This is a father’s journal of travelling from the Isle of Islay in Scotland to Spain in February 2019 with my partner and our two little boys: Hugh, who will turn 6 during our trip, and James, who will be four just after we get back to Britain. Idea is to track the experience of a family road trip, what we see along the way and reflect on some other things, including parenting boys, mental health and Brexit, which form the background to our trip. Might be a bit rushed at times trying to write things up in the evening, but will try to refine it as I go along
Sunday morning in Biarritz. For the first time on this trip, and in a while, I wake in a depressed funk. And I roll over in my mind why that might be.
In theory the answer does not require a Phd in rocket science: Too much pointless squabbling with my partner. Too much eating and drinking making me feel fat and failing. Not enough exercise. Not getting my 10K steps in every day. Not doing any heart-pumping exercise. Not meeting any goals. Not enough kisses and cuddles.
I wonder too if I’m not missing Lucy, our labrador who has been left behind with my eldest son, Joseph, in Glasgow. It was Lucy who got us into doing road trips as holidays. Living in Rome, the only way to get her home to Islay for the summer holiday was to drive. And rather than try to blitz the 2,800km in a couple of days, we made the journey part of our summer holidays for four consecutive years from 2015 onwards.
So, typically, we’d take about a week and I soon started to realise there was something about the rhythm of those trips that was beneficial. Life is reduced to the basics of getting to the next point on the route and ensuring that you enjoy the time spent on the journey from A to B. Achievable objectives, time with family in the open air and new things to see and learn.
Lucy helps with all of those, except on the learning front: I am still waiting for the lazy hound to recommend a really good exhibition. But, as a slightly needy friend, she delivers in other ways, including her patented tips on how to have a really good nap.
When we did a month-long tour of previously unvisited corners of England last August/September, Lucy came along and romped around the marshland of north Norfolk, sniffed her way along the South Downs and cavorted over the cliffs of Dorset at dawn. All with me panting along behind. Several times already on this trip, I’ve thought ‘Lucy would love it here,” in a way that recalls that stab of reality I still sometimes feel when I think “Penny will think that is funny”, nearly 14 years after my first long-term partner died suddenly, aged 41.
Depression and grief are not the same thing but they share a capacity to absent themselves for a brief moment between sleep and wakefulness. With grief the moment ends with the needling recollection of what has actually happened. Depression reasserts its grip in a less conscious way … I don’t want to say sub conscious for reasons I will hopefully be able to articulate by the end of this trip but I think this difference between how we experience grief and depression respectively in the first moments of the day are important to the understanding of the relationship between the two, which has implications for how you should treat them.
Anyway, given our enforced car downsizing, it would have been impossible had we brought our labrador Lucy with us. And she will enjoy being with Joseph.
On a scale of 1-10 of the depressive moods I’ve known, this one feels about 3: if things don’t go wrong, it’s not going to last for days, but it will still inject its poison into today. Depression isn’t contagious but the degree to which it infects those closest to the sufferer is under reported.
So, by way of illustration, our outward journey on a day-trip into the Spanish Basque country is punctuated by sniping over the general lack of planning, which coincides with us taking a few wrong turns while trying to get to grips with a temperamental new SatNav system. In this kind of mood, my fantasy alter ego is a kind of hot-shot risk assessor who would have conceived a solution for every possible setback if only he’d been given the job.
On days likes this, Tissy can’t ever win. And I know, stoic and resilient though she is, that it is beginning to damage her.
Depression is depressing, and also very hard to understand, I think. A bit of me – a lot maybe – thinks “pull yourself together man” schools of thought might have a point. That sounds flippant but I know that, over the years since Penny died, that the imperative of being there for our son, Joseph, has helped me cope more than anything else.
“Get up, get on with it,” is a hard to ignore voice in the head when there is a hungry six-year-old waiting for his porridge and you are anxiously trying to understand how he is processing the loss of his mother.
So, by and large, I did get up and get on with it. And over time I began to identify the points of the morning where, if I could get to them, I’d know the freezing fog in my brain would melt away.
In the years immediately after Penny died, when I didn’t know where grief ended and depression started, that point was usually on the walk to school, along a London canal, hand-in-hand.
Later, when it was just me and 12-year-old Joseph in Rome, release would often come when I pressed the oranges onto the squeezer for his breakfast juice: ‘See, Penny, he is getting his vitamins, you don’t need to worry.”
Later, in 2017, that thought became: “See, Penny, I got him into University.” I was happy but I was also exhausted and soon pulling myself together would not be so easy.
This all sounds a bit gloomy for a holiday blog. So I’m doing to divide Day 5 into parts one and two, because the day, my mood and our holiday, did turn around, thanks to the skills of a couple of hugely-talented young Basque chefs. So stay tuned …