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I’m not a big fan of diets, but here I am downloading the NHS diet plan and back to counting calories.

Julie has been in and out of hospital like a yoyo the last week, so our family life has been pretty chaotic. But as soon as she started to stabilise again, she declared that one of the things she wanted to do was lose weight.

Now in the aftermath of crisis Julie’s head is not in a good place. Dieting can seriously mess with your head at the best of times: all those obsessional routines about calorie counting, all that guilt when you “sin”. She’s already surveying the wreck that is her sixth form career after two months of chaos and trying to work out how to recover that. To diet as well: is that a good idea?

I figured the best thing would be to offer to be her diet buddy. I could do with losing a few pounds anyway, and by dieting alongside her I could offer her support and moderate some of the extremes of behaviour.

In fact it’s been quite fun. Its been a few years since I’ve looked at the world of dieting, and there are lots of apps and much better sources of advice. I insisted we try the NHS plan because it is moderate, and because Julie had already successfully used their running program last year. We printed out the star charts and put them on the fridge, as instructed, and signed up to a free calorie logging app which allows us to be “friends” and share information. There’s been a fair amount of giggling and “Did you know…?” conversations. It’s fun to work on a project together.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/813/46462826/files/2014/12/img_0395.jpg I think I’ve got it pretty bad. I used to have it under control, but some days it’s pretty much all I can think about.

I’m talking about my lunchtime walk in the Botanic Gardens. Give me a sunny day, and woe betide anyone who tries to keep me in the office over lunchtime.

Today was particularly good. I took my new coat for a walk. There is a real child-like pleasure in wearing a new coat for the first time, on a sunny day, in such a beautiful garden.

I have to take my pleasures when I can. Julie is in and out of hospital. I need my walks in the sunshine more than ever.

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Necessity is the mother of invention. Julie is difficult to communicate with in crisis, and while she is in and out of hospital she has to communicate with lots of new people, some of whom seem to have their own agenda when it comes to helping her. Scratching my head, I hit on an idea that seems to work better than I expected. The Priority Game.

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When I tell people that Julie has gone back into hospital, they’re often very dismayed and shocked. I can understand that, though I wish I could explain that by the time an admission to hospital takes place, it comes as something of a relief to everyone concerned. The worst time is the time nobody else sees: the time immediately before admission, when the crisis is building, and we’re descending into chaos.

I try to keep normal life going as long as possible, even if it’s just going through the motions. This is because often we do pull back from the brink, and it’s easier to get back to normal if you’ve kept the engine running. So often Julie has hardly missed a day at college, and I’ve hardly missed a day at work, and nobody is any the wiser, even though the most appalling scenes are being enacted in our bathroom, and we’ve spent half the night in A&E.

But sometimes the crisis does gain the upper hand, and you find yourself going over the cliff edge. And actually once you’ve let go and committed to falling, free fall is quite a pleasant sensation. (Just as long as you don’t think too much about what’s going to happen at the bottom.). Just before you let go is a horrible feeling: everything is starting to disintegrate under the pressure, you miss out on sleep and exercise and eventually you know you’re losing. I know I’m feeling the strain when I start doing things I never normally do: putting my keys down in the wrong place and spending half an hour hunting for them, or snapping at someone at work. For a day or two, going to the hospital and letting somebody else take over the job of caring for Julie is a secret relief.

Of course hospital is not an easy solution and not a viable long term one. Acute psychiatric wards can be tough environments, even when they try to be comfortable and welcoming: impossible to disguise the amount of human suffering they contain. This is Julie’s first stay in an adult ward, and there are new norms and protocols to adjust to. Everyone seems so much older than her; everyone seems to smoke. Visiting there after a long day at work is a strain, and Julie is missing out on college. But they try to relieve distress, it’s a place of safety, and the initial plan is for her to come home again very soon.

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Still waiting for the results of my thyroid biopsy: I’m in a state of limbo. When the long awaited letter finally arrived, it gave no results, just invited me back to talk about them. This last week waiting for that return visit to the clinic is proving the hardest wait of all. I am very impatient. Everything is on hold: social engagements, holiday plans, work commitments.

It could still be positive or negative. The one good thing about a positive would be that it makes a better storyline. If you can say you have cancer, at least people will believe you when you say you feel pain. If it’s negative and there’s still no name for your pain, people don’t always believe you. We’re very simple animals at heart: we still like to see physical evidence, glowing brightly on a screen, or a number on a chart.

If you’re mentally ill, you don’t usually have the benefit of physical evidence. People don’t necessarily believe that you’re suffering: you may have to go to extreme lengths to persuade them that your illness is real.

Perhaps this is why some people place such emphasis on the cause of mental illness. It’s not that uncommon to find books or websites that assert that all mental illness is caused by trauma, often child abuse. Perhaps they don’t think the illness is real unless it can be traced back to some real external event.

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This week’s post is back on my old blog Julie’s Mum because it is much more directly relevant to that side of my life. To be honest, if Julie had never suffered from mental illness, I would never have believed that wards like the one she was admitted to even existed. Little specialist units like the one in which LB died are largely invisible, often unknown even to other services. And as we found, in these isolated pockets of the NHS, unhealthy practices can persist.

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So I am sitting in my office talking to a junior member of my team about his work record, which recently has not set the world on fire. Nigel has a string of woes: he doesn’t like where he lives, he finds the commute to work very tiring, and he has a perpetual cold. I feel quite sorry for him: Nigel should not be living alone really, he ought to be back at home with his mum.

In the middle of the conversation my mobile phone, which I have carefully placed on the desk beside me, rings. I apologise to Nigel and take the call briefly: it is my daughter Julie calling from hospital. Can she phone me back? I ask, I am in a meeting at the moment. I know that I can trust her to phone me back, I know that she is in safe hands, that the nurses will look after her. For a brief moment, the image of my daughter as I left her last night, lying in the hospital bed, looking quite green, having just thrown up violently into a little cardboard bowl, intrudes into my office life. I return to Nigel and his man-size box of tissues. Just for a moment I have the feeling that this is not quite the right thing to do, or the right place to be.

This must be Julie’s seventh or eighth overdose this year, I have lost count. This time she has ended up on a drip, meaning an overnight stay and vomiting. Sometimes it is a cut requiring stitches: recently it has often been both cuts and overdoses. Every now and then, someone in accident and emergency lovingly counts up the number of times she has attended, and sends them to her care coordinator. I am always astonished by the number of trips that she manages to clock up in a year.

It is nearly routine. She took this overdose at school so early that I had not even left for work: I was able to pick her up from school and drop her off at the hospital on my way in. For the rest of the day, I carried on almost as normal. Just a discrete call to her care coordinator from my car, and then putting her out of my mind, until I had time to deal with it later. Nobody at work had any idea that it was not simply another ordinary day.

But you never do really put it out of your mind. It is always with you. Every time it happens – and this is once every three or four weeks – your body has the same reaction. Both Joe and I have commented on it: that feeling of physical exhaustion, as if you were walking around with 10 kg weights suddenly strapped to both of your legs. This is even when there are no extra journeys to make, no wounds to bandage, no waiting rooms to endure, no phone calls to make. It is just a natural reaction: your body’s way of registering the blow.

Between incidents, she functions just fine. She is doing well at school, she has friends, she can take the bus into town on her own, she is talking about leaving home to go to university. Even while I was planning to visit her in hospital, a neighbour came in to tell me how wonderful it was to see Julie back to her old self. I could not bear to break the mood and tell my neighbour that I was packing her overnight bag because she would be spending the night in hospital. After all, she would be back again next day, and back to school again too. Nobody need even know. If you don’t look too hard, it looks as if nothing at all is wrong.

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