Fashionista

There – I’ve done it!  I now have a rip in each knee of my Marks and Spencer black jeans!

It took a while to twig on that torn trousers aren’t the outcome of an unfortunate scrape with an ill-fitted screwhead or the perishing of cheap cotton, but are actually designed like that. And I’m not one to miss out on a fashion!

Admittedly, the tear is not as neat as some. The left knee in particular has a hanging flap of material rather than a slit; admirers would be entitled to wonder if the jeans were torn or part-cut to shorts. But they draw the eye – and that’s the point!

And the knees that now protrude are not, I suppose, my most endearing feature. Bulbous and veiny, they don’t quite replicate the smoothness of younger people’s. More like a barnacled whale surfacing. But I’ve not overheard anyone saying, ‘Take a look at that – what does he think he looks like?’ And in the grand scheme of living a life, would I care anyway?

In fact, I’ve gone as far as cutting a tinier slit at the top of the right thigh. One of those that gets passers-by thinking, ‘Was that a tear, or was it my imagination?’ More discreet than the knees and right up there with the trend, methinks.

The top slit also offers a teasing taste of the dragon tattoo I had installed a few weeks back. Designed by yours truly and pretty damn original, the dragon circles the entire thigh – fiery nose-to-tail  so to speak! I’m getting some great looks down the gym, although that could just be curiosity about the set of hoop earrings along my left ear. Individually they’d be nothing, but fitted as they are like the Olympic symbol they look great! Only the lucky ones get to see the matching navel stud!

The only thing with an earring set is keeping the ear clear to view. No point otherwise. My hair’s quite long, and I’ve been using a man bun for the last year or so. But I’m now seriously thinking of getting a one sided shave style and keeping it long and pointy on the right side only. I bet the bouncers at ‘Hard’ (my all-time favourite club) will love it! They still won’t let me in wearing my green Doc Martens or furry parka though. I’m working on it! Incidentally, the parka is identical to the one I wore on my Lambretta in the mid-60s. What goes round, eh?

Anyway, must dash. I’m well ready for a vape. Photos to follow; there’s only a couple of pictures left in my Box Brownie, then I’ll pop the film into Boots for developing.

 

Copyright © Paul Costello May 2016

 

Free as an Old Bird

Perched on the plinth of the Captain Matthew Flinders bronze at Euston Station, he of fame for circumnavigating Australia and now offering a resting place for travellers’ bums and Burger King bags, I make light work of my Upper Crust ham baguette. I’ve picked one art installation from which to observe another – hundreds of upturned faces, all ages, colours and destinies, frozen, waiting for their platform numbers to appear on the electronic board above.

Young travellers and business people predominate. I wonder where the young people are off to, who they’re meeting and what life holds for them. I think: does their energy and fashion mean they’re having a better time than me? Do their smiles as they text and talk mean they have richer relationships? Are they totally worry-free as I must surely have been at their age?

Wouldn’t these young people and I have something in common? They’re probably itching to invite me into their social circles. Wouldn’t they be anxious to draw on my life to affirm their own – hear about the myriad experiences they’ll have before earning their entitlement to a gammy hip? I could even trade some of my warfarin tablets for whatever they were passing around.

My thoughts dwindle as Platform 14 flashes and the installation sparks to life in a full battle charge towards the Virgin train for Birmingham. We know we’ll all get a seat yet we all want to front the attack.

From B 48 I can see the full length of the carriage as its likely occupants tumble aboard. Unlike train companies whose ancient rolling stock uses printed cards for reservations, these Pendolinos have tiny electronic booking tabs above each pair of seats. You need a fine pair of eyes and a magnifier, which means a lot of bumping, grumping and general mayhem as people try to find their reserved seat, or anything available. Having spearheaded the platform assault I’m in situ to witness this volatile behaviour.

A pair of tight-pin-striped, middle-aged businessmen in shiny slip-ons sit opposite. Already on their phones as they bump themselves and their polyester computer cases along the aisle, they devote the first thirty minutes of the journey to reporting back to bosses, secretaries and wives.

With bosses it’s assertive and purposeful – distribution networks, pallet-loads and call frequencies. Serious stuff – laptops and iPads whirring, successful meetings, no weaknesses at all, apparently. With secretaries – Amanda and Amy respectively – it’s appointments and mild flirtation. With wives it’s luv, vets, kids and supper, softly tuned. With all of them it’s sorry for ‘just going through a tunnel’.

Symphonies in three movements, performed with panache and aplomb. Daily. Do they really like doing this, I wonder?

They unwittingly reaffirm my retirement – in which I don’t have to learn alien languages and follow grey paths, but indulge my time for intrinsic not monetary reward. I don’t gloat, except perhaps when lying in bed listening to icy windscreens being scraped and engines revved for work. Nor does the vibrancy of younger people make me feel the passing of time. I’m well aware that life for them too can often be hard, emotionally and materially.

I am simply keen to enjoy the time I’ve earned, and grateful for having the choice. For as long as my hip holds up, my heart keeps pumping and the resident weasel at 11 Downing Street leaves me enough cash, I’ll carry on soaking up life’s bright side. And hopefully my contentment will spill over to those around me – young or old, at work or retired.

Hm – I wonder if my pin-striped passengers will be talking so fondly of sales forecasts twenty years from now …

Copyright © Paul Costello January 2016

www.paulcostello.me 

Ear Today, Grown Tomorrow

For last month’s birthday my nearest and dearest bought me a vintage Noddy Annual. Grand it was, with its pink, hardback cover and brightly coloured characters.

Tessa knows I like old books, especially those harking back to childhood. And she probably chose Noddy as a joke because I do nod off like a baby – typically ten hours a night plus daytime naps. In fact, on the parabola of life I’m wandering happily down the second childlike path. Having skipped along my first childhood and barged through the earnestness of middle life, I am once again showing off and making demands, and people think I’m sweet.

Big EarsBut inside the Annual I discovered a perhaps more pointed reason for her choice. Tessa had picked an edition where Big Ears sets up a taxi firm to rival Noddy’s, with a brightly coloured people carrier, cut-throat fares and an aggressive advertising campaign. Noddy’s livelihood was threatened and his sixty year friendship with Big Ears was teetering on the brink.

In itself the story made excellent fireside reading but, I thought, is her choice of the “Special Big Ears Edition” trying to tell me something? Was she perhaps inferring that Enid Blyton introduced Big Ears to make older readers like me feel less alone?  Was she teasing me about the differences between early and late periods of childhood? After all, in this secondary phase I hobble rather than skip, I take a daily dose of multi-coloured tablets not sweets – and yes, my ears are rapidly growing longer. An esteemed graduate of the British School of Irony, it wouldn’t be beyond Tessa to poke fun at my lengthening lobes.

I’m trying to grow old gracefully, bumbling and stumbling my way as best I can. But short of radical surgery (a ”lobe job” as they say) I can’t stop my lugs growing. Until recently I thought it was either genetic – that not everybody’s ears grew bigger – or that it was nature creating a larger funnel to compensate for loss of hearing. And I only thought about it when, say, World War 1 veterans appeared on TV or I was singing carols in a care home.

But I’ve discovered that ear growth is a natural part of the ageing process for all of us. Studies since the mid-nineties in Italy, Japan and the UK have proved that ears elongate by an average of 0.22mm a year, a fact so accurate that forensic scientists can determine someone’s approximate age by their ear size.

A little help funnelling sound

A little help funnelling sound

One school of thought is that an enlarged auricle (outer ear) does help funnel more sound. But a more accepted explanation is that ears sag with age thanks to a loss of elasticity as the collagen and elastin fibres that make up the ear’s cartilage and surrounding skin start to break down. Deterioration of this cartilage removes structural support, allowing gravity to take over and cause the appearance of droop. Since noses are constructed in the same way, they too are subject to apparent enlargement, though less so than ears. The effect is exacerbated by a loss in volume of surrounding areas like cheeks and lips, making the organs next to them look larger.

Ear-lengthening happens to women as much as men, but because their ears are often covered up we don’t notice. Under the pink and purple rinses on those coach trips to Scotland lie an abundance of awesome auricles. In fact sagging ears are potentially a greater issue for women because earrings, especially the ‘drop’ variety, encourage gravity to do its dastardly deed. No surprise that it’s women who most often seek redress through lobe surgery. A similar tug must be exerted by the ear stretchers in vogue with many young people. The combined vertical strain and butchered lobes will surely come back to haunt them in later life. But, huh, what do they care?

I’ve just measured my ears – they’re exactly 70mm long. If I live another thirty years they’ll be 76.6mm when I’m ninety-seven. But since 0.22mm is only the average growth, they could get even larger, occupying the entire sides of my face. I’ll be able to hear well enough, but it could spoil my chances with, say, a woman I’m trying to chat up in my nursing home. And I worry about other silly things, like how will I deal with all that unwanted extra hair? Would I need giant Baby Buds? Would a mobile phone disappear down my swollen ear canal? Will I experience violent ear-popping on flights, causing my head to explode?

Obama checks today's flap factor

Obama checks today’s flap factor

 

Maybe I’m taking it too seriously. At least I don’t have sticky-out ears. With decades of growth and a high flap factor, people like Barack Obama and Gary Lineker might in later years find it tricky staying grounded in a strong wind.

 

I think I’m still on the right side of ear droop. Holding the Noddy Annual alongside my head in the mirror, I’m no way like Big Ears. And I’ll never catch up because his ears should grow with each new Annual. Let’s just say Tessa’s gift has made me think properly about my ears’ future; and she’ll be pleased I’m not now ordering from Amazon the gorgeous blue and white striped 5mm ear stretchers I’ve been banging on about for the last year.

Anyway, they wouldn’t have gone with my titanium butterfly eyebrow bar.

Copyright © Paul Costello March 2015

click. com – a play by Paul Costello. A comic romp through the joys and pitfalls of internet dating for ‘mature’ people. Showing at Bosbury Parish Hall Friday 10th/Saturday 11th July 2015

Website: www.paulcostello.me                 Twitter: @PaulCostello8

Game of Public Thrones

When I turned sixty-five my doctor gave me three pieces of advice.

  1. Never knowingly walk past a public loo.
  2. If you think you’re going to pass wind, don’t risk it.
  3. Should you get an erection, use it.

Sound ideas, I thought, except perhaps the final one since an irregular heartbeat already deprives my brain of oxygen-laden red cells and redirecting yet more blood might make me pass out.

The first suggestion was the most useful. I’m now in a steady relationship with public loos. I do knowingly walk past them, but never without adding their locations and opening times to my mental map – an imprint which includes cafes, bars, hotels and any stores with toilets the public can use. A relief map, so to speak.

The map for my home town of Ledbury is of course complete, as are outline maps of nearby towns Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester. Further afield, Birmingham City Centre and London Paddington Station are fairly well plotted, and having spent a great deal of my life in Brighton I’m confident about its layout too.

Does that mean more than one men?

Does that mean more than one men?

Where there’s a choice, the quality of premises counts. For example, my map shows that the men’s loo at Gloucester Bus Station is no-go for hygiene and feel-good, whereas Wetherspoon toilets are generally well kept. And whilst the loos of most Ledbury cafes might be all potpourri and frilly flowers, there’s one hotel that could do a good trade selling surgical masks in its men’s toilet.

Then there’s the question of payment. Perhaps once or twice in my life, in desperation and not without a good deal of resentment, I’ve paid to use a loo. The idea of charging originated in major railway termini, perhaps using their captive market to tempt people with a more attractive alternative than toilets on trains. Admittedly they are very clean. Thirty pence a go, it is – free for moneyless people whom I’ve often witnessed climbing in through the exit turnstiles with practised ease.

Charging has now become more common. McDonalds has coded loo doors – you have to buy something to get a code. I’m told that in Amsterdam nightclubs you have to pay each time you go to the loo or buy a night pass for 3Euros. A while ago Michael O’Leary floated the idea of charging customers to use the loo on Ryanair flights. And many local Councils in the UK, where they haven’t actually closed toilets, have started charging – supposedly a fund raiser in these hard times.

Fact is you shouldn’t have to pay once you’ve developed a mental map. There’s always a free alternative nearby, more often than not sponsored by the very places charging. Pubs and cafes in the retail ‘villages’ on major railway stations are a good bet. And some Councils promote so-called Community Toilet Schemes where Marks and Spencer, Wetherspoon and the like are encouraged to give free access to their loos.

I contend in any case that charging to wee is proportionately unfair on us ageing men. We can’t help how our bodies change. “Slo-flo” and “little and often” can be part of daily life. Should we really have to pay over the odds for nature’s shortcomings?

Fortunately I’m able to laugh along on that subject. I remember a work colleague at an English Heritage site pointing to a cow in an adjacent field and wistfully saying, ‘I wish I could still piss like that.’ And whenever I’m out with my teenage daughter I come to expect her cry of, ‘Not again, dad! You’ve only just been!’  I even enjoyed a younger friend’s inadvertency at a Brighton and Hove Albion soccer match. The half-time scrum in the men’s urinals involved banking up behind existing stallholders, creating a second row as it were, then stepping up when the man in front had finished. On returning to his seat my friend said, ‘Trouble is, you get stuck there for ages if you land up behind some old bloke with a prostate problem. You wonder if he’s ever gonna finish!’ Yeah, thanks for that, Buzzer. It was probably me.

Yet, charging to use loos might be better than shutting them altogether. Closing public toilets in tourist towns like Ledbury, Hereford and Worcester is a bad plan. Such places are a mecca for day-trippers who add life to the streets and money to the economy. Visitors need wooing. Throughout the year I see coaches dropping people off on Ledbury High Street for a two-hour stopover. Who are these people?Elderly People sign Well, like me, they’re part of the growing elderly population that has time on its hands. And what’s the first thing they might want when they’ve been stuck on a coach for the last hour or two? Visitors often stop to ask me where there’s a loo. When I worked in Ledbury Library we were asked every day. At the moment I can still point to one that’s open, but for how long I don’t know.

As a visitor to Malta last Christmas I was relaxing in glorious winter sunshine on Sliema harbour front when a group of elderly tourists came tottering towards me. Led by a cheerful if mechanically-spoken lady sporting a blue Saga badge, the dozen or so newcomers moved at the pace of the couple bringing up the rear – dead ringers for the Highway Code road sign. Saga specialises in holidays for the over fifties, with a majority upwards of seventy-five. One of the company’s routines is to run a local orientation walk on the first morning. In a small Majorcan resort, when the rep pointed out the chemists, supermarkets, churches of various denominations and public toilets, I remember thinking how sensible this was for new people in unfamiliar surroundings, particularly the most elderly and those with special needs.

In Sliema the group stopped alongside my bench while the leader waved her arms semaphore-style, like the cabin crew doing safety drill on an Airbus 300.

‘In the likely event of you getting caught short,’ she said loudly, ‘there are public toilets therethere – and there.’

Indeed, Malta is proudly endowed with public loos, and I’d formed an excellent mental map by the end of my first day. I thought it ironic that a country perhaps second only to Britain in Britishness continues to recognise the importance of such public investment, made by the British, while back in blighty governments now deem public toilets surplus to requirements. Perhaps we can learn from this former British colony. How nice it would be, say, to find that my local Council had printed ‘GO’ at the end of its welcoming HEREFORDSHIRE – YOU CAN logo – and meant it.

I mean, we all have to.herefordshire-road-sign

And when you’ve gotta go …

 

 

Copyright © Paul Costello    January 2015

Utterly Undiscovered by Paul Costello. A hilarious Bed and Breakfast memoir set in deepest Shropshire. Order through bookshops or direct from http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

Website: www.paulcostello.me                 Twitter: @PaulCostello8

 

When She’s 94

In A Last Banana I reflected on my feelings when Dad died. Too often it’s only after such loss that we feel able to express our emotions – when, perhaps, it seems safe and normal to do so. So this New Year I write a living tribute to my Mum, alone seven years aged ninety-four …

… whose brilliant smile welcomes me in when we’ve not met a while. Who in all sorts of weather sets pots of pink fuchsias and waves of white heather. Who daily ticks the Guardian Quick. Who knows all the scores – Wimbledon, Old Trafford and Lords – and still bowls a winning wood indoors. Who correctly predicts the winner of Strictly, and “did all those dances with Dad in the fifties”. Whose diary is filled with visits and trips. Whose faithful old heart is put to the test, just like her bus pass getting no rest. Who stumbles and falls, yet hauls herself up, with a thin-blooded bruise. Who sings all the hymns on Songs of Praise and polished pews. Whose spirit nourishes the branches beneath her. Whose Thursday perm rests on my chest when she squeezes goodbye with a hug so strong it lasts long beyond my departing.

 

Copyright © Paul Costello  January 2015

Utterly Undiscovered by Paul Costello. A hilarious Bed and Breakfast memoir set in deepest Shropshire. Order through bookshops or direct from http://www.fineleaf.co.uk

Website: www.paulcostello.me                 Twitter: @PaulCostello8

Out of my Way! I’m Old!

Like a hatching chickI break out from my curled-up comfort. My head emerges first, before I unfurl my back, straighten limbs and tumble from the protective duvet. Like a dishevelled fledgling, I then take the first tentative steps.

There the likeness collapses. The baby bird will soon be hopping its Duracell way through the day, whereas I tackle my tottering with a line of tabs, each colour shoring up a different part of the body.

It’s a wonder

I ever come out of

the foetal position.

I sleep eight to ten hours a night, topped up with daytime naps. Friends worry; they think I should see a doctor. Some suggest it’s a waste of life. But this can’t be true if it’s something I really like doing. I’ve enjoyed this amount of sleep since I was a lad. I mean ENJOYED! I love the act of falling asleep – a surgeon’s ideal patient!

I’ve always asserted that sleeping and what some see as ‘doing nothing’ are life’s entitlements. Sitting on a park bench people-watching, or just thinking and snoozing are stimulating and rewarding pastimes, as is daytime television. Legitimate and deliciously self-indulgent.

When I recently retired, the most annoying question was:

‘What will you do now?’

Oh, COME ON! Spare the cliché. Okay, when I’m not doing nothing I’m obviously going to sleep more! In fact my avowed aim is gradually to sleep a greater proportion of each twenty four hours so that by the time my body finally pegs out I probably won’t notice. Seriously, that is a crass question. Although many retirees don’t have a plan, it’s never long before their hectic life spawns the other cliché:

‘I don’t know where I found the time before.’

For me, retirement means more of what I love – exploring, writing, singing, drinking tea, going to the pub, seeing friends and yes, sleeping and doing nothing. Perhaps doing something charitable. Definitely having a nice run out on the bus (free) or train (third-off), knowing that on the train I can now gloat when I see sweaty executives slaving over tablets and laptops and taking and making numerous calls about  sustaining and maintaining and finding a window, being needlessly noisy about bottom-line prices and blue-sky b****y thinking.

A friend of mine approaching 60 says he’ll never retire – loves his work too much. His wife who is retired is as driven as him. I get exhausted watching them overstretch themselves, and wonder if they’re really fulfilled. But that is no more my business than it is for others to comment on my idleness. Everyone is different. This is not a blueprint for retirement or growing old; it’s simply my take on it.

Being idle is great!

Every day, as I squeeze out of my foetal wrap, I think:

‘What shall I do today?’

Starting with:

‘When shall I get up?’

And later, in my dressing gown:

‘Is it worth getting dressed now that it’s dark?’

Such luxury! I’ve spent forty-five years earning my modest pensions, thirty as an employed slave, fifteen grafting for myself. I now have freedom to decide.

I shall do anything and nothing.

Because I can.

Given that I’m into the last third of my life, I have thirty or so years still to indulge this passion for freedom – that’s assuming I don’t go early. I’ve never been afraid of dying. Que sera, sera. Okay, I might have ideas about good or bad ways of going, but since it’s a hundred percent certain that I will, I’ve never felt inclined to spend my waking life worrying about it. That’s for others to do, and I offer you my condolences in advance – you’re all fab, and do sell this article to fund the celebrations! Hey, I really am a surgeon’s best friend – I not only love going to sleep, but if I happen to die on him it’s no great shakes! Perhaps I should make that clear on the disclaimer. What a way to go – gently into eternal sleep.

I doubt I’ll age with dignity.

My dad did, bless him. To his dying day he was the cee aitch in charm. Yet he wasn’t beyond a trick or two. I remember him saying how, when he wanted to cross the road, he’d wave his walking stick (which was for comfort not necessity) high in the air, and the traffic would grind to a halt with drivers acknowledging his oh so innocent smile.

My mum, mid-90s, is more ‘say it as you see it’. I heard somewhere that the first brain cells to die are those that help you respect social norms. Inhibitor cells, perhaps? Without these, in a room full of pink-haired people you’re allowed angrily to declare:

‘I don’t like pink hair!’

Or in a TV lounge, yell:

‘Why are all the Arsenal players black?’

What a great excuse! No-one can possibly take offence.

‘It’s just my inhibitor cells!’

If you can’t speak your mind at that age, when can you? See it as alternative humour; there’s far more offensive material on the comedy circuit.

I have these joys to come.

I too shall raise a stick to traffic. I too shall greet people with, ‘How lovely to see you again’, even though I can’t remember who the hell they are. I too shall berate the lawn man who doesn’t trim my edges neatly. And I too shall growl, ‘Out of my way!’ to innocent pedestrians as I mow them down on my mobility scooter before freewheeling home down the centre of the road with my legs in the air.

I shall say ‘pah’ to Michael Parkinson for asking me to fork out my funeral expenses up front when people could perfectly well club together after I’ve gone. ‘Yah boo’ to the stooges on McCarthy and Stone hoardings who promise ‘A Greater Life in Later Life’ if you buy one of their apartments. (Yeah right). ‘Grrr’ to Saga Magazine for overusing both Angela Rippon’s smile and the term ‘Golden Years’. And I shall yawn openly at bronzed elderlies who mechanically recite their tick list – Australia, New Zealand, Tibet, Argentina, Brazil, China and Borneo ‘done’ so far – or bang on about Glucosamine Sulphate and Condroitin, or have dinner at exactly 6.30 every day and lunch at 12.

Each day I shall decide what I’d like to do. If anything. Because I can. For the next thirty years I’ll feel as free as that young chick – as I slowly shrink, and stoop, and bend, back towards the foetal position where it all began.

Copyright © Paul Costello May 2014  www.paulcostello.me

Related blogs:  A Last BananaThe Commandments for Older People – Thou shalt …Warfarin Junkie;  Programme Notes from Les Miserables.

Related material: Chapter titled: Caught Napping, in my Bed and Breakfast memoir Utterly Undiscovered. www.fineleaf.co.uk

Latest Project:  Terms and Conditions Apply – a play by Paul Costello. A sharp-witted comedy about a 5-year coalition government, seen through the eyes of ordinary, suburban households and, in stark contrast, the rose-tinted spectacles of politicians. Director Bob Maynard. Ledbury Market Theatre 31st July to 2nd August.  www.themarkettheatre.com

 

Note:  Any promotional material that appears below this article has been placed independently and is unrelated. I have no views on its content.

 

 

 

 

When They Need You Most

Something had scrambled Lily’s mind.

Huddled between her mother and me in the minimalist reception at a Child Psychiatric Unit, my daughter jigged one knee like a drummer who couldn’t stop, staring ahead consumed with thoughts she couldn’t articulate.The normal parental assurances had little effect; we were three disorientated people in a strange environment.

Waiting long beyond the scheduled appointment time, we watched the steady passage of staff and young residents through what doubled as a walkway from living quarters to the in-house school – as if part of our induction was to acclimatise to this flow of troubled humanity. Soon Lily would be following the same alien routines.

This was my baptism into the world of mental health. I’d never had to confront the subject, and like those sitting by me I was scared. When had things gone wrong and why hadn’t I noticed? Was it teenage angst, or perhaps something I’d done? The loving relationship with my daughter seemed at risk and I didn’t understand why. I was faced with an intangible problem and wanted tangible information to resolve it – but this would never come.

For six months the Unit for twelve young people into which she’d admitted herself became Lily’s first home – and my second. Tentative visits to her small room, with an occasional game of pool or stroll round the local park. Meetings with care staff, consultants and parent support groups. Tip-toeing forward, stumbling backwards, never sure of the next turn, listening to expert opinion but unable fully to grasp the issues or get an unequivocal diagnosis around which to plan. Such is the nature of mental illness.

This fragile nurturing continued through Lily’s rehabilitation at home and her resumed education at a local school for young people recovering from emotional problems. We listened to whatever diagnostic information was available, no matter if it was vague and inconclusive. We came to accept that Lily had thoughts and feelings she might be unable to bring out, and that guiding her into adulthood would require greater patience and direction. We kept her safe. And we trusted that Lily would make her own contribution to this working partnership and would ultimately value the support offered.

It’s said that one in four people are affected by mental illness, from mild depression to eating disorders, psychosis to dementia. Likely as not, we either have a problem ourselves or know someone who has. But acceptance of this by the other three- quarters is rarely straightforward. Unlike a broken leg or a common cold, mental illness is not a subject everyone can get to grips with. It leaves many people uncomfortable, frightened – like talking about terminal illness. Whereas friends and neighbours may offer practical or emotional support to an amputee, or the public rallies en masse to a physical disaster like flooding, a mentally ill person doesn’t readily attract such attention. Loss of contact and limited community back-up can mean a person’s mental health problems are compounded through isolation – just when they most need a friend.

Lily was not immune. Whilst people were by and large supportive, some who would previously have asked after her with enthusiasm now did so with caution, as if they might themselves become afflicted; the subject was awkward and perhaps best avoided. Irregular silences would creep into conversation and a change of topic sought. It was somehow unsafe to send ‘get well’ messages. And through fear or ignorance, a few even joked openly about mental illness. Ironically, those who had shied away most would nod sagely and express shock at the thought of such social exclusion, failing to recognise their own behaviour or perhaps finding denial the easiest way out.

Mental health is an imprecise science and likely to develop only slowly if government and society, perhaps relieved that by its nature mental illness stays largely hidden, continue to accord it low priority. At one time I too used to avoid the subject – it didn’t affect me and I found its intangible nature inconvenient and worrying. But having tracked my daughter’s experience through a difficult time and listened to many skilled practitioners, I feel a stronger responsibility to engage with mentally ill people – without being expected to understand what’s wrong.

Though I’d not have wished illness on Lily, I’m glad that having to face up to it has at least made me think differently.

Copyright © Paul Costello April 2014

Note:  Any promotional material that appears below this article has been placed independently and is unrelated. I have no views on its content.