Sudden loss, mental illness and the long hard road back...
I can hear Mike’s voice in the corridor outside my office. Why is Mike here? Mike would never turn up at the office unannounced. He is by nature a planner. He does not do frivolous or spontaneous. How does he even know that I am here? Processing these questions is like electricity to a switch. Instantly I know why Mike is here. He is here to make a personal delivery. A delivery called - news. Nevertheless, I am somehow strangely optimistic. We have recently had a skiing holiday together and I have not seen Mike since.
I can now hear him being offered a cup of tea. He hesitates momentarily and then accepts. Perhaps I am just over-thinking and reading too much into things, I am good at that. I head through to our office meeting room where Mike is waiting for me. He is half standing, half sitting, supported by the unit built into the window recess. His expression is calm and controlled, but his natural warmth and easy smile are replaced by a deeply serious expression. I am scrambling for better options. Why is Mike behaving in a way that I do not recognise or understand? Worse still, there is an overwhelming sense of duty in his manner.
By the time Mike has finished speaking my world will have changed forever. A few simple words will deliver a level of pain that we hear about on the radio or see on the TV, but somehow assume will never actually apply to us. News that in the minutes that follow will result in complete abandon. News that will strip me naked and expose my deepest needs and vulnerability for all the world to see.
“Ewan, terrible news, there has been an accident, Aaron has been killed”.
Aaron was the eldest of our 4 children. He had worked extremely hard to establish himself as a ski instructor in France during the winter and outdoor instructor in Scotland during the summer. Having pursued his passion for outdoor adventure and instruction for the past 8 years things were really starting to come together for him, however on the 10th of March 2016, just a few weeks before his 27th birthday, he was coaching a group of advance skiers in the French Alps when he was killed instantly in an off-piste fall. Nobody else was injured.
At 55, I had no history of mental illness whatsoever, however the shock and trauma of losing my son that day had a profound effect on me. I had been planning to reduce my working week to 4 days to progress a building project near Aviemore which would become a place to unwind and recharge. I run my own business in Edinburgh and knew that manual work away from the office would be good for me, but most of all I was looking forward to spending more time with Aaron who would be working locally as an outdoor instructor and helping me when he could.
Grief totally dismantled my known world and who I was as a person. I lost my ability to regulate my emotions and protect myself and for the first time in my life I started having panic attacks. Rather than make a slow and steady recovery I became increasingly disconnected from reality. I stopped sleeping and my personality and thinking became ultra-magnified. I was still the same person (sort of) but everything was heightened to the point that I was no longer able to exercise normal levels of control. My behaviour was extremely damaging and hurtful to myself and others and my driving licence was removed by the DVLA. Eventually I became so unwell I was admitted to hospital and held under a compulsory treatment order for 9 weeks. I received ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) 12 times and was treated for psychotic depression.
The shame of not overcoming tragedy and remaining strong, resilient and grounded for my family, friends and colleagues was overwhelming. My deeply held belief that everyone is responsible for their actions and behaviour all of the time refused to let me off the hook or find any sort of kinder angle. Somehow, mental illness increased my distorted belief that God requires goodness above all else.
It is not uncommon for the shock and stress associated with sudden loss to trigger mania and psychosis. I now realise that is what happened to me. One of the complexities of serious mental illness is that you do not recognise or accept that you are unwell - which is extremely difficult for carers and loved ones. Trying to manage my lack of self-awareness and learn to think rationally again is without question the hardest thing I have ever done.
Accepting that I am no more protected or exempt from mental illness than anyone else and that I, Ewan McLean-Foreman, lost the ability to function in my rational mind have been huge mountains to ascend and stay on top of. Healing has required me to deeply accept my humanity and significantly change my understanding of mental illness. I no longer believe and trust in a God who’s love and acceptance is influenced by my effort. I believe and trust in a God who offers unconditional love and acceptance to a broken and imperfect world – of which I am part.
When the things of this world that sustain and support us are removed our hearts yearn for something more. They yearn to be defined and understood by a loving God who is above and beyond the things of this world.
I will of course always carry the scars and challenges of my journey. I cannot reverse history and just like a physical injury some things remain much harder than they used to be. I am extremely grateful for the professional help that I have received, the professionals are human too and they do not always get it right, but I have met some extremely caring and experienced people along the way. In June (2020) I was signed off by my psychiatrist after more than 3 years support.
It is estimated that 8 out of every 10 marriages do not survive the sudden loss of a child, and 9 out of every 10 marriages do not survive serious mental illness. I am therefore incredibly proud to still be married to my wife, Fiona.
I have reduced my working week to 2 days and now spend a lot more time doing manual work and being outside with no PC and increasingly no phone either!
Our other three children, Jack, Colin and Rachel are doing well.
Can faith and hope in Jesus Christ heal and repair mental illness any more than it can heal and repair other illnesses? As each day passes I have less need to answer that question. Ultimately our hope is about something far greater than fixing or removing the pain and suffering of the life that we were born into. It is quite literally about being “born again” into an entirely new life. A life so wonderful and a love so strong our minds cannot even begin to comprehend it – gosh!