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  • “Oh Donnie, Donnie, please…..please….straighten yourself up, please! Oh god………..what will the neighbours think…………..”

    So spoke my mum, emotionally, fighting back tears and trying desperately to look ‘normal’, on the day we removed my severely depressed dad from home. ‘We’ being the family doctor, and two ambulance men. And there was little ‘normal’ about the way that it took the four of us to achieve this removal. We had to prise dad’s hands off the house stair rail as he fought to stay inside. And then again to drag him from the front fence which he’d fastened onto with a vice-like grip, before we were able to lift him over into the ambulance. He was only a small man but in his current state was possessed of incredible strength, only the previous day having thrown me, a six foot athlete, bodily across the room and over a sofa. Fit as I was, I was no match for the explosive energy currently coursing through him. And because of his behaviour, for his safety, as well as that of my mum, it was decided that medical intervention was appropriate, and so the papers were signed for his removal to hospital. And this was the reality of that signature………….

    My reply to my mum was terse: “Bugger the neighbours I don’t care what they think I only care about getting dad to where he can be safe and treated, and this is the only way to do that…..”

    The path leading to dad’s depression was complex, with a variety of factors all imposing some effect upon his mental equilibrium, amongst them a seasonal affective (SAD) element that was not recognised by the medical profession until it had taken it’s toll on him. In retrospect the long slide into depression is clear to see, each episode we dealt with as a family another step towards his ultimate breakdown. It was something we didn’t talk much about to people, something we felt we had to hide.

    I regret that now.

    Relieved of the burden of depression dad returned home from hospital with a ‘veil’ lifted. He was always a thoughtful and curious man, interested in politics, people and the world, and with a keen sense of humour and the absurd, but was quietly spoken, always disappearing into the background. The treatment he’d received changed that. His keen sense of humour came to the fore, and a slightly less inhibited character emerged. And it was a delight! There are many memories I have of that time, but two stick in my mind. One I mentioned previously, and the other was equally hilarious. Dad had always wanted to go to the Military Air Display at Leuchars so I arranged for us both to go.

    Dad loved it. One of the exhibits was a big American military spy plane, with a woman pilot, a very glamorous, crisply-uniformed Californian type who presence was making the aviation enthusiasts blood race. A large crowd surrounded the plane, the pilot standing talking about it, the eager crowd devouring each word she uttered, with great delight. Behind her, to protect the sensitive electronics and camera ports from prying eyes and damage, the long nose of the plane was shrouded in a giant, snug-fitting light-coloured bag, pulled tight around the front of the cockpit. Dad, all 5 feet 5 inches of him pushed through the crowd with uncharacteristic determination and got to the front, at which point he stared up past the pilot and took in the full bulk of the plane. And loudly proclaimed “Wooooaaaah! Look at that – they’ve put a giant condom over it for protection….yeah!” and burst out giggling to himself. The crowd were rather less impressed, but a few did manage to raise a laugh, as the pilot’s face turned a delicate shade of pink.

    But there were other things that emerged during this period of ‘clarity’, things he’d never ever talked about, family history that had gone untold for various reasons, his wartime experiences that had obviously affected him, and other experiences he’d suffered but which would never have been shared, and which he had obviously had to wrestle with alone for decades. I learned a lot about the man during this period, facets of his personality and experience that I would not otherwise have discovered. I’m richer for that.

    Depressive illness can be a harsh experience, for those suffering from it, and those struggling to support them. But it is not all gloom. It has moments of wonderfully loopy madness that may induce whole rooms of people to tears of mirth. I remember a lot of laughter in dad’s final years, interspersed with episodes I’d much rather forget. But I learned a lot about depressive illness in those years, saw it affect my mum, and I think I too came close to the edge of the ice as well. But what I’ve taken away from that experience is the thought that for the vast majority of people depressive illness is just like catching a cold. We can all get it, we suffer, feel miserable, then feel better. It’s something to deal with but not something that should define us.

    Last night I followed a series of tweets by John Moe @johnmoe which I thought very moving, and which have prompted this story. He said a lot, but here are just a few of his tweets: (you can see the whole feed on Chirpstory)

    ”I want you to know that when I talk about this disease, it’s not just about my brother’s struggle, it’s about mine too. “

    ”My brother died of depression five years ago today. He treated it with street drugs and shame. That doesn’t work.”

    “There have been times it tore at me pretty bad. Affected my family and those around me.”

    “The truth is that I’ve been living with the disease of depression for many years.”

    “But the truth is, I haven’t done all I could do. I haven’t been forthcoming. I haven’t lied but I haven’t told the whole truth.”

    “If you broke your leg, you’d go to the hospital. If you have depression you need to get help.”

    “I have this disease and I can have a great career, have a family, be engaged in the world, and be happy.”

    “I have depression but it doesn’t have me. There’s a tiger in my house but I work like hell to secure its cage.”

    “There isn’t a real tiger, that’s just a metaphor. Whew!”

    I’m sure my own mother’s journey through this period would have been easier had she felt able to talk to people about dad’s situation. I was under strict instructions to simply say “Dad’s not well” which I knew everyone else knew meant precisely what we were trying to conceal.

    Since then I’ve talked openly about mental illness, have worked professionally with people who have a depressive illness, and seen their return to normal life steal up on them and surprise them. And along the way I discovered that several of my friends had wrestled with depression for many years but managed to conceal it.

    There’s great value to be gained from speaking about these things, as unspoken they exert power, and what we choose to call them can help us to understand their meaning and manage their role in our lives.

    Winston Churchill described his depression as ‘The Black Dog’. I understand why, but I have to confess that I loathe that particular term.

    However, thanks to John Moe I now see depression as a more impressive and majestic beast, one worthy of great respect, but crucially one that’s a master of concealment……the tiger.

    My dad, and his tiger. I like that.
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