Reviewed by Harriet
Sam Mills’ ‘memoir of madness, love, and being a carer’ starts on a Friday night in early 2016. Sam’s father has been locked in a bathroom for two hours, during which she’s been banging repeatedly on the door and begging him to come out. The advisor from the Emergency Mental Health Support Line says ‘Tell your dad he has to come out’; when this doesn’t work, he tells her to call an ambulance. It will take an hour to arrive, she’s told. She calls her brother Stefan, who manages to force the lock, and the door finally opens:
Dad was wearing his pyjamas. He was standing upright, facing us, but he couldn’t see us. His body was locked into a strange repetitive loop, like a machine programmed to do an assembly-line task: his left arm would raise, jerk above his head, and then his right foot would lift. His scarlet face was screwed into a fist of agony.
Left alone in the Surrey house she’s grown up in, she worries about her future. Will her relationship survive? Will she be able to go on writing, her only source of income? Her father’s strange catatonic symptoms had begun in the autumn of the previous year, when he was hospitalised for the first time. While he was away, Sam had felt as if ‘life had been suspended, as though I had inhaled and I was still waiting to let out that gasp of breath’. Her dreams had been put on hold for some unspecified time in the future when normal life would resume. Now for the first time she wonders if it ever will.
The rest of this absorbing, moving book tells the story of how Sam came to terms with what life had thrown at her. It’s a process that takes time. She has to look back to her childhood, remembering what a loveable man her father was when he was at home, but also finally making sense of the periods when he wasn’t. Her mother had told her various stories, and she’d invented many others, to explain his absences, which were of course the times when he’d had to be hospitalised for his recurring mental illness. As she found out aged fourteen, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but the 2016 episode showed that he had a rare variant, causing catatonia which could last for weeks, while he sat in a chair, unable to speak, banging his arms rhythmically up and down.
Sam has to accept that she’s become her father’s carer, a role she had obviously never anticipated. She invents coping mechanisms, some more successful than others. She gets some insights from reading The Divided Self by R.D. Laing, and discovers a book by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas who helps her to understand what schizophrenics really experience. One mechanism – which gives the book a unique and enjoyable dimension – is to investigate the way people in the past had dealt with similar situations. Chief among these are Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald, both of whose wives suffered from serious mental health problems. Leonard becomes an inspiration:
He had nursed Virginia through periods of breakdown and suicide attempts with great stoicism, love and loyalty….Knowing that he had to feed Virginia, that he sometimes floundered, that he questioned doctors, that his health suffered while he bettered hers, made him deeply human to me.
Fitzgerald was less successful: he was able to pay for Zelda’s frequent and long-term incarcerations in various mental asylums, and he raised their daughter, but theirs was essentially a toxic relationship, exacerbated by his alcoholism. Unlike Leonard he was unwilling or unable to put his own life on hold, or to give his wife the love and support he needed, owing largely to his own mental health problems.
Sam is determined to make this work, but there’s a cost. Her relationship ends, though she and her ex-partner continue to work together at Dodo Ink, the publishing company they set up together. Her social life is put on hold, and her frequent trips to the Lancashire village where she had been living become less and less feasible. She still has to continue writing, but her nerves are stretched to breaking point, and she develops chronic insomnia, and treats it with over the counter sleep aids, which she takes daily for six months despite the dire warnings on the packet.
So – is this a misery memoir? Very far from it. It’s certainly upsetting in places, but she gets through the tunnel. She’s helped by her practice of Transcendental Meditation, which calms her. She discovers an Ayurvedic recipe that enables her to give up the Sominex. But above all she learns to live with the situation. Her father will need hospital care from time to time, but the doctors have finally found medication that seems to work.
I had to accept that my father’s illness was a riddle; all I had were fragments that I could not put together. I would never know its roots, but I could still be a good carer to him. He didn’t need me to know or understand one key cause: he just needed me to be there for him.
Needless to say this acceptance comes with its challenges. She still longs to be able to travel, to have a viable love life. But all this is offset by the days ‘when I treasure the experience of looking after my father, feel a bliss in my heart when I cook him a meal and see the joy in his face when he tucks in, or when I call him and I hear the affection in his voice’.
Carers are radically under-valued in the Western world. In Britain they are shamefully underpaid, and few people who have not experienced the daily challenges can fully understand or sympathise with what the job really entails. This book doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it does give an honest and ultimately inspiring account of one woman’s journey towards peace and acceptance. It’s beautifully written, and the impressive select bibliography and many helpful footnotes are the icing on the cake of a book I enjoyed enormously .
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Sam Mills, The Fragments of my Father: A Memoir of Madness, Love and Being a Carer (Fourth Estate, 2020). 978-0008300586, 416pp., hardback.