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.
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Soaps? Never watch ’em, but …

It must be, ooh, fifty years since I saw any soaps.

But on Friday, channel-hopping before the showdown between Chinese, My Kun Chi Plei and North Korean, So Dark Dung in the Leeds International Piano Competition, I happened across Hollyoaks on Channel 4/7+1 OD.

I stuck with it to see what I’d been missing. Over the next half hour a gay trio, Brendan, Eoghan and Ste, exchanged longing looks and bitchy threats, and cafe owner Tony was extremely nice to customers as fiancée Cindy, to whom he’d been married before, was having it away in the cafe toilet with Rhys, whose girlfriend Jacqui McQueen was upstairs having her sixth baby in two years alongside sister Theresa having her fifth.

When that was all over, the entire cast attended the funeral of Lynsey (who’d been murdered earlier), except for Mercedes, who was in care and watched the hearse go by from an upstairs window in the psychiatric unit, cackling as she saw the funeral cortege blocked in the narrow street by a broken down car being beaten over the bonnet by its driver with a dead branch.

The whole episode was overlaid by a James Blunt loop, though I’m not sure if this was to match the mood or because the programme had been reinvented as Hollyoaks – the Musical since I was away.

Toying with the remote again, I found an episode of Emmerdale just starting on ITV2+1+8=11Plus. For a rural community there was a disappointing absence of livestock, but I decided to see it through. In the ten minutes before the ads Cain Dingle put a crowbar to every glass in the Woolpack, Georgia demonstrated why it’s never a good idea having mother to stay, and Debbie Dingle squared up to four other women saying,

‘You think I’m upset? You ain’t seen nothing yet.’

In the second half things warmed up. Flat-nosed Jimmy King rushed into the glassless Woolpack to say three bodies had been found in the landfill, followed by a stranger in a beanie hat claiming he’d struck gold in the sheepless hills at the edge of the village. Half the customers dashed off to the landfill, and the rest to the gold mine where they found a makeshift notice from David Cameron saying it had already been sequestered for the Big Society, but that they were welcome to look around. While they were up there, Sainsbury’s built a new superstore where the shop had been, Lisa Dingle browsed through the Bible to choose a name for her fifteenth child, due at 7.22, while Zak, who was standing at the window nonchalantly reading a letter saying the Dingles had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, screamed helplessly as a school bus tore past, clearly out of control, and embedded itself in the entrance to the gold mine, exploding on impact and trapping the would-be prospectors inside – a bold move by the producers since the episode was going out live to mark the programme’s hundred and twenty fifth year.

This was thirsty work. But making a cuppa before the Piano Competition was a mistake, if only because I didn’t switch to BBC4+SkyPlus+3 (where x=y) before I left the room. Instead, I found ITV2+1+8=11Plus had already tripped into Coronation Street, or Corrie as everyone now calls it, and I was teased into following for the next twenty five minutes.

In that time, Norris, dressed as a waitress, served Greek food at a theme night in Roy’s Rolls Cafe, and in the Rovers Return Tracy Barlow told seven different men that she was pregnant by them, whereupon they all gladly proposed only to have their worlds fall apart when she told them she was joking, while Ken and Deirdre sat looking old, and Lewis (typecast Nigel Havers) chatted up three Mancunian bar assistants with the telling line, ‘Does every woman in Manchester have an orange face?’ before going back to Audrey’s and taking her on the kitchen table.

The hiatus after the ads – when a group of old ladies with mauve hair and pacamacs on a Granada Studios Tour failed to hear the guide’s instruction to pretend they were extras, and not point umbrellas or make faces at the camera – was soon overcome by a camp guy in the factory ‘oohing and aahing’ like Kenny Everett, and Steve and Michelle dumping each other twice, leading to Steve taking out Sophie Webster for an evening that was going swimmingly until the infatuated girl stepped in front of a passing car, unaware that her garage-owning dad Kevin was at that very moment sat in a customer’s 4×4 ending it all and had only been saved when a Boeing 737 mistook the railway track for Manchester Airport runway and demolished the viaduct, the resonance from which dislodged the hose leading to his exhaust.

A nice extra touch to celebrate ninety nine years of the programme was having the cast and mauve-haired ladies seen at all times enjoying a Mr Whippy 99; no surprise that Cadbury’s were sponsoring the episode, which was being streamed live.

At last I was ready to relax with whatever was left of some quality piano playing. But just as I was switching over to BBC4+Skyplus+3 (where x=y) my front door flew open and Phil Mitchell barged in with a production team and six cast from East Enders.

‘Sorted,’ he said, blatantly dropping his ‘t’. ‘Nah shut it – right!’

‘Right,’ I whispered, closing the door as asked.

It seemed that to celebrate two hundred years of the programme, all week they’d been transmitting the East Enders Roadshow live on RedButtonDave+2, and my house had been randomly selected to host Friday’s episode. Once they’d covered my Ikea furnishings with grey tarpaulin, Phil threw Sharon across a small formica-top table in the centre of the living room with such force that, through a handily placed mike, you could hear the air rushing out of her like a collapsing balloon.

‘Is this what yer want, is it? Is this what yer want?’ he yelled.

‘No, Phil, no,’ she squealed.

‘Yer dad’d turn in his grave, yer slut,’ he said, polishing the table with her tangled, yellow hair.

I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d done, but it must have been bad to get such harsh treatment.

The staircase was a good vantage point for all three sets. In my kitchen, which had been darkened to camouflage the orange Le Creuset Ovenware, I could see Max Branning counting money at a second formica table.

‘Look, son,’ he said to protégé, Joey. ‘A monkey. Lemon squeezy. That’s how yer do it. Keep yer eyes open, son. Take yer chances.’

I couldn’t see a monkey, but there was a lot of money. A few days later I discovered that as soon as he arrived, Max had sold a motor with a bad oil leak and no MOT to the elderly lady at number 5.

Meanwhile, in the small, spotlit gravel garden at the back, they’d thrown green netting over my choice pots, and forced the six Polish neighbours to hang around as unpaid extras.

‘You sure you got the right immigration papers, son?’ the producer had said when a skinny Pole objected. ‘It’d only take one phone call, yer know.’

As the cameras rolled, Ian Beale emerged from the shadows and head-butted Alfie Moon who was having a quiet fag.

‘Think it’s funny, do yer? Think it’s funny?’ he said, landing a blinding blow at the top of Alfie’s nose, with the Poles muttering away in the background.

‘Nah, but this is,’ said Alfie, pulling an eight inch blade from his back pocket and taking Ian out with two swift thrusts. ‘You ’ad it coming to yer,’ he said, as the camera zoomed in on him hiding the crimson-stained knife in my pink hollyhocks.

I was frightened by the chasm between their unsmiling world and my happy one. Only five minutes in, and my home was a battlefield. Powerless to respond to victims or perpetrators, and sensing the enormity of the social issues facing Walford, I felt myself being dragged lower and lower …

*

I was kept under observation in Hereford Hospital, but tests showed I’d not ingested enough paracetamol and dihydrocodeine to cause lasting damage. I thought it a bit harsh that they discharged me on the condition I never tried watching East Enders again. I mean, I hadn’t invited them in, and it was Max Branning who’d kindly called the ambulance when he spotted me swigging from the pill bottle. And after all, I had landed myself a cameo role in a live broadcast.

A few days later I watched So Dark Dung steal the show with a moody rendition of Tchaikovsy’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in a repeat showing of the Competition on Dave Really+1+7HD I Player Ja Vu. All the while my finger was twitching over the ITV1+5 button to check how many passers-by Cain Dingle had given a good seeing-to since my last visit. I resisted. But I can always go back in fifty years to catch up.

Paul Costello © October 2012

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Cuckoos Over the Weald

Extract

Bill Tipping shot for goal. Holding off a lanky Italian defender, he took two short steps and caught the round flint perfectly on his instep. On darker mornings he might have seen sparks for his effort, but not at this time of year. Game over, as the stone escaped into thick swathes of cow parsley lining the narrow lane.

          Bill loved his walk to the small country station. Nearly forty years and he had no intention of packing it up, enjoying the routine, happy in a community which thrived on familiar faces and warm welcomes. A woman driving her children to school hooted and slowed to edge past on the narrow lane; Bill glared, until he recognised her from the cul-de-sac development at the edge of Heddingly, and waved back.

A cuckoo called from one of the coppices dotting the Sussex Weald, the same bird, he thought, that led the morning chorus he’d listened to from bed earlier. Blackbirds and sparrows foraged for grubs under the high hawthorn hedges. Bill pictured their unguarded chicks as prey for cackling magpies in search of an easy meal. How he hated that sound.

His tinny pocket radio had promised another fine June day. The sun was already high and he felt overdressed in a fleece, but with fickle British weather it was best to be sure. Strapped across his chest, he carried a beige, army-style haversack. Inside were the Coach and Bus magazine, a sticky bottle of sun cream wrapped in clingfilm, and his Tupperware lunch box containing sandwiches, a banana and a chocolate bar.