My Dad—an athletic, non-smoking Australian—died of a heart attack at the age of 39 years. Or so I thought for a quarter of a century. In 1994, I discovered the truth. He took his life with cyanide. I was only seven when he died, and had no idea that he had depression. My study contains a tribute to his achievements (a scholarship for Australia’s outstanding physical chemist, captain of the Australian Universities basketball team, Cambridge Blue, PhD, brilliant teacher, loving husband, and father), but nowhere among the photos and newspaper cuttings is there any hint of his periodic despair.
My memories of my dad are only fond ones and he certainly wasn’t depressed all the time. His attacks seemed to be precipitated by illness, overwork, and an inability to say ‘No’. When it overwhelmed him, he locked himself in his laboratory in Perth and wrote a two-word note: ‘Forgive me’. My Mum found him and thought he’d had a heart attack. It was only after the post-mortem that she found out the truth, by which time, my brother and I had already been told about the heart attack, and the perceived wisdom was to leave it that way until we were ‘old enough to take it’.
We moved to England and my Mum later remarried one of the happiest men I have ever met. She always expected me to ask difficult questions about my father, but I’d rationalised the version of events I’d been given and just got on with life. Dad had wanted to be a doctor and that was one of the reasons I chose medicine. I had my heart checked out, but lived with the nagging fear that it might pack up in mid-life. Instead of reverting to abstinence and vegetables, it turned me into someone in a hurry to get things done, and reckless as a result.
As well as holding down the day job, I became a fierce campaigner for a reduction in junior doctors’ hours and started writing comedy. There was something gloriously, inappropriately funny about roaming the wards like a zombie, doing all sorts of dangerous things to patients you hadn’t been properly trained to do. Much less funny if you happened to be a patient.
In 1990, Tony Gardner and I formed a double-act called Struck Off and Die and blew the whistle at the Edinburgh Fringe. Junior doctors were knackered, hungry and dangerous: ‘The reason we draw the curtains around a patient’s bed when they’ve died, is so the doctor can raid the fruit bowl without anyone noticing.’ I talked openly about my own cock-ups: ‘I was sent to do my first liver biopsy. Only ever seen it once. On Casualty. To be fair I got a bit of liver ... bit of thyroid, bit of spleen, bit of kidney ... more of a kebab, really.’
Radio 4 gave us three series and we attracted a record numbers of complaints to the Broadcasting Standards Council. I decided to go all out for career ruin by writing a column for Private eye to wash all of the NHS’s dirty linen in public. In 1992, I broke the story of the Bristol heart scandal, which later became the subject of a huge public inquiry in which I was summoned to give evidence. All very stressful, but I reasoned that my heart was going to pack up at 39 so I may as well cause as much trouble as I can while I’m here.
When I found out about Dad’s depression, I was puzzled that I’d piled a lot of pressure on myself as a doctor, comedian, and journalist, but never gone under. The children of people who’ve committed suicide struggle to understand why those who loved them have left them, feel guilty that it was somehow their fault, and are fearful that the same thing may happen to them. The perceived wisdom now is to tell children the truth from the outset, in small steps they can understand. But in a high-profile death such as that of footballer Gary Speed, the media dictates the pace of events. My mother never meant to take so long to tell me the truth, but she may well have done me a favour.
Depression is a horrible illness and anyone who threatens to harm themselves often will. For those left behind, there are excellent charities like Winston’s Wish to help children come to terms with it. Real men get depressed, but with help they also come out the other side. Depression and failure are a part of life, particularly when we’re stuck in recession. We must protect ourselves and fine tune those antennae to pick it up in others. G
View Phil’s tour dates, books, DVDs, and Private Eye columns at: www.drphilhammond.com
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