Losing Mum

Recent data from Carers UK suggested that the pressures of caring for an elderly or infirm relative are causing 1.5 million people in the UK to leave their jobs. The report suggested that 15% of the adult population is now ‘working and caring’ and these responsibilities often go unnoticed in the workplace. The ‘sandwich generation’ (those who are also caring for children) inevitably feel a double burden, and many of them are experiencing poor mental health from the pressure. The research prompted me to revisit the difficult period working full-time when my Mum fell ill, to add my voice to those who are campaigning for a complete overhaul of the social care system and greater support for unpaid carers. 

The 9th March will be the second anniversary of my Mother’s death. At 79, Mum was an independent woman, who lived alone with very little support. I helped with the groceries every week and popped in regularly after work; however, Mum had no cognitive impairment and, although quite frail, led an active life, enjoying hobbies and a bustling social life. She was a petite, well-spoken woman, with silvery-white hair, hazel-brown eyes and a warm smile. She was a proud member of Exeter Cathedral’s Company of Tapisers and contributed for many years to stitching and needlework, making and repairing the Cathedral garments and kneelers. On the evening of the 16th November 2015, Mum fell over in her apartment and sustained an injury to her brain. Or, should I say, we think that she fell over that evening, but we can’t be sure because it wasn’t until the morning of the 17th that the building manager discovered her, dazed and confused, with an enormous black eye.  We don’t know if she’d made it to bed that night, but we do know that she’d attempted to cook a meal for herself – we found a bag of defrosted frozen peas in the cutlery drawer and an uncooked Bird’s Eye Chicken Pie (complete with tin-foil casing) in the microwave. There was a waste-paper bin full of blood-stained tissues, indicating that she’d tried to attend to her wound; however, she’d not pressed her alarm bracelet, so no-one knew that she needed help. 

I was in London, about to attend the Being Human Festival to give a talk about masculinity and mental health, when I received a call to say that Mum needed to be admitted to hospital – so I abandoned my talk and caught the first available train back to Exeter. My sons accompanied Mum to the hospital, and I found them waiting there when I arrived. Mum thought she was in Penzance, the place she had previously called home for over thirty years, but the most recent ten years of her life in Exeter had disappeared almost entirely from her memory. She seemed to think that we’d fallen over together, while walking along a pavement. She couldn’t remember the month, or the year – and tried eating her hospital supper with her fork upside down. The next day, she fared very badly on the Addenbrookes Cognitive Examination, which made her distressed because she was desperately confused and didn’t understand why she was being asked to remember and repeat the address: Harry Barnes, 73 Orchard Close, Kingsbridge, Devon (an address that is now etched firmly on my memory, which might give me a head start if one day I too lose my mind). 

Mum had sustained an injury to the eye socket and the frontal lobe. A subarachnoid hemorrhage had caused memory loss and anxiety - impairment that we were told might be temporary, but sadly never improved. She was discharged after 10 days, barely able to dress herself or use the toilet. I tried to keep Mum in her own home for several months, with carers visiting three times a day. These were the most exhausting months of my life. Overnight, I became entirely responsible for another adult individual. The carers were excellent, but Mum was confused and upset in her apartment, wanting me to be there with her all of the time. I soon began to collate a long list of names and important numbers for clinics, carers, doctors, physios and podiatrists. During my lunch break, I’d check in with my to-do lists, which included hospital appointments, memory clinics, food shopping, pharmacy collection, bills and banking. Mum didn’t understand who the carers were; got confused about when they were coming; and couldn’t remember whether or not she had eaten her meals. Reminder notes were futile because she couldn’t seem to process information; similarly, she was unable to focus on the whiteboard I bought to help her identify daily routines. The number of items in the laundry basket spiraled as she didn’t know whether she’d worn something or not. In between meetings at work, I’d return dozens of missed calls and answerphone messages – most of the calls were asking me where I was and when I would be there next with her. 

Mayhem and madness

After two hospital admissions and several months trying to cope at home with a care-plan, I was exhausted.  I was a full-time academic, and the pressure was immense. As an only child, I remember praying that my 82-year-old Father in Cornwall, continued to recover well from his recent aortic valve replacement, since my one pair of hands were stretched to the limit. The year that followed was the hardest of my life. Making the difficult decision to move Mum to a care home, packing up and selling her apartment – and facing the combined incompetence of the social care system, the DWP and the Office of the Public Guardian, pushed me close to the edge. Mum never settled in the care home, roundly blaming me for being unable to look after her full-time. She was housed in the dementia wing; however, Mum didn’t have dementia and we were all misinformed about her brain injury, the impact of which, I now know, was very different from dementia. She was angry and aggressive yet retained remarkable intellect. This made her behaviour hard to understand. Some days I could hear her shouting when I arrived in the car park. As I entered the building, the staff and residents would only have to glance at me, and I could gauge the degree to which she had disturbed the equilibrium of the home that day. I once arrived to find she’d locked herself in the toilet with an ironing board and had to be released by a maintenance man with a screwdriver. On another occasion, I found her shouting loudly in the foyer, that there had ‘been a murder in the night’. After only one week, a wireless heat pad I’d bought to help warm her cold feet caught fire while charging in her room. Inevitably it was confiscated, and she earned the unenviable reputation of being ‘the one who nearly burned the place down’. As a coping mechanism, I began to keep a ‘diary of dark humour’, which I shared with close friends, who seemed to connect with it and encouraged me to write more. Meanwhile, my Mother perfected the art of upsetting other residents. She was moved from table to table in the dining room, eventually settling with three male residents who were virtually catatonic and less likely to react to her provocation. Joan, a lady with well-advanced dementia, became particularly adversarial and used to sit in the communal areas poking my Mother with her walking stick, calling her ‘the pig’.  

Items went missing from Mum’s room. Her handbag was discovered across the corridor under another resident’s bed and I often arrived to find framed photographs of somebody else’s grandchildren on her shelf. Betty, a small woman with dementia, would pace up and down the corridor outside Mum’s room and come in if the door was open. She’d be dressed in her underpants, which were always on top of her trousers. For some reason, she’d tuck several pairs of socks into her waist band and they would sway from side to side as she marched up and down the hall. Mum, who was previously an immaculately presented woman, soon stopped having her hair washed and refused showers. She found no pleasure in music, radio, television or audiobooks. Her mood was often irascible, and we could not even placate her with activities or massage. Some days she would hurl hurtful abuse at me, other days she would sink into deep depression. She started eating less and in the late summer of 2016, she took to her bed and refused to get up. By January 2017, Mum weighed five stone. During every visit, I would find her in the foetal position, on her right side, with her right arm under her pillow and her left arm curled up under her chin. Every time I saw her, she asked me if she could die. I didn’t want her to die, but I didn’t want her to live in purgatory either. Neither did I know how to help her. Refusal of food and water was, I think, Mum’s last attempt to control her destiny. I’d arrive some days and the carers would greet me excitedly, telling me: ‘Good news! Your Mum’s had a Complan today’. Outwardly, I would try to look pleased and smile, but inside I would wonder whether this had simply prolonged her suffering by a few more days. I don’t believe she told the carers she wanted to die, but I heard the term ‘she’s turned her face to the wall’ spoken softly in the corridor on a few occasions.  I now know that this is a metaphor for someone who has withdrawn from life and is preparing to die – but no one explicitly had a conversation with me about this. In Britain, we are very bad talking about death, even when it is not far away. I visited the care home most days after work. Increasingly, I would find her asleep and, not wanting to wake her, I’d write her a message on her chalkboard and creep out quietly. As I passed her window to the car, I’d feel a visceral sense of grief, looking at the familiar trinkets on the windowsill and the silhouette of her tiny body in bed through the crack in the curtains. Each night, waiting at the level crossing on the way home, I’d phone my husband, usually in tears of desperation or despair. 

 Last breath

On the morning of the 9th March I received a call at work to say that Mum had deteriorated, and I was advised to come immediately. A colleague kindly took over my afternoon seminars and I left campus hastily. As I arrived at the care home, the sun was shining, and the daffodils had opened in the garden. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was struck by how incongruous that moment felt: the light and renewal of spring, contrasted uneasily with darkness and resolution – with what was inevitably to be the end of my Mother’s life behind the closed doors of the building. I sat with her all morning and my sons arrived at lunch time. She held their hands and we all huddled around the bed. Mum was now four and a half stone. We felt tearful, but oddly calm and collected. Outside the door, I could hear the musical activity session begin, and residents were singing rounds of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’, and ‘Run, Rabbit Run’. We took a break for some air, and when we returned, the lovely carer had rearranged Mum’s pillows and tightly cocooned her in sheets and blankets. She looked comfortable and at peace for the first time in 14 months. She was asking for me and I held her hand. Her breathing became soft, shallow and irregular. After about twenty minutes, it stopped altogether, and her small frame lay motionless. Mum’s passing was strangely beautiful, and in complete contrast to the pain and anguish of the preceding months. As we left Mum’s room, one of the residents, clearly energised by the singing activity, was singing ‘Zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ in the corridor. It was truly a bizarre moment, as my Mother’s body lay in the bedroom behind us.  

Everyone’s trying their best to care for a loved one but they’re often at breaking point
— Age UK


One month after Mum’s death, I was driving to work, listening to Audible and the fascinating book, by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery. Marsh was recalling a discussion with a junior doctor about a patient with a frontal lobe brain injury. He said, ‘[The frontal lobes are] where all our social and moral behaviour is organized. You get a whole variety of altered social behaviours if the frontal lobes are damaged, almost unbearably for the worse . . . sudden outbursts of irrational behaviour are among the commonest. People who are previously kind and considerate become coarse and selfish, even though their intellect can be perfectly well preserved – the person who has frontal lobe damage, rarely has any insight into it . . . it’s terrible for the families – they are the real victims’. It was at that very moment that I finally understood what had happened to my Mother – why her behaviour was so out of character, yet her intellect seemed completely intact – and why the approach used for dementia patients was so ineffective. I pulled over into a layby and sat quietly for a moment. I felt sad and frustrated that no one had had time to talk to me at the hospital and no one had explained that Mum’s injury might affect her impulse control and inhibition as well as her memory. I don’t think I handled her outbursts particularly well. I found them painful and alarming, and often left the care home feeling abused. I was shocked that gaining clarity about my Mother’s decline was completely serendipitous, and that I only gained a full understanding about what had happened to her because I had chosen to listen to the memoirs of a retired brain surgeon. Mostly, individual carers, nurses and doctors were dedicated, kind and empathetic; however, they were all fire-fighting, constrained within a health and social care system at breaking point. At the end of it all, I did feel that, beyond the immediate exigencies of pain relief and the preservation of dignity, the broader psychological needs of elderly people are neglected. So too are the practical and emotional needs of relatives and carers. Looking back at that period, I coped only because of the support of my family and friends. I’m not really sure how I managed to keep working. I had a few days off here and there for hospital discharges and during times of heightened chaos, but never seriously considered giving up my job. However, the cumulative effect of the stress was beginning to make me ill. It wasn’t until my Father, at 84, experienced a health crisis last June and was hospitalized with sepsis, 120 miles away, for 11 weeks, that I realised my own sanity was in jeopardy. However, that is a story for another day! 

I am grateful to have parents who have lived to a good age, and realise that many are not so fortunate. I also acknowledge that many (if not most) of my generation are living through similar difficulties – mine was not an isolated experience, and for some, the intractable pain and distress is even worse. At least my Mother’s decline was relatively short. Some of her fellow residents had been leading a poor quality of life in the care home for many years. However, my Mother’s decline brought me first hand experience of the current care crisis. I was lucky to have the resources and skills to provide advocacy for my Mother, but I often wondered how those less fortunate than me were able to navigate the complicated support systems, which seem to be designed to obstruct you at every turn. I also realised that neither of my parents had wanted to talk about end of life care, leaving me in a financially and emotionally perilous situation when they were suddenly incapacitated. As a society, we have only begun to engage with these important issues, and in England, we still await the delayed Government Green Paper on Social Care. As Age UK demonstrate, the system is underfunded - services are something of a postcode lottery, and 1.2 million people aged 65 plus don’t receive the care support they need with essential living activities. In the end, it falls to family members to care with little or no support. I would urge everyone to watch this short video from Age UK and to lobby their local MP for real change.

The language of loneliness

In September 2017 I partnered with Exeter City Community Trust & the Sporting Memories Foundation to develop a ‘Sporting Memories’ reminiscence group for older men in Exeter. Our remit was to target men over 50, who, for a variety of reasons, might have found themselves lonely or isolated – or challenged by physical or mental health problems. We meet every Wednesday morning for two hours, and use a range of sporting memorabilia to stimulate social interaction, foster friendship and promote wellbeing. It also involves lots of tea, coffee, cake and laughter. Looking back 16 months later, we could never have imagined what a wonderful success it would be, and what a dramatic effect it would have on the participants’ lives. Reflecting on recent months, I’ve been thinking a great deal about what we really mean by ‘loneliness’, what causes it, and how we might work to overcome it.  

In recent years, we have begun to talk a lot about negative effects of loneliness. Age UK’s latest work suggests that by 2026 there will be 2 million people over 50 in England who will often feel lonely, which will have a direct effect on their quality of life and wellbeing. A host of legitimate reasons have been posited for this trend. Among other things, they include: the loss of cohesive communities; urbanisation; the rise of the two-partner income; secularisation; family breakdown; and social media. We also know that you do not have to be ‘alone’ to feel lonely. Being trapped in an unhealthy relationship, or in unfulfilling work can also prompt powerful feelings of isolation. Research into the impact of loneliness suggests that it has a deleterious effect on physical and mental health, with its effect on mortality comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity, and cigarette smoking.  Although the association with older, isolated people is anchored most firmly in our cultural consciousness, the problem is not exclusive to elderly people. The recent BBC Loneliness Experiment suggested that young people were most likely to be affected. 40% of 16 to 24-year-olds who took part in the survey claimed that they often - or very often - felt lonely, compared with 27% of over-75s. I had some concerns about this data, since this was a self-selecting, online survey, which is likely to have influenced the number of older people who heard about the study in the first place. Online questionnaires can also present something of an obstacle to older people who may not have access to (or be proficient using) the internet. Nevertheless, we should be mindful that evidently, this problem can affect anyone – at any stage of life. In response to these concerns, the Government has appointed the world’s first Minister for Loneliness, and, continuing the wonderful work of Jo Cox, published its policy paper, A Connected Society: A Strategy for Tackling Loneliness – the Government’s ‘first major contribution to the national conversation on loneliness and the importance of social connections’.

 The knotty language of loneliness

As a historian, I’m always a little hesitant when contemporary social and cultural anxieties are presented in the language of ‘catastrophe’, or as something ‘new’. I’m sure there are people who have felt lonely, for one reason or another, in every generation. Howeverin this case, historians do seem to agree that the use of the word in its modern sense dates relatively recently to the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the word conveyed a sense of physical or geographical isolation and did not carry the psychological and emotional connotations it does today. So, how might we better understand the concept and causes of loneliness a little better, and work towards a practical solution? Based on my experience facilitating the Sporting Memories group, I would begin by suggesting that the modern language of loneliness and isolation is perhaps unhelpful – or at least inadequate to describe the essence of what many of our participants are experiencing. Although a couple of members live alone, most are in fact not lonely, or alone; to the contrary, they are surrounded by loving families and friends. However, physical or psychological illness has meant they can perhaps no longer participate in activities they once enjoyed. They find that their identity has been absorbed by their medical condition; consequently, they find themselves disconnected from familiar social circles. Others feel undervalued or invisible. They might be relatively active from day to day, but no-one seems to have the time to care or connect on an emotional level about challenges they face. While individual caregivers may provide excellent service, the statutory support systems within which they operate are complex and sometimes dispassionate. A few of our participants played sport to a professional level in the past; others occupied senior roles during their working lives. All of them have led interesting lives in one way or another. Yet, I sense somehow that they feel their selfhood has faded and fallen away; encounters with others are framed too often by a negative discourse of deterioration, as opposed to one of optimism and hope. So, when they speak the language of loneliness, participants are often articulating a complex range of emotional responses to contemporary life. They feel a lack of connection with other people; they sense that they are undervalued and invisible; they perceive that others see their generation’s views and concerns as illegitimate; and most of all, they sense a lack of compassion in everyday human interactions.

Sporting Memories Christmas lunch 2018, with volunteers

Sporting Memories Christmas lunch 2018, with volunteers

The value of physical touch

I also noticed, soon after we first organised the group, that the participants began to reach out for a kiss on the cheek or an embrace on arrival/departure. Physical touch within professional boundaries is now a topic so fraught with contention and controversy, that this was at the forefront of my mind in my role as facilitator. However, I have never objected to appropriate touch for communication purposes or affection. It seems to have assisted us greatly building trust and warmth with group members and I look forward to the joy of these physical greetings. We also engage with participants by holding a hand or giving a warm hug during occasions when a memory, recording or photograph prompts laughter or tears. Physical contact seems to add greatly to the depth of the moment. In her book The Value of Touch, Tiffany Field demonstrates the importance of affectionate touch, and conversely, the negative effects of touch deprivation – now increasingly common in our society, where physical affection might be misinterpreted or misconstrued as abuse. This all seems lamentable, when the gains from physical affection are evident. Indeed, touch and massage have been used since the time of ancient Greek medicine, one technique among others that was employed to restore balance, promote wellbeing and prevent disease. As modern medicine increasingly focuses on treatment as opposed to prevention – and as touch has become taboo, we are in danger of underestimating the power and importance of physical touch and affection.

Cultivating connection

In political and philosophical circles, such concerns inevitably lead to questions about who is responsible for fostering a society in which people feel valued and connected. Commentators increasingly highlight the association between ‘neo-liberalism’, unregulated capitalism and high rates of mental illness and loneliness. Critiques that suggest consumerism and social media cultivate dissatisfaction and insecurity are surely valid. Vance Packard warned us back in the 1950s, that manufacturers and advertisers increasingly probed people’s subsurface desires and needs, to identify ‘vulnerability’ and create new or insatiable demands for their consumer products. It is also true that the high cost of homeownership/rent, the rise of precarious employment and reorganisation of the benefit system, has placed unrelenting pressure on individuals, couples and families. The marketisation of health, social care and education, has situated financial profit at the core of our most fundamental institutions. I can personally attest to the damaging effects of feeling undervalued and disconnected, as the HE sector became increasingly preoccupied with rankings, metrics and performance indicators.

Notwithstanding these macro-level concerns, I have always believed that there is much that we can do to take care of each other at a local level. The concept of ‘social prescribing’, for example, needs to be more firmly embedded in our medical model of general practice. Social prescribing aims to refer patients looking for a medical solution to a social or emotional problem, to groups or organisations locally, to encourage them to foster new interests and friendships. In my local area, the city employs an Asset-Based Community Development approach, whereby Community Builders work to identify local needs and resources, and Community Connectors aim to introduce vulnerable individuals to activities and organisations that will help them gain confidence and promote wellbeing. However, as my experience with Sporting Memories demonstrates, simply providing groups and activities will not be sufficient. We must all work hard to listen, understand and act upon the nuanced causes of disconnection. 

I also believe we could all do more at an individual level. Facilitating our reminiscence group has caused me to reflect on my own past, and the limited time I spent giving back to the community, when rushing around working full-time with a large brood of children and elderly parents to oversee. Now, finally immersed in a community project that has tangible impact, I realise how important it is to give something back, if and when one can. The positive impact is reciprocal. My co-founder/facilitator Pete and I both say that the love and laughter in the group raises our spirits each week. We can’t change the world. We cannot reduce the waiting list for a participant’s hip replacement, but we can demonstrate that someone cares about them while they wait.  We can all encourage friendship and resilience, make it our business to check in on family, colleagues and neighbours - and potentially have a powerful influence on someone’s quality of life.

*Sincere thanks go to Pete Ferlie, the amazing Exeter City Community Trust and the Sporting Memories Foundation for embarking on this fantastic project with me!

References and reading

Fay Bound Alberti, ‘This “Modern Epidemic”: Loneliness as an Emotion Cluster and a Neglected Subject in the History of Emotions’, Emotion Review, 10 (3), 242-54.

John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). (An evolutionary theory of loneliness.)

Tiffany Field, The Value of Touch (Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2014).

Yohann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). (Nothing particularly ‘new’ - and Hari’s previous work was discredited due to poor intellectual rigour; however, there are some good points about ‘connection’.)

Tom Lee, Loneliness, The History of Emotions Blog (June 2018)


Stand by your man

On the evening of Sunday 18th November, I was putting the finishing touches to my blog on men’s mental health and suicide, which was to be posted first thing the following day for International Men’s Day.  I was also preparing a talk that I was due to deliver on the same topic that week.  As I tweaked my slides and notes that evening, my husband and I fell silent upon receiving the devastating news that two of our oldest and most loved friends – and neighbours for over 20 years – had lost their son to suicide.  Not only did it somehow seem inappropriate to post my blog as planned the next day, I felt completely unable to finish what I had started to write.  

A week later, and I still feel almost unable to process their terrible news, or to write with respectable distance on the subject.  However, I have decided to edit my original blog, and post it a little later than planned. The brutal reality is that, since the 18th November, approximately 84 more men will have ended their own lives in the UK. In 2017, 4694 men and 1519 women died by suicide. It is positive news that the overall rate since 2017 has decreased by 2.9%, and that the Government has appointed a Minister for Suicide Prevention; however, these figures are still shocking, and also mask regional variations. Wales, for example, saw a rise of 11.5%, and a recent study suggested that Polish men living in Scotland seem to be particularly at risk.  Overall, suicide is still three times more common in men than in women (Samaritans, 2018).

The longer view

When I began research on male mental health back in 2009, few people were talking about it. Debates focused on the long-held, popular link between femininity and irrationality, and on studies which suggested that women were more likely than men to be diagnosed with depressive and anxiety disorders.  During the 1990s, and following on from the emergence of women’s studies, academics had begun to explore the concept of ‘masculinity’. However, even this was controversial from the outset, because, in a world where women still had so much yet to gain in terms of equality with men, the risk was that it might be viewed somehow as anti-feminist. Despite such tensions, a burgeoning scholarship emerged on what it means (and has meant), to ‘be’ a man. Yet, the ways in which men have coped with professional, personal and emotional pressures are still less well understood. My work, which focused on the period from the 1950s onward, sought to examine these factors. In brief, I concluded that there were a number of reasons why male emotional and psychological distress has often remained undetected in the community, leading to the risk that men are likely to reach crisis point without intervention.  For a start, the association between psychological disorder and ‘weakness’ has been particularly problematic for men who most likely feel stigma more acutely than women and are reluctant to admit to vulnerability.  Men have historically been more likely to present with physical symptoms, such as backache, insomnia or stomach disorders, that often have a psychological cause. Sometimes these are misdiagnosed, since they are often ill-defined and do not fit well within the clinical parameters for psychological disorder. Men are also more likely than women to use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate for emotional distress.  These problems often remain hidden, until they begin to cause physical illness or social problems.  If men do seek help for emotional problems, gender stereotyping still compounds difficulties in diagnosis. Female gender still predicts prescription of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.  In the UK, training for GPs has remained largely unaltered for 30 years – most GPs receive very little training in psychological medicine and are largely unprepared for the kinds of psychological illness they will face in the community. Historically, there have also been widescale missed opportunities to detect poor male mental health at work.   The occupational health model in the UK has focused largely on specific occupational diseases with a lack of emphasis on prevention – exacerbated by a focus on productivity and absenteeism.

Current concerns

Recent research suggests that relationship breakdown, debt, unemployment and economic downturn present particular difficulties for men, leading to the risk of a mental health crisis. It also suggests that services might be inherently feminised, in that women greatly outnumber men as psychological service providers, which might be off-putting to men who seek help. Yet knowing all this means that there is much that we can do and much that is being done.  We know the arenas in which men are particularly at risk, and can therefore educate staff working in Jobcentre Plus, local housing offices and for debt counselling organisations. Currently, various packages of suicide awareness training are available, offered by different providers.  All employers should think about providing this (see links below).  And for those of us not working for an organisation, there is a useful online course, that only takes 20 minutes. For those working in universities and colleges, we should be aware that poor mental health might present very differently in male and female students.  From my experience, female students were more likely to seek pastoral advice and engage with support; whereas, male students were more likely to skip class, fail to submit work or fail to respond to emails. I investigated these students – and those whose grades suddenly dropped unexpectedly – with perhaps greater concern than those who had taken the first step in coming to see me.  We can all play a role in prompting change – as colleagues, neighbours, friends and family members, we can keep an eye on people we’re concerned about, and never be frightened to ask specifically if they have thought about taking their own life. 

And finally

In recent years, the rhetoric of ‘toxic masculinity’ has been hugely counterproductive.  Associating ‘masculinity’ per se with misogyny, lad culture, dominance, violence and sexual aggression means that we risk demonising all men instead of asking important questions about the cultural, social and emotional causes which invariably lead to ‘damaged’ men.  We underemphasise the negative impact of poverty, poor education and lack of positive role models on boys and men.  Collectively, these factors contribute to poor outcomes in male life expectancy and health literacy – and help explain why 95% of the prison population is male.  The current context is also acutely sensitive. The #MeToo movement has rightly exposed longstanding abuses against women that are gravely serious and will hopefully lead to a culture change in some behaviours.  However, there is a risk that the ‘Weinstein moment’ might have the unintended consequence of propelling men and women (and scholarly interest) further in different directions. This would have serious ramifications. Recent debates about the wellbeing of trans and non-binary people have also made these concerns even more urgent. Bullying – and the trend in self harm and attempted suicide among these groups is worryingly high. 

Ultimately, we must not feel afraid, or feel that it is somehow politically incorrect, to highlight the needs of boys and men, wherever they are currently not being met. Drawing attention to areas where men need support is not anti-feminist and does not mean that we cannot keep lobbying for women’s rights in parallel. I stand in agreement with the Samaritans when they say that we can choose to stand together in the face of a society which may often feel like a lonely and disconnected place, and we can choose to make a difference by making lives more livable for anyone who struggles to cope.  

Useful links:

The Men and Boys Coalition

Men’s Health Forum


The Male Psychology Network


Grassroots suicide prevention training

Pete’s Dragons


Values, skills and purpose

In my second blog, I had planned to write about the skills I’d developed from working in academia. As academics, we know we are great at working to deadlines; brilliant at problem solving; and efficient at prioritising 💪. We ask important questions and understand the relevance of context. We communicate well – and those of us in the humanities usually have a gift for writing and arguing (my husband would agree on that final point).

But as I began thinking about this, I realised that there are now many excellent blogs, websites and podcasts that help grad students and postdocs identify the transferable skills developed through doctorate degrees and beyond (see links at the bottom of the page).  So instead, I’m going to focus on the process I went through trying to establish why I had begun to feel poorly suited to academia and how I could work out what might inspire me instead.  Initially, I was completely confused!  I appeared to have the skills to succeed in Higher Education and seemed to be performing well.  Although the workload was demanding, that wasn’t the core problem. I was managing.  I enjoyed teaching and loved my research.  Why did I feel empty and exhausted? To answer these questions, I sought the advice of Juliette Dyke, a career coach, who turned out to be instrumental in my decision to leave.  The fog and confusion gradually began to lift. Through a series of thought-provoking exercises, I was prompted to reflect, not only on my skills, but also on my values and my broader purpose.  These were difficult exercises and being guided through them by someone who had distance from my circumstances was essential to the success of the process. 


What emerged was revelatory to me. I realised that I’d focused for too long on my skills – I could do the job, therefore things should be fine! I’d wrongly assumed that my values were implicit in all that I did; however, I’d never really taken time to identify what they actually were. From a long list of values, I was tasked with choosing those that were most important to me. In no particular order, they were: integrity, acceptance, connectedness, compassion and humour. The need for continued growth/learning; the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle; and the need for joy were highly rated too. I realised that only one of those – the need for continued growth and learning – was being fulfilled effectively.

Looking back, I seem to have something of a chequered past when it comes to ‘values’.  When I passed my PhD, my Father, in typically offbeat style, marked the occasion by sending me a large parcel containing my old school reports. He said this was to remind me that ‘they were bloody awful’. As the Headmaster noted in my final school report (pictured), intellectual development wasn’t something I prioritised at the appropriate age. What he didn’t mention here though, was the volunteer work I did every weekend during term time.  Pupils were given the opportunity to sign up for ‘social service’ and were paired with a local residential home to befriend residents who felt isolated and alone.  My friend and I visited an elderly lady once a week, providing companionship and support.  I remember walking across the Clifton Downs, every Sunday morning, eating a packet of Garibaldi biscuits, and spending a good hour with this wonderful lady who had no family, and with whom we became very attached.  Evidently, my values didn’t chime particularly well with the Headmaster’s – and combined with my fiercely independent spirit, I got into plenty of trouble. But I’m not sure I agree with him that personal development should necessarily come second to intellectual achievement.  You’ll not be surprised to learn that, in the end, I was ‘better off somewhere else’. 



In recent years, I began to realise that my need for integrity – and authenticity – was being obstructed by the broad trends in Higher Education. The myriad agendas that drive the direction of research and teaching; national and institutional processes and policies; and the corporatisation of education had led to huge changes, some of which seemed arbitrary or inequitable and left me feeling uneasy. I also struggled with my need for acceptance and connection.  Academia is fiercely elitist/competitive, and I’m not!  I ask a huge amount of myself but have never been particularly worried whether or not that makes me more or less successful than anyone else.  Aiming for ‘stellar’ was exhausting. Let’s face it, at heart I’m just Devon’s worst female driver – an eccentric cat lady, with six children, who loves ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ and openly admits to seeing Riverdance on stage live seven times all over the UK and Ireland 🤭.  

As William Deresiewicz noted in his controversial article ‘The disadvantages of an elite education’, top universities focus on the brightest and the best, but the ‘brightest’, perhaps only in one sense.  Those with no university education, or those who attend less prestigious institutions, often have a more independent spirit, and may not excel academically because they are focused on projects and priorities outside the intellectual sphere. Graduates of elite institutions are not more valuable than those with no university education or anyone else. As Deresiewicz points out, ‘their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more’. These observations had begun to jar with me at a level deep within; however, they were hard to excavate and articulate, because few people speak out openly. I found myself wanting students to experience more ‘real world’ activities as part of their degree - and also to value rest and recreational time.

Finally, on a basic level, academia was frustrating my ability to look after my own health and spend time with my family.  Dina Glouberman, writing on burnout, suggests that we may lose heart in what we are doing because either we change, or the work changes.  From my perspective both were true.  On the one hand, my Mother’s death brought the importance of family, health and joy into sharp focus; on the other hand, academia was moving in a direction that increasingly clashed with my values.  As Glouberman pertinently noted, a lifestyle that once fitted, may no longer do so. ‘This way had come to an end’.  


In order to move forward, we worked on my ‘purpose’.  What motivated me? And how I could best use my skills to good use in an alternative field? Connecting with people to promote wellbeing and being an advocate for those who need social support emerged as things that motivate me. I also realised that my unusual journey through the education system had left me wondering what we mean by ‘intellectual’, or indeed ‘education’ -  and keen to raise important questions about this.  The coaching process marked the beginning of something new and prompted me to think of ways to use my skills working in the community - and in freelance writing and speaking. 

*For useful sites on transferable skills, see Jobs on Toast Beyond the Professoriate and The Recovering Academic


*My next blog will be in time for International Men’s Day, and I’ll be drawing on some of my past research to look historically at the important topic of men’s mental health and wellbeing.  

Educating Ali

The 21st September 2018 was my last day working as an academic at one of the UK’s top universities.  Unlike many on precarious temporary contracts, my post was permanent, and I consider myself very fortunate to have experienced a remarkably smooth journey through academia.  I was awarded prestigious fellowships; mentored by one of the top scholars in my field; and presented with a host of wonderful professional opportunities – all of which I embraced with passion. I’m therefore mindful of the fact that I resigned from a post that many would gladly seize – and I’m sure that, to some, my decision to leave must be a mystery. I’m deeply grateful to those who supported me and to colleagues I worked alongside for ten years. My journey has by and large been a positive one, so I hope that by the end of this post, my decision will be shrouded in a little less mystery. In future posts, I look forward to revisiting many of these themes again in more detail.

 From hairdresser to scholar

You might notice that the title of this blog is wordplay on Educating Rita – the brilliant stage play by Willy Russell, released as a motion film in 1985, starring Michael Caine and Julie Walters. I first watched this film in 1999, when studying on an ‘Access to Higher Education’ course.  ‘Access’ gave mature students, who wanted to return to education but had not completed A’ Levels, the opportunity to apply to university by an alternative route. Aside from the fact that Educating Rita was a brilliant film, my interest in it originated from a connection with ‘Rita’ (Julie Walters), who begins working life as a hairdresser, but yearns for a more fulfilling life and joins the Open University to study literature.  Frank (Michael Caine), her eccentric and alcoholic tutor, mentors Rita through this emotional journey, which changes her life irrevocably. I too left school at 16 and trained to be a hairdresser on the Youth Training Scheme (‘YTS’), as it was known then.  I married and had my first child at 19, and a second was born by the time I was 22. I can’t say I was as disillusioned with my life as Rita. Hairdressing was fun and convivial, and fulfilled my need for a creative outlet. We laughed a lot and were responsible for many shocking mullet haircuts and terrible perms! At 29, out of curiosity more than anything else, I decided I needed a change of direction. And so it was, at nearly 30, I completed my Access course and embarked upon a BA, joining several hundred other 18-year-olds to read history, full-time, as an undergraduate.  By this time, I had re-married and gained four step-children. My husband had been married twice before and our blended family comprised six children from three marriages, all with different routines, needs, likes and dislikes.  I’m not sure my husband and I quite understood the enormity of the task that faced us, but mostly it has been hilarious – and remarkably, we are still married 18 years later. (That story will be the subject of a forthcoming book!).

The ‘chalk board’, which has had pride of place in my kitchen for twenty years, documents each episode in the Haggett family drama. The boards will be making regular appearances on the blog!

The ‘chalk board’, which has had pride of place in my kitchen for twenty years, documents each episode in the Haggett family drama. The boards will be making regular appearances on the blog!

 As the only mature student, I felt isolated at university.  However, it wasn’t long before I was captivated by new ideas and theories, which overturned my existing perceptions about life and the world around me.  At times this was exhilarating – at other times disquieting. Like Rita, I was totally absorbed by the process of self-change and intellectual advancement. Like Rita too, this change began to shake my foundations.  Although my family and friends were very supportive of my pursuits, I began to feel distant from them.  They were business people. Why didn’t they want to read the books I’d discovered?  Why wouldn’t they ‘think like me’?  I remember crying at the point in Educating Rita, the movie, when Rita returns home to find that her husband Denny had burned all her books, fearful that he had ‘lost’ the girl he married.

 Life of the mind

Many years later in 2008, having been fortunate enough to secure studentships for a Masters and a PhD, I began work on a Research Fellowship, gradually extending my experience of teaching, research and academic administrative duties.  I settled well into the role, but always had a sense of restlessness and unease that I would forever be that square peg in the round hole.  My domestic life had moved into the new and noisy phase of teenagers.  With boyfriends and girlfriends in tow – overnight numbers sometimes peaked at fourteen. On a Friday or Saturday night, you never knew who you’d bump into in the bathroom. However, I was lucky that my husband did not resemble Rita’s Denny.  He didn’t burn my books; instead, he spent many hours erecting IKEA Billy Bookshelves for me to house my expanding collection. He was outstandingly supportive of my professional pursuits, working long hours himself running our village butchers/deli, while still tolerating my exhaustion, my general crabbiness and my patronising philosophical and political outbursts over dinner.  I can relate to Rita though, when she reflected sadly that ‘I see [Denny] lookin’ at me sometimes, an’ I know what he’s thinkin’ . . . he’s wonderin’ where the girl he married has gone to’.  Indeed, I often caught my husband looking at me wistfully – and on rare occasions (mostly likely when I was being particularly sanctimonious), he used to say that he wanted his ‘old Ali’ back.

 Increasingly, I found that my time available for hobbies and charity work reduced.  I resigned from a charity trustee role that was important to me.  I abandoned my fitness plan – Dr Haggett slowly morphed into Dr Blobby, because there was always something to grade, or something to write that was overdue.  There was always ‘that email’, or a reference request, or the book review that I’d promised ages ago. The research and publication targets loomed large, and the idea that our research should resonate more effectively in the real world emerged as the ‘Impact and Public Engagement’ agenda.  This was something that I loved and instinctively connected with but felt other obligations at work left me with little time to engage effectively with the world outside university. Administration systems that were implemented to make life simpler, in fact made life more complicated. At the same time, professional support services contracted.  Students appeared to be struggling with increasingly serious mental health problems, and the pastoral role that I loved became emotionally demanding. Understandably, the EU Referendum and two general elections generated a tense political atmosphere, which I found hard to endure. I was uncomfortable with the discourse of the ‘expert’ – the outpourings of opinion, which increasingly prioritised intellectual knowledge over the experiences of ordinary people – an approach which, to me, seemed destined to divide opinions further. During this period, my elderly, divorced parents fell ill.  My Mother sustained a frontal lobe brain injury from a fall. She died eighteen months later in considerable distress.  Our house fell down (more on that in future posts) and my 85-year-old Father contracted sepsis.  I drank a lot of wine. My waistline expanded further, and my hair went completely grey. (Thankfully, like Rita, I possessed the skills to dye my own hair.)

 I began to feel disconnected with the ‘life of the mind’.  Although I had developed a formidable set of skills, the work began to feel abstruse and obscure.  My intellectual intelligence was in danger of damaging my emotional intelligence and my creative ability. As John Stuart Mill once said of his own mental crisis, I felt stranded, ‘with a well-equipped ship and rudder, but no sail - without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for’. 

 New directions

My community work, which aimed to improve the psychological and physical health of older men in the local area, kept me grounded. I came home from our group sessions every week feeling nourished and rewarded. I began to realise that I had learned as much, if not more, from those I encountered outside the ivory tower – from those passionate people in the third sector with whom I’d collaborated; from those with the lived experience of mental illness who had so generously donated their time to my projects; from the participants who had contributed to my oral history projects; from my Mother’s elderly friends and health workers who were so kind during her illness – and from my Husband, my friends and my children. I began to wonder if Frank had been right to warn Rita that, in order to become an intellectual, she might have to suppress, or even abandon, her uniqueness. She would have to change.  I had certainly changed and abandoned some of my uniqueness. My old life was less learned, but more honest. I had cultivated ‘knowledge’; however, my wisdom had come from elsewhere. 

 One morning in July, I got up feeling exhausted, to make the 120-mile journey to visit my Father in hospital. I realised that my soul was quietly asking me to change my life. I knew that morning that I needed to leave academia to prioritise my own wellbeing and to work in a field that harmonised with not only my skills, but my values too.  There is much that I will miss about university and remain associated in an honorary capacity.  I will continue with freelance research and publishing but look forward to developing my community work on wellbeing.  I shall be expanding on some of these issues in future blogs and will also be documenting my journey into alternative work.  The blogs will be infused with humour, as I bring back some of that ‘uniqueness’.  Laughter has been my medicine through this memorable journey.

 Does my experience resonate with anyone?  Do you find yourself well-equipped for a role that you don’t feel ‘fits’ you very well? I’d be pleased to hear from you!