Friday, 12 February 2010

Ancient aunts and agoraphobia

My aunt died recently, at the ripe old age of 92.  For most of her life she had been a lively, bubbly, gregarious lady.

Aunt Maud spent her whole life in Belfast, the town of my birth.  Her husband (my uncle), their family and my family spent lots of time together. We had many days out together, would stay each other's holiday cottages/caravans, and dined together frequently.  Her children were a similar age to my sister and me, and we were close childhood friends.

She became widowed when I was an older teenager but still the families met regularly.  Things changed when her daughter got married and moved about 35 miles away.  Then her son got married and moved to England to live.  I got married and my sister followed suit soon afterwards.  My mother died.  Family events ceased then.

My father still visited Aunt Maud regularly.  They went on picnics on nice days, went to the theatre, went for a meal and occasionally visited me.

A few years later, I moved to England and my father joined me soon afterwards.  Aunt Maud still kept in touch. She and my father phoned each other regularly.

Then my father died.  Oddly, Aunt Maud didn't come to his funeral.  I was surprised, bearing in mind how much time my father and she had spent together.  I assumed that the cost of travel from Belfast to England's West Country was too much.  After all, she was a pensioner living on a modest income.

Years passed.  By this time, I had met Marie, set up home with her and our first child, Joseph, was born.  I decided to take them to Ireland to see the places and people important to me.  We visited my Aunt Maud - one of my important people. She was still living in the same little house she had always lived in and she was fit, healthy and still smiling.  It was a lovely day and we went to a nearby seaside resort and had a delightful lunch at a restaurant which Aunt Maud recommended.  Afterwards we drove along the scenic coast road.  I stopped at a beautiful, empty beach.  I took Joseph down to on the beach to play, knowing that Marie, due to her agoraphobia, would have to stay in the car.  Aunt Maud volunteered to stay with her.

Later that evening, after Aunt Maud had been returned to her home, Marie told me of her conversation with my aunt in the car while Joseph and I were on the beach.  Learning that Marie was agoraphobic, Aunt Maud revealed that she, too, had agoraphobia.  She had been agoraphobic all her life.

This was a surprise to me, but when I considered this news, everything began to slip into place.  Now I knew why Aunt Maud hadn't come to my father's funeral.  On family outings, the adults would always sit near the cars.  Aunt Maud never visited us on her own.  When we went out for a meal, it was always Aunt Maud who picked the restaurant.  I never knew her to take a bus trip anywhere - my father used to drive her around in his car.  Her children and grandchildren who resided in Ireland quite often visited her, but she rarely visited them - requiring them to first come and pick her up in their car.  She never visited her son's home in England and seldom saw her English grandchildren.  For most of her later years, she spent the majority of her time sitting in her house, connected to the outside world only by her telephone.  She was able to go to the local shop and Post Office - until the government closed the Post Office and the shop became uneconomic.  After that she had to rely on her home help for shopping.

After that trip with Marie, I called to see my aunt every time I went to Ireland.  I always took her out - to a place of her choice.  I know that she really enjoyed these outings, although heart problems meant that she was becoming increasingly frail.

When I tried to call her on her 92nd birthday, the phone had been disconnected.  I phoned my cousin to find out why.  Aunt Maud, he informed me, had become too ill to look after herself and had to be moved to a nursing home (thanks for letting me know at the time, dear cousin!).  In fact, she was so anxious about this that she had to be sedated so that the move could be effected.  She never settled in the nursing home and died, friendless and with no family nearby, soon afterwards.

Aunt Maud, if I'd known how ill and unhappy you were, I would have flown over to see you.

I'm sad.

Agoraphobia can be a hateful affliction.


Anonymous said...

Oh, Robert, I am so sorry about your aunt.

She sounds like a wonderful woman with a heart of gold.

But, I have to say, What is in the water over there?!!

I'm joking, probably at a bad time, but seriously! Based on the theme of your latest posts.... Who isn't agoraphobic in the UK? I kid, I kid....

If I weren't so stuck here and afraid to fly, I'd be there in a heartbeat to join your "agoraphobics' community" you mention recently ;- )

Forget the community, I'll bet we could start our own COUNTRY!!!

On a serious note, I am sorry about about your family's loss. In spite of her agoraphobia, your dear Aunt Maud sounds like she lived a full life surrounded by lots of people who loved her.

Hugs to you.

(but, seriously, what's in the water over there... ; - )

Robert said...

HSP woman - Great to hear from you. How are you doing? Not too bad, I hope.

Aunt Maud was a great lady. Good fun to be around and a heart of gold. You can understand why I feel so sad that she died in a state of great anxiety due to being compelled to move into a nursing home. In the "good old days" she would have been cared for by her family...

When my 1st marriage was disintegrating, I was working in a large office block. When word of my marriage difficulties got out, loads of people, some of whom I hardly knew, approached me to tell me of their own marriage problems or those of family members. Suddenly marriage breakdown seemed to be much more common than I believed. I think that's what happens when people know that you or a close family member has an anxiety disorder. For example, I would never have known that my aunt was agoraphobic if Marie hadn't first told her that she was agoraphobic.

Or perhaps it is something in the water... lol

((Hugs)) to you too.

Coffeecup said...

What a sad lonely end to this wonderful woman's life. My heart goes out to you. I'm truly sorry about your aunt.

I wonder why you were never told about her condition? Do you think it was an 'old school' attitude to keep problems strictly private? It's so tragic that you weren't told of her move as you were once so close. Not to be given the opportunity of offering support must be hard to bear for you. Families do disintegrate as children grow and move away. It's a reminder to us all to look out for our elderly relatives and not just assume that everything's okay.

Who'd have thought? News of yet another agoraphobic! Gosh! She hid it really well didn't she?

To echo HSP, I'm really sorry for your news. :(

Stephany said...

She knew you loved her. Take solace in that.

Em said...

sorry to hear that robert. what secrets we all hide, and why? its not something to be ashamed of, its life.xxxx

rosiero said...

So sorry to read this.

Robert said...

Cc - I have also wondered why no-one told me about my aunt's condition. There was no real need to tell me when I was a child, I guess. Her agoraphobia wasn't very severe - she could walk around her area and travel in a car (although I don't know how far) - so it didn't affect her life in a really major way. But when I became an adult, why wasn't it mentioned then? Perhaps she spent her life hiding it? It's all just speculation. I could ask my cousin, but since he couldn't be arsed to advise me that his mum was going into a nursing home, and, later, that she had died...well, I doubt if I'll ever talk to him again.

Lots of agoraphobics suffer in private, don't they? And the housebound ones are totally invisible. Scary.

Robert said...

Em - "...what secrets we all hide, and why? its not something to be ashamed of..." It's the desire which we all have - to a greater or lesser extent - to fit in/belong/run with the herd/conform, which makes us all feel ashamed that we're different and hide it. Don't you have that desire?

Robert said...

Stephany and rosiero - I can't get this picture out of my head - my aunt on her deathbed without a familiar person to comfort her... Thanks for the kind words.

Coffeecup said...

Robert your comment to Em, so true, so well observed. It occured to me tonight that it's self consciousness that makes the home feel like the safest place, as no one sees what happens inside it's private walls. Who wants strangers to see them panicking and vulnerable?

PS. Not knowing was not your fault. Take care x

♥ Kathy said...

Oh, I am so sorry. That is heartbreaking.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

Your last comment in the post about how you would have flown over to see her had you known is something a lot of people could say very easily but since coming to know you through your blog I know that is from the heart. I'm sure if there is some way for those who have passed on to know such things she is wearing a smile of content.

I do think there is a big difference in attitude between generations. Your aunt no doubt would have been suffering no less than anyone else with agoraphobia but I can't help feeling they were so much tougher mentally. Maybe its the events of those eras they grew up in or maybe just the attitude instilled or even the fact that today we are much more open about mental issues. Whatever the reason you have to admire how they can hide it so well and live a normal existence in the eyes of others.

When you come into contact with people who have anxiety problems it is amazing how it opens your eyes to other people. I see it myself with members of my own famiy- my uncle for example didn't travel up to his mum's funeral but sent his wife instead.

The move to a home must have been terrible for her. I can well imagine that. Able to cope while calling the shots and keeping yourself in a comfortable environment. But I know how impossible for me it would be to be taken out of that never mind after so many decades of the same surrounds.

All the best and sorry for your loss,


Robert said...

Cc - "...self consciousness...makes the home feel like the safest place..." Absolutely! None of us wants to embarrass ourselves in public!

Thanks for the kind thought in your last paragraph.

Robert said...

Nechtan - I don't know whether or not previous generations were tougher mentally. I know that when I was a kid, all people with disabilities were viewed differently (in Ireland). Their disability was often referred to as a punishment from God - what for was never quite clear. They were a little bit subhuman - they had to stay in the family home and earn their keep by carrying out menial tasks, but thoughts about relationships were was thought that the next generation might be disabled, too. You can see why folk would hide their disability as much as possible, can't you?

Since my aunt had to be sedated to move her to her nursing home, she must have been really anxious. Her last days must have been tortuous for her.

Thanks for your concern.

Robert said...

Kathy - Your sympathy is much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

I forgot all about that punishment mentality. That sounds spot on. There are nowadays certainly a lot less god fearing types. What a pressure that must have been for anyone and I can only imagine it would have stripped any confidence they had.

Your aunt's move sends shivers down my spine. I've had that scenario in my head many times. Its sounds so silly but for me to go to hospital I would have to be heavily sedated and stay that way. I can feel the distress that must have put her under.

All the best


Robert said...

Nechtan - What you would need to get to the hospital doesn't sound silly at all. You might be interested to learn that when Marie was about 18 and housebound, she had to go to hospital and required sedation before she could get into the ambulance. Once there, coming round in a safe environment and unable to choose where she could be, she accepted the situation and further sedation was not required.

It's one of those "it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be" moments.

Kit Courteney said...

How sad for you and your family.

You paint a beautiful picture of your aunt, Robert. And as Nechtan said, your words were far from empty.

I'm sorry for your loss.

Sapphyre said...

Robert, I have read every entry in your blog and enjoyed each one. Even this somewhat sad one. I hope your aunt is a guardian angel now, no longer afraid, whizzing around keeping an eye on her nephew and his family :)

I too keep finding out family secrets. I think they just forget to tell us when we become adults. You mean my evil cousin J is not related by blood because Uncle G married a woman with a child? And Uncle T is only your half brother, Dad? And Grandpa's parents weren't married?

My workmate S found out his Nan had depression at her funeral. That explains a lot, he said.

I think we Carers and anxiety sufferers (I'm both) need to be braver, and tell our stories more often. Your village sounds great, apart from the fact it's on the other side of the world!

Graham said...

KC - Thanks for the kind words.

Sapphire - Wow! You read every one? You must have had a lot of free time, lol. Did you know that I have been following your blog for most of its life? Good to see you here! You're right, of course, that people hide whatever will (they imagine) make others think worse of them or their families. So it's pretty common to find out family "secrets" after someone's death. After the death of one of my aunts, I was told that not only was she an adopted child (and therefore not really my aunt at all), but also that she was the illegitimate daughter of the black sheep of the family - a great uncle I had never heard of.