We’re all now aware of and experiencing the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic, but one thing that we’re increasingly warned of these days is another growing, but silent, problem that’s slowly, but surely creeping upon us as a result of the lockdowns, the social deprivations and the changes to our daily routines – a mental health pandemic. And I, for one, can vouch that this is real and it’s frightening.
I have asked Oldest Son’s permission to write about this – it’s his story – and he is happy for me to share. The reason that I’m sharing this, is kind of the reason I share my blog – it’s not for sensationalism, or to generate any dislike for anyone – it’s because other people go through the same, other people go through worse, and if my experience, if Oldest Son’s experience can help just one person, can reach out and tell one struggling soul that they’re not alone, then it’s worth it.
Back in March, when lockdown was announced, I was just coming out of a six-week spell off work due to depression. My Mum was ill, both of my parents were in the vulnerable group, so I knew I couldn’t see them for some time. Youngest Daughter was heavily pregnant and living ten miles away, Oldest Daughter was approaching her final term at University, and was struggling herself with anxiety, Youngest Son was bouncing along as usual, and, quietly and completely under my radar, Oldest Son was beginning to struggle with the reality of his Dad’s behaviour and the impact that it has had on all of us.
I was aware that Oldest Son was unhappy, but, as he’s always been the most laid back, the calmest, the most ‘ok’ of my kids, I assumed that his quiet, accepting nature and his wicked sense of humour would eventually kick in and see him through. I was also not paying enough attention. I was under huge pressure to sell the house, but E had gone silent again, leaving the entire chain in danger of collapse. I was dreading going back to work and wasn’t sure if I was ready for it yet. My credit record was by now completely, well, fucked, meaning that if I did sell the house, I might not be able to find somewhere to rent. E was still playing cat and mouse with the child maintenance payments every month, and life was, frankly, not great for me. I was desperately trying to wrench a positive out of everything, but I was really struggling myself. Despite the hard lesson I’d learned with Youngest Daughter, I didn’t see what was happening right under my nose.
At the Beginning of Lockdown, I was smugly certain that we’d be ok. To my relief, I was asked to work from home, which meant I didn’t have to face going into an office every day. Oldest Daughter was home (she’d popped back for a few days rest, and ended up stuck with my and her brothers for the duration), and Youngest Son and Oldest Son were, frankly, over the moon that their school had closed. Home-schooling them (at 13 and 16) was way beyond my general academic capabilities (besides which I was working 10 hours a day (with work and freelance stuff) so I really wouldn’t have had time to even if I was ‘able’ to), but I wasn’t concerned – they’re bright boys, they had access to online resources, as the last few years had shown, they were self sufficient. If I’m honest, I was actually looking forward to a couple of months of being locked down with them all.
And, actually, that part of it was lovely. We laughed, I dyed my hair bright red, Youngest Son developed the coolest surfer-dude lockdown hair I’ve ever seen, we clapped for the NHS, we had many discussions about out concerns re how the crisis was being handled, we joked about going out on our daily ‘state sanctioned walks’, we queued for the supermarket and rolled our eyes at the loo-roll and pasta hoarders. I didn’t bake sourdough but Oldest Daughter and I started learning Italian (much to Oldest Son’s wry amusement), I’m still trying to keep this up – but I am somewhat less than assiduous with, in fact the Duo Lingo owl and his passive-aggressive messages re ‘time to study’ / ‘I missed you’ messages are becoming my personal nemesis. All in all, in many ways, it was a lovely time for us as a family. Obviously, we missed Youngest Daughter terribly, but when my Grandson was born, we cranked the music up loud (Hey Jude was our song of choice) and drank champagne (actually Oldest Daughter and Oldest Son did champagne shots – due to a lack of appropriate glasses), the joy we felt was undiminished by the fact we couldn’t actually go anywhere.
Obviously, throughout all of this the Ghost of E was a heavy presence. The child maintenance didn’t appear at one point (and when it eventually did, a week or so late, it was around £300 light of what it was supposed to be), I discovered that, whilst the Child Maintenance ‘helpline’ was available to E to call and say he couldn’t pay, that there was no way for me to call them to say I’d not received any money and that I could only write to them, and that they would respond ‘within 12 weeks’…. On top of that, whilst the house sale was delayed by the pandemic, it was more delayed by the fact that E was refusing to come to any agreement on the term of the equity split, and, he had (once again) gone completely silent and refused to answer anyone about anything. I was busily filling in all the (endless) forms required for the sale, and he did nothing, answered no one and let the kids and I continue to live with the uncertainty he was inflicting on us. Throughout this, I was unable to pay the mortgages, and had, by now built up some council tax arrears, so I was receiving constant, vaguely threatening, letters (I’m quite grateful to the pandemic on this one – so many people were affected financially by being furloughed, that the mortgage companies had to be tolerant, I think this genuinely kept us in a home for a few more months than would otherwise have been possible).
Throughout all of this the lack of schedule and routine meant that they boys were becoming increasingly nocturnal. Oldest Daughter and I (ever early risers) marvelled at their capacity to sleep through the entire day. I became used to Oldest Son greeting me at about 3pm, pale and dishevelled and wearing a hoody even in the most intense of summer heat. I laughed at how pale and vampiric that they were. In hindsight, this sounds appalling, but I was used to them doing this at weekends, I used to joke that they stored sleep in the same way that a camel stores water, that they stocked up on sleep at the weekend so that they could function during the week. In my experience teenagers like to sleep – it’s a natural part of that part of their life. Of course though, this was an unnatural way of living – we were pretty much confined to the house 24 hours a day (apart from a one hour walk) and really, what had always been natural for Oldest Son, was fast becoming a sign of withdrawal, of not coping, of withdrawing into his own world, with no other world to distract him, no school to occupy him, no friends to joke him out of his melancholy.
I saw less and less of him as lockdown continued. Like many teenagers he spent most of his time in his room, and I was so distracted by stuff with E and with my job (lockdown meant that the company I work for experienced record sales and, as I work in customer service, this meant record levels of emails and calls -few of them pleasant, after all people don’t contact customer care because they’re happy, I could laugh at the people telling me to ‘go fuck myself’ and various other niceties, but it was draining at times). I was often so exhausted by the time I logged off my work computer, that I didn’t have the energy to make tea for us, let alone talk to anyone. I spent my days in a haze of work and worry about where the kids and I would be living once this was all over. I wasn’t paying attention to the small details.
Then, one summer afternoon, Oldest Son talked to me. It was a glorious sunny day, and I was enjoying a glass of wine in the garden. Oldest Son began by talking about his Dad. His sense of loss and his completely disillusionment with his Dad came out for the first time. I knew, when I’d told him about the baby that was due, that this was a kind of ‘final straw’ for him, but I hadn’t realised how much he’d needed to believe that his Dad was a good person. The situation with the lack of child maintenance in the previous year, combined with the fact that, as he saw it, his Dad was now forcing him out of his home, the only place he’d felt secure throughout everything that had happened, had devastated him. Over the years, I’ve had the kids express their disappointment in and hurt with their Dad, but this was different. Before, I’d always been able to reassure them that their Dad loved them, but that he was being an idiot, and that whatever he was doing wasn’t directed personally at them. But Oldest Son, was not having that – he just wouldn’t accept that his dad would withdraw financial support without knowing how much it would hurt him and his siblings He’d obviously spent hours thinking about, twisting it round in his head, trying to find a good reason, a rationale that would mean his Dad did what he did with no mal intention towards his kids, but he just couldn’t do it (and this boy is a genius with maths – he can prove almost anything mathematically as I found to my cost when he proved ‘mathematically’ that there were less than four of us in a room – I’m not betting against him again.). The pain in his voice and the struggle he’d had were viciously evident. He could not find any justification or excuse for his Dad’s behaviour and it was hurting him, hurting him so much that, he’d tried to take his own life.
When I thought he’d been quietly being a teenager in his room, he’d been researching nearby railway tracks. The late night walks I thought were just him getting some space, were explorations of possible sites. There was also a reason that he always wore that bloody hoody – the one I’d laughed at and marvelled at the fact he could wear it in all weathers – his arms were a criss-cross of now faded cuts.
As I hugged Oldest Son on that sunny afternoon (the fact that he let me hug him is evidence of how important that conversation was to him), I felt a mixture of immense gratitude that he was there, tangible, warm in my arms, that he hadn’t been successful, that something, somehow had stopped him from approaching that railway line, I felt sheer terror, that he could have actually felt that lost and that he might feel that again, I felt pure anger at E and how badly he’d let his son down, but most of all I realised I’d let my son down. I was the one there, the one who should have seen, who should have spotted what was going on. I could blame E all I liked for Oldest Son’s struggles, but he wasn’t there, I was. I was the parent with sole responsibility for our children and I my child had been hurting so badly he didn’t want to be here anymore, and I didn’t spot it.
Of course, whilst E was probably the trigger for how Oldest Son felt, it wasn’t his fault. E’s actions when combined with the usual teenage angst and a nationwide lockdown causing increasing isolation had simply created a perfect storm. If we hadn’t had lockdown, Oldest Son would still have felt that way about his Dad, but he would have had school, friends, somewhere to be other than his room where the world gradually closed in on him. During lockdown, Oldest Son’s natural introspection had turned against him and put him in a place mentally where he felt he had no way out, that not being here was better than being here.
Oldest Son is still struggling (I face a daily battle to get him into school), but he is now talking to me and he is open to counselling and we’re exploring those options together. The thing is, it’s a long and difficult path ahead of us to get him back to full health. He’s still mostly the same – his dry wit still makes me laugh out loud, and his unique way of looking at and questioning the world (and explaining to me the actual physics behind all the stuff Brian Cox talks about in his program about the Planets) takes my breath away sometimes. He’s still my amazing, clever, beautifully principled boy, but what has happened has scarred him, has meant that I fear for him in a way I never thought was possible. I don’t blame E, I don’t blame lockdown, I try not to blame myself (this is a tough one), but if this can happen to my Oldest Son, it can happen to anyone.
If it’s ok, I’ll just go hug Oldest Son now….