My Dad was in the SAS. As a result we were bought up to be audacious and daring. With 1970s and 80s London as our playground we were all over it, literally. We would climb onto our neighbours’ roofs at dark, see how far we could creep along back garden walls from one end of the block to another, we snuck into museums, schools and department stores during the night and even neighbours’ houses sometimes. We walked through the race riots and ran with the Chelsea Head Hunters. It was huge fun and it taught us that fear was not to be taken too seriously as there was so much that could be done without it. We seemed to avoid trouble and always felt that the unflinching attitude kept us safe from anyone.
This approach to life took us to places that our friends wouldn’t have dared go, it seemed to protect us, and as our Dad reminded us, was the same attitude that built the Empire and achieved astonishing discoveries. So i’ve found myself somewhat baffled by the fact that I’ve been in twice weekly counselling for the past 3 years. I admit that I had a lot on my plate, passers-by would often remind me, but I didn’t have any kind of a mental crash and I’d held fast to the fearless approach to life.
When my third son was born, my wife fell into a very, very deep and dark depression. My second son was very sick, severely disabled and well known to the local ambulance crews. My first son did great, until one day in North Wales when all the stress and trauma came tumbling out and he attempted to hurl himself off a cliff face. He was only 7. Luckily I managed to grab him and have done on the several other times he tried something similar. Naturally our business and livelihood also collapsed. Throughout all this I saw myself as the strong and unflinching hero I’d seen in my Dad.
I got a part time job, took my children to and from school, spent long nights in A&E, cooked fresh food every night, changed nappies, cleared up a lot of vomit, consoled the Mrs, navigated the practicalities of caring for a very disabled child and even organised ‘fabulous’ family holidays. Being unperturbed and dynamic was the best I could do. I was well praised by those unused to seeing such an active Dad. It struck me that so long as I continued to keep things ticking along everything would eventually work out. But it didn’t.
To this day I’m not sure what made me call and meet my counsellor. I honestly thought I was doing all anyone could. I think it was the desperate feeling that my children were suffering and that I might be somehow responsible. She told me that I needed her help on our first meeting – I’ve been contesting that with her for 3years now but I have finally understood what a dangerous path I was on.
The absolute worst thing about counselling is the acknowledgement that I need help, that somehow on my own I’m not good enough. There is a whole lot of the process which is deeply unsettling, you have to take a really honest look at yourself and it’s often unattractive. It also often feels like it is going nowhere but little by little things started to change in my life for the better.
I’ve learnt that by ignoring my own feelings I have also ignored and degraded those of whom I love. I’ve learnt that not allowing space for emotions means they can express themselves in dangerous ways. I’ve learnt that making room for feelings isn’t a big drama – I don’t need to do a huge amount with them – but simply recognising them goes a long long way. Now when my wife or children cry I see their tears and feel some measure of their pain. I no longer believe that there is no need for tears and try to distract them out of it. They can cry as much as they like and I’ll do my best to console them. I see how damaging the heroism and strength that I thought I had is to those who love me, even to my Dad. Above all else, I’ve learnt that old truism, that you cannot truly love or care for another until you can do so for yourself. That means looking after your own mind, body and soul first and foremost.
My wife is recovering, slowly. My children no longer harbour suicidal or harmful thoughts and frequently dazzle me their own empathy and compassion. Myself, I’m feeling humbled by my past wrongheadedness but now that I’m learning how to look after myself, I can start to look after others more properly – I hope it won’t be long before I can foster vulnerable and disabled children.
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