A Sad Time – Some Rambling Thoughts

I feel like it would be almost remiss of me to not write about Coronavirus. As a planet we’re all fighting it and, as with Influenza (Spanish Flu, if you must), this is something we will see in history books in the future.

I’m normally pretty up to speed on news. I try to keep myself in the know. You can’t always catch everything, though, and the rise of Coronavirus was actually one thing I’d not noticed. In fact, the first time I heard of it I thought it was a joke. Even then, when I read up on it, I wouldn’t have predicted what has happened.

I apologise in advance for if this post is a bit all over the place…this is all just a bit off the cuff.

I work in food retail. Due to this, I’m now classed as a ‘key worker’ in the UK. Someone that, if my kids were old enough, could still send his kids to school. Someone that has to keep working. That’s fine. I agree with it. I totally understand it…people need food to live. People need to shop.

I’ve been off work this past week due to holiday time. The week prior was when panic buying started. When I finished up for the week on the Saturday I left saying, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” I was, and still am, incredibly proud of my team during this time and proud of my friends in other stores working equally as hard…this is absolutely unlike anything any of us have ever seen. I’ve been in retail for nigh on 15 years. Going in to the shops this week has been eye opening and has made me think that, potentially, I’ve ended up being off for the worst week of panic shopping.

But what will next week bring? Who knows? All the retailers have been asking shoppers to stop panic buying, think of others. They’ve put restrictions on. But people are still panic buying. People are still buying far more than they need to. Today’s government press conference included a member of the retail consortium. The message? Think of others and stop panic buying.

I fail to understand how that message will change public behaviour any more than retail bosses have by saying the same thing. The mentality of people now is “We need to get this before they run out”…not everybody would have been thinking that way but the behaviour of others will have definitely forced it. Even for myself, I sit here knowing depots have got stock – I know some of the plans that will be put in place…can probably guess at others – but I worry about things my kids need. Thoughts of “if I see the correct size nappies for them I’d best get them before they’re gone”…it’s fear, anxiety and panic not bought on by the retailers, but instead by the actions of the public as a whole. The government message today does nothing, really, to alter that.

I’ve found myself walking around the stores this week when I’ve been getting food and found myself on a few occasions feeling almost emotional. Massive greed and selfishness will have hurt people. When I am shopping and thinking about the food my kids like but those shelves are empty…what do you do? I feel fortunate that I’ve seen some great generosity this week otherwise, potentially, I’d also be panicking for the weeks ahead.

As I’ve stated before, I’ve been in retail for about 15 years…both food and clothing/home. In that time, I’ve had the chance to get to know so many people – people I wouldn’t normally talk to – and you get to see a side of humanity, both good and bad, that you don’t see in any other job sector. Looking at the bare, empty shelves has me thinking of a customer I used to serve years ago when I was a part time deli assistant. His name was John.

I have no idea if John is still alive. He was getting on a bit and clearly had some issues. He’d come in, pretty much, at the same time every day. Albert Einstein hair style, an old blue coat that had tears in it and patches of dirt. His facial expressions used to remind me of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. Anyway, he’d come in every day and ask for “two slices of honey roast ham on one and a half. I don’t have a fridge so this way I don’t throw it away.” Every day. Without fail. I found John quite an interesting character. He had a good job before retiring, but once he retired he slipped. Clearly had signs of dementia, clearly very lonely. The trip to the shop was as much a social thing as it was a necessity for food.

I look at the shops now and think of John and the countless other John’s I’ve met, served and got to know over the years and it genuinely saddens me. It saddens me because I don’t know how he would survive. Food counters have shut to allow supply chains to focus on key deliveries – a correct decision – but for John that would probably mean spending more on pre-packed items. And, even then, it’s only if he could get it. I’ve noticed how, in several areas of stores, the cheaper and average priced items have all sold meaning only the expensive alternatives remain. If you shop at the wrong time, you’ll spend more and, probably, for less. For people like John…could they even afford that? I worry that, for those people, it won’t be Coronavirus that kills them…it’ll be malnutrition. And, again, it saddens me because that’s not the fault of the retailer as there is stock at depots…there was just no need to panic buy and put depots in a position whereby they simply can’t get enough of the stock out quick enough. We’ll undoubtedly see shoplifting increase, too, as people find only expensive alternatives and find they can’t afford it.

And what about when people do find themselves in a place of not being able to afford food? Food Banks? Well, no…because people aren’t donating. Some are being stolen from. Help from the banks? Unlikely, unless you’re a business affected by things. So, bankruptcy? Unpaid rents and rise in homelessness? Maybe. Anxiety? Depression? Further mental health issues? Most probably.

The behaviour of people has lead to this. That is why Supermarkets are now having to put in place designated hours for vulnerable people, NHS workers…but, the reality is that it should never have really needed to get to that point.

Even if the country goes in to lock down – which, you’d believe looking at others, it will – Supermarkets will still be open. I’ll still be going to work. People still need food. My brilliant team, myself and others will still be working to provide for the people. We have online deliveries. To repeat what the retail bosses, and the government, all say…there is no need to panic buy, there is a need to think about others.

But what is the answer? Honestly…I don’t know. We’re asking people to change. There is a likelihood that these past two weeks will change some people’s shopping habits for good, anyway. I don’t know what the future will look like.

Are the government doing enough? Again, I don’t know. Hand on heart, I couldn’t say if I think they’re doing the right things or not. I think today felt like a checklist press conference – a way to say, “we’ve talked about it.” I think offering to pay 80% to workers that find themselves out of work due to Coronavirus is admirable. I think the negligence to the self employed and zero hours contracted people – plumbers, freelance journalists, PR people, writers, musicians and so on – is shambolic. I think we’ve been slow to respond to the virus…still think there’s an element of people underestimating how serious it could be…but I think we’ve eventually got to doing the right things, such as closing pubs.

I still don’t think information on the virus itself is clear enough. We don’t do enough testing. How do you know the difference between a cold and the coronavirus? What makes a “persistent cough”?

I don’t pay for Spotify premium. Don’t really use it enough to warrant it, plus I love physical copies of CDs etc too much. But, during the Brexit talks, there were public service announcements about the changes coming. For Coronavirus, I’ve heard none at all.

We have to trust in those above us and believe they are doing the right thing by us…even if I think, you think, or anybody else thinks more could be done…we have to have faith in them.

And then we have to look at ourselves, too. We have to think about other people. Not just look at the news, read words online and say “That is a shame, isn’t it? How sad.” but seriously look at ourselves, our behaviours and ask if we are doing the right thing, too.

Eventually Coronavirus will pass on and go…but it is our actions that will dictate just how damaging this pandemic is for people in the years to come.

Our Secret Tongues

An admission: I had never given Frightened Rabbit much time until Scott Hutchison was found dead. They were a band that I’d heard of, a band that several of my favourite bands and artists discussed as well as friends and fellow posters on Facebook groups I am on…but, for whatever reason, I never gave them a chance until Scott went missing.

Since that awful day in May 2018, and particularly over the past few months, Frightened Rabbit have taken over my life somewhat. Not since Biffy Clyro or The Smiths have I listened to a band and felt an emotional connection like the one I do with Frightened Rabbit. They’re a special band, and Scott Hutchison was a special song writer.

My first sample of Frightened Rabbit came a couple of years before Scott’s passing. An indie compilation I’d downloaded featured the song ‘Holy’ – a brilliant song – but, as is the way with many compilations, it became background music to me. The compilation album was one to go on if people were round or housework was being done.

Looking back, that was a bit of a travesty. ‘Holy’ has become a go-to song for me, one that contains lyrics that I relate to massively – particularly if I think to years gone by. The final refrain in the song feels like it was written for me…I just found it a couple of years too late:

I don’t mind being lonely, so leave me alone
Are you, oh, so holy, that I’ll never be good enough
Don’t care if I’m lonely, ’cause it feels like home
I won’t ever be holy, thank God I’m full of holes.”

This is now a very constant theme between Frightened Rabbit, Scott Hutchison’s lyrics and me. I find I relate to them so much that I’m moved by their music more than I’ve been moved by music in some years. For many others this is also the case. Scott’s lyrics speak to people, connect with people and they offer comfort.

Scott Hutchison suffered with depression, an illness that he openly discussed in interviews and through his lyrics. Some people may argue that other bands and artists have written about depression and anxiety and they’d be right, but with Scott it was a bit different. This guy was baring his soul regularly and in doing so he was doing two things. He was opening a connect to those that suffer with depression and anxiety, and he was also displaying that it’s okay to talk about these things. It’s important. It’s also important to have a male role model voicing this because there have not been enough voices.

A look on the Samaritans website shows desperate statistics around suicide. In the UK, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women (in Ireland its four times more likely to be a man). In Scotland, suicide rates in young men in 2017 had increased for the third year in a row. There are many reasons why a person may feel that suicide is the only option, even if those reasons don’t seem logical to everybody else. I’ve discussed on this blog before that suicide is an end to an illness that someone hasn’t recovered from and I still believe that, but it doesn’t need to be that way. With men there is still that macho culture whereby a stigma exists against mental health and I’ve even witnessed when other men have mocked people for being depressed. The end result of this is that it leads to other men being hesitant in discussing their illness, their issues, and ultimately leads to an increase in drastic final actions. Where else do they go if they’re ashamed to seek out help and, more importantly, how much worse will those men that suffer feel by feeling that, on top of everything, they should be ashamed of themselves for feeling like they can’t go on? This is why people like Scott Hutchison are so important – he’s opened doors, encouraging men to talk, showing that we shouldn’t be ashamed to feel that way.

However, it wasn’t enough for Scott. He used his Twitter account to write, “Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.” and a final, “I’m away now. Thanks.”. Three days later, Scott was found on the banks of the Firth of Forth dead. He was 36. His light had gone out, and for many people that voice was gone.

I remember at the time reading one person argue that Scott’s death showed that talking had little impact for depression but to think that is to look at depression in the wrong light. If a person with cancer dies it doesn’t mean that every person with that cancer will also die, it just means that, sadly, the illness beat the other person. Medication works better for some than others. It’s the same with depression…it needs to be viewed as an illness to understand it, and it needs to be understood that what works for one doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for the other. By talking a person takes a first step to trying to find a way to recover. Talking is the start, and that’s something men have not been comfortable doing. It’s why Scott helped so many others, even if ultimately he couldn’t save himself. He allowed others to feel they could take that first step. When Scott sang about speaking in “our secret tongue” in the song, “The Woodpile”, I have always tried to interpret it as a way of expressing opening up about emotions. The things people don’t talk about, the feelings that we so often keep secret.

In retrospect, listening to Frightened Rabbit is sometimes incredibly difficult. The song ‘Floating In The Forth’ is about suicide and even poses the question, “is there peace beneath the roar of the Forth Road bridge?” which is haunting when considering where Scott was found 10 years later. One of my favourite songs, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”, is also quite haunting to listen to when you consider the lyrics…but it would be unfair to focus on Frightened Rabbit and Scott’s lyrics just for that.

The magic of Frightened Rabbit, the power of Scott’s lyrics, are that they give you hope. The lyric many go to now, from the song ‘Head Rolls Off’, is “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth”. Everybody will have their own interpretation of these words but, for me, I listen to that song and think about it stressing the importance of making the most of what we have, and doing what we can to make an impact. Much like I found myself connecting to The Smiths and feeling comfort because they made me feel “not alone”, Frightened Rabbit have the same effect…but lyrics like “make tiny changes…” give a motivation that Morrissey’s lyrics don’t. They give you hope that there is a meaning. There is more.

I found Frightened Rabbit some years too late, but it hasn’t lessened their impact. They are one of the most important bands of the past decade but not many will know them, which is a complete injustice.

The ending may have been sad, but Scott’s lyrics and words live on. They remain important. They still give hope. They still give comfort. They’ll still help countless people.

And, at the end of the day, that’s how Scott Hutchison “made tiny changes to Earth” – he made other men feel like they could talk about their battles and demons. Although he couldn’t save himself he saved many others.

(Click here to watch the music video for their song “Head Rolls Off” – and then, please, dig further and listen to more.)

Mindfields

The Fat Of The Land came out when I was only 10 years old.

The 10 year old me was listening to pop music. I’d grown really fond of Madness, and was sucked in to the excitement of the Brit Pop battles of Oasis and Blur…trying to sing Oasis songs with my best Liam Gallagher impersonation. But that was it. Other than that, you were looking to whatever was in the charts…at that point it was The Spice Girls so, secretly, I add, I was listening to them, too.

I remember the first time I saw and heard Prodigy. Top of the Pops, ‘Firestarter’. My Dad had heard it on the radio and was saying how amazing this song was and then it was on TV. A black and white music video, in a tunnel, with Keith Flint dancing and shouting his vocals. I remember thinking I’d never seen anything like it before.

The ‘Firestarter’ video got banned by the BBC due to complaints from parents saying it had scared their children. The video didn’t scare me but it did make me take notice and it has always remained one of the most memorable music videos for me.

Ultimately, the thing that made the ‘Firestarter’ video stand out wasn’t the music – as brilliant as it was, and still is – but actually the performance of Keith Flint. I’d seen clips of, say, The Sex Pistols but Flint was different. At age 10, Keith Flint was the most punk rock person I had ever seen. The devil horn hairstyle, the crazy dance moves, the clothes, the make up…I was enamoured by this person.

I always found it odd that the video for ‘Firestarter’ was black listed. There was nothing scary about it to me, it was just punk. And dance. I soon discovered ‘Breathe’, a video that I thought was creepier than ‘Firestarter’ but fewer people seemed to agree. From those two songs and videos came my introduction to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ – a music video that, even now, pushes boundaries and a song that, even now, causes such controversy.

Prodigy were a dance band, but they were more than just that…they were the most punk rock band I’d ever seen, with Keith Flint, the most punk rock man I’d ever seen, leading the charge. I remember getting their 1997 album ‘Fat Of The Land’ when I was just shy of turning 11 and listening to it all through. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before.

My love of music is something I often think I got from my Dad. In the car, he’d put on Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Elton John and so on, and talk to me about the gigs he’d been to. It got me in to rock music from a fairly early age, even if my preferred style was pop. I look back now and think of my Dad introducing me to Prodigy and it makes me laugh a bit. From an outside perspective, to go from introducing your son to ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel to ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ by Prodigy…it may seem a bit odd. But this is how I was raised with music, and another reason as to why I think I like music of so many genres.

All of my Dad’s favourite music had their “angry” songs, protest songs almost, but none of them had the raw energy, anger and aggressive feel of the Prodigy. I loved it.

Keith Flint as front man opened my eyes to a vast surrounding of music I’d otherwise ignored. I often think that had it not been for Flint, for Prodigy, I’d have never listened to some of the punk that I adored in my later years, never had listened to Nirvana, never had listened to punk and metal. My musical tastes would be completely different.

On hearing Keith Flint had passed away, aged only 49, I find myself thinking of that first time I heard ‘Fat Of The Land’, and feeling massively grateful for the lasting effect it had on me with my taste in music.

I saw Prodigy perform live only once, at the Download Festival in 2006. It was insane. They headlined the second stage while Guns n Roses headlined main. It felt like more people had come to the tent for Prodigy and the mix of people was unbelievable. Metal heads, ravers, punk rockers…it was a musical free for all. And when they started the whole tent went berserk. Energy like I’ve rarely, if ever, felt at a gig. People climbing the rafters. The whole place a mosh pit.

My cousin and I lasted a few songs before we had to go. You could feel the mood turning on the night and the band were having to stop performing to encourage people to stop climbing rafters. All in all, it was a recipe for disaster. A mix of ravers and moshers, in a tent too small. But Prodigy were immense. Keith Flint parading the front of the stage sticks in my mind. This man, the first person I saw that made me think “punk rock”, is in front of me and he is still the most punk rock person I’ve ever seen.

That mix of people, that impression of Flint, is part of the reason why Keith Flint is an icon. There are very few people that could bridge the gap between dance, electronic, punk and metal like Keith Flint did…and there may not be many that do it anywhere near as good, with such ease, ever again.

To hear that Keith Flint took his own life adds to the sorrow of the day and he joins an ever growing list of musicians I love that have taken their own lives; including Kurt Cobain, Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell and more. All men. All men that other men would look to as a voice – be it a voice to help them release pain, or sadness, or anger…or just a voice they loved.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 50 in the UK. Bigger than cancer, bigger than road accidents, bigger than heart attacks. Suicide. And with every Chris Cornell, every Chester Bennington and now with Keith Flint we’re all left with it there in front of us. Depression doesn’t care how successful you are, how loved you are or about what you have…but, as men, we struggle to talk. We struggle to admit. Why?

Stigma plays a massive part. With every famous suicide I still see comments online of how selfish the person is, how someone has taken the easy way…”the cowards way”…and it’s all unfair. Suicide is not cowardice, it’s an end to an illness for someone that hasn’t got better. I see comments of “they don’t think about their loved ones”…but I’d argue the contrary and encourage people that believe that to think this way. A suicidal person always thinks of their loved ones. A suicidal person will believe that they are doing the best thing for those people because, and this is the biggest issue, a suicidal person believes more than anything that they are a burden, they are a problem and that everything will be better without them.

Stigmas and attitude can only change when we begin to try to understand. At 49 years old, Keith Flint has added to the number, the already huge number, of UK men aged under 50 that choose to take their own life. Of all those people, how many could have been avoided had more people taken the time to understand and be there rather than pass quick judgements and create stigma?

This is the male problem. And with every famous suicide, the focus comes back. But how sad is it that more death, more pain, is needed to make people reflect, change and talk?

Keith Flint is an icon, and a man I feel I owe a lot to as I know it was him that made me become more open minded to other genres of music and groups of people. The Prodigy and Flint really did take me to another dimension.

And now I hope his passing serves as not just a reminder of his brilliant music, but as a way to make more people become open minded to mental health, removing the stigma around it and maybe give someone the courage to talk to somebody else instead of meeting the end.

Learning To Deal, Not Heal

Final Words And Flashbacks

My last words to my Mum were “Thank you.”

When I look back at the end of those five days at Papworth Hospital, past the complete darkness associated with it, I think I was lucky to have those last moments. Not happy to have them, but lucky. There are many people who don’t get the chance to have those final words and know that they are final words.

My Mum knew that I loved her, but I don’t know if she ever really knew how much I appreciated her. It felt important to say thank you to her. Thank you for the way she brought me up, brought my sister up, loved my Dad and looked after us all.

How many times do people really stop to say “Thanks Mum/Dad, you did a great job”? I don’t think it does really happen all that much. It’s almost far too easy, especially if you’re from a good home (which I was, fortunately), to take it all for granted.

Loss makes you think about what you had, what you have and what you’ll lack. Fear of loss also makes you think about what you have, and what you could lose.

This year, on January 27th, it will be four years since Mum passed away. It doesn’t feel like four years. Each year since, from the 22nd onwards, I find I suffer with flashbacks.

I remember, vividly, taking the call at work from my then partner saying I needed to call my Dad. I remember, vividly, calling Dad who was then racing home telling me Mum had fallen and my sister, Joy, had found her and paramedics were heading there. I remember speaking to my sister as she was at the house with paramedics. I remember giving first aid rationale when Dad explained the paramedics wouldn’t move her by saying “If she’s hurt her back they won’t move her because she may have broken something”. I remember being told she was going to hospital. I remember my sister knew one of the ambulance staff. I remember being at work. I remember I was doing performance reviews. I remember deciding to stay at work to do one last review. I remember I didn’t even do that review. I remember staying at home instead of driving straight across. I remember, and I know, everlasting regret.

“Regrets, I’ve Had A Few…”

The fact is, on that Thursday evening, I didn’t believe it would be anything serious. My initial thoughts were that Mum had had a fall, and my worst fear was that she’d suffered an injury to her spine. I even said so much to my duty managers at work when I left. The last thing on my mind was any thought of losing her.

So I stayed at home. The journey to Lowestoft is around 200 miles and takes around 3 and a half hours with no traffic. I’d decided that I’d wait and, if anything else happened, then I’d head over. I spent my night playing guitar sat by my phone. I remained set for work the next day. I prioritised my work, my daily life, over getting in the car and going over. I kick myself for it even now.

At around half 2, I woke up. I felt wide awake and saw a shadow moving across the room. I thought it was my then partner – we often worked different times so got up at different times – so I sat up to get up. Grabbed my phone, no calls, but saw it was half 2. Partner still in bed asleep. Confused, I lay back down. I know I saw a shadow. I know I saw something. Then the house phone rang.

I have never cried like it in my life. It was howling. It was uncontrollable. My Mum was being sent to Papworth Hospital, and all we really knew is that she may not come out of it alive. My brain was in overdrive. I felt true fear, true sadness and true helplessness.

In the car, that fear of loss grew and grew. I’ve always been a fan of night time driving because I like the time it gives you to think. This time, absolutely not. I started to think of what could happen. I cried more. I thought of my Dad and my sister. I cried more. I thought about all the phone calls I missed and never returned. The chances I could have gone back home to see her, even if only for one day. I sink in regret.

Going back to what I said earlier, regarding what loss makes you do, loss also gives. It gives perspective, it gives hindsight. It gives it, but it’s too late.

My biggest regrets in life all stem to missed time with my Mum. We both worked in retail, so weekends free became sparse. I was in a relationship whereby I felt that most free weekends were spent going anywhere but to Lowestoft (too far away), so I always felt I saw more of one side than the other – my own. I went with it. If we saw family it was a minimum of 7 hours travel to see mine, or 4 the other way. I wish I’d been more persistent and pushed to see my family more. I was too weak. I honestly regret it so much. I regret not using days off to drive down alone. Missed opportunities. Missed time.

I also regret phone calls. Mum would be off on a Thursday and Sunday most weeks and I would usually get a call on at least one of these days. It hit a stage in my relationship at the time that I would intentionally ignore calls in order to ‘spend less time on my phone’ or avoid the ‘been at work all day and now on the phone’ argument. I started making phone calls only when I was out alone walking somewhere. It meant I’d miss alot of calls, rarely managing to call back for days. It was easier at home that way. I was a complete tit and I should have been firmer. I’d have a million arguments for one more call with Mum. As it is, I can’t even remember the last phone call we had together.

Before Mum had even passed away I started to feel regret at my prioritisation and my, well, lack of strength at home. I know I could have seen Mum more had I tried. I could have spoke more with her had I tried. I could have maybe had a final more coherent conversation with her had I left work after the call. But I didn’t. And that all lies on me. Nobody else. And I find it unforgivable.

A Roller-coaster Of Emotion

On that morning of January 23rd, when the surgeon explained that Mum had suffered aortic dissection, I had no idea what it was. He gave some examples of famous people who had also had it. Gérard Houllier, the football manager, had survived. His other example, a member of the UN, died. He was preparing us for the worst. 50/50 were the best odds but, realistically, those odds weren’t ever on the table.

We had it explained that it had all happened because of high blood pressure. A spike in Mum’s blood pressure, that was it. He compared it to a burst pipe after a surge in pressure and water flow. The spike would have been quick, the damage everlasting. A clot had formed in the leg, meaning survival would also come with amputation.

News just got worse. The smallest pieces of positivity felt huge, but they made the subsequent bad news feel even more devastating.

During the five days of operations, and the endless hours of waiting, we all felt emotion like never before. Trying to remain positive was needed but, ultimately, felt like a near impossible task. Me and my then partner had headed home on the Saturday so she could stay there for work and I could get clothes. I was in and out. I remember this being the first time I was affected by an anger that the whole situation and eventual grief put on me. I argued, I grabbed my stuff, I went straight back to Papworth.

What did I argue about? I’d decided I didn’t want to stop and have food. I wanted to get back to Mum and to my family.

Over the following days I suffered with my first anxiety attacks. I’d never had any before, and I wasn’t sure what these were at the time. Somehow, I managed to keep a few to myself as I shared hotel rooms with Dad and wanted to be strong for him, but you can’t hide them forever.

It felt like my rib cage was closing in on itself. Imagine intertwining and locking your fingers together and that’s what it felt like my ribs were doing. It felt like my heart was being crushed. I found breathing difficult. In my head, all I could think was that this must be what a heart attack feels like. It’s terrifying. Yet, I still felt guilt.

My Dad was losing the love of his life, his wife. My sister was losing not only her Mum, but her best friend. In my head I’d be thinking “how can my loss even compare to that?” but here’s the thing; loss makes people react in different ways. We all react differently.

My advice to anybody going through grief, anybody who has recently lost a loved one, is to ignore those that say “I know what you’re going through.” They don’t. Nobody does. What you’re going through is completely personal to you. There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way. Don’t let someone else tell you how to grieve and don’t be ashamed if you feel like you’re grieving more than you should, because you won’t be.

The only thing I would encourage is to talk to those close to you. You’re all in it together.

“Are You Right There, Father Ted?”

Saying goodbye to Mum was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Aged 55, she wasn’t old, and it came from out of nowhere. There were only those days at Papworth where we could prepare for loss but, so good were the team at Papworth, we always had hope she may get through.

My final memories of Mum are my cousin, Mark, closing her eyes, the family stood around her in tears, a kiss on the forehead and hand, and then the curtains from around her bed after I slumped to the floor by a wall outside them after.

A nurse came to me and asked if I was alright. I choked and said, “That’s my Mum” and pointed at the curtain. And that was it.

But, then, the strangest thing happened. Laughter.

My Mum was a “get on with it” type of person. She just didn’t want the fuss…to the extent that when she saw me at the hospital before going to theatre she looked at me, huffed and said “What are you doing here?” She didn’t want me going out of my way to make that journey because she won’t have wanted the fuss.

Once we’d said our goodbyes, time seemed to sit still. There’s a moment where you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. Limbo. But our hands were forced.

Fire alarm. We had to leave. Mum wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, and I still think, somehow, that was her telling us to “sod off” in only the way she could.

It made us laugh because we all thought the same. Even in death my Mum had found a way to tell us all to “get on with it”. What a woman. Not even the end could stop her.

I don’t remember much about the drive back to Lowestoft other than driving Dad home. I was dreading walking in the house but it was fine up until I saw the picture on the wall of my Mum and my late Uncle on Mum and Dad’s wedding day. The picture is taken from behind, with them both turning their heads looking at the camera. I viewed it as they were both back together, looking back at us.

The next thing we did was pivotal to us, and I think sums us up as a family. In that moment of sadness, sat at home, it was decided we needed to laugh. Dad put on Father Ted.

I think to some the idea of “You’ve just lost your Mum/wife and now you’re watching Father Ted?!” would be a bit bizarre, but it made sense. Mum would quote Father Jack sometimes (“Feck”, “Drink”) and Father Ted was one of those things we all loved. Mum would have encouraged us that life moves on, and by sitting down and having a laugh this was life going on. This was us “getting on with it” and not causing a fuss. This is what Mum would have wanted us to do.

A Father Ted marathon. Not essential to a grieving process but not a bad place to start.

A New Normal

The best bit of advice I have ever received regarding grief came from a Papworth Hospital nurse. I’ve talked about it on this blog before. She sat with us and said “Now it’s about you. People say time is a healer, but it’s not. You don’t heal in time, you learn to deal.”

Before then, I’d always thought of time as a healer. I’d never approached it as a “dealing” mechanism. But the nurse was spot on. You don’t heal. You never get over it, but in time you learn to live with it. You enter a new normality. Things will always be different but life must go on.

I struggled more than I probably let on in the first weeks. It took four weeks for the funeral to come, I stayed in Lowestoft for the first two. I’m always in two minds on that now. There’s a huge part of me that looks back and thinks I should have stayed in Lowestoft until the funeral. It would have helped Dad, and it would have helped my sister and her other half. There’s another part that thinks, selfishly, that being alone for a while could have helped me. But then I also think being stuck at home alone caused more issue. More time to think, more time with nobody to turn to. I turned angry, snapping at the smallest things. I couldn’t deal with it. Writing this down for the first time, I now think I should have stayed in Lowestoft.

The funeral added some closure. But not as much as I had imagined. The place was heaving. There were people stood up at the back, in the corridor and entrance. Walking down behind Mum I could feel the eyes looking. I had never wanted anything to be over so quick in my life. The service was lovely, there was even a laugh in the eulogy which, I think, Mum would have liked. But it couldn’t end quick enough.

Life moves on. Two weeks later, I was back at work. I remember going in before my first day back to get schedules and say hello. I sat in the car for half an hour before I could get the courage to walk in. Work were amazing. Incredibly supportive, from normal colleague to senior management. I will never forget how they were with me, and I’ll forever be grateful.

We started doing the charity events to raise money for Papworth Hospital. My sister and her other half really leading it, and it’s something I’m massively proud of us for.

We had a holiday planned before Mum passed away and decided that we should keep it as she’d have wanted us to. It turned in to a disaster. Emotions were too high still, and it wasn’t really good for us. An argument led to a fall out, a fall out led to a letter, a letter led to another argument, another fall out and, eventually, a wake up call.

Mum’s passing taught me that life is too short and that happiness is something that we need. If you’re not happy with how things are, you need to change it. You don’t know what’s around the corner.

A year and a few months later, I ended my relationship. I moved out, and I stayed with friends before moving in with Lori. My priorities and my life had changed. Since Mum passed, I have ended a relationship, started a new one, seen my best mate arrested for murder, got engaged, had a baby son and had a baby daughter.

It’s taken time, but I finally feel comfortable with the ‘new normal’. I’m happy. Largely, that’s because of my relationship. I have everything I’ve wanted – a happy relationship and two amazing children.

Of course, it hurts to know that the kids won’t ever get to meet their Nan. It made both pregnancies, especially the first, an almost bittersweet time. I can’t escape the feeling of how much my Mum would have loved the kids and it does break my heart knowing she never got to see them. It breaks my heart thinking about how she never met Lori, never got to see me now. She’d have been a great Nan, and her and Lori would have got on so well.

Life Goes On

I loved my Mum. I wasn’t the perfect son, I know I could have done more at times and made more of an effort. I know I shouldn’t have prioritised my relationship then and my job over family. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I can’t beat myself up any more over things that I can’t change.

I learnt to deal with the loss of Mum in my own way. Much of that was learning about myself. I was a grown child aged 28 when Mum passed, and that passing made me reconsider my own choices. Reflection. It’s a shame that it usually takes something so big to happen for people to look at themselves and say “something needs to change”.

When I look back at my childhood, my upbringing, I think I was probably more of a “Daddy’s boy”, but now I actually think I had more in common with Mum than I thought. Her temperament, her understanding, her attitude, how laid back she was. She is, and was (although it was probably unknowingly to me at the time), my inspiration.

Mum never had the easiest upbringing but she made sure that me and Joy got the best she could give. She worked to make sure our lives were better. And, as a parent, that’s always the goal. She was an amazing parent and I hope I’m half as good as she was.

I will always hold regret over the stuff I’ve talked about here but I will always try to imagine Mum sat there encouraging me to just get on, keep on going. Don’t dwell on the past, it’s already happened.

I’ve learnt to deal with my grief by changing, by loving what I have in life and using a lesson I learned from losing Mum. Don’t take anything for granted.

I will always miss my Mum. That pain will never go away. But I can deal with the pain by remembering her, remembering her love and care and by knowing that, at least in my mind, she’ll always be with me.

Brick By Brick

I have a growing addiction. It’s not one likely to kill me, not alcohol or drugs, and not one that is likely to see people avoiding me in public. It’s an addiction that only a few people will have known about, but one that I’ll happily talk about with anybody.

What is it? It’s Lego.

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As a child, I loved Lego. It’s a great method of exerting creativity and just having a bit of fun. In my teenage years I stopped playing with it altogether…and then I turned 30. My (then new) partner, Lori, had always loved building Lego and after a while she decided to buy me a Lego Darth Vader. My first new piece of Lego in probably 16-18 years.

I was a bit dubious to how much I’d actually enjoy building it as a grown man, but one Lego model turned in to two, then three, four, five, and so on. I was hooked. I’d become determined to build as many of the Star Wars characters as I could afford to – only the characters from the Dark Side, mind…they’re just ‘cooler’, I guess – and I loved it.

Lori had gone from being the Lego addict to suddenly being the person looking on at me saying, “Even more Lego?!” How times had changed.

So what is it about Lego that has made me spend a huge amount of money on it? What is it about those small plastic bricks that make me (and Lori) feel the need to travel to Sheffield every few weeks so we can visit the Lego store and, most likely, spend more money?

For myself, it’s a mixture of things. Firstly, I love building it. I love seeing what starts as a small plastic piece turn in to a fully sized model – be it a character, a car, a building or something different altogether. But then there’s a deeper reason.

I’ve discussed in previous blogs that I have a few coping mechanisms that I use to help me through my own issues; be it anxiety or low mood…or anything else, for that matter. I’ll play guitar, I’ll write, I’ll go for a walk. These are things I do, but each one has a blocker associated to it. If it’s late at night, I can’t start playing punk rock on the guitar because I’ll wake the house up. If the weather is bad, it’s not always feasible to go on a long walk. Sometimes, you can sit at a screen all night long with the thought of wanting to write and then nothing comes. Each blocker brings it’s own frustration…if you’re stressed and you can’t do the thing that unwinds you, you won’t calm.

And why do we do these things? Why do we go for a walk when we’re stressed? Why do I play guitar? Simply, it occupies the mind. It fills the mind with something completely different, helping to switch off and unwind and think about something unrelated.

If I can’t write, I can grab one of my Lego sets. If I can’t play guitar, I can get some Lego out. If the weather is bad it doesn’t matter…I can build Lego anywhere I like from the comfort of my own home. And, as with any of those other mechanisms, Lego unwinds me. I find it therapeutic. It switches me off. Any stress I’m feeling, it goes away when I start building. And the more complex the build the better. The sense of accomplishment from finishing an ‘Expert’ set is akin to the sense of accomplishment I get from learning a new song on guitar.

I’m not alone with this feeling, either. If you Google for “Lego Therapy” you’ll find endless links talking about the benefits of using Lego, links for therapy classes for disabled and autistic children, therapy classes for people suffering with anxiety. Yes, Lego is a toy…but it’s a toy that gives back. A toy that helps. A toy that isn’t necessarily just for kids.

When I look through my own collection, I love my Star Wars sets. My BB-8, a gift from Lori, was a build that took over 6 hours and the mechanism with it, the movement of the head and the internal ‘lighter’ is just so incredibly clever and was a joy to put together. My James Bond Aston Martin is wonderful – the detail to it is sensational. The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine looks as good in Lego, if not better, than it did in the film. These are builds that remain stood on display, builds that I look at and feel proud about. Builds that took time but were worth it. Worth every penny, worth every minute.

There will be many people that probably won’t get it; won’t get past the riding impression that Lego is a toy for children…and I get that. Less than three years ago, I was on that boat. But I would encourage people to try it. Buy a mini-kit, give it fifteen minutes, see if it takes your mind off things. You may enjoy it!

I’ve had several friends talk to me about buying Lego for their kids and as the kids get bored building it or following instruction, the adult continues and they get wrapped up in it. They have to finish it. Nobody likes leaving things half done, do they? And it’s in these moments I’ve had a fair few come to me and say, “I get it now.”

Finally, Lego gives me something to look forward to with my own children. My little boy is already playing around with Duplo. As he grows and maybe starts playing with Lego, it gives us something we can do together as father and son. Something that isn’t just football or music or, even further on, drinking…something that can be ours. Projects we can start and finish together. Our own little accomplishments.

But if not, and my boy or daughter don’t get in to Lego, that’s still okay. It’ll still be there for both Lori and myself. We can still keep having our frequent trips to the Lego store in Sheffield. We’ll still keep building. Piece by piece. Brick by brick.

Birth, Anxieties and Facing In To Mental Health

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There was a moment in the aftermath of my son being born whereby all the midwives and nurses had left the room allowing my fiancee to have a shower and for us to have the first time alone as a family. At this time, I’d never really held a baby for that long. I certainly hadn’t felt comfortable holding a baby in the past and I was extremely nervous about holding my boy for the first time. Basically, I didn’t want to drop him.

I imagine it’s a fear that many new Dads have. The thoughts of “will I balls this up?” are always there, ever present, planting seeds of doubt. I had a moment of guilt. I’d watched a baby be born (a baby weighing over 10lbs at that), I’d seen the enormity of what the female body goes through during delivery and here I was, thinking, “Adam, don’t drop the baby.”

Fortunately, I didn’t. For the first time in my life I felt genuinely comfortable holding a baby, my baby, and immediately I was besotted. Here in my arms was a purple (he was a big lad and he came out quick), perfect little boy. My fiancee, once everybody had left the room and we’d had a few minutes with our son, got up and went to have a well deserved shower. I had my first bit of alone time and faced, for the first time alone, tears.

On birth, he didn’t cry. The only cry we had was a solitary cry as he was passed in to his Mother’s arms. Nothing else, really, until this moment. I’d gone from hoping I wouldn’t drop the baby to suddenly thinking “What do I do now?” I kept thinking of the few antenatal classes we’d been to and it popped in to my head that the nurse doing the classes said, “You have to think, these babies have never seen a face, never been outside, not seen anything…it’s initially probably very scary for them being away from the womb.”

I held him close, gently rocked and instinctively started going “sshhh” and whispering a made up song (tired, jumbled words about the world being scary but it’s okay and we love you…or something) before just repeating “It’s okay…it’s okay…” as he fell to sleep in my arms for the first time.

This would turn in to what I’d do (minus the made up song…although they’d still sometimes creep out) every time our boy was crying and I was on duty to comfort him. “It’s okay…it’s okay.” Sometimes it worked, other times it wouldn’t but that’s babies. We’ve been lucky because our little boy is, for the most part, seemingly very happy and that’s absolutely brilliant.

As a new Dad, I’ve started to look at things in life a little differently. My priorities have changed completely. Life has changed completely. It alters your perception on some things, too. You start to look to the future, thinking about what it will be like, not so much for yourself, but for the child. Some of my biggest anxiousness now hangs around the world my little boy (and soon little girl) will grow up in to. Things are so different to when I was younger, and because of that ‘unknown’ factor it sometimes terrifies me. These are parents’ anxieties, I have learned. I have no doubt that when I am 62, and our little boy is 32, I’ll still have similar anxieties.

One thing that has arrived since I left school is social media. We live in an age where people do their best to present an almost false life on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. It can be dangerous, it can lead to bullying, narcissistic personalities…but, it can also be good. Fewer days highlight that more than World Suicide Prevention Day, that we had on the 10th September.

Twitter was awash of people sharing their stories and their experiences. Words to help people, let others know that they are not alone and there are other options. Several of my Facebook friends shared posts. The main statement always being “It’s okay, not to be okay.”

It made me think back to my son’s first day when I sat gently rocking him whispering, “it’s okay”, over and over. It made me think of the amount of times I’ve comforted anybody and said either, “it’s okay” or “it’ll be okay, things will be okay.” It’s the ‘go to’ comfort comment, but, I wonder, how many people saying those things actually believe things will be okay? And, more importantly, how many of those people we comfort by saying “it’s okay” actually think it is okay and things will get better? I fear sometimes that we dismiss mental health too quickly by saying “It’s okay not to be okay” when really we should say “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.” There is a worrying lack of real support for those that suffer with mental health, waiting lists can be huge – by constantly telling people it’s okay to not be okay are we potentially risking people ignoring their mental health and shrugging it off as “one of those things”?

I’m as guilty as anybody for shrugging off my own mental health. I can think of times when I have seriously struggled, but not done anything because I’ve taken the stance of either “I’ll be okay” or “this is just normal”. The worst time for me was, without doubt, the passing of my Mum. I remember being sat with my Dad in a hotel when she was in hospital and feeling my chest getting tighter and tighter. It carried on for some time and when we got home I went to the doctors and ended up being given an ECG. It came back normal and it was explained to me that I was probably having anxiety attacks. Nothing more was done because at this moment in time it was okay not to be okay. Of course it was. But the months after that? In the August of that year, 8 months later, I went to the doctor regarding my stomach and got diagnosed with stress related IBS – we talked about my Mum, briefly, before the doctor talked to me about other doctors suffering the same condition. I remember him saying “It’s one of those things, unfortunately, it affects the best of us.” It’s okay not to be okay.

I’m not meaning this as an attack on the people that say “It’s okay not to be okay”. For what it’s worth, I completely agree. I do, however, think it’s fair to worry that we normalise it as being something it is not. I think about friends I’ve had, some I’ve lost, and I wonder if they hadn’t faced in to their own mental health issues because they also dismissed it as a bad day. We need to do more to make people aware of what is out there to help. Yes, we do need to let people know that it’s normal to not feel well, it’s normal to have moments where you struggle and that it can be brought on by almost anything or nothing at all.

But we also need to know when saying “It’s okay”, as I did with my young lad on his first day, isn’t enough.

Putting The Pieces Back Together

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For as long as I can remember music has been a major part of my life. It has been there through the highs and the lows; helped me celebrate, helped me through sorrow. Ultimately, music has been a lifeline and one of the only real constants in my life. For every occasion, a song. For every moment, a tune. For every emotion, a lyric.

When I think back through the years I can remember several moments in my life purely by the music. I used to listen to Jamiroquai in 1999 because I believed every time I listened to Jamiroquai my football team would win. I remember going to see West Brom and listening to Madness’ ‘Baggy Trousers’ with my Dad because of West Brom’s nickname, The Baggies. I remember hearing Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now…’ at the age of 16 and at the most unfortunate, yet in hindsight funniest of times, as my first ‘relationship’ ended. Simply, music has always been there.

As I grew up, my music tastes broadened. I grew up in Birmingham, around a mixed race society, and although my Dad had got me in to the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zep and Manic Street Preachers, my favoured taste was more towards Eminem, Craig David and Darude. We moved to Lowestoft just days before my 15th birthday and, through boredom more than anything, I picked up the guitar. I started listening to Nirvana (fell in love with Nirvana…especially In Utero), The Smiths and The Libertines. It took over a month to get in to school after we moved. I didn’t fit in as quick as I’d have liked, and for some time school was difficult. The music I listened to spoke to me. Cobain’s screams were my hidden anger. Even Fred Durst seemed like a voice for me to believe in.

As I made the transition in to sixth form, my tastes continued to widen. I started listening to quirkier music, started exploring weirder sounds on guitar. I would watch 120 Minutes on MTV2 religiously and Gonzo, hosted by Zane Lowe, became my gospel. It was through watching Gonzo one day in 2003 that I was introduced to a band that, unbeknownst to me, would become my favourite band, and the band that would provide me with the greatest comfort I could have in years to come. That band? Biffy Clyro.

My first sight of Biffy was the video for Questions and Answers. A ‘garage rock’ band sound to it, I initially thought it was a band in the likes of the Strokes, but I loved the song so I always kept an eye out for them. Then Gonzo On Tour, ‘Eradicate The Doubt’, Simon Neil vs a glittery jacket…I was hooked. I saw them live for the first time on their ‘Infinity Land’ tour at the UEA in Norwich. My love for Nirvana started to drown a little as I became a fan of what was at that time regarded a ‘cult band’. I soaked them in, started to learn songs on guitar, got every album, downloaded b-sides…it was, and still is, an addiction.

By the time Biffy had released ‘Puzzle’, I was at Uni. I remember forcing two of my flatmates to listen to ‘Semi-Mental’ on Zane Lowe’s Radio One Show (it was Hottest Record In The World that day), and I have been the same for every album and song since. With every album, with every success, I feel proud of this band. For several people I know who supported Biffy during the first three albums, the mainstream success disconnected them. For me, I just saw that the world had finally woken up.

‘Puzzle’ would soon become a massive support for me. Largely focussing on the passing of Simon Neil’s mother and his emotions after, I always felt it was the most personal record but I never truly understood it until after January 2015, when my Mum also sadly passed away unexpectedly aged only 55.

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I can’t begin to explain the emotions I felt at that time. I remember when I was at Papworth Hospital when we were told there was nothing more that could be done and we all left to walk around he gardens and collect our thoughts before the life support machines were turned off. I remember walking away from my family, not knowing really where to turn. I was lost. It literally felt like a piece of me had been torn out and was suddenly missing.

It took me some time to pluck the courage to listen to ‘Puzzle’. In the meantime, I’d taken to listening to Biffy b-sides. ‘Time Jazz’ became a comfort song, “Time Jazz confronts us all…It’s fine, there’s a throbbing in my shoulder, it’s fine, don’t think it’s getting bigger, it’s fine, I’ll dig it out to ease the pain, I can’t face final fortunes ever again”. I heard those lyrics and hid behind them. I took it as focussing on other feelings and hiding the pain of ‘final fortunes’, death, and found solace.

I remember the first time I listened to Machines after Mum passed. I cried. Hearing “I whisper empty sounds in your ear and hope that you won’t let go” took me back to being sat at the side of Mum’s hospital bed, telling her I loved her, even joking with her, hoping she could hear me, hoping she’d return a word but ultimately feeling like she couldn’t hear me. “Folding Stars” tore me to shreds. Even now, when I saw Biffy on their Ellipsis tour and they played ‘Folding Stars’ (first time in 7 shows I’d seen them play it live), I welled up. The lyrics mean so much to me, and suddenly every word in ‘Puzzle’ resonates with me.

The build to ‘9/15ths’ represents perfectly my slip in to anxiety and depression at that time. “How do you become one again?” was a lyric that, again, hit me. It was a question I frequently asked. I knew I was missing this piece of me, and I didn’t know how to recover. How do you recover? Do you EVER recover? I don’t think so.

For some time I worried that I’d never be able to listen to Puzzle again. ‘The Conversation Is…’, ‘Love Has A Diameter’, even ‘Saturday Superhouse’ (the lyric, “Then I see a darkness, you see a blinding light”, just made me think of the funeral) became too much for me. But ‘Time Jazz’ kept me going.

One day, when I was in the shower, I listened to ‘Machines’ again. It was at this point that I finally started to feel comfortable listening to it again. “Take the pieces and build them skywards” became a lyric of constant solace. Whereas beforehand the song filled me with sadness, suddenly I felt hope. I listened to ‘Folding Stars’ and the lyric “I hope that you’re folding stars” made me think of my Mum again, filling me with this idea of beauty. Ultimately, the songs made me feel closer to Mum. They all gave me comfort.

‘Puzzle’ became my comfort in sound. It made me feel, as a 28 year old man, that I was okay to feel down. It was okay to have the emotions I felt. The Smiths and Nirvana had helped me as a teenager during times of loneliness, but neither gave me the comfort that Biffy Clyro did in grief. They are more than a band to me. They helped save me.

There are really very few ways to say to a band how grateful you are to them for anything and I can only hope that one day, somehow, they see this and they know how grateful I am to them for unknowingly helping a young man deal with bereavement.

Over the past two years since, I have dedicated a lot of time in to raising money for Papworth Hospital in memory of my Mum. I’m extremely proud to say I’ve helped raise over £4,500 for the hospital’s charity and I will continue to raise money for them for as long as I possibly can. This year, I’ll be doing the Three Peaks Challenge, starting in the homeland of Biffy Clyro, Scotland, as we climb Ben Nevis, Sca Fell Pike and end on Snowdon. I will be listening to Puzzle, as well as the other hundreds of Biffy songs I have, on my way up and down each mountain. Biffy have been part of my journey, and they will always remain so.

If anybody reading this is interested in donating to the charity and sponsoring me, please visit my Just Giving page HERE and donate. I cannot tell you how much it means to me.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

And, finally, ‘Mon The Biff.
x

Thinking Of Nan

When I was at school and I used to label so many things as ‘lucky’ or ‘my favourite…’, I used to regard the number 28 as my ‘lucky number’. Unlike other ‘lucky’ or ‘favourites’, I had reasons for labelling 28 this way. My birthday falls on the 28th, the house number for where I lived in Birmingham was 28, my Nan was born in 1928.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, my Nan passed away. After years of waiting for a phone call to tell me it’s happened, when I finally got that call it still hit me as a total shock. No amount of preparation, or even expectation, could prepare me for it. The night before we’d been advised it wouldn’t be long, so I was expecting the call the next day. When it came, on that morning, I remember my emotion didn’t change. Looking back I probably seemed a bit emotionless when on the phone.

I was home alone that morning, not at work until 2pm. I text a few people in the family, text the other half…had a brief conversation with the other half…but at no point did I feel it had hit me. With hindsight, I took the wrong decision and I went to work. I went to tell my line manager that I would need time for a funeral. I broke down. All the emotion that had refused to show itself all burst out at once. It was the first time I’d talked about it in detail on that day and it was too much for me.

My Nan’s death wasn’t a surprise. It felt like a prolonged wait for that day, if truth be told, but it still hurt. My Nan suffered with dementia, and, years ago, she had clearly forgotten who I was and I took the decision to never go and see her again.

I will never forget the last time I saw Nan. She was in the Lickey Hills Nursing Home. I’d moved to Lowestoft with my Mum, Dad and Sister a couple of years before, and it had been a while since I’d last seen Nan, so when we visited Birmingham for a weekend I said to my Mum and Dad that I wanted to go with them to see Nan. Both of them advised me against it, but, being stubborn, I was insistent that I go. I walked in to the social room, which was effectively a large lounge/dining area, but couldn’t find Nan. The TV was in the far corner of the room surrounded by arm chairs with big backs on them. We stood by there for a few seconds to see if she was in the room. And then I remember looking towards the entrance door to the room, where we had just come from, and Nan was there.

I remember Nan was stood there, looking towards us, but not looking at us. There was nothing there. She had lost so much weight, she looked like a skeleton with skin. This old, frail, woman that I loved, and pretty much lived with during my childhood, was stood in front of me looking like a shadow of the person she was, looking straight through me. I was so scared. Without even knowing what was going on, I started crying. I ran past Nan, she didn’t even take notice of me, and I tried to get out of there. I remember getting to the main door to get out and there was a security code you had to put in to open the door. I couldn’t even collect myself to get the code in correctly. An old man that resided at the home put his hand on my shoulder…I’d guess he was trying to comfort me somehow, but it did the complete opposite and I was in an even bigger state. My head was gone. My Dad came round the corner and took me outside. We walked around Lickey Hills and I calmed down.

That was the last time I saw my Nan. I didn’t speak to her, she didn’t speak to me. That was 11 years ago. I’m full of guilt for the way I reacted that day. I constantly argue with myself about it. Should I have gone? Should I have “manned up” and stayed? Should I have gone again after? They’re questions that no matter what I answer with, or whatever anybody else answers with, I will always have. They are questions I will always throw at myself. It is a guilt, rightly or wrongly, that I will always feel. That last sight of Nan haunts me, even to this day, and it saddens me more than I can say that that is my last image of her. She didn’t deserve it.

I struggle to think of many memories of Nan before the onset of the dementia. Dementia is a truly horrific illness, and one that I was not prepared to see. I can tell so many stories about my Nan just before she went in to the home. Everyone always talks about the forgetfulness…yes, she did leave the gas on sometimes, for example…but there were other things that, actually, were sad but funny, for example, one Christmas sat watching Star Wars Empire Strikes Back, and as my Dad is about to go out my Nan is pleading with him to stay in because of all the fighting outside, pointing at the TV as if to say that battle on the sand was happening outside our front door in Birmingham. You don’t get told about things like that…you don’t get prepared…they just happen, and you never know how to handle it. As a 10/11 year old boy I remember laughing about it. What else could I do?

The last I remember of my Nan at home was when I think it really hit home with me that she was going. I was in bed and I got woke up by my Dad. I was no more than 11 years old, this is 16 years ago, and I still remember it like it only happened the other day. My Dad woke me up, he stood by the door, my Nan was stood to the left of him. He asked me, “Adam, am I your Dad?” To get woken up late at night to get asked that question by your Dad was a bit odd, and I remember asking “What?” to which my Dad said, “Your Nan is saying I’m not your Dad, and Mum isn’t your Mum. Can you tell her that we are your Mum and Dad?” I said yes, that they were Mum and Dad, their names were Mary and Roy…but my Nan argued with me to not believe them. She said, and I remember this so accurately, “They are Mary and Roy, I know, but they’re not my Mary and Roy, they’re not your Mum and Dad, they’re a different Mary and Roy.” She wanted to take me away to her house with my Sister and wait for my Mum and Dad, who were stood next to her, to come back for us. It was totally surreal, absolutely confusing and, looking back, completely heart breaking. My Nan had, on this night, gone over the line and I knew then more than ever that she was unwell. But Nan had no idea.

When she was in hospital, before going to the nursing home on Lickey Hills, we went to see her and I remember talking to a woman that looked fairly young, around 50ish maybe. She had got to know my Nan, and I remember her saying that she felt quite lucky because she knew she was being affected by Alzheimers, whereas she could tell that my Nan had no idea what was going on. I’m not particularly sure what is better…it still takes people away regardless of whether they know or not.

Looking back, perhaps the most striking thing is the appearance of my Nan from then to when I last saw her. She still looked healthy at that point, she didn’t look a shadow. She was, in fairness, still as stubborn in her attitude and personality as she had been before the illness took hold. My Nan was a strong character, a stubborn character. Five years after that hospital trip she was none of that. The degeneration, because that’s what it is, was truly terrifying. That’s the most upsetting thing about dementia. It takes a person you know and love and breaks them down in to a person you no longer recognise, and they no longer recognise you.

Eleven years on from that last visit to Nan, she has now passed on. I’m not a religious person, but I hope she has gone to a better place, a heaven if there is one. I continue to try to remember Nan for who she was. A woman that looked after me for so much of my childhood. A woman that cared for me so much. I try to block out that last image and think back to happier days with Nan. I also try to use my experiences to try to share feelings with others, and, hopefully, one day, be able to help those that feel the same way and are going through similar experiences. Knowing you’re not alone is a big thing, and it pleases me to no end that charities like Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia UK and Dementia Friends are doing so well now, and getting the publicity they deserve.

And, 16 years on from when she first went in to the home, I still say 28 is my ‘lucky’ number, and the main reason for that is, and always will be…my Nan was born in 1928.