The Sky is Falling: On Mental Health and Care Work

10 October 2019 The

I thought it was a dodgy tale when I first encountered it in my reading book in infant school. For those who are not familiar, Chicken-Licken thought the sky was falling on his head, but it was nothing more than an acorn. He was obviously in distress and in need of support and advice, so he went, if my memory serves me correctly, to Turkey-Lurkey. Turkey-Lurkey was sympathetic but felt the incident was outside of his professional competence so he referred Chicken-Licken to Foxy-Loxy, and as we know, Foxy-Loxy listened then delivered his verdict.

As I grew older I forgot about Chicken-Licken until the sky fell on my and my wife’s heads. There had been the occasional acorn in our lives, of course, as is the case with everyone, but this was no acorn, this was the sky. Our eldest son, Dominic, aged 24, and his climbing partner Arne, were killed in a mountaineering accident on Mont Blanc. It was then I learned that circumstances can crush you and it is an almost impossible task to cope – but you have to cope, what else is there? 

People were kind but the support and advice we needed didn’t really exist. I could understand, what do you say to a couple who have suffered such a tragedy? People avoided us, we seemed to be, for them, an occasion of embarrassment. As I said, what could they do or say? We understood so we decided to flee. It’s not an option open to everyone but it was for us, so we left our home of 18 years and fled as far as we could whilst still remaining in the country and fetched up at Berwick on Tweed in north Northumberland about a mile and a half from the Scottish border. 


"Fleeing created a new phase in our life, a chance, if not to begin again, at least to feel we had taken back some sense of control." 

Starting again

However beautiful it is, Berwick is a long way from anywhere, an hour south to Newcastle upon Tyne and an hour north to Edinburgh on a fast train. So, after six years we undertook another move, The Great Trek South, and finished up in the East Midlands in a nice little house in a charming market town where I became a modestly successful writer of crime and historical fiction while we settled down to yet another phase in our lives. Then the sky fell on our heads again!

Pat missed her footing and had a fall putting out the washing. I was at the kitchen sink doing the washing up, saw her, brought her into the house and called an ambulance. She had broken her ankle. No big deal, broken bones mend. But something else not so obvious had also broken: her mental health. The fall had triggered early onset dementia and suddenly I became a 24/7 Carer – and nothing else. The only vaguely literary thing I did was to found the Writers as Carers Group within the Society of Authors, to support me and other members in a similar caring role. Sadly the group has flourished. 

Once the diagnosis was confirmed Turkey-Lurkey was there in a flash offering to pass me on to all sorts of support groups and I soon had a folder bulging with pamphlets, contacts, agency information, none of which I had time to read never mind act on. But they were there, and no-one pretended that becoming a dementia carer was nothing more than an acorn on the head. Pat deteriorated in the way dementia sufferers do and I deteriorated in the way that Carers do until the Social Services took Pat away into residential care. 

They were right to do so, I was killing myself looking after her and my ability to care was no longer up to her needs. Overnight, literally, I stopped being a 24/7 Carer and became a Visitor – “Thank you Mr. Green. Leave Pat to settle in now and visit whenever you like.” Once the care home doors closed behind me it was back to an empty house to begin yet another phase in my life, being a single, elderly gent learning to live on his own after 40+ years of marriage.

I write all this not to solicit sympathy but to give a context to a condition that I have suffered from for many years now – mental ill-health, managing my own Foxy-Loxy.

"I have learned that mental illness comes in two forms, that induced by events and that induced by illness." 

And again…

Events were the cause of my mental troubles but Pat’s mental state was an illness, she had become sick and her treatment was something outside her control. My attempts at coping were a partnership with medical professionals, friends, neighbours, family – in fact with anyone and everyone with whom I had to interact. I have no idea whether I made a good fist of managing my mental problems, I think I must have done moderately well but it was, still is, and for the foreseeable future, will be, something of a battle. 

I found them all perfectly normal responses when something really bad happens out of the blue. Once I accepted that, I found I could manage them, not always successfully, but well enough so they didn’t add to the burden.

These days, especially after visiting Pat, I remind myself that feeling anxious and depressed is not an illness, it’s entirely appropriate, my wife is dying of dementia and I miss her every day. But anxiety and depression need to be managed so I take every other day off and use it for myself and my life goes on. 

Now, after 3+ years on my own I’m writing again, not novels – that was something Pat and I did – now it's play scripts. Does it help? Yes. Is it a cure? No. I keep taking my medication, visit the GP if I think I detect any early symptoms of depression settling in and becoming a problem. 

I take comfort from making Pat laugh with silly things – “ooh look, you’ve eaten your football boots again”, and, if the weather permits take her out in a wheelchair (she no longer has the use of her legs). I cook, wash, and try to maintain a routine. I don’t push myself but I try not to let things slide.

My cabaret show, All The World’s a Pub!, has gone into rehearsal and will be part of Nottingham Comedy Festival next month. I’m pleased and hope it does well but even if it’s a smash hit it will not mean much without Pat to share in it. Sad? Yes, of course, but how else should I feel? 

Writing this article has made me wonder how things might have worked out differently for Chicken-Licken if he'd received early support and assistance. You know, I might even write a short story about what he did after coming to terms with (what he felt was) the sky falling on his head and he can wreak his revenge on Foxy-Loxy. I’ll call it, Chicken-Licken is back…

...and this time he means business.

Photo © Jim Green

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About Jim Green

Jim Green is the author of the Jimmy Costello series, Bad Catholics, which in 2009 was shortlisted for a CWA Dagger. Over the years Jim has been the author of academic texts and reference works but now concentrates on adult novels and is currently writing the Freedom to Espionage series which chronicles through fiction, but based on actual historical events and characters, the rise of the American Intelligence Service culminating in the establishment in 1947 of the CIA. The first in the five-book series, Another Small Kingdom, was published by Accent Press in August 2012 and the second, A Union Not Blessed, will be published in April 2013. Jim is the founder of SoA's Writers as Carers Group.