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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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