Lancashire born author Catherine Simpson's new memoir about her sister has a message - it's time to talk about mental health
“If my book can help I would be very glad”. Catherine Simpson tells Fiona Finch how she hopes her memoir, prompted by grief at the loss of her sister, will help other families talk about their problems.
Coping with the loss of a sibling is something noone wants to contemplate. But coping when that brother or sister has died as a result of suicide must surely take grief to a new and even more terrible place.
Catherine Simpson recalls clearly the moment she heard that the body of her younger sister Tricia had been discovered at the Lancashire farmhouse where they grew up.
She says: “It was a total shock, like an out of body experience and it took ages for that shock to recede.”
Tricia, 46, had suffered from mental health problems for decades and had taken her own life.
The family had lived for so long with the worry and concern about Tricia. They had trusted and hoped their love, medication and visits from mental health experts would keep her from harm.
Now Catherine, a writer and journalist, has shared her family’s story and how their world was turned upside down in December 2013 in a moving memoir entitled ‘When I had a Little Sister’. It documents their family life growing up in Winmarleigh, near Garstang with third sister Elizabeth, and attending secondary school in Garstang. It recalls good times and bad and documents Tricia’s many passions, ranging from music and horses to fashion, farming and her pets.
It also raises big questions about how those who are mentally ill can be best helped and cared for and how such illness merits more open discussion.
Catherine acknowledges how mental illness affects not just the individual, but all their family too and says the book is a way of reaching out to such families.
She said: “I’m saying that you are not alone, that there are other families who have been through this and other families going through this. It is so isolating, it can be very frightening and confusing - you don’t know what to do, you don’t know how to help and you do feel isolated. I want to say you’re not alone and to talk about it.”
The book has a telling subtitle: ‘The story of a farming family who never spoke.’
Catherine details her parents’ exceptionally busy working life tending the farm and notes: “We weren’t very good at talking about things.” She recalls her late mother Margaret was not one to talk about issues. She describes her father Stuart, as an emotional man: “My father still cries about his mother dying when he was 12, but that didn’t allow us to talk about the emotions.
We didn’t have the words. We didn’t talk about feelings. I think we were probably quite common in that time and that place - we just got on with it. My dad still cries about Tricia (picturedleft) as well. I showed him the book cover and just saw him wipe tears...but that doesn’t give us the tools to talk about things and certainly not mental health. The less we talk about it the more frightening it becomes and talking about it does demystify the whole thing.”
Catherine lives with her own family in Edinburgh and describes how when visiting the farm Tricia would be sometimes on good form, playing with Catherine’s children and getting the quad bike out. Other times she would not even answer the door or come out of the farmhouse. By this time their parents had moved to a bungalow nearby: “Then I would have to drive back to Scotland and think ‘what should I have done?’ I never really had the answer.”
If she had the time again, Catherine says she would have sought to listen and let her sister know she was loved rather than trying to fill the silence with advice. “We tried to help Tricia. Looking back I was trying to fix things for her - I really regret that.”
She thinks there were too many questions, do you need to see the doctor, have you taken your prescription - and maybe not enough listening. Catherine trained as a journalist at the polytechnic in Preston (now UCLan) and has already had one book published, ‘Truestory’, a novel which draws on her experience of having a daughter with autism. Writing the memoir was, she says: “Trying somehow come to terms with what happened.”
Tricia had kept diaries for many years. After she died Catherine could not look at the diaries immediately. But a few years later, due to attend a writing retreat, her planned project was not ready and she decided to read them: “I hadn’t come to terms with it. I thought ‘I need to tackle this head on.’”
It was a week before she opened them, full of apprehension at what she might find. To her relief she recalls there were good as well as sad things.
Catherine started writing about their childhood and says of the book: “It was a relief to write it, cathartic. It felt as though Tricia was there with me doing it. Every time she mentioned a song (in her diary) I found that song and listened to it, Her diaries started in 1981. It was like being played back in time...time travelling as though she was there with me.”
By the end of the month-long retreat she had written 30,000 words and it took another year to finish the first draft. Further work followed, aided by mentoring from the Scottish Book Trust.
Catherine says her family supported her writing the book and stresses: “Tricia was a lovely person. She was very, very ill but I want her to be remembered.”
It was, says Catherine, really hard to finish the memoir, another ending, but she hopes it will help other people in the future: “I hope that the book helps other struggling families feel that they are not alone. Dealing with mental health is very isolating and if it can help with that I would be very glad. I also hope it encourages other families to openly discuss pressing difficulties rather than struggling on in silence.
“You’re never going to get over it. You can’t get over it. You can learn to live with it."
* ‘When I Had A Little Sister’ has been published to great acclaim by 4th Estate at £14.99. Catherine has also narrated the e-book version.