A Chip Of The Old Block

Shane McKay

© Copyright 2002 by Shane McKay

I have a very unusual relationship with my father. How many sons have booked their father into a psychiatric hospital? Not too many. Then again, how many fathers have had to come to terms with one terminally ill son and another who has tried to commit suicide? Yet despite all of this, our relationship, which has always been close, is stronger now than ever before.

My older brother has a severe form of Huntingdon’s Disease. He is thirty-one. Huntingdons is a degenerative, hereditary, genetic illness similar to Parkinson's Disease. It is a hateful illness because it destroys not only the person – mind and body - but it destroys families as well.

My brother left school a perfectly normal sixteen-year-old. A few years later he was taken into hospital for tests after developing a slight shake in his hands and an occasional jerk in his legs. He was diagnosed with Huntingdons.

Now he needs twenty-four-hour care. The part of the brain that controls movement has been destroyed leaving him with little control over his body or muscles. As he lies on his bed, his body writhes around of its own accord. He cannot wash, dress, feed himself or use the lavatory without assistance.

When he eats he often vomits the food back up. Choking is a massive danger. When he goes out with a member of our family or his brilliant carer, he always needs his wheelchair.

As his body has degenerated so too has his mind. His short-term memory has been destroyed, although his long-term memory is still intact. He can remember winning his school’s 100 metres title twenty years ago, but he forgets what he said twenty seconds ago. It is desperate to see him repeat himself again and again and again….

My father was - and still is - a great father to me. We did all those ordinary father/son things as I grew up: walks in the park; soccer in our back garden; making my friends tea when they visited.  The bond between us, though, runs much deeper than a simple father/son relationship. Both of us have a milder form of Huntingdons. My father is twice as old as I am so he has the symptoms twice as bad.

His mind and body are riddled with it. He hasn’t worked in over a decade. He was made redundant from his last job when the company he worked for folded. He was a builder's labourer. He was devastated and gave up searching for new jobs for years. Now his illness is so far advanced that he will never work again. He is on disability benefit. His body and mind are riddled with it. Some days he has trouble walking. Other days he just sits and stares into space with a look of severe pain on his face. Not physical pain but mental torment.

I’ll never know exactly what is going through his mind but I could make a pretty good guess. It is a combination of so many things built up over so many years: guilt over his oldest son's terminal illness; guilt at the fact that the illness has come from his side of the family; coping with his own illness and mine; not being able to provide financially for his family.

I can understand why this once loving, supportive, caring, funny father has turned into a frail old man who never leaves the house and who stares into space for hours.

One weekend, he saw a group of tiny tots running outside our house and tried to get at them through one of our bedroom windows. We called a doctor out and he referred him into hospital.

I checked him into a general admissions ward late that night, but he was to be moved to a psychiatric ward once a bed became available for full assessment.

The day after he was taken into hospital I took an overdose. I took about ninety tablets. I was found by an uncle and taken to hospital unconscious in an ambulance. I was in for three days and started on a course of anti-depressants.

Like my father, there were many reasons, built up over many years, that led me to try to kill myself. I tested positive for Huntingdons when I was twenty-three and just out of university. I had just started a journalism course when I took the test. My brother had been diagnosed the year previous so there was a 50/50 chance that I could have it as well. I just wanted to clear my mind.

When my results came back positive it didn't seem to register with me. I washed it under the carpet and went on with my life. I kept it secret from my family. Only my wife-to-be knew.

I moved away from my family home and had five incredibly happy years: engaged for four years; married for two; two beautiful stepdaughters; a lovely wife; a lovely house; just out of university with a decent journalism career on the cards.

I graduated from my journalism course but journalism jobs are hard to come by here. That didn't get to me at first as I took temporary clerical jobs to support us financially as my fiancée went through university.

However, when she graduated four years later and went straight into a well paid radiography job, I found that devastating. It destroyed my confidence and self-esteem. I became hypersensitive to my illness and, just like my father, gradually pulled myself away from my friends.

The last year marriage was torture for both myself and my wife. I would hide up stairs if somebody came to the door and I pretended to be ill to get out of going to parties or socialising.

I would visit daily my family home and would often find my mother in floods of tears after either my brother or my father had played up.

I packed my bags and came home and told my family about my illness. I didn't leave the house for a year. I was devastated about my marriage breaking down and devastated to see just how ill my brother and father were. My father sat in one chair and I sat in the other and we both stared into our own little space together.

The day after my father went into hospital, I called round to let my wife know how he was. She told me that she had a new boyfriend and he was moving in. I couldn't handle it. That was the spark.

I can’t remember much about being in hospital for those three days. All I can remember is a nurse trying to see if I could walk. She supported me under one arm and walked me up and down the ward. My body was all over the place.

Later on that week my father checked himself out of hospital and came home without seeing a psychiatrist. My mother warned him that she would get him permanently sectioned if he played up again.

When I came out of hospital I was still very unstable. I drove around several shops and bought over a hundred tablets to try again. After picking my mummy up I showed her the tablets and she called an ambulance.

I ended up in a psychiatric ward in a hospital for eight days. It was the best days of my life. Some of the people I met there were some of the most courageous on the planet. One woman had had her throat slashed and had been beaten up by her husband.

My mother visited me every day. She is the rock of our family. Without her our house would disintegrate. She drags our family along. She should have walked away from the lot of us years ago but she didn't.

I was discharged after eight days. The anti-depressants had started to kick in and I was feeling a lot more stable. The day I was released, I checked my father into the exact same psychiatric ward I had been in. My father promised that he would stay until a full assessment was carried out and he did.

He is definitely getting mentally stronger now. He is starting to socialise again. He goes out with my mother at weekends and he has started to go away on respite breaks with her. He never did before. They go down to the coast for a few days.

He now goes to a day centre twice a week and we now have a community nurse who comes out twice a week and gives the whole family a bit of professional support.

He is more like the father who took me to soccer all those years ago. If only we could get him to stop smoking. No chance!

I am feeling a lot stronger as well. I am starting to write again for the first time in a long time. I am thinking about maybe building up a freelance business. I also work with children with learning disabilities. The future is looking a little brighter.

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