“Being a carer can sometimes mean that you end up being an emotional punchbag. You have to remind yourself that it’s often your loved one’s illness speaking, not them.”
In the summer of 2010, Sam Mills’ mother, Glesney, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Sam’s father, Edward, had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a young child and Glesney had dedicated her married life to caring for him. Now she would need help. Their daughter agreed to move back to the family home in London, from a village outside Manchester where she had felt happily settled, to become her parents’ carer. Her two brothers had full time jobs whereas Sam’s work was mostly freelance. Nevertheless, she was unaware at the time the toll this role would take on her life and health.
The Fragments of my Father is a memoir chronicling the costs of caring for loved ones. Alongside her own experiences, Sam writes of other authors who were carers for many years – Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald. The former she regards in a positive light, unlike the latter. Although shocking at times, the details of these men’s treatment of their wives are explored with the caveat that carers are human whose own desires risk being subsumed by the needs of their mentally ill relative.
Edward suffers episodes of catatonia that result in him being sectioned and placed in care homes for the mentally unstable. His anti-psychotic medication is designed to prevent this – to provide scaffolding – but leaves him a shadow of the man he could otherwise have been.
“It seemed such a waste, his life. If only he had been born in a different era, when his voice might have been accepted rather than labelled a sickness he had to fight. The medications he’d taken were not cures, just compromises, putting him in purgatory, half-awake, half-alive.”
Of course, this is not the whole story. When his drugs didn’t work Edward would become agitated and upset by the voices in his head. Unable to repress his emotions, he would express them in ways deemed unacceptable. Society couldn’t cope with his erratic behaviour – such as his choice to wander naked. Medication made him acceptable.
“his symptoms subdued into a sad, quiet existence”
Sam writes of her childhood – of her father’s absences and the impact his inability to hold down a job had on his family. She was a teenager before she understood his behaviour was a named illness – it took years to reach acceptance and look into what schizophrenia meant. When caring for him, she tried to work out what could have caused his mental breakdown. She muses on the balance between madness and the inspiration of artistic creatives.
Glesney married Edward with expectations of a fulfilling life that were repeatedly stymied. Sam reflects on what her mother lost, and on how she herself will cope with the ongoing situation and the pressures it brings. Caring demands more than action. It brings with it an emotional burden. Difficult decisions must be made for patient and carer.
I read this book as someone who chose the more selfish route. When my increasingly frail parents required hands-on support in their old age, I refused to leave my husband and children to move country – as requested by my sister – and share with her the burden of caring for them. As a result, she shouldered this alone for close to a decade until their deaths last year. The fraught and at times angry updates she would give me came to mind as I followed the experiences the author reflects on – her mental and physical exhaustion and need for breaks she couldn’t take.
Sam was unsure about writing this memoir but was encouraged by a friend to do so.
“I was worried being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject. He replied that this was exactly why I ought to write it, because there are numerous books out there about doctors and high-flying surgeons and so few about those for whom caring is an unpaid, everyday duty. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK, which means that 1 in 8 of us are carers; the number is set to rise”
What comes to the fore in these reflections is the difficulty of providing for those in need when society has little interest in illness – regarding it as something to be managed stoically, or institutionalised. Family carers find their lives and choices revolving around the needs of their loved ones, their own requirements and ambitions slotted into whatever crevices they can carve out in terms of time and energy. There is love but also a strong sense of duty – ties that bind.
The book is structured in a fragmented timeline, jumping between: Sam’s life, the years spent caring for her mother, the effects of her father’s illness, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The language employed is direct, with just the occasional use of words I had to look up: inanition, quiddity. These help emphasise the author’s obvious intelligence, something carers must worry they lose recognition for when they take on a role that is largely undervalued.
This is a story that packs a punch and will resonate with all who have loved ones in need of care, or who face the prospect of need themselves. Sam does not hold herself up for admiration but rather presents this memoir as a cry for better support for all those who, like her, suffer emotionally and financially in order to keep loved ones well. It is also a reminder that mental health issues deserve more empathy and attention.
“psychiatry should not ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’
A poignant and timely read from a skilled writer. Recommended.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.