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So I come back from a week away in Portugal to find the family in a sad state. Joe has worked really hard to make sure that everything is provided, but it’s clear I’ve been missed. Everyone looks exhausted and joyless, and Julie has self harmed repeatedly.

There’s a certain pleasure to being Mary Poppins when your children are young: setting the table, tidying up the toy box, bringing out the sunshine. It’s nice to feel that you can make everyone happy, soothe tears, resolve arguments. But it’s not something you want to be doing for adults. You want to be able to come back and hear all the amazing things they’ve been doing in your absence, be glad to see one another, but not find that you have to pick up all the pieces of their lives for them again.

I enjoyed my holiday: it was good for me to take a break, even though I missed the family while I was away. It gave me a chance to look at the rest of the family in perspective, to think about what they need from me, and why I appear to be so essential to them. And whether that is a good thing.

Surely someone has written a song about this.

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I’m going on holiday. I’m going on my own. It’s not as good as going with family or friends but it’s better than having no holiday at all! I wasn’t well enough to go with everyone else in the summer so now I am stealing away for a week in the late autumn sun.

The most difficult decision is not what clothes to take but which camera. I love my photography, I love that feeling of seeing reality in front of me in a new and deeper way. Taking photos often feels a lot like writing poems: trying to capture the essence of the subject succinctly and keep everything else that is irrelevant out of the frame or out of focus. I find it impossible to take good photos with other people around – it’s too distracting – so if I’m going to have to holiday on my own I’d better take the opportunity to dig out the camera.

So Portugal here we come!

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If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to go a bit on automatic, even if it’s something glorious. So sometimes when I go on my lunchtime walk round the Botanic Gardens I try experiencing it in a different way. Like taking my ears for a walk.

Trees have very distinctive sounds. The poplar trees at the entrance gate of the Botanic Gardens make this incredible sparkling rushing sound, like the sea. It can be heard hundreds of yards away and close to it is almost deafening. Why does no one else notice them shouting? There are other trees in the garden that are almost completely silent: the majestic sequoias seem severely mute even in the highest wind. Horse chestnuts are another mute surprise, but they are all sick with the leaf miner. Beeches and hornbeams both make pleasant murmuring sounds, and tucked away in another corner of the garden I find a catalpa tree sweetly rustling. Bamboos of course make a soundscape all of their own, whispering, squeaking and mysteriously knocking.

It is a tactile time of year too, full of fruits and seed heads that are knobbly, spiked, furry. I touch them surreptitiously (is one allowed to touch the plants?). I find one flower whose seed heads are like tiny velvet purses.

Scent, not so much, except some of the more exotic limes whose sweet scented flowers still linger, and the hot spicy scents of the herb border. The tropical glasshouses are another matter: still a riot of sweet and earthy smells as everything competes for space and attention.

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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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It’s that time of year again: the start of another academic year. Everyone who has ever been a child or raised a child in the Western Hemisphere will recognize that this is the time of new beginnings. Small children start school, bigger children chafe in new uniforms, and many teenagers leave home for the first time against a backdrop of reddening trees and the freshening winds of autumn. 

For me it is also the time to pick up the exacting routines of housekeeping after the laxness of summer. Everyone has to get up, eat and shower and be out of the house on time.  Everyone has to return home safely at the end of the day and be fed again, listened to, commiserated with, supported and soothed and finally nagged back in to their beds.  The fridge must be kept supplied with food, everyone must have shoes and the lights on the bikes must be working. 

This routine, though somewhat monotonous, is necessary. Without it we rapidly sag downwards into the chaos that awaits beneath: skipped meals, forgotten medication, chronic sleep shortages and abandoned homework assignments. I will know my children are truly adult and independent of me when they finally recognise the importance of getting enough sleep and eating regularly.

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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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