withdrawn, spending more time in his room and less time with us (his mother, younger brother, and me) or his friends. ‘I’ve been self-harming.’
I remember it was raining and I was driving down a dual carriageway, so shouldn’t have said to him, ‘Let me see.’ He pulled up the sleeve of his left arm and out of the corner of my eye I could make out red and purple. I turned and saw that he had carefully covered the whole of his arm from wrist to elbow in one centimetre cuts. This wasn’t done in haste; this had clearly took a long time with a great deal of attention. I quickly turned my eyes back to the road, not sure if it was because I couldn’t look at his arm or that it was a good idea because I was driving. He went to his piano class as usual, but there wasn’t much after that day that was part of a ‘normal’ routine.
I can only describe the two months after him telling us as ‘muddling through the dark’. We encouraged him to go to school, which he did, but in hindsight he probably shouldn’t have. Subsequently, we withdrew him from school, choosing to home educate him which, in reality was our attempt at helping him overcome his depression and give him back some joy without school getting in the way, or his education being affected too much. It was hard work, but over the following six months, he was gradually able to get up before midday, gradually able to engage in activities such as going out with his friends and playing music again. There was little, if any, education in the ‘curriculum’ sense. It brought us closer together; we went to see plays, went to the Houses of Parliament, and went for walks. But there were many days that were very difficult.
At the same time my younger son, who eighteen months previously had been diagnosed with non-verbal Tourette’s Syndrome, was experiencing high anxiety, and refused to go to school; he would be physically sick and have panic attacks.
Added to all this, due to a number of underlying health conditions, I had also been suffering from depression myself. I am a househusband, so found it easy to withdraw from public view, sit in a chair and do the bare minimum until the boys got home. Ill-health has been a large part of my adult life. At twenty-one I had a nervous breakdown, which culminated in psychosis (I thought people in photographs were staring at me) and panic attacks (I kept thinking I was going to die). The depression was profound, totally debilitating and unfathomable. I didn’t feel like I was alive, it was as though I was simply observing human life rather than living it. Ironically, thoughts of suicide were almost academic and pragmatic in approach – I would think to myself, ‘so this is what life looks like without me’. I didn’t spend much time outside of my room or house for two years. Later in life, as I accumulated other conditions (under-active thyroid when I was forty and low testosterone, when I was fifty), I continue to have major bouts of depression and chronic fatigue.
So by the middle of this year, after moving up various NHS waiting lists, both my sons and I were under different mental health care services, with widely varying degrees of success. In all of this, my wife, who is the main earner in the family, was incredibly supportive, but like myself felt bemused and full of guilt. We kept asking ourselves what had we done wrong, even when assured by health professionals that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for our sons’ mental health conditions.
I welcomed the support and was given Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), along with Citalopram, an SSRI anti-depressant; it helped give me perspective on my situation and offered ways in which I could help myself and therefore better help my sons. This involved structuring my time so I had periods of rest (but not too much), periods of activity (writing and running), and most importantly, time just for me (in my first two diaries there was nothing that I did for myself besides resting, so that I could put all my time and energy into my responsibilities).
My eldest son initially went to a local counselling group that offered psycho-dynamic therapy, which involved him sitting in excruciating silence whilst the counsellor waited for him to say something. When that didn’t work it took all of my powers of persuasion to get him to Child and Adult Mental Health Services (CAMHS) after I had phoned them pleading that they saw him urgently because he was self-harming again. The counsellor was very good, they got on well and my son didn’t mind going to the sessions. After six or seven visits, when my son appeared to be feeling better and he was discharged, ready to start a new school, he admitted that he’d been simply telling the counsellor what he thought he wanted to hear.
My younger son has also been seeing a counsellor who works more like a mentor, offering him help in overcoming his anxieties. At the moment it is all palliative; he feels better for a day or two but then he starts panicking again.
When I first started reading the short stories of the great Raymond Carver, I couldn’t understand why a lot of them didn’t have an ‘ending’. It wasn’t until I realised that he was portraying snapshots of peoples’ lives. So, there is no ending to this story really. It is a snapshot. Things are certainly better than they were nine months ago. My health is the best it has been for some time. My older son isn’t self-harming, which is great, but just this morning they were both having great difficulty in getting to school. Both came home feeling down, and no doubt tomorrow we will have similar problems. Maybe we won’t, I don’t know. We take it one day at a time. All I know is that if I am driving and one of them says they have something to tell me, I will stop the car before I ask them what it is.
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