Springtime, sunshine and the Big Apple

Is it just me, or has spring felt like it’s been a long time coming this year? The oppressively dark days of winter seem to have dragged as I’ve moved from house to car to train to office and back again, rarely glimpsing daylight. Work has been so busy that my regular lunchtime walks around St James’ Park have taken a hit and the crappy weather has meant that weekend walks have been replaced by fireside reading; not at all unpleasant but I do feel as though my skin is crying out for some vitamin D.

And then yesterday we woke up to sunshine! Sunshine, blue sky and birdsong. It wasn’t the deceptive British sunshine that has you hurriedly donning your flip flops only to step outside to find you have to de-ice the car…it was actually warm. So of course Claudia and I did what all good British people do in that situation and spent an hour in a pub garden, with soft drinks, obvs. And while we were there, it dawned on us just how challenging spring is going to be.

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Joe, 2010

Joe died in June. The day of his death, the days after his death, the day of his funeral, and the day we buried his ashes were all warm and sunny, and the feelings that simply sitting outside in the sunshine yesterday provoked were visceral.

I think about Joe every day, hour, minute – it’s like there’s a part of my brain that’s been hardwired just to him. He creeps into my dreams at night, often so vividly that I’m discombobulated for days. So the sunshine isn’t making me think of him more, but it is taking me back to that weird, surreal time of visiting churches, making arrangements, standing in his empty bedroom, sitting in his car for the first time, choosing his coffin… I feel like I floated through those months in a dreamlike state and so spring, with all its wonder and beauty and hope, is going to be especially tough this year.

That said, I do want to focus on some positives.

I’ll start with the fact that I’ve now got through 105 days sans booze. Hurrah! It’s beginning to feel normal now, which I guess is good. A colleague was talking about alcohol the other day and without even thinking I said: “Oh, I don’t drink” – and it felt fine. Actually, it felt really bloody good.

I visited my parents at Easter for the first time since I stopped drinking, and was a tad anxious as we always crack open the wine at lunchtime, and again in the evening, the three of us setting the world to rights over a few glasses (or bottles). But it was fine. No cravings at all. It helped that they’d stocked up on de-alcoholised wine which I sipped as they enjoyed the proper stuff. But even a cheeky sniff (oh alright, a long, slow inhale) of my Mum’s New Zealand Sauvignon wasn’t enough to make me cave.

Claudia and I have also had a really good couple of weeks commuting into London together where she’s been doing work experience. I’m so proud of her for pressing ahead with the commitment she made and not letting her state of mind discourage her from doing what has turned out to be 2 weeks of real positivity and confidence-building. Hearing her talk about what she’s been doing every day has been brilliant, especially given the very difficult and upsetting conversations we’ve been having over the past few weeks.

Commuters
Commuting!

She’s joined editorial meetings, been to her first conference (free pastries!), written a blog, met all sorts of new people and learned a huge amount about working life. I’ve always imagined Claudia living and working in London, enjoying everything it has to offer, and it’s so good to hear her talking about her future. A huge shout out to my dear friend Joanna for helping her out.  Fingers crossed the positivity continues…

I must also mention the brilliant mental health team from the Herts Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust who have been coming to talk to Claudia – as well as David and I – on an almost daily basis since she came home from Nottingham. Knowing they are available 24 hours if Claudia wants to talk or if we have concerns about her, is a real comfort.

Sadly, there do seem to be some discrepancies between the fantastic level of care Claudia is receiving and the care that Joe received from the equivalent team in Exeter, particularly around the issue of confidentiality. There was an interesting article in the Guardian last week that asks “Is confidentiality more important than helping someone at risk to stay alive?” as well as a shocking story from the BBC around student suicide stats. We simply have to do more to keep our young people safe.

Back to the positivity. We’ve booked a family holiday! For the past few years, David and I have made an annual trip to our favourite resort in Greece for a couple of weeks of serious relaxation and awesome cocktails, but that seems like a lifetime ago now and I can’t imagine a holiday like it again. In fact we haven’t wanted to go abroad at all since Joe died. I was trying to pinpoint what it was about going away that felt wrong and realised that it was being so far away from Connor and Claudia. The thought of putting thousands of miles between us, and not being able to be with them quickly if they needed us, wasn’t right, so we’re taking them on their first trip to New York.

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Rees-Anderson mantra: avoid the tourist traps

For years, I promised to take Claudia when she was 21 so we could have cocktails together, and of course the irony is that I’ll be having all the prohibition ones while she tucks into the gin… Holidaying without alcohol will definitely be a challenge and I’m interested to see how I manage the cravings, and whether listening to live jazz in New York with a mocktail will tip me over the edge… But of course it’s holidaying without Joe that will be the strangest thing of all.

I’ll leave you with a passage from an incredible a book I’ve just finished – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara:

“Or maybe he is closer still; maybe he is that grey cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbour’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbour’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

 

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The ripple effect

There’s been a lot of talk on social media this week about mental health and suicide thanks to Zoe Ball’s Sport Relief challenge in memory of her partner Billy Yates. Hardest Road Home was difficult to watch but also incredibly inspiring and the money donated will go a huge way to supporting those at risk of suicide. Good job Zoe.

One of the things mentioned in the programme was the ripple effect of suicide and the impact it has on so many people. In the days, weeks and months after Joe died, this effect was palpable. Family, friends and strangers all impacted by the loss of our brilliant boy, visited, called, wrote and texted; we had a house full of people sharing stories, grieving, supporting… And now, nine months on when the visitors have gone and life ploughs on, the impact on those closest to Joe continues.unnamed

Grief can often lead to depression and it breaks my heart that this cruel, shitty, bastard of an illness has now taken hold of Claudia. My sweet, bright, hilarious, and determined girl is struggling and I desperately want to take the pain away. I couldn’t help Joe because he kept his illness to himself, although in his last week of life when we did know something was wrong, we didn’t take it seriously enough. The regret of not driving to Exeter, forcing him into the car and bringing him home, haunts me every day.

But I can do something to help Claudia. I understand depression much better now. I understand what it can do and that it can lead to feelings of such darkness and despair that death seems like the only answer.

The dynamic of Claudia’s life has shifted. She misses Joe so much and sometimes can’t see the point of a life without him in it. She was the middle child and had two brothers; now she’s the youngest and has lost her partner in crime, despite still being close to Connor. Their shared history, their childhood, school, university, their whole lives are intertwined. The stories that only Joe and Claudia knew, the memories only they shared, the love that only they had for each other has gone, and she’s really struggling to make sense of it.

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The two of them fought like cat and dog when they were younger but in the past few years, since they’d both moved away to university, they’d become incredibly close. Joe was often the first person Claudia would turn to when she needed to talk. He was always her baby brother and the smart arse who knew the answer to everything, but their relationship was maturing, and it was lovely to see.

19029314_10209755559389108_2162738293857643448_nThe stories they used to tell were hilarious: Joe standing in the ladies’ toilet of a bar with a drunk Claudia who needed to go home, telling all the girls – “Back off bitches, this is my sister” with a phone in each hand trying to get hold of David on one of them and me on the other; the two of them owning the dancefloor at a club; the hours spent at Top Golf; the car journeys; the Facetime chats…

And so, our girl is back home. Maybe for good and maybe just until she gets better and can finish her degree. She’s done all the right things – she’s gone to her GP, she’s talked about how she’s feeling and she’s been referred to the mental health crisis team in Nottingham. She has given her consent for them to talk to me and David about the things she finds difficult to say, and we’re in contact with them until we can get her moved to the outpatient care of our local mental health trust.

It’s hard, it’s shit and I’m scared. But she’s talking to us, to her friends – who are amazing – to her GP and to the mental health team. And talking about it has meant the difference between struggling in silence and having us put our arms around her, bring her home, listen and try to help. She’s worried because coming home and taking a break from uni wasn’t in her plan. I’ve told her we just need a new plan.19030767_10209755558909096_506762968273621912_n

Everything changed on that day in June when Joe decided that enough was enough, and Claudia’s plan now needs to be focused on getting better and not thinking too far ahead. My plan, David’s plan, our plan for this family changes every day so we’ve learned not to think about next month, the next six months, the next year… We just think about today, tomorrow, the manageable, the achievable, the here and now.

Amidst all the anxiety, the stress and the worry of the past couple of weeks, our family’s dark humour continues to shine through. Claudia found it hilarious that, while waiting for an appointment at the mental health hospital, this was the song they had blaring across the waiting room…

I’ll leave you on that note and carry on bobbing about in the ripples…

Suicide: the stats are lying to us

One of my worries when I decided to stop drinking was whether I’d become boring without alcohol. As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, the odd glass (or three) of wine always gave me confidence and brought me out of my introverted self; how will I do that now? Will friends and family want to spend time with me if they’re drinking and I’m not? Will sober Kit be dull-as-shit Kit?

David and I haven’t been out socialising since Joe died. We haven’t travelled (apart from a few peaceful days in Cornwall and Devon), we haven’t been anywhere new or done anything worth talking about. Our lives are centred around our house, the children, talking about Joe, reading and listening to music (David has brought Alexa into our home and while I love the music on demand, she can also be an annoying fucker).

Anyhoo, last night I went to bed at 8.30pm ON A FRIDAY. Me: “Do you know what I’m really looking forward to?” David (despairingly): “It’s going to bed, isn’t it?” Yes sir, that’s right! Friday night and I was looking forward to filling a hot water bottle and snuggling under the duvet – the same way I used to look forward to 20% off 6 bottles of wine at Sainsbury’s.

But aside from the boring arse I’ve become, one of the positives of a booze-free mind is an increased level of focus, which is welcome for a couple of reasons:

  1. I’ve started a permanent job after years of contracting so need to get my head into a corporate mindset. Write a Personal Development Plan you say? Crikey. My personal development plan for the past few years has been solely concerned with where the next contract is coming from. So quite a shift but, so far, a wholly positive one (plus I get paid for bank holidays again – hurrah!)
  2. I need to have my wits about me to deal with the Exeter and Greater Devon coroner service…

Joel on a boat

My sincere hope is that no-one I know – or don’t know for that matter – ever has to go through the pain, shock and disbelief of losing a child to suicide (but as it’s the biggest killer of young people between the ages of 10 and 34 in the UK, I’m afraid I will).

I had no idea what to expect after two very sombre police officers knocked on our door and delivered the news that no parent should ever have to hear…

I didn’t know how I would cope once the utterly overwhelming shock wore off. I didn’t know how to look after David, who was screaming and punching the walls. And I didn’t know what lay ahead: Connor and Claudia’s grief at losing their little brother; funeral planning; choosing a coffin; talking to the police; vicars and chaplains sitting in my living room offering prayers; countless visitors; flowers; cards…

And an inquest. I had no idea there would be an inquest. Joe took his life; we were in no doubt. But any unnatural death in the UK has to be reported to the coroner and so this new, unfamiliar and unpleasant journey began.

We were told that an inquest is usually held within six months of death, so we had December in our minds. We made statements and we asked questions: Yes, the inquest is held in a public court; Yes, the press can attend and report on whatever they hear; Yes, you can see all the evidence beforehand; No, you don’t have to attend; Yes, the coroner will determine what Joe’s death will be ruled as.

Wait. What it will be ruled as? Joe took his life, so it’ll be ruled as suicide, won’t it? Not necessarily. Because coroners have to apply the criminal standard of proof, ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ when determining the cause of death in suicide, many are recorded as undetermined. So, suicide is already the leading cause of death among young people, but not all suicide is even recorded as such. Can you imagine the statistics if all suicide was actually recorded as suicide? It’s shocking, it’s not right and it’s a law that I’ll be helping PAPYRUS campaign to have changed.*

David and the kids (first pic I ever saw!)

It’s now March – nine months since Joe died – and we still don’t have a date for his inquest. The latest we’ve been told is that the coroner is retiring (a fact which surely must have been known for some time?) and her replacement won’t start looking at ‘cases’ until early April. So we’re possibly looking at an inquest date in June to coincide with what have been Joe’s 21st birthday and is also the first anniversary of his death. Great. That will do us all the world of good. A jolly trip down to Exeter to hear details of Joe’s life and illness discussed in a public court. Shall we throw Claudia’s university exams into the mix as well – why not!

Becoming ever more frustrated with the lack of information, I contacted PAPYRUS and received a call from their Chief Executive, Ged Flynn. He was very supportive and sympathetic but explained that this sort of delay is, sadly, very common. Coroner services have had their budgets severely cut in recent years, along with so many other public services, and they do the best they can with the limited resources they have. He also told me of families who have only found out about their loved one’s inquest date by finding it on the coroner’s website, which is unforgivable. And so, we wait.

Dull, boring and sober, but ready to take on the system in memory of Joe.

* You can read more in this Guardian article by PAPYRUS Chairman, Stephen Habgood.