Tuesday 10 October 2023

The serious stuff

Our lovely blog pal Rol has been running an excellent, thought-provoking series over at the ever brilliant My Top Ten, about mental health. I hope you won't mind, but I'm also reposting something on the subject, which I wrote several years ago.

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Today, October 10th, is Mental Health Awareness Day. It makes a change from the recent International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19th), which sounds quite dignified really compared to Step In A Puddle And Splash Your Friend Day (January 14th). You might be interested to know that there is also a Noodle Day, a Mad Hatter Day, a Cherry Cheesecake Day and a Do Something Nice Day, amongst others.  I don't really like the idea of having set days for anything; I'd rather we just talked like pirates, stepped in puddles and splashed friends, ate noodles and cherry cheesecake in mad hats and did something nice any time and any day we felt like it - but I can't knock any attempt to encourage openness on mental health issues, and it seems like today's the day.

Back in the early '70s, when my mum stopped getting up in the mornings, surfacing only occasionally during the afternoon or early evening to replenish her glass of water, I was told that she was ‘ill’. Yet there was no sneezing or coughing or chicken pox spots so it was a different kind of illness to the ones I knew about. I can’t remember what else was said about it and, being only eight, I was more preoccupied with my own small world, which was no bad thing. But when mum came downstairs on a dark, wintry evening and headed straight out the front door with just her dressing-gown over her nightie and slippers on her feet, it was obvious something was seriously wrong.

I just have a blurry memory of the rest of that night – I recall her dressing-gown which was powder blue with white trim, and those pink fluffy slippers, and I remember what she said as she started to walk out the door and down the road.  My dad ran after and somehow persuaded her back inside, but I must have blanked out any more detail after that. Whatever happened resulted in mum being admitted to the Psychiatric Ward of our local hospital, where she stayed for some weeks.

Visiting her in such surroundings was disturbing but, unfortunately, it became something that I had to do on several different occasions in different hospitals over subsequent years.  It's a weird thing for a child; an unnerving place, but at the same time I was aware that my mum was 'supposed' to be there with those people.  They were all grown-ups after all, people whom I thought were meant to be looked up to and relied upon. That was probably the bit I found hardest with my mum; my first memorable experience of an insecure feeling: the realisation that I couldn't depend on her, that she wasn't really 'there'.   Anyway... in the Psychiatric Ward with its cheerily patterned curtains and orange chairs, there was always a man who thought he was Jesus and stories of strange behaviours abounded: the lady who’d made a habit of running down the busy high street without any clothes on, and the blank-faced man who thought he was still fighting in WWII.  And always someone who thought they'd had a radio implanted in their brain to listen to their thoughts.  

Mum was diagnosed as having clinical depression (as opposed to manic), which sounds very gloomy, and gives the impression of someone who mopes around every day and never smiles, but which is not what she was like at all.  There was just something going on which, combined with certain aspects of her personality and some traumatic life events, made her susceptible to some very deep lows. When she wasn't suffering from these, she was incredibly kind, chatty, strong, reassuring, gregarious, warm, broadminded and creative, always doing things for other people (often befriending and taking in various waifs and strays with their own mental health problems, and doing voluntary work for charities like Mind). But when she went downhill she just lost interest in everything and withdrew from the world. During her later years, with the help of good, understanding doctors and the right mix of drugs, she was able to pretty much manage it by simply shutting herself away until it passed. It was really only on the very worst occasions that it affected her behaviour in more severe and worrying ways and made her say and do things which were, quite frankly, a little mad.

Stating the obvious but it's a depressing and difficult subject, yet it touches so many people, either those who experience it first hand (and I don't believe any of us are immune) or those who know them. I can feel myself tensing slightly as I write because it brings back that sort of unsafe feeling of discovering that the grown-up parent I thought I could lean on wasn't always that, and deep-down that fear of the unravelling of 'normality'.  Nowadays, though, I wonder more about how life must have felt for my mum at those times, how much worse it was for her than for me. I feel sure that her mental health crises at least taught me a lot, and hopefully provided me with a better understanding and empathy.  And if that's also the intention behind having a Mental Health Awareness Day then I truly hope it succeeds.

Thinking of those whom I know are struggling with their mental health at the moment and here's hoping for far better days ahead.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Playing to learn

The problem with Jonny was that, no matter how much he practised, he was never going to master playing the cello.  And he practised a lot.  We knew this because we heard every screech and every scratch of his bow scraping slowly against those strings - our family dining room backed onto the converted garage where Jonny tortured his instrument for hours at a time on a daily basis.  I should add that he was only nine, two years younger than me, but he was as far from being a child prodigy in a string quartet as it was possible to be.

The neighbours' converted garage not only housed Jonny's cello but also a neglected upright piano.  I was friends with Jonny's sister Lindsay and it would be fair to say that she and I also shared his misplaced musical aspirations.  When 'Tubular Bells' had been around a little while and everyone was talking about it, we took it upon ourselves to compose a similar opus on said piano.  I mean, how hard could it be?  Neither of us had been taught to play any kind of keyboard but I knew my way around descant and tenor recorder, I had a pink and white plastic tambourine and, as for Lindsay's musical abilities... well, actually she didn't have any unfortunately, she was tone-deaf.  But she did have the piano.

We tinkered around on that thing in the cold garage room in the Winter of '74/'75, surrounded by boxes of apples from the tree in their unkempt garden, various unidentified electrical appliances and a permanently rolled-up rug in the corner.  The piano was, of course, untuned, but we put a couple of little themes together by remembering to press this key and that, the third black one along and those two white ones at the same time, etc. - convinced that at the end of it we would be as famous as Mike Oldfield - more so, in fact, because we were only 11 - and have a best-selling album in the charts.  'Cause it's that easy, isn't it.

Such is the naiveté of childhood - and how lovely it was really to have that.  We messed around on inadequate musical instruments without inhibition and taught ourselves to remember our made-up sequences, motivated simply by the joy of doing it and our daft fantasy ideas.  Isn't it a shame that at some point in life all that carefree attitude gets replaced with something more serious?  Music lessons demanded progression and perfection, there might even be exams.  Unrealistic personal expectations led to frustrations and frequent giving up.  I've started to wonder if I could go back to that childhood approach and learn to play an instrument without all the adult stress that might accompany it - have some fun, not be too hard on myself, see what happens - especially as they say that learning to play one later in life can boost your brain's health, help with cognitive function, improve your creativity and memory too.   It's just a shame perhaps (for the neighbours, anyway) that my ideal instrument of choice would be an accordion, and that I live in a terraced cottage with quite thin walls...

I keep thinking about it, though, because I just love the accordion - the way it sounds, the way it looks.  I'm wondering: maybe start with a cute concertina at least; it takes up less room too.  Does anyone reading this know how to play one?  If you could play any instrument (that you perhaps don't already), what would it be?  

Anyway, let me treat you now - here are three favourite songs with accordions:

Johnny Allen: Promised Land

The The: This Is The Day

Fairport Conventon: Si Tu Dois Partir

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