Archive for March, 2010

Remembering to pack the Salt

March 30, 2010

Tomorrow we head out. Out of the Outpost.

For three whole weeks I will be an escapee.

And so I am packing a picnic, to sustain and distract and keep us going during the first of three days hard driving.

I emulate my mother’s picnics: hard-boiled eggs, buttered bread, ham and a flask of hot tea. I will pack a jar of marmalade, a pot of mustard and I shall try to remember a twist of salt for the eggs; Mum never forgot the salt.

There is some deep seated pleasure in these picnics. They are sustaining for more than the food; they extend the bliss of childhood, heighten memories and flavours, remind me where I am from. For we do it all exactly as we did it when I was a little girl: we negotiate when would be a good time to stop, have we driven for long enough, how much longer is there to go? We argue over precisely what constitutes a Good Tree. We pile out to stretch legs and the boys amble off to explore and I unpack eggs and buttered bread and ham. And I register, with a twinge of irritation, that I have forgotten the salt.

I am caught in curious reflection now. Mum is not able to do for my children, for my eldest daughter, what she would like to do. (She cannot conceive of what to eat for lunch). She wants to do these things – escort her grand-daughter to Heathrow for her first solo flight home, be inspired about what to prepare for lunch – but Depression is a chain and ball and she cannot drag herself from a capsule of enervation. And that she cannot do what she would like to do, what would ordinarily empower her and endorse her as the granny she wants to be, upsets her and she is fearful my daughter will not cope.

‘Of course she will, ma’, I tell her, ‘she will be fine’. And I mean it.

But witnessing her angst and I am struck that she must have felt similarly when Depression compromised her energy as a mother. And her anguish must have been worse without the slight remove afforded by a generational gap. There must have been a million occasions when she couldn’t summon the interest or the vigour to be the mum she wanted to be, had been until Depression reduced her to inertia; the mother she always was in-between bouts. There are times in most mothers’ lives when doing the job properly is hard, how often have you worried, ‘did I get it right today, could I have done better?’. I cannot imagine the pain of enduring that anxiety for weeks, months, at a time.

And yet I do not remember pain. I remember episodes. Shadows. Which came and went. Briefly clouded bright horizons. But mostly I remember sunshine. If Mum knew that, would it help? She cannot distance herself from the torment of her illness. We can. She cannot embrace life; she can’t even engage with it. We are immersed in it; her illness stalks and points and shakes a finger at me from the periphery of my days, but I have things to do (words to write; suitcases to fill; stuff to look forward to; picnics to pack) and those afford me blessed distraction. Respite. That’s why we on the outside cannot – mercifully – perceive the same pain.

And as much as Depression defines me (because I make it my business: if I keep my eye on the ball perhaps I won’t drop it?), oddly it does not define Mum. Depression divides her: my sick mum and my well one. But the well one got here first. And that will always be the one that wins-out.

I do not remember that Depression spoiled picnics.

I only remember that Mum never forgot the salt.


Depression: the New Black?

March 29, 2010

Dr Michael Shooter worried it might become a Designer Disorder.


Sorry to bang on about this.  

(It’s why an editor at the Telegraph once dismissed my CV with a derisive, ‘is depression all this bloody woman ever writes about’.

No actually, I wrote back, and enjoyed his subsequent squirming; somebody ought to have explained the Reply to All facility to him, I giggled.)

But banging on about madness is part of what I do (a recent bio ran RM is a mum of three and freelance journalist who lives in (not so!) splendid isolation in the west of Tanzania. She writes, she walks, she swims. Her primary writing interests lie in Africa, motherhood and mental illness …)

I began years ago. When it dawned on me, in a perverse sort of Eureka moment, that Depression is part of what defines me. It’s been around now for longer than it hasn’t.  And so I embarked, as one of a myriad measures I have employed since as some muddy prophylaxis, on an extended exercise which put me in touch with all sorts of people who live with madness. Shooter, then president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, was one of them.

I wanted to know what he thought of celebrities who outed their mental illnesses.

He thought, he observed, that there might be a danger there in manipulating a very real, very painful illness into some kind of Designer Disorder. Like a bag from Mulberry. Only not as useful.

And I am reminded of his words this week.

Google, because I thought if I asked it to deliver a daily prompt, it might preserve both Mum and me (in which case it hasn’t worked), reminds me daily of the proximity of Depression (thought given current economic climate, sometimes the prompts spell financial doom, not emotional fallout, and sometimes they articulate the passage of a storm, which just goes to show what an inappropriate word we have chosen for a crippling condition if it can be employed in Wall Street and the Met Office alike). 

And in the last few days Google has told me  Emma Thompson says work saved her from ‘going under’ in her battle with depression, Corrie’s Beverley Callard is to write about her battle with depression, Angelina Jolie suffered from postpartum depression just like Kendra and  Katie Price described her own tussle with the Black Dog in one of the four autobiographies she wants to turn into a movie about her life.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that every single one of these woman fabricated their illness; I’m just saying I don’t believe they all suffered the condition in its warts-and-all guise: I think some were just briefly disappointed with life, exhausted by fame. I think some might even have dressed a passing miserable phase up as mental illness in order to buff a fading star?  After all, we aren’t expected to be happy all the time.

I vacillate between feeling irked by red carpet treading film stars and globe-trotting-to-tour singers who wheel their experiences of Depression out (a publicity stunt? a means to garner our sympathies so that we will watch their movies, listen to their albums, buy their really, really badly written books? I can’t help being suspicious of their recently evolved compulsion to Raise Awareness) and feeling oddly relieved that  somebody, somewhere is highlighting an illness that few acknowledge – despite the fact it is estimated that one in four, one in six, nine in ten of us (depending on who you listen to) will fall prey to it.

Our celeb-idolizing culture means the masses will hear what Ms Price and Ms Wilkinson have to say and as a result Depression might enter its vocabulary, society might begin to absorb a modicum of what it means to be depressed (even if it doesn’t grasp it rarely comes designer clad).

See, I’m not sure the Page 3 models and movie stars and pop singers – and subsequently the media – dress the illness quite as somberly as it deserves: Depression doesn’t arrive at the Priory attired in immaculate Armani, shod in Jimmy Choos, clasping a Prada (or Mulberry for that matter) handbag whilst coyly hiding behind enormous Gucci sunglasses. It’s habitually less attractive: Marks and Spencer sweat pants with washing machine fatigue, a pair of old slippers, scuffed at the toes. No need for a handbag – Depression doesn’t get out much and never wears lipstick – instead shaky hands clutch a soggy tissue which alternates between blotting bloodshot eyes and wiping a streaming nose. And it frequently lacks the wherewithal to seek a private consultation, rather the tearful, awkward encounter with a GP who’s overstretched and mightn’t have the time to sit and listen.

And until they do, dress it down, I fear it won’t be taken as seriously as it needs to be.

And yet, and yet … Depression has been manifest in the minds of the good, the great, the beautiful and the brilliant for millennia; Aristotle observed that “melancholy men, of all others, are the most witty.” French novelist, Marcel Proust, thousands of years later, agreed with him, ‘’Everything great that we know has come to us from neurotics. They alone have founded our religions and created our masterpieces. Never will the world be aware of how much it owes to them, nor above all what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.”

But so now, now as my connection to my mother is stretched to unbearably-too-silent-tenuous, because a text message requires more interest, more energy than she can summon despite her daughter’s far away pleas to Stay In Touch Ma! I have to try especially hard to believe people with shiny lives who profess to having had the gloss taken off by the hard edged experience of Depression really mean it.

Five Things …

March 26, 2010



Five things I have done this week that I didn’t mean to do:

  1. Cross the threshold of eBay.
  2. Stay in bed until 9.45am. On a Tuesday. On pretext of working. Because I was surfing on laptop. Which, naturally enough, was on lap.  Between cat and cup of tea.
  3. Watch utter rubbish on the telly at 5 in the evening. In my pajamas
  4. Swear at Tanesco.
  5. Drink wine on Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday …
  6. Bury filing *

Five things I meant to do and did not:

  1. My filing. Which I have since buried. See no 6 above *
  2. My unpacking.  (from last month)
  3. My packing. (for next week)
  4. Tidy elder daughter’s room as it presently serves as dumping ground. For buried filing and still packed suitcases mainly.
  5. Tidy own room so did not have replay of husband’s nervous breakdown of one week ago when he could not find his belt. Consequently had replay of husband’s nervous breakdown of one week ago this morning when he could not find his belt. That his trousers are in no danger of falling down without a belt is apparently irrelevant.

Five things I plan to do next week, no excuses:

  1. My packing.
  2. My unpacking. First. Obviously.
  3. Escape on Wednesday with husband, Hat and son who arrives this evening.
  4. Meet eldest daughter who arrives from school a week today
  5. Go to beach. Laugh. Feel sated before I sit down for a meal as I will note five places laid and remember we are a fullfatfive for a whole two weeks. Drink wine.  On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … Watch all my babies, two of whom are bigger than me, whilst they sleep.

Big Shoe, Little Shoe

March 23, 2010



I thought I’d blog about the power. And the weather. About the huge storm that roared through here last night, ripping the fetching United Nations-blue tarpaulin from our roof (because attempts to fix leaks have failed, so that from the air we look like a small refugee camp) and scattering it as confetti across the lawn.

I thought I’d tell you about the subsequent and erratic electricity, which, with the wind and the rain and the lightening went up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers until – like those drawers – it was whipped away until morning.

I thought I might describe the consequent and energetic campaign by one (me) to collar the national power company to come and fix things. They took too long, so I prevailed upon an independent electrician who’d won my affections the week previously as he’d rectified whatever short it was that meant we were being electrocuted by the taps. The taps?! He gazed at the circuit breaker and shook his head sadly and said he couldn’t help this time: this time it was a job for the national team: Tanesco, which turned up eventually and observed the not-quite non-existent power, for by this time it was leaching in from somewhere but so meanly that the lights were dull as candles. I suggested it might be wise to measure the voltage. They agreed heartily, ‘Can we use your voltmeter?’ they asked my New Best Friend, the electrician who saved us from certain death-by-taps. My NBF shook his head sadly (and pointedly), again, and said he didn’t have one. Tanesco team looked askance and asked in evident outrage, ‘you are an electrician without a voltmeter?!’. And now it was my turn to look askance and demand in even more evident outrage, ‘Where’s yours? YOU’RE THE NATIONAL POWER SUPPLIER.’. They drove off then, in a huff, and so I sit listening to the generator splitting the silence and pounding as if in urgent irritation behind me, and trying to ignore the ceiling which, because the roof is now bare of its courtesy-of-the-UN raincoat, is stained by the recent downpour and has begun to belly like a fat drunk’s tummy.

But then I thought I might tell you, because a cyber friend observed I had been quiet on the subject, about my Big Kids.

Big Kids are more difficult to blog about than Littler Ones. They’re awkward. And – unlike their look-at-me-mummy-look-at-me younger selves, they don’t like being written about. (Which makes you feel a fraud when you’re a Mummy Blogger). My Big Kids begged me to keep them out of my Blogs. That I mentioned on a long-ago post that my son possessed Living with a Willy didn’t help my case.

‘Aaaaaaaaaaagh Mum! Stop writing about me. Please’.

So in the main, mostly, I resist.

So I shall be brief. I shall tell you about my son’s shoes. Which are huge. Size 12.

Could you, he wrote, whilst I was in England, get me two pairs of trainers?

I did. And then I looked forlornly into my suitcase as enormous shoes, like boats, occupied almost half the space. And I remembered the day I first tied my son’s small, small shoes securely onto fat two year old feet. He grinned, delighted at new and unfamiliar footwear and then he hoisted himself up and stood, firmly rooted to the spot.

Come on, I coaxed, let’s see you walk. And so he did: he waded towards me as if mired in treacle.

He’s faster than that now: much faster.

Selected to play rugby because the team was a man short (my son’s a cricketer) he reluctantly agreed and found himself, even more reluctantly, with the ball. He outran the opposing team’s fastest winger.

Gosh, darling, I said gushing maternal pride, that’s wonderful!

If my son were that kind of boy, he’d have given me a withering look, instead he gave me a pitying smile: ‘Mum, it was fear, pure fear: I could hear those footsteps pounding up behind me and I fled.’

And I shall tell you about my older daughter’s glasses. Which she lost. So that a trip to London was an exercise in self preservation – or peer protection perhaps? – as her companion whipped her out of the way of oncoming traffic in the nick of time.

She hunted high – which must be difficult when you can’t see – and she swore blind (no really, she did) that she had absolutely, no question about it, left her glasses in the library and they had been stolen (like the debit card which was, no question about it, in her wallet but was in fact discovered several weeks later in a coat pocket).

And then she hunted low and discovered them nestled beneath her bed along with the odd sock and stray, stale Hula Hoop.

Her euphoria was palpable. She was elated.

And I am relieved, for next week she must negotiate her way through Terminal Five to come home and she really, really needs to see for that.

As I really, really need to see her.

Thin Blue Lines and Out of Minds

March 20, 2010

I swim. The water is translucent. It wasn’t a week ago; it was peagreen soup sludge and warm when I got home. I Mind the water when it’s peagreen sludge and warm. I prefer it gin-clear, the depths illuminated by sunshine, the surface brittle as a mirror. Not for the aesthetics, not because the spirit clean-clarity renders it more inviting but because when it’s simmering broth I can’t see where I’m going and am inclined to whack my head against the side.

So I swim in pleasingly pure-again water because I have tipped salt into it all week and adjusted the pH and fiddled with the chlorinator and skimmed the surface more vigilantly than Sylvester in the cut-off gumboots might normally, and because Husband has donned a mask and done battle against sides bearded in green algae with a yellow toothbrush and now I can plough up and down and see where I’m going.

I Mind hitting my head.

Mind. Mind. Mind.

Innuendo and implication and I swim and I think and I think and I swim. And I empty my thoughts into the water and hope they won’t muddy it.

For my thoughts are taut and in turmoil and wrapped and knotted.

Mind’s logo is a clever one. A tangled line, in blue disarray, straightens out to articulate the word – Mind – with reassuring legibility. Calm restored after a disconcerting scribble.

I write to Mind.

I really hope you can help me, I say.

It’s not me who is ill, it’s my Mum. And I don’t know what to do next. We have done a hundred GP and psych appts. We have tried dozens of drugs. Now her regime is being manipulated again. I find the mental health clinic that she sees difficult to communicate with.  She is isolated and unable to make decisions, of course: the nature of the beast. And I don’t know what help to ask for next.   I don’t know if there are options out there that we aren’t seeing? Making use of? What can she do when she cannot call a  helpline number  (because she does not have the courage to make a telephone call, because putting on a wash is the central focus, the biggest achievement, of her day, and I understand why).

What else could I implement remotely to ease her situation? My mum well and my mum ill are two quite different people; that’s the whole shattering tragedy of this illness. Is there some alternative, gentle, easily accessible support that she could avail of in this fragile and vulnerable state?

Is there anything I haven’t thought of that I could have?

And I wonder if they register the desperate note of my tone.

Or whether my message is spammed?

Here’s the thing. I need to keep Mum’s illness at the forefront of my Mind; I do it partly as some kind of paltry and pathetic prophylaxis; if I remember the susceptibility of all our psyches, perhaps I will protect my own? But more than that, I need Mum to know that out-of-sight does not mean out-of-Mind. Ah. The bitter, sad, sad irony of that assertion: for she is out of her Mind. With despair and desolation and despondency.

And I am almost out of mine with worry.

Mind. Mind. Mind.

And that thin blue line jags and pulls and ties itself into tight little knots all over again which I know will be nearly impossible to pick apart.  The task will require patience and fortitude and time. Lots of time.

I speak to my friend K. My mother’s illness is news to her. And Depression is new to her. I don’t know if she registers the enormity of my gratitude when she does not shirk from it. When she reacts to my teary ‘I am worried, what shall I do?’ with exactly the right mix of compassion and practicality. Like my friend C, her smile  in London, thousands of miles away, is delivered to my screen courtesy of Skype. I watch her expression change when she asks, ‘How’s your mum?’ And I tell her. For she is another rarity: somebody who does not look at their shoes when I articulate just how mum is, without pulling punches. Without euphemizing the condition so that it might be more socially acceptable. Like a cold.

Sometimes. Sometimes when I write of Mum’s illness there is a shiver of something like anxiety. Is this mine to be writing about? Yes, says K, emphatically. Is it disloyal of me to out her illness with such vociferous energy? Should I cloak it in innuendo? Smother it with secrecy.  Wrap it up in the cotton wool of what consitutes politely evasive conversation? But even as I pose those questions to myself I know what the answer is.



I don’t describe Mum’s illness, I don’t delve and dig and poke about Depression’s psyche, because I wear my heart of my sleeve, because I seek sympathy, because it prompts some perverse sort of literary inspiration.  I don’t even do it as a noble effort to tug the veil of stigma from the crown of mental illness:  to Raise Awareness. Alas, I am not famous enough to make a difference. Were I Stephen Fry or Ruby Wax I might be better heard.

I do it because in articulating it, spelling it out to myself, I hope that I might understand it better. In communicating my own confusion and concern I might learn from others as I might extend my own meagre interpretation of black dogs and blue days. And in verbalizing it I hope that a small part of mum will always know she is not out of Mind and perhaps eventually we will drag some semblance of order and coherence from our own chaotically indecipherable line.

But for now I would ask, what can I do? What have I not thought of? What would you do? What next? I need to know.

I cannot galvanize mum. She will do that herself once Depression has slunk off and taken its ball-and-chain weights and long shadows with it.  But we can do something different. We can galvanize an ether-born effort to try to understand better. And in so doing, some tiny answers, something we mightn’t have thought of before, something startling for its simplicity may come bobbing to a surface made a little brighter because waters are sieved of stigma and innuendo and plain old misunderstanding.  And even if they don’t, just knowing there aren’t any easy answers, just knowing the pain is so huge and deep and harrowing and heavy for those who live with mental illness will make a momentous difference.

And momentum is what we need for now.

For if we are honest about mental illness, perhaps it will allow itself to be honest with us; perhaps some of its complexities might be revealed in clearer waters?


Send this post to somebody who might care about mental health.

And if you’re really brave, send it to somebody who doesn’t yet.

Give Blood …

March 15, 2010

… Become a glass artist.

That’s what the sticker says.

I’m no artist.

But I’m giving blood.

Copious amonts of A positive which I shed across my studio (aka an unoccupied corner of my absent son’s bedroom) as I slice fingers on coloured panes of Spectrum 96 and stand in my barefeet on tiny shards that have escaped during my unpractised cutting to the floor. And in so doing I lend a new perspective to the phrase stained glass. Mine sports red smears which I wipe away with pieces torn from a swiftly dwindling loo roll at my side.

And when I am not slicing my fingers open, or piercing the soles of feet dusted in talc-sand, I am burning my thumbs because impatience means I eagerly extract fused pieces from my kiln without due care and attention. (I am the person who speeds past the Health and Safety section to the interesting bits and breaks her ankle in the process.)

I am suprised that this practical immersion in something creative sustains me as it does. I am neither practical nor especially creative. But I spend happy hours in the loftily renamed corner of my son’s room.  Cutting (the glass and my digits) and stacking and musing on which colour to put with which. Sometimes I pepper the glass with multicoloured frit or spahetti it with bright stringers and sometimes I sandwich two pieces together and then fuse bright blue and bubbled for the magic I have introduced: white bubble powder which I line up from a jar with a long handled spoon, bent low over my work so that I get it just right.

And I wonder later that if Sylvester in the cut-off gumboots should spy me en route to watering the veggie patch beyond my son’s room, he might report me to Immigration for being a hard drug user.  And Immigration who lurk with little to do in an Outpost mostly bereft of anybody far less anybody who is only here courtesy of hard won residence permit would love that: they’d be down here in a trice and I’d be hard pressed to explain the quantities of white powder stashed in the studio.

I wouldn’t wish my sore feet and cut fingers on Mum, but I long to be able to impart some small portion of my energy, a bit of the nervous inability to sit still, an eccentric sense of humour which means I can laugh at the vision of Sylvester in the cut-off boots copping me lining white powder carefully (so as not to waste it) up on sheets of glass. But I know I cannot. And I also know that it is precisely my experience of Depression that feeds the energy, the inability to sit still, the laughter. For it is that which keeps me running from similar beasts.

The Importance of Separation

March 12, 2010

Most people assume, and it’s not because they are stupid or insensitive, that Mum will feel better when I relate Hat’s success. Most people cannot understand that my recent visit did not energise her, lift her mood, make her happy. Friends say, ‘that must have helped to cheer her up: your going to see her’. But it didn’t.

Most people don’t know enough about Depression to know it’s not about sadness. Or disgruntlement. Or plain old misery. It’s bigger, much bigger, than that. It’s about indifference and enervation and emptiness and intangible, inexplicable but nonetheless overwhelming despair.

My visit only made Mum feel worse, because she could not do for me, with me, the things she would have liked to do, would ordinarily, when well, have done: shopped, shared bottles of wine, scoured the shelves at Waterstones for a good read.  Laughed.

My text to relate Hat’s news was responded to a whole day later: Well Done Hat it said. For that was all she could manage. And it took 24 hours to summon the energy for those three little words. Well Done Hat. When well my Mum is effusive. She uses exclamation marks to demonstrate her enthusiasm! None of those pepper rare messages now.

Depression is such a heavy weight upon my mum’s shoulders that it diminishes her: its presence is so huge it makes her look small. She says, when I tower above her, that my new e-bay purchased LK Bennett boots are too high. If she were well, she would tell me they were beautiful, a good buy.

And that is why I despise Depression: because it changes her fundamentally. I tell her, because she is fretting audibly about her inability to do anything, her omnipresent and oppressive inertia: ‘you are a quite different person when you are well, you do know that don’t you?’

Yes, she says, I know that, and I offer up a silent prayer that Depression won’t steal that belief from her, as it has stolen everything else.

It is important to separate the person from the illness.

It is especially important when you really love one and really, really hate the other.

One in the Eye for the Doubting Thomases

March 11, 2010

Sorry. Even as I hurtle towards my dotage there is a childish streak that cannot resist rearing its juvenile head so that I might stick my tongue out and waggle my ears and say ‘Na na na na na …’.

Because my Hat got into her first choice.

And was awarded an academic scholarship.

I wanted to share that with everybody who over the past three years has been so supportive about our decision to home educate, who has cheered us on in our small successes and offered solace when I worried I was doing what was best.

And I wanted – as that pre adolescent head rears to shriek – to poke those who doubted us, who dismissed our choice as halfbaked-hippy, in the eye.

And say, ‘So there’.

Thinly Spread

March 2, 2010

Last week’s snow has melted. The rain that lashed down most of Saturday and all of Sunday has vanished. I draw back curtains to a dawn smoked pink with lifting mist. An English spring sky spray-painted egg-shell blue and sun that streams through the window forging the frame gilt.

Mum won’t see any of it; Depression has its hands over her eyes. It snuck up from behind and planted them there so firmly she couldn’t prize them off. It didn’t need to say Guess Who? We all knew. We could see it coming. Sometimes I don’t know if she doesn’t. Or won’t. Does articulating a thing, ‘I think I’m getting sick again’ set it in stone? Does acknowledging a condition by articulation make it unavoidable? Inevitable?

So there we are. It’s back again. Nearly two years since we shooed it out of the door, Out Damn Spot, Out, it’s back. With vengeance. Always with vengeance. Thumbing its nose and curling its thin lip in an ugly sneer, ‘Hah! You thought you’d got rid of me for good’.

We did actually. We thought the latest wonder drug was just that: a wonder. Ah yes, says the psychiatrist, it was. Until it became suspiciously apparent that its efficacy had a Use By Date. Two years. ‘Probably a bit less’ said Dr H, ‘it seems to run out of steam after that’.

And that seems doubly-whammy unfair; Mum’s Depression-born despondency exacerbated by bitter, bitter disappointment that the bloody stuff wasn’t the prophylaxis it was touted to be.

And so it’s back on the exhausting hamster-wheel of recovery: Dr H leafs through Mum’s not insubstantial file, making notes about what she’s been prescribed before, what’s left in the pharmaceutical arsenal against this bloody, bloody (and bloody-minded) illness.

Lots as it happens. For the armoury is constantly evolving. It has to: Depression remains quick-silver enigmatic, foxing the experts and slinking into lives against the drugged-up, CBT-sandbagged, odds.

There is hope, says Dr H, for there are new silver bullets we can arm Mum with. And I want to hug her. Hope is a bullet in itself.

But I want to hug Mum more. I want to hug her and then put her in my pocket where she will be safe and warm and where I can keep taking her out to check on her, where I can leave her be, cozily ensconced at the worst-dawn-end of the day, where I can draw her carefully out come dusk and see if she has the energy for a laugh, the stamina for one of my inane jokes, twilight, when to tell her, ‘I want to hear you smile Ma’, won’t make her cry.


Hat frets that Mum is sick because of her. ‘Was it something I did?’, she asks tearfully, ‘did I make Granny sad?’.

I want to weep.

But I want to rejoice more.

I was Hat’s age when Mum first succumbed to this monster. I thought her surrender to despair was my fault. I don’t know why. Because when you are 13 the world revolves around you, because when you are 13 you believe you are pivotal to everything that happens, good and bad, just because your small world is beginning to crack the tiniest window on a big, big world? Because Mrs X next door told her daughter, who told me, ‘that girl has made her mother sick with worry, sick with worry!’? Cow. Because children – and Hat is just a child, as was I – can only see the black and white of cause and effect, they can’t see the smoke and mirrors and shades of grey that muddy grownups’ world.

And though – for the most part – I began to understand that Depression was a stealth that stole into lives regardless – that it couldn’t be helped, that it just happened, that it wasn’t anybody’s fault – there was still an uncomfortable part of me that continued to guiltily fret, ‘did I do this to mum’.

And so it is only now, only now as I sit across a supper table from my beautiful Hat, with her welling eyes and quavering voice, ‘Is Gran sick because of me?’ that I can begin to believe I was blameless.

‘Absolutely not’, I tell Hat as I take her small hand, ‘sometimes grownups get sick and sad and it can’t be helped, it just happens and it isn’t anybody’s fault’.


I don’t know if the boots did any good. They kept my feet warm. And I didn’t trip. I walked tall into all five schools, with Hat, clutching her scrap book, in my nervously splashing wake. She sat exams. She told Heads and Directors of Study and Registrars about her funny little African life.

I sat beside her and held my tongue.

Until the Heads and Directors of Study and Registrars said, having heard her out about school in the ether, ‘and now Mum and Dad have decided it’s time for you to go to proper school’ (because, of course, they do not know my Hat objects fiercely to the proper: ‘my school’, she will say indignantly, ‘is proper; it’s just different’).

And then it’s my cue to say: ‘oh no, this is Hat’s decision’.

And the Heads/Directors of Study/Registrars look askance and ask Hat, ‘Is that so?’, and she confirms it with an energetic nod of her head so that titian curls bounce, and a broad, broad grin.


And so we must pack and head home to await our fate. It’s in the hands of the gods now, I tell Hat: we’ve done our bit; you’ve done your best.

And if feels like abandonment. Of Mum. Who is brittle with something that isn’t even sadness, it’s worse than that: it’s indifferent emptiness. Mum who is captive in the chilly, silent, hard-cold-walled isolation of that Bell Jar of Depression which renders her immune to Life, inures her to warmth and laughter and pins her arms to her sides and hobbles her to crippling enervation.

But I am needed elsewhere.

Your life sounds so hectic, says Mum in an exhausted, tiny voice (for Depression is a heavy, heavy weight to bear).

I am thinly spread. Everybody needs a little piece of me now. I’m a mum with one husband, three kids and a two-bit job. What do you expect?

And I one who, like my dad, waits until her toast is cool so that she can spread the butter, real butter (not that muck masquerading as same) pat thick.

Which is the real reason too much butter is bad for you; thinly spread means there isn’t time to think and that’s a good thing for too much of that – too much thinking – can make a person go mad.

Thinly spread butter and making jam and the metaphors of motherhood layer.

And I must go.