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I am very lucky that my work has moved into offices alongside the botanic gardens. Just as I gain a little more free time with Julie safely settled at college. I walk there almost every day during my lunch hour.

You can walk in a garden – even quite a large one – every day and still not get much more than a general impression of quiet paths and nice flowers. This is how I have been walking all summer, aware that different plants come into season around me, but still something of a visitor.

I’ve decided its time to go deeper, get better acquainted. I can’t walk there every day and remain a stranger. I’ve decided to start with the trees. The trees in this botanic garden are so many and so venerable, that someone has even written a book about them. I bought the book and I’m slowly working through the different sections – oaks, pines, cedars, sycamores, limes – meeting each of the trees in turn and paying attention to them.

Trees are like people – very individual. There are several giant redwoods, for example, each one a complete character: one has layered off several new trunks for example, turning itself into a grove, while another one has budded off one single massive branch lower down that looks for all the world like an elephant’s trunk. There are trees which have turned into splendid specimens, elbowing out their neighbours, and ones that are weak and spindly. One or two are dead by fungus or gales. Some have big weeping canopies, so that you can walk under them into a private world. Some are extremely old, and others are quite ephemeral: beautiful silver birches that will have to be replaced several times before their neighbours die.

And like so many things in life, once you start to look at trees, your eyes are suddenly tuned to them. Everywhere you look there are trees that were invisible before! Suddenly you notice your neighbour’s fine copper beech, or wonder why a cedar was planted on that corner.

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Joe and I finally managed to sit down and have a useful conversation about how we felt about Julie’s continuing self harm. It’s difficult to find time for this sort of complicated and subtle conversation when you are both busy working, and also trying to manage the practical problems of having to care for a member of the family with such a serious mental illness.

Such a conversation was long overdue. We were both having difficulties with the situation. Incidents still occur regularly, and there is no sign yet of them coming to an end. Julie has been improving in lots of ways – she has been on a very successful work experience placement for example – but she is still ill. In the bad old days everybody knew that she was ill; these days not many people realise what goes on behind the scenes, but quite a bit still goes on. She had to call for an ambulance for example, the other day, to the astonishment (and alarm) of many of our neighbours.

The problem in the long term for parents is that you don’t stop reacting, and the reaction doesn’t stop being painful and destructive. When there is a particularly frightening or messy incident, you experience a wave of distress and anxiety which can continue for days, long after Julie herself is beginning to bounce back. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re very actively involved in the event – getting stuck in with the First Aid box and then sitting with her in A&E – or just hearing about it afterwards from your partner.

Nor does there seem to be any way of protecting yourself, keeping the emotion boxed in, or bracing yourself for the impact. I know that some families reject a child who has serious mental illness (quite a few end up in care) and I can see how for some families this is the only solution that gives them a fighting chance of survival.

Sometimes I get angry after an incident. I got more angry when I was recovering from an operation and I was feeling physically very vulnerable. Joe often gets angry. It does feel sometimes as if all the love and care you pour in is being rejected, and it can take a day or two before you can forget this when you speak to them. Joe still feels guilt too – I stopped feeling guilty long ago – but he still wishes he could keep his little girl safe and stop these bad things happening to her. Both of us experience feelings of despair and hopelessness, overwhelming grief, sudden flashbacks, and difficulties sleeping.

It’s important to acknowledge these huge emotions and their impact on us and on Julie. There’s no point trying to pretend to Julie that we don’t feel anything, as if we were automatons. At the same time, we have to be careful not to beat up on her when she herself is at her most vulnerable. How easy it is to let the anger slip out, to list all the things she has jeopardised, to threaten and invoke the spectre of the disaster she has almost brought down on our heads. The hard thing is to find safe ways of saying “We love you, we hold you, we hate what you’re doing to yourself, but we know we can’t stop you doing it. We will go on being here for you no matter what you do.”

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My neighbour is in pain. Great pain. Pain to take her breath away and halt conversation. She is taking morphine. For these few days her world has contracted to her house and her boxes of pain relief.

My neighbour and I have been friends for some years, and it does not normally matter that she is older than me, old enough to be my mother. She does not like anyone to dwell on her age. But when I drop in to keep her company for a while after work, I am more conscious than usual of our age difference. This illness makes her very fragile, very vulnerable. I feel afraid for her.

This fear makes me awkward. When the morphine sends her into deep sleep, she doesn’t answer the door bell, or the phone. I hover awkwardly, wondering if I should use the spare key she gave me for emergencies. But is this an emergency? I don’t want to invade her privacy. I bring her chocolates and then worry that she might have no appetite, then books and worry that they might not be to her taste. I would like to do more to help her, but am afraid of offending against her immense dignity.

I try to imagine how I will feel when I am older, and might experience pain and sickness of my own. Will I have family near me? Will I have to rely on blundering offers of help from neighbours? Will I be afraid and lonely, or cheerfully resigned?

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Remember staycations, when we all stopped going abroad because of the recession? Well I’ve gone one better by not even leaving home at all. In fact two better because I’m still working during the days!

Julie and her dad have set off for Scotland, leaving me to look after Duncan. We get on pretty well, my son and I, but we’re not exactly in each other’s pockets. So once I’ve cooked supper for the two of us I have most of the evening free. Hours! With almost complete and solitary control of both the television and the stereo.

I love Julie so much, but it’s only when she’s away that I appreciate how much time her illness takes up; how much time I spend checking in with her, discussing problems, dreaming up new strategies. Only now I realise how many things I do every day just to make sure she stays OK; how many TV programs I watch that I don’t really Iike, just to keep her company, how much food I prepare just to make sure she eats sensibly, how many emails I compose to the school or her care coordinator. And then there are the many things I don’t do in case she suddenly needs me: get lost in a good book, listen to music I love, phone friends, have a second drink (in case I have to drive).

We all do these things for the people we love; we all have moments when we grumble about it; there are far worse things in life than having to compromise on the television you watch. But oh what a luxury to have a few weeks alone!

So for the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend my evenings watching some operas on DVD, reading lots of books, listening to lots of music, and down a few extra beers. That’s all I need from a holiday at the moment.

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“They can’t all be, can they?” asks Duncan, somewhat desperately, “I mean, it’s not statistically possible.”

I can see Joe’s shoulders start to heave with silent laughter, “Maybe it’s something in the water.” he says, hastily leaving the room.

We are discussing the astonishing fact that virtually the whole population of girls in Duncan’s year group – a couple of hundred girls aged 16 – identify themselves, when asked, as bisexual. Duncan knows because, for reasons best known to himself, he seems to have personally asked every one.

I very much doubt that this is based on a whole load of sexual experience – of any kind. Or that it predicts much about their future sexual experiences. It probably speaks volumes about the ambiguity that young girls feel about sex. At this age, everyone talks about it, but it’s hard to work out how much is bravado. Rather than admit in public that they don’t feel ready, don’t know what they want, and even find the whole thing a bit scary and repellant, girls can adopt a badge of convenience. If they declare themselves bisexual then they sound sexually sophisticated, while having a ready made excuse for rejecting any offers. And of course it testifies to the popularity of Orange is the New Black.

I am more surprised to hear that none of the boys in the year group seem to define themselves as gay (or bisexual). This group don’t seem to have any hang ups about homosexuality – they all know openly gay adults, including parents and teachers, and they genuinely seem to find it difficult to understand how it could ever have been a problem. But accepting homosexuality as a normal part of life is one thing – it appears that it’s another thing, in the maelstrom of being male and sixteen, to declare yourself gay. Unless they really are statistically odd, the likelihood is that there are some kids in the group (of either gender) who will eventually be very comfortable defining themselves as gay. And a lot of gay people in adult life will attest that they knew they were gay by sixteen. Why the boys don’t define themselves as that right now is anybody’s guess: perhaps they don’t know, perhaps they aren’t sure, perhaps they regard it as private, or perhaps they don’t feel safe. Or perhaps, like the girls, they feel ambiguous about the whole thing.

Or perhaps it is something in the water.

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My son is now at home all day with nothing to do, having finished his exams. He is 16. He has the full use of his hands, legs, eyes and brain. I have taught him to cook (and so has his school), my fridge, my freezers and my cupboards are well stocked with ingredients, and there is friendly shop at the end of the road which will give my children anything they want on credit.

So why is he ravenously hungry when I get home? He says he doesn’t know where anything is. I show him (not for the first time). He declares it is too much work to make a sandwich. Then he says he still can’t remember where anything is anyway.

So here’s my solution: the “Food, Where Is It?” poster. Just to keep him alive until I get home. All he has to do is forage for the food, work out how to unwrap it, put it in his mouth and chew. Surely that isn’t beyond him?

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“Do you remember when we used to do this all the time?” asked Joe last night. He was sitting across a restaurant table from me, we were having an early meal before our concert.

“Twenty years ago, before the children.”

For a moment both of us shared the same astonishing thought: that one day the children might move on.

It was a wonderful night out. It was the hottest night of the year, which brought it home that it was almost exactly a year since we’d had our last evening out – on the hottest night of last year.

Last year we needed a friend to come in and look after Julie, who at the time could not be left alone. This year she looked after herself, cooked her own dinner, put herself to bed. What a change.

We could go out all the time now. We’re just out of practice – it takes such a lot of effort to arrange and we have got used to our evenings at home in front of the TV. Once a year is not very good: we must practice!

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