I must admit that I’ve been trying to write this piece for a few days, ever since I read the tragic news that one of my favourite childhood actors, Robin Williams, had taken his life at the age of 63. I had considered writing a piece about mental health and my own experience of the horrible and lonely place that the inside of your own mind can be but I thought it would be inappropriate.
I read today that Robin was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease and as someone who’s father lives with it It hit my heart in a way that I can’t properly explain or describe without sounding trite. It dawned on me in the moments that followed that silence and complacency is inappropriate, grossly so, and I don’t intend to keep quiet.
My mother has recounted to me the days and months after my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He was only in his mid 40s and was forced to give up his job and his driving licence. The loss of independence hit his pride and the perception of losing his place as breadwinner for our family took a devastating toll on his mental health.
He fell into a deepening depression, so bad that he would refuse to answer the door to anyone, would argue constantly with my mother and lose his temper easily and over nothing with both my younger brother and I. At the time I thought my father was just a grumpy man but it is only recently that I have begun to realise that the changing moods and bouts of anger were the out workings of even the most mundane things in life being completely tipped out in front of him and taken away piece by piece.
The cruel thing about Parkinson’s is that it is a viciously patient and sneaky illness. It does not appear suddenly like a stroke nor is it shocking and quick like a cancer or heart attack. It waits and moves when it needs to. Parkinson’s is a horrendously misunderstood disease associated with shaky old men in their 80s and 90s but my father was less than twice my age when he was diagnosed with it. There is no discrimination in it’s intent to create chaos in your life.
Slowly but surely my father began to lose his mobility and became more and more dependant on my mother (his carer) for things. He could no longer drive and his ability to walk to the shops became all but non existent when he became stuck like a statue in our local convenience store, alone and with nobody to help him. I think it was around then that the reality of his new limitations began to sink in and I, especially, started to understand what Parkinson’s was and that it was taking my father away a day at a time.
There is nothing more infuriating or frustrating than watching a loved one slip away into the reaches of an illness that you cannot see, cannot stop and cannot reason with. By no means, however, has the illness stopped my father from being our dad. Yes he may have been unable to kick the ball about with my brother and I or take us in the car to the beach or even build a treehouse for us but he was always there or never far away.
I cannot pay tribute enough to my mother for the strength, courage and love that she has shown my father even through the most difficult times and especially in the last seven months. I am not certain that I could show the same resolve that she has shown.
I suppose that the point of all this is that I want to get across to people what it is like to see a loved one live with Parkinson’s and to shed some light on the vast sea of ignorance out there. There is no cure for Parkinson’s, there is no known cause however it is widely believed that blunt force trauma to the head can trigger the illness. My father collapsed in Belfast City Centre in line for the ATM due to pressures at work and soon after the early signs of Parkinson’s.
It is not known if it is hereditary but one of my biggest fears is that I will develop Parkinson’s in my mid 40s as my father had. I don’t tell many people that but I believe (now more than ever) it is important to talk about these things as if they are real because frankly they are. The prospect of living with an illness that is so nasty, so selfish and so devastating terrifies me.
I can’t stress enough the importance of talking to people. It was only through counselling and the support that our family and the fantastic medical services gave my father that he was able to overcome the depression and begin to appreciate that whilst his life had changed, it was still a life to be lived.
I dealt with depression after coming out as gay in 2008. It is an altogether different monster but it is part and parcel of the package you are dealt when progressive illnesses like Parkinson’s are diagnosed. Depression is heavy, it is cold and it is a lonely place to be. You can be in a crowded room with people you love, be laughing and seemingly enjoying your time with them but even buoyed by their company you are still completely alone. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat and when you laugh or smile it is an unexpected event, you feel guilty and upset for both being happy for that split second and for having forgotten what it was like to be a human being.
Depression forces you to chain yourself to your bed, paralyse yourself with doubt, a lack of confidence and a crushing realisation that life isn’t going to get better and the world is worse for having a rotten waste of space like you in it. It closes in on you like the walls of a shrinking prison and yet the expanse of the loneliness and isolation holds you under the surface until you can’t breathe. You are drowning on dry land and nobody can save you. Depression laughs at you when you cry, it makes you think terrible things to do to yourself and if you do them it puts it’s hands over your mouth and threatens you with worse if you tell anyone.
Most of all depression is exhausting. I cannot begin to describe the physical and mental toll that living with depression took on me and on others around me. It makes you forget that you aren’t the only one that suffers. It makes your mother cry because you aren’t talking to her or when you do you exude such venom that she wonders what she has done wrong. You don’t speak to your colleagues of your friends so they stop speaking to you,. The ones that care enough to stick around are so worried about you that it either gets on your nerves or makes you shut off completely and they think you’re going crazy. Then you think you’re going crazy and the cycle of abuse, grief and silence starts all over again. Until you decide to stop it.
Clearing your way through the dark cloud that is depression is not like flicking a switch or pressing a button. It is a hard, grueling and uphill battle against yourself. A version of you that is stronger, more determined to make you hate yourself and has all the ammo while you only have your bare hands. What that other version of you doesn’t have is other people who care about you. That version of you is the one that is on their own and eventually that realisation will kick in after months, years even of hard work, counselling and the ability to tell yourself over and over that you deserve to be happy and you can feel good about being you.
Depression has no right to take hold of you so don’t let it and if it does then please talk to someone about it, call for help and those who want to help you will pick up the nearest weapon they have (whether that is a hug, a listening ear, the ability to make you forget for a while what it is like to be depressed or simply being there) and use it to help you.
I am sorry for the length of this article, I had intended to be much more concise but we cannot talk enough about depression and the crushing low loneliness that it drives into your life at 1,000 miles per hour.
Please don’t suffer alone and please don’t keep it to yourself.