“Oh Donnie, Donnie, please…..please….straighten yourself up, please! Oh god………..what will the neighbours think…………..”
So spoke my mum, emotionally, fighting back tears and trying desperately to look ‘normal’, on the day we removed my severely depressed dad from home. ‘We’ being the family doctor, two burly ambulance men, and me. And there was little ‘normal’ about the way that it took the four of us to achieve this removal. We had to prise dad’s hands off the house stair rail as he fought to stay inside. And then again to drag him from the front fence which he’d fastened onto with a vice-like grip, before we were able to lift him over into the ambulance. He was only a small man but in his current state was possessed of incredible strength, only the previous day having thrown me, a six foot athlete, bodily across the room and over a sofa. Fit as I was, I was no match for the explosive energy currently coursing through him. And because of his behaviour, for his safety, as well as that of my mum, it was decided that medical intervention was appropriate, and so the papers were signed for his removal to hospital. And this was the reality of that signature………….
My reply to my mum was terse “Bugger the neighbours I don’t care what they think I only care about getting dad to where he can be safe and treated, and this is the only way to do that…..”
The path leading to dad’s depression was complex, with a variety of factors all imposing some effect upon his mental equilibrium, amongst them a seasonal affective (SAD) element that was not recognised by the medical profession until it had taken it’s toll on him. In retrospect the long slide into depression is clear to see, each episode we dealt with as a family another step towards his ultimate breakdown. It was something we didn’t talk much about to people, something we felt we had to hide.
I regret that now.
Relieved of the burden of depression dad returned home from hospital with a ‘veil’ lifted. He was always a thoughtful and curious man, interested in politics, people and the world, and with a keen sense of humour and the absurd, but was quietly spoken, always disappearing into the background. The treatment he’d received changed that. His keen sense of humour came to the fore, and a slightly less inhibited character emerged. And it was a delight! There are many memories I have of that time, but two stick in my mind. One I mentioned previously (link), and the other was equally hilarious. Dad had always wanted to go to the Military Air Display at Leuchars so I arranged for us both to go.
Dad loved it. One of the exhibits was a big American military spy plane, with a woman pilot, a very glamorous, crisply-uniformed Californian type who presence was making the aviation enthusiasts blood race. A large crowd surrounded the plane, the pilot standing talking about it, the eager crowd devouring each word she uttered, with great delight. Behind her, to protect the sensitive electronics and camera ports from prying eyes and damage, the long nose of the plane was shrouded in a giant, snug-fitting light-coloured bag, pulled tight around the front of the cockpit. Dad, all 5 feet 5 inches of him pushed through the crowd with uncharacteristic determination and got to the front, at which point he stared up past the pilot and took in the full bulk of the plane. And loudly proclaimed “Wooooaaaah! Look at that – they’ve put a giant condom over it for protection….yeah!” and burst out giggling to himself. The crowd were rather less impressed, but a few did manage to raise a laugh, as the pilot’s face turned a delicate shade of pink.
But there were other things that emerged during this period of ‘clarity’, things he’d never ever talked about, family history that had gone untold for various reasons, his wartime experiences that had obviously affected him, and other experiences he’d suffered (link) but which would never have been shared, and which he had obviously had to wrestle with alone for decades. I learned a lot about the man during this period, facets of his personality and life experience that I would not otherwise have discovered. I’m richer in so many ways as a consequence.
Depressive illness can be a harsh experience, for those suffering from it, and those struggling to support them. But it is not all gloom. It has moments of wonderfully loopy madness that may induce whole rooms of people to tears of mirth. I remember a lot of laughter in dad’s final years, interspersed with episodes I’d much rather forget. But I learned a lot about depressive illness in those years, saw it affect my mum, and I think I too came close to the edge of the ice as well. And what I’ve taken away from that experience is the thought that for the vast majority of people depressive illness is just like catching a cold. We can all get it, we suffer, feel miserable, then feel better. It’s something to deal with but not something that should define us.
Last night I followed a series of tweets by John Moe @johnmoe which I thought very moving, and which have prompted this post. He said a lot, but here are just a few of his tweets, but you can see the whole feed here on Chirpstory:
“I want you to know that when I talk about this disease, it’s not just about my brother’s struggle, it’s about mine too. “
“My brother died of depression five years ago today. He treated it with street drugs and shame. That doesn’t work.”
“There have been times it tore at me pretty bad. Affected my family and those around me.”
“The truth is that I’ve been living with the disease of depression for many years.”
“But the truth is, I haven’t done all I could do. I haven’t been forthcoming. I haven’t lied but I haven’t told the whole truth.”
“If you broke your leg, you’d go to the hospital. If you have depression you need to get help.”
“I have this disease and I can have a great career, have a family, be engaged in the world, and be happy.”
“I have depression but it doesn’t have me. There’s a tiger in my house but I work like hell to secure its cage.”
“There isn’t a real tiger, that’s just a metaphor. Whew!”
Winston Churchill described his depression as ‘The Black Dog’. I understand why, but I have to confess that I loathe that particular term. However, thanks to John Moe I now see depression as a more impressive and majestic beast, one worthy of great respect, but crucially one that’s a master of concealment……the tiger.
My dad, and his tiger. I like that.
I wrote this in 1997, on the 12th March, tearfully. Men are lost.
I’ve always lived by the sea, and have several friends who are fishermen. And around this time I’d been doing a lot of seakayaking, and much more messing around on the ocean, and I’d started to wind myself up towards doing some photography work with inshore fishermen.
The risks to those who work on the sea are considerable. But it struck me how out-of-sight these risks are: we reach into the freezer cabinet in our supermarkets and pull out some fish. Do we ever consider how it got there? Next time you lift up some cod, spare a thought for those who obtained it for you.
When I heard this news report, I guess it was just one of those moments when I was in a certain place, at a particular time, and it just moved me, and elicited these verses. And the sentiment expressed is still relevant. Sadly I know it always will be.
So this is dedicated to all who go to sea. But mostly, it is for those who stay behind to wait………
The Loss of the ‘Westhaven’ 12/3/97
“A fishing boat is missing……..”
The radio casts it’s net of fear and hope
Across a sea of unseen faces
Anxious, in their homes and work
They bade farewell the other day
A day no different from the other days they left.
The land so broad around us
Fits us snugly
Shelter belts of trees
To break the growl of gale and sleet
But this is spring
Just an easy day of warming promise.
Seawards, glancing back
Their land grows small
The sea ahead expanding
To fill their thoughts with home
And will this earn their pay?
Hulls slap waves, that tease and beckon
To where the deep fish swim
Before the nets puff out with pride
Their cod-ends bulging
Straining on the ropes and shackles
Tying men to blood and guts
And ever-present risk of pain.
“Where were you when you heard?”
My friends ask….
As if the answer made a difference.
Men are missing
Gone to sea
Lovers, husbands, fathers, sons………..
When I heard the news
I was safe
“There was only one person who had Down Syndrome in the town where I grew up. His name was Brian and he lived with his family near my high school. Our paths didn’t cross much but when they did, I never knew what to say or how to act around him. Fear of saying the wrong thing usually prevented me from saying anything at all.
I had few opportunities to spend time with people like Brian in my twenties. My discomfort remained intact and unchallenged; a lump in my throat I knew was there but had done nothing to budge. In that sense, I suppose shame was where this work began.
World Down Syndrome Day is the 21st March.
I worked in Disability Services in Social Work for almost 20 years. Many of the people I worked with, and for, lived with Down Syndrome. Some were parents, many were siblings, most were people who have Down Syndrome themselves. I realized very quickly that my preconceptions about the ‘ability’ of people with Down Syndrome were woefully, wildly, inaccurate. At first I was continually surprised by what they could achieve, after all they are so much less able than us, aren’t they?
Until the penny dropped. There was no ‘them’ and ‘us’. The ‘problem’ was me, and my assumptions, my low expectations. I learned fast that ‘disability’ is not inability. Something this man and many others eloquently demonstrated to me.
I learned that there is only us.
It is beautifully realised, illustrated with images that are dignified and deeply affecting. It tells a story, with care, about the considerable amount we all have in common, so much more than those few differences which set some people apart.
This is what multimedia should be all about: informing, entertaining, providing insights, and changing minds. It’s not just a story about Down Syndrome. It is about us. All of us. And simply living.
That Time – International HIV/AIDS Alliance
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Kenny, my friend, wanted to climb all the Munros in Scotland. Munros are mountains over 3000 feet high.
Kenny is a dentist; precision is vital to him.
“I want to climb all the Munros” he said. “There are two hundred and eighty odd of them. Fancy coming with me?”
His lack of numerical precision with regard to the number is due to the growing accuracy of modern surveying, unlike in Sir Hugh Munro’s day when he first published his list in 1891, known as Munro’s Tables. Some hills, once Munrohigh, are now smaller. Others, that once looked up to their peers, have grown with digital accuracy, and may now lord it over their diminutive neighbours.
Consequently the total number of Munros varies. But what does not vary, is that there are a lot of them, they are high, some remote, and all but a few are challenging.
“Lets go to Knoydart and do one” said Kenny one day. “We’ll go in by Loch Garry, drive the long remote single-track road to Kinlochhourn, and walk in to the bothy at Barrisdale.”
Knoydart Peninsula is one of the most remote places in Britain. People do live there, just a few, and with only boat access to the rest of the world, no roads. Hence we had to walk.
“It’s a holiday weekend said Kenny, and we’ll need the tent because the bothy will be busy.” So we took the tent.
We arrived at the bothy in Barrisdale after 11pm, in the dark. It wasn’t busy at all, only a couple of tents nearby, and inside the bothy in one room and visible through a partly open door were two men drinking a bottle of whisky, laughing and tale-telling.
We quietly looked into the other larger room, split across one end with a two-tier wall-to-wall sleeping platform. The lower platform with easy access, the other much higher one requiring a climb. Only two people’s gear evident, a sleeping bag, empty, on one side of the lower platform, with guygear around it, obviously one of the whisky drinkers. Another full sleeping bag, slowly rising and falling, lay several feet away, surrounded by girlgear. We decided this was not a bloke.
The tent we’d hauled in was obviously not needed. Plenty of sleeping space.
So we threw our stuff onto the top platform and hauled ourselves up, settling down to sleep, longwalktiredlegsleep.
I woke at some small hour, in the dark. Freezing. In my arctic-rated goosedown sleeping bag. Something was not right. I looked around, off the platform towards the far wall, and saw a misty gently evanescent swirl of…something. It roiled and rolled and rose and pulsed. It was weird. And very very very cold. I sensed Kenny’s stirring beside me.
Quietly I said “…are you awake?”
“Yes” he replied softly “…have been for ages”
“Can you see something swirling?”
“Yes” he said, and added “…are you cold, I’m bloody freezing”.
We watched, unable to see each other, but both able to discern some hazy glowing swirl of shapeless nothing. But cold. Very very cold.
SUDDENLY a piercing terror-stricken scream tore through the silence. The woman below us overcome by some nameless horror, filling her heart and escaping through her lungs, again and again and again.
Then followed by a male voice, rudely awakened from a whiskyfog, groaning “Duh..er….whoa…whassamatter…are you ok? Are you ok? What’s wrong?”
The only reply was the noise of hyperventilation as the woman’s lungs rose and fell rapidly, combined with the sighs and groans and moans of fear.
Then another piercing scream, as she was once again overcome by some nameless terror.
Again from the bloke “Aaaaargh….are you ok? Are you ok?” he asked, but she made no reply just a sucking lung-sound.
(At this point one needs to imagine him fumbling with the neck cord of his sleeping bag as he struggles in the blackness to release his arm, which he tentatively reaches out across the pitch-black void to comfort the woman but uncertain of what his fingers will reveal…)
Kenny now frustrated by our fellow climber’s inability to adequately deal with the situation, loudly proclaimed from beside me “You’re ok, you’re ok, you’re in a bothy, you’re ok.”
There was a sudden inhalation, the sound of zips, shuffling and sighs, then heavy breathing, more sighs and shuffling. Then slowly, gradually, all quietened, the cold chill evaporated, and at some point I think we all fell asleep. I know I did, I pulled my bag over my head and curled up figuring I was safer in there than outside it with whatever malevolent ectoplasmic fog had decided to plague us.
Kenny and I rose at 6am and took off up the mountain into the mist and rain, leaving our heavy gear behind to collect later on our way back out. And although reaching the top of our desired mountain, we got well and truly lost in the trackless wilds of Knoydart, only temporarily lost, as most lostness is, but that’s another story, for another time.
We returned to Barrisdale and the bothy in the late afternoon. A man was sitting outside, enjoying the weak sun now peeking through a clearing sky. We nodded hello. He smiled. We went inside to retrieve our gear as the man appeared behind us and noticed we were hauling sleeping bags and tent off the top platform.
“Were you sleeping in here last night?” he asked, curious.
“Yes” said Kenny.
“You buggers! You bloody buggers!” he said “So it was YOU. I’d had a few drams and was fast asleep and then this screaming started, gave me such a bloody fright! Then I tried to calm her down, and was managing, and just as my own heart stopped racing, then more screaming, then as I got my pulse back down again this deep voice from above went “It’s ok you’re in a bothy” and I nearly wet myself. I had no bloody idea you pair were up there!”
“Oops, sorry!” we said.
Then asked him “What was going on? We saw swirly cold stuff, but no idea what was happening. Did you speak to her about it in the morning?”
“She wouldn’t speak. She’d said to me yesterday when she arrived that she was staying for several days, and was very chatty. But this morning would not speak, just threw all her stuff roughly in her pack, took no breakfast and set off up the track at a gallop, back to the main road. Whatever it was it must have really disturbed her!”
We agreed. And it disturbed us too. But obviously not as much as him!
And then we set off home ourselves.
Do you believe in them?
Do you wonder if we two believe in them?
Doesn’t matter. Not really.
All that matters is that we believe in two things.
Twitter is marvellous. I was listening to the radio this morning and heard an article about Van Gogh’s reds fading to white, and possibly because he used cheap pigments as these were all he could afford. A piece of art history slowly disappearing. (Article on the science behind this)
And as I listened two things slid through in front of me on Twitter. First an excellent article on light damage and conservation, by Judith Haemmerle, Executive Director, Digital Game Museum, Santa Clara, California, featuring a simple visual experiment using Post-it notes to show the damage that can occur through exposure to UV.
“In our startup video game museum, everything is done by volunteers on a ridiculously limited budget. So it’s always a balance between collections care and – well, everything else. My biggest anxiety last year was light damage.
We removed half the fluorescent bulbs in the collections area and covered the remaining ones with UV shields; not too expensive, and it was work that was easy to get done. But the big expanse of glass in the room where we install our exhibits remained unprotected. No one was willing to tackle the exacting job of applying UV film, and having it done was far too costly, especially in a facility we were renting short term. We put in a display of items of interest but easily replaceable, and I worried about light. Then one day, our past stepped in to help……………..”
And then via Petapixel an article on how the Ricoh camera company, with the help from partners, has “returned 90,000 photos to victims of the 2011 tsunami in Japan”. This is being done through their Corporate Social Responsibility Policy, in the “Save the Memory Project”. Cleaning off water, mud and bacteria, gently removing dirt and then digitizing images, Ricoh staff have undertaken a massive task to reunite photographs with their owners or relatives. In a time when we’re reminded daily of “the tsunami of images that is going to swamp us all” it’s easy to forget how important just one image might be in reconnecting someone, some family, to their past, however dreadful the breaking of that link might have been.
All I can say is well done Ricoh. What a fantastic undertaking.
I use Ricoh cameras, have done for several decades. The first Ricoh camera I ever used, almost 30 years ago helped me change the life experiences of two marginalized men, shaping the last few years of their lives in ways I’d never have imagined possible (link). I chose the camera because it was easy to use, but also because the images it produced were astonishingly high quality, way better than its diminutive size would suggest.
And today I use a couple of very small modern Ricoh cameras. Why? Oh, you’d have to use one to know. But with it I can capture moments I’d otherwise miss. And with a wee boy to bring up, that’s a good tool to have in my pocket.
I’ve got a lot of photos of my son. I hope he enjoys them when he’s older, and it prompts him to add to the tsunami of images that surround us, by taking his own. I’m trying to teach him how, its slow progress, but I’ve starting by telling him how to save them, so he doesn’t lose them. Showing him old pictures of our family, like his great-grandmother and her radio, which is now our old radio, explaining to him these are images we’ve got because my dad saved the negatives. Negatives which William and I have scanned.
I think he gets it!
I think he has a sense of what photography does so well: it takes our present, and invests in it the richness of the past, for our future. So it doesn’t fade.