You may have seen the advert of Prince’s Wills and Harry talking about the loss of their mother and the emotional turmoil they’ve suffered the past twenty years. Their experiences have been documented in a television documentary, set to hit our screens soon. Thoughts and feelings they’ve buried for a long time. There’s also been today’s sad announcement of Linkin Park lead singer taking his own life, proving that mental health affects everyone, not even the rich and famous are immune.
For me, the moment I decided to run for MIND, the metal health charity, was whilst watching the London Marathon and the Royals supporting their own charity Heads Together (which is part of MIND). It was the catalyst to thinking about my life- long experience which has haunted me. I initially chose a different charity but felt more passionately about MIND as I would love to create more awareness.
It’s a subject close to my heart, though I live in denial sometimes, primarily because my family has a history of mental illness; the most heart- breaking and painful for me was my aunty taking her own life at 35. Even more heart- breaking was that her baby son was barely a week old at the time. I was approaching thirteen, my brother ten. Although Henry and I had our own mother who cared deeply about us and obviously we adore her, our dear aunty embodied the soft maternal figure- tender loving and comforting.
I’m only exposing this now because having a young daughter myself has caused me to reflect on past events that have shaped me. I am determined to protect Amaia from the torturous turmoil and torment. I feel, as a parent, that It is my duty to prevent misery in her childhood. I wouldn’t ever want her to think she couldn’t confide in me, in spite of how painful it may be. There’s strength in sharing. The World can seem a lonely place when you remain silent. Having said that, I’ve not aways heeded my own advice…
I don’t speak about it, so much so that some of my friends won’t even know about this episode of my life. Well let’s be honest, suicide isn’t exactly something that crops up in conversation. Moreover, I was once told by a good friend (at the time) that my life was too depressing and I should keep it to myself. Ever since, a part of me believed him, if only to shelter people from the agonising truth. Plus I was desperate to lead a life like others, where this black cloud no longer hung over me, or my family. Unfortunately, that was just a fantasy as my aunty dying could never be erased. We’d never get her back, not even to tell her how much we loved her. That was something, like most sudden and tragic deaths, that we would just have to live with.
The anguish continued as there was another chapter which hurt even more, and which played “on repeat” in my mind. It was in fact the day before my aunty died when we had a heart-to-heart. The irony was that we were enjoying ourselves at Alton Towers, where it was awash with entertainment. The theme park encapsulated fun and happy times yet that was not the case for Julie; she was intensely sad. Against the sparkling backdrop of a gloriously sunny day with children and parents delighting in the rides and attractions surrounding them, she muttered something about everyone being better off without her. Now, as any teenager would, I laughed it off and jested that she shouldn’t be so silly. Instead I told her to treat me to an ice- cream as that would make her feel better. But for her, no amount of treats or medication were helping to melt away the constant pain she felt daily. I realise that now. Only after twenty years of haunting self- torment though. I always blamed myself for what happened to her and felt I could have prevented her catastrophic fate by reacting differently on that fateful day.
I carried that burden around with me because I didn’t want to tell anyone of this last encounter together, not even my parents. As I had been told once, it’s best if I kept the details a secret- which is exactly what I did. Ironically, it was the worst thing I could have done.
Ultimately she chose to die rather than live which made me believe she never really loved me, otherwise she would have hung around- no? She’d be there to share the big moments in your life; progressing through to Secondary/ High school, taking exams, graduating, passing your driving test, getting your first “real” job, getting married or having children of your own. As a result, I questioned how likeable I was, which is bad enough when you’re a confused and moody teenager battling with your own issues. One thing’s for sure- children should be showered with unconditional love- from their parents (though I appreciate it’s not always the case), and family in general. Children should, after all, be allowed the very basic right of being innocent for as long as possible.
Sadly, I felt this was stolen from me. I had no control. Though we all know life does’t necessarily work out as expected. Therefore I had to be positive, not wallow in self pity, or worse still feel bitter and take it out on others.
On the bright side, there are systems in place nowadays, such as therapy or counselling to help people overcome overwhelming feelings. This wasn’t necessarily the case 25 years ago though. There was little in the way of mental health advice back then, no awareness of how traumatic a suicide could be. Not exclusively for the person who died, but for their family, including young ones who barely understand life as it is, yet are expected to make sense of someone chasing death. I’m sure I could have had therapy, not that I really knew it existed when I was young. Though that’s another issue, as, let’s be honest, there was a massive stigma around “self- help” treatments. Anyway, I never would have dared ask for it for fear of marring mine, or my family’s, reputation. So I did what only I know best, soldier on- alone.
I was taught to have a “stiff upper lip” as emotions were never my parents forte, God Love ‘Em. I honestly feel that’s been the making of me, so I’m glad I was brought up in that environment. I can safely say I have never had any bloke/ ex boyfriend say I was or am “high maintenance,” quite the opposite. My aunty’s death hit both my mother and father hard. I recognised that and wanted to help them heal. It was truly raw for both of them; my mother was Julie’s best friend, the closest sister and more of a mother- figure since theirs had died. Even my dad was the big doting brother that Julie never had; he too was a father- figure to her since hers had passed away, even giving her away on her special “big” wedding day. So my parents were caught up in their own grief and I didn’t want to add to their woes.
In addition to this, there was another catastrophically, seismic incident which has always harangued me but I have tried to not dwell on it. Once again, I aways thought I’d have the opportunity to confront my aunty and have her to appease my queasiness on the subject but of course have been deprived of the opportunity. It was regarding another happy topic (sarcasm); my grandmother’s death.
First let me explain, she was Austrian, so we called her Grosmutter. It was another glorious day, three years prior to the Alton Towers event. My brother and I were joyfully playing in my grandparent’s back garden. She was looking after us. We careered around, encircling each other, our 64- year old grandmother trying to keep up. We didn’t make it easy though. We loved her chasing, until eventually she ushered us into the kitchen for a fish and chip dinner (which up north is lunch). After we’d just polished it off, she went to lie down in her bedroom. At which point my aunty Julie, who also lived with them, had returned from work, whereupon she took over the babysitting duties.
However, the afternoon was to take a significant turn for the worse; after a couple of hours Julie thought it was strange that my Grosmutter hadn’t woken up from her slumber. Unfortunately, what was about to unravel in front of us is a hazy blur. It was like a slo-mo movie as my aunty glaringly broke down in front of us whilst on the phone. I later realised she was speaking to emergency services, frantically demanding an ambulance come immediately. Moments later, the paramedics arrived. They hurriedly escorted my grandma outside on a stretcher, blue lights flashing which I’d not seen before (remember we lived in the sticks, near the North Yorkshire Moors. I was disappointed they weren’t sticking around as I’d only ever seen them on television). My aunty accompanied our still Grosmutter but at the same time, shouted at me, “It’s your fault. If you hadn’t been mucking around, as usual, she’d still be alive now”.
My mother later explained to my brother and I that gorgeous Grosmutter had died peacefully in her sleep. She’d suffered a heart attack, unbeknownst to us as we gleefully danced around in the neighbouring living room only hours previously.
So there you have it, my aunty also blamed me for her mother’s death. Obviously, I didn’t contest it- you don’t know any better at that age- you believe your elders. Therefore I never ever confronted her.
Naturally, time is a great healer but it’s difficult when you want closure and you’re not able to get it. No-one other than my aunty could assuage my fears; it would have been comforting if she’d have explained she didn’t mean to accuse me, or that she still loved me despite her desire not to hang around.
Years, and years later when I revealed all of this to my parents, (which was only recently I might add), they couldn’t believe what I was saying. They couldn’t have been more dismissive that my aunty held such deep- rooted views. They didn’t take it seriously because they knew she never would have meant it in a malicious way. It was just an explosive outburst in reaction to the sudden mortifying thought that her 64 year old mother had just died, which no-one wants to believe. They knew my aunty was sad, angry and confused, blurting those hurtful words out in the heat of the moment. She was lashing out as I was the closest person to her at the time. Yet I lived for many years with the belief that I was the catalyst and ultimate cause. I understand now that is was her pain talking. Notwithstanding, imagine if I had ‘bottled up courage’ to tell my parents at the time, then I may have prevented those woeful years.
More importantly, for those who didn’t know my aunty, she wasn’t evil incarnate or some monster, far from it. That’s why it was all the more shocking because she was always so tender, sweet, especially to Henry and I. I would never want to portray her as anything other than angelic. What I am trying to accentuate is the simple fact that talking can help alleviate unnecessary pain, and over-thinking. We don’t have to subject ourselves to suffering.
I feel as though I am only just “coming out.” Yet as I have highlighted, having my own tiny, vulnerable daughter, has prompted me to vow that she will never endure an experience like mine. I can never allow her to persecute herself for something that she’s not culpable of. It doesn’t just apply to young people; I think of my friends too. That’s why we need to talk and create awareness; to make it known that it’s ok to be vulnerable and go off the rails, and misinterpret or to take things onboard which we really don’t need to, but so long as we can talk, and not judge, then there’s hope.
You may be inspired or possibly help in some way, even if it just encourages you to talk, then my job will be done. That only leaves me to say if I can be of further assistance to anyone, I’m here (there may be a slight delay).
Btw, rest assured, I’m fine and dandy now. No, longer racked with guilt as I finally made peace.