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My son was depressed and suicidal. Did my attempts to fix him make it worse?


Months later, Josh announced he wanted to return to university, but this time in Bristol where we lived. We were out of ideas so we agreed, and in October 2017 he moved into halls of residence. In hindsight, this was a terrible idea. He had taken himself off medication, refused to speak to a medical professional and drank heavily.

One night, in February 2018, his friend found him lying on the floor, blackout drunk, after putting his wrist through a pane of glass – another semi-attempt on his life. After collecting him from A&E, Simeon collapsed on the living-room floor, sobbing. Now my brave husband, who had supported me and Josh, was in pieces too. I dropped to my knees and sobbed with him.

That night was a crossroads. Our profound distress woke Josh up to realise he needed to find an answer, and he left university for good, which was like seeing a weight lifted from his shoulders.

Looking back, our marriage is lucky to have survived Josh’s depression – it almost didn’t. Simeon and I argued over how to handle it and were on different pages, with Simeon fearing for Josh, and me trying to concentrate on the positives. I worried that Simeon hadn’t bargained on this when he married me. Did he now regret it? I had relied on him for support, not realising the toll it had taken.

Three years on, Josh’s recovery has been slow, but he now talks more and is engaged with life, thanks to changes in his routine: he eats well, exercises, barely drinks alcohol, and when he is having a bad day he knows to take himself off to be alone. Making him happy used to be my goal, but these days I care about nothing except having him alive.

The absence of pressure – both to achieve academically and to recover quickly – has really helped him. In hindsight, I can see that my coaxing (‘You can do this Josh!’), which was my way of trying to help him, had maybe been clouding his thoughts on being able to walk away from university. I feel the same way about all the micro-pressures I have thrown at him: questions like, ‘Are you feeling better?’ ‘When do you think you might be up to it?’ I can see now they are the exact kind of question that add to the terrible burden of depression.

The silver lining in this whole awful journey is that I feel very close to Josh. I now know him inside out, and I treasure him. We have seen him at his worst – and he us – and that deepens our bond. Today, Simeon and I are solid as a couple; they say, ‘What doesn’t break you makes you stronger,’ and that’s true of us.

Some days I have wished to turn back the clock and do things differently, but then I think, what would I change? As the fog of Josh’s depression clears, we are so very proud of him. And every day with him on the planet is one where we are winning. 

Josh’s story

Before I got ill, I thought depression was the same as feeling fed up. But everything changed in the run up to my A levels. That period was scary, as though my brain was switching off. Things that I’d found easy, like remembering information, became almost impossible. The internal battle going on inside me wasn’t, ‘What if I fail my A levels?’, but ‘What’s the point of anything? Nothing matters.’

Mum and Simeon would bring me up cups of tea or sandwiches, and I’d hate the sound of their feet on the stairs. I’d pretend everything was normal, running my finger down the textbook, but when they left I’d crumble, too tired to sit up straight. For years, in the absence of being good at sport and being shy, my brain had been all I had. Clever Josh, smart Josh, Dr Josh… But now it was failing me.

When I didn’t get the grades I needed for St Andrews, there was a deep sense of shame, like I’d failed. And this disappointment outweighed the relief when I was offered a place at Southampton. I remember standing in the car park on that first day, seeing strangers pairing up and arranging to go for drinks, all the while feeling unable to join in.

Mum has always had a fix-it tendency, which comes from a good place, but that day it felt like she was trying to put a plaster on a gunshot wound. As she faffed around my room, organising the books and pens, laying a bright rug on the floor to make it ‘nice’, with a constant stream of reassuring chatter, it bothered me that she didn’t get it and couldn’t see what I was feeling. I lost my temper and asked her to stop fussing and go home, and she started crying. After they left, I remember sinking on to the mattress and closing my eyes.

In those days, I found it easier to hunker down alone than socialise with other freshers. I started missing lectures and soon felt that nobody cared. At school, if you miss class the teacher phones your parents, but at university it switches overnight.

Though it was a terrible time, I did my best to hide it, fielding calls from Mum and sending reassuring texts saying that everything was peachy. I became a good liar, putting on an act. The shame I felt at my mental illness was greater than my ability to ask for help. And though I hated my university room and exams, what I dreaded even more was going home and having to pretend that everything was OK.


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