I have wondered how to start this piece of writing for a long time. And acknowledging that is perhaps the best place to start. I spoke with Cupcake some time ago now about contributing to the blog; it has always been that thing on my To-Do list that gets missed. It doesn’t require a massive amount of introspection and capacity for self-reflection to know why I have been avoiding writing about an incredibly painful and hard experience, one that took such a toll on my mental health.
However, it feels as if the time has come to write about the events that turned my world upside down 11 months ago. Where to begin? I will introduce myself. I am a man, in recovery from a serious issue with drugs and alcohol who has been abstinent for something around 9 years. I just became middle-aged (ouch). I work in the mental health field.
Then, on the morning of 28/10/19, having not long got back from a weekend with said girl at a 5-star hotel and health spa in the gorgeous Surrey countryside, everything changed, with one phone call.
One year ago, to be honest, my life seemed like a fairy tale. I had embraced the challenge of change, moved cities, started working for myself, met a great girl, started a masters degree and I was making more money than I had ever thought possible. It felt very much like I had the world at my feet. I remember that actually, in the absence of something to worry about or attach my anxiety to, I did very much feel as if something was missing.
It felt unusual to be feeling content and happy and proud of myself.
Then, on the morning of 28/10/19, having not long got back from a weekend with said girl at a 5-star hotel and health spa in the gorgeous Surrey countryside, everything changed, with one phone call. I took my phone off flight mode, about 8am. I had maybe 5 or 10 missed calls, WhatsApp calls, and messages and text messages from my brother, through from 5am or so. I called him back.
Driving from West London to deep in the Essex heartlands where my family live, a part of the world laced with regret, shame and fear for me, at least historically.
“Dad’s had a stroke”, he said; “probably nothing to worry about”. Probably nothing to worry about is how my family describe anything from minor car crashes through to diagnoses of cancer or other terminal illnesses. I think anything over 75% body coverage of first degree burns might merit an acknowledgement that something adverse or undesirable has happened.
This is how they have coped, as did I, with the trauma, shame, and addiction which my family system is riddled with; complete, grade A, 98% pure, top shelf denial. I cancelled that morning’s appointment with my therapist and got on the road. Driving from West London to deep in the Essex heartlands where my family live, a part of the world laced with regret, shame and fear for me, at least historically.
I remember there was a crash on one of the main arterial roads serving Essex. It is a funny thing about that part of the world, the road systems are so over-populated, that it does not take much for it to all grind to a halt. I ended up leaving the car in a place called Basildon and getting the train the last 10 miles and a taxi the last mile.
I actually went back to work the next day, still, in some kind of shock, I think. Around midday, the phone call came, that the pressure on the inside of Dad’s skull was increasing, that the stroke was more severe than originally thought.
I walked into the ward and saw my father, my strong, willful, intelligent, at times angry, often shut down emotionally, always trying his best, father… Strapped into one of the chairs they put people into who cannot sit up on their own, his eyes rolling around, independently of each other. He was still him, though; he still did not want us to worry about him, still apologised for me missing work, still wanted to seem to prioritise the needs of others over himself.
At that stage, we knew it was a stroke, the discussions with the doctors were in terms of rehab, physio, and Dad getting back to something approaching a normal life in however many months. I actually went back to work the next day, still, in some kind of shock, I think. Around midday, the phone call came, that the pressure on the inside of Dad’s skull was increasing, that the stroke was more severe than originally thought.
We are asked what he would want. At 39 years old, all of a sudden I was faced with this question; would your Dad want to live as a very disabled man, or be allowed to die?
He was blue-lighted to Queens Hospital, Romford, a leading centre for neurosurgery. After a wait that seemed like a lifetime in a small, windowless room with other family members speaking in hushed tones, crying and staring at the floor. We were lead into a small room, with pictures and flowers. The young doctor and senior nurse took pains to position their chairs at 45 degree angels from us and maintain open body language as they sat us down.
Not good signs. They told us that the operation that would be needed to save my father’s life was one which had two outcomes: severe mental and physical impairment, or death. We are asked what he would want. At 39 years old, all of a sudden I was faced with this question; would your Dad want to live as a very disabled man, or be allowed to die?
I have always struggled to feel my feelings. I shut them down and put them away very early in life.
I could write reams here about the decisions, the family conflicts, the shouting matches, which followed. The flashes of hope, the crushing disappointments. The resignation to the fact that my father was gone. The short version is that 5 months later, I spent most of a week by his bedside as the life drained away from him, breath by laboured breath.
I watched as his blood oxygen sank so low that he was gone in all but the most physical sense. His poor, battered brain, finally dying except for the most basic functions. I held him, kissed him, hugged him and let him know how much he was loved.
I argued repeatedly with the doctors and nurses to successfully get a decent level of end of life care for him, whilst everyone around me shut down, but I was glad to be able to do that. My Dad went from an active, bright man 5 months into his retirement (he was 69 when the stroke happened) to a withered, immobile, doubly incontinent, frightened, confused man, fed through tubes, unconscious most of time, shell in that 5 months in hospital.
I have learnt and grown so much (in recovery) but everything I had learnt did not prepare me for having to deal with that 5 months and then being in a locked-down UK, only 3 days after the funeral.
I have always struggled to feel my feelings. I shut them down and put them away very early in life. This seemed essential for my survival in a family system dominated by trauma, shame and addiction. This, and no small number of poor choices on my part, led me to two decades of drug addiction and experiencing my own share of trauma and shaming along the way.
I have learnt and grown into being able to feel much more of my emotions and be aware of my ways of relating which leave me malnourished internally. But everything I had learnt did not prepare me for having to deal with that 5 months and then being in a locked-down UK, only 3 days after the funeral. Practically, I just did what I needed to do.
Food became my way of soothing. A way of passing the time, dealing with the loneliness, stuffing my feelings down. The suicidal thoughts returned. The thoughts of using drugs and alcohol returned.
The depression, linked to my early traumatic experiences in life, resurfaced. I withdrew from the people close to me. I began to eat. My comfort blanket from age around 6 upwards, when I started stealing food, half a decade before the drugs, returned. I ate and I ate, I ordered Uber Eats and Deliveroos. I forgot how to cook – seriously. I found that I had no idea how to put a meal together.
Food became my way of soothing. A way of passing the time, dealing with the loneliness, stuffing my feelings down. I had patterns of restricting my eating and then binging for a while but in the end, it was just binging. I began to purge, a new development in someone with an already really unhealthy relationship with food. So all the time I was doing this stuff, I did not have to feel.
But, the suicidal thoughts returned. The thoughts of using drugs and alcohol returned.
My relationship with my family is a long and complicated one. My mother was an alcoholic as long as I can remember; my father a workaholic and rescuer. Both have their own long histories of emotional neglect, abuse and trauma. The house was a soup of unfelt feelings, unspoken resentment, and violence. My brother and I, in that environment, soon picked up various behaviours – food, stealing, smoking, drugs.
The months that followed Dad’s death were dark. Sometime in late July, I heard a different voice inside me than the ones which had been so loud since his death. It said something along the lines of ‘You can do this – you’re a survivor – you have been through a lot and you are going to get through this’.
I was ‘lucky’ that my own drug addiction was serious enough to mean I was booted out of the house. Several consequences, a decade (and some) and a lot of pain later found a Twelve Step group which showed me another way to live. In recovery, I forged a relationship with my father which meant a great deal to me. I loved him deeply and the amends and reconciliation between us was meaningful.
My Dad really did the best he could with what he had, which was not, it would seem, a whole lot. Having to return to that setting to face his illness and death was incredibly hard; a flavour of it would perhaps be best summed up by my mother deciding that the day after Dad was admitted to Queens, was a good time to tell me how unhappy she had been during their 40 odd years of marriage.
That was the first time I calmly but firmly, successfully put up a boundary in that relationship by not doing anything other than being present. I was 39 years old.
I am grateful for all those who have been there for me, even if I have not been able to let them get that close.
The months that followed Dad’s death were dark. Sometime in late July, I heard a different voice inside me than the ones which had been so loud since his death. It said something along the lines of ‘You can do this – you’re a survivor – you have been through a lot and you are going to get through this’. Since then I have begun attending another support group specifically around my long running issues with food.
It’s nothing ground-breaking – identification, support, understanding and experience of other people who have been where I found myself this year. I have started to become more conscious, to re-commit to the various practices which have supported my recovery over the years which felt impossible in that dark, stuck place.
At the moment, life looks a little brighter. Being less embedded in all that food means I have to feel a bit more. The grief is still with me. I still miss my Dad and I get reminders of him every day. I wish I had made more of the opportunities to connect with him, but I am told that it is natural.I am grateful for all those who have been there for me, even if I have not been able to let them get that close.
I hope this account of what happened might give a little hope to those struggling through their own dark times, their losses, grief or their struggles with the illness of a loved one. At times over the last 11 months, it has simply been about putting one foot in front of the other for me and getting through the day – as simple as that.
Losing a parent, or any loved one can be deeply upsetting and not something to go through alone. Please visit the Useful Resources page for a full list of services for anything you may require support with if you too are going through grief or loss of any kind. Beheavement services are at the bottom of the page.
If you would like to read another story on this subject, Jaynes Story – A Daughters Grief is another similar story of the beginnings of dealing with her fathers illness to his passing and how she has navigated her way through the loss of a parent with whom she had a complicated relationship.
I just want to take this space to thank Rob (whose name has been changed) so much for taking the time and in giving this little piece of himself to this project. I hope it has been of comfort to him and no doubt it will provide a wonderfully relieving read for anyone who can identify with all or parts of his story.