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Helen - Interview 6

Age at interview: 53
Brief Outline: Helen's daughter, Charlotte, had mental health problems. When Charlotte was 30 she was found dead in her flat. She may have taken an overdose or may have taken her own life. Helen has been well supported. She also finds comfort by helping homeless people.
Background: Helen is a warden of a student hostel. She is divorced and has 1 grown-up daughter. She had another daughter who died. Ethnic background/nationality: White British.

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Helen’s daughter, Charlotte, was well until she was aged about 15. Then she used cannabis and started to have mental health problems. She managed to complete a foundation year in art at a local college but at times she became “psychotic”. Sometimes she thought her mother was trying to harm her. Charlotte used other drugs and was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Gradually she felt better and left hospital and started a degree course, but she soon had to leave because she became unwell and started hearing voices.
 
Charlotte also had psychotherapy for a long time, and sometimes felt more positive. However, the “good times” only lasted a few weeks, and she often felt very depressed.
 
Charlotte was then diagnosed with “probable schizophrenia” and was admitted to hospital on four occasions. Later she was under the care of the local psychiatric team, but in and out of respite care. She was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder” about two years before she died.
 
Charlotte became pregnant, and Helen recalls that Charlotte was doing well through parts of her pregnancy. When Charlotte’s baby boy was born she said she was glad that her sister could look after him. Charlotte said that she knew that she could not look after her baby herself. About four weeks after the baby was born Charlotte may have taken drugs again. She became angry and said that her sister had stolen her baby.
 
Charlotte became very unwell and took an overdose of a common medication and drank some alcohol and then phoned for help. She was taken to hospital for a couple of days, but then sent back to her flat. The psychiatrist thought she was seeking attention. Charlotte took an overdose again, and went back to hospital, but was soon sent back to her flat again. The psychiatric team told Helen that they thought that there was a very low risk that Charlotte would take her own life. However, Charlotte had discussed suicide with Helen on many occasions.
 
One August bank holiday weekend in 2004, when Charlotte was aged 30, the psychiatric team did not visit Charlotte as they had planned because she did not answer a knock at the door. Helen was worried because she thought Charlotte had reverted to taking “harder drugs”[Class A drugs], but she had not visited Charlotte over the weekend because the psychiatric team had specifically asked her to stay away when Charlotte was psychotic or unwell. Thus Charlotte had not seen a member of the psychiatric team for six days and she had not had her medication. On Thursday Helen insisted that the police were involved and when they went to Charlotte’s flat they found that she was dead, and had taken some heroin.
 
The police told Helen what had happened. She felt a sense of shock and a “terrible, terrible loss.” She also felt many other emotions, including a sense of disbelief. Her legs felt numb for many weeks. At times she almost felt a sense of relief because she had seen Charlotte suffer so much distress and because of the constant worry.
 
Helen felt angry that the psychiatric team said that they thought that Charlotte had died from an overdose of heroin and that they would not consider that she might have killed herself.
 
Helen was supported by her partner, family and friends. Her faith in God was a huge help and she found comfort by going to church. She had counselling from a man who worked for Cruse and also found support from a group of other people who had lost a child, a group called Compassionate Friends. Helen has also found great comfort by helping at a centre for homeless and vulnerable people.
 
Helen was also glad she had attended meetings with parents of those involved in drugs and parents of those with psychiatric problems, because they had given her strategies on how to cope.
 
There was no autopsy. Helen went to see Charlotte’s body at the hospital mortuary. Helen felt that this was as important as the funeral. The funeral was seven weeks after Charlotte died. Helen was glad that she put Charlotte’s ashes under a cherry tree in the park.
 
The inquest was the following May, nine months later. The coroner gave an “open verdict” because there was no suicide note and because it is possible that Charlotte had taken an overdose of heroin by mistake, or that she had taken a “bad batch of heroin”. However, Helen thinks that Charlotte had meant to take her own life.   
 
Now, three years after Charlotte’s death, Helen feels that in some ways an “open verdict” was the best one because she feels that it is worse to think that Charlotte meant to die than to think it may have been an accidental overdose.

Helen was interviewed in July 2007.

 

Helen’s daughter Charlotte often felt depressed. She took cannabis and heroin and died of a...

Helen’s daughter Charlotte often felt depressed. She took cannabis and heroin and died of a...

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My daughter died three years ago of a heroin overdose. She had mental health issues and drug problems, and she’d, she’d been unwell for twelve years. Her problems started when she was about fifteen or sixteen, when she first used cannabis. She had a psychosis, a small one which we didn’t realise what was going on at the time. Didn’t really understand what she was saying. We thought she was distressed because we’d recently been divorced, and well not recently, it was about five years after. We had no idea that cannabis could cause psychosis, didn’t even know she was smoking it at the time. And then it sort of went away, and she had depression, her father took her to the doctor, he said it was normal sort of adolescent growing up; she used to sort of sit on the pavement outside the school and cry. And, then it seemed to pass a bit, and she did her A’ levels. And then she went to do a foundation year in Art.

And Charlotte only really had to smoke a very small amount of cannabis and it made her very ill, but she, she then was, at the end of that year, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, for about six weeks and they wanted her to stay longer but she left, of her own will, and then she started a degree course in October, but she didn’t make it to Christmas because she started hearing voices and was really not very well. And I said to her at the time, “Leave, Charlotte”, because I thought, I still thought at that time that she couldn’t cope with it because after what had happened to her she needed a bit of a rest, but she was still using drugs, so then she came to live with me, and she, we, she was under a psychiatrist, and she went to, and I don’t know who she was now, but I think she was a nurse, a psychiatric nurse, and we used to go together, and we used to have to sort of fill in forms and. And do diagrams about how she felt about herself and how I viewed her, and how she viewed me. And she went there for quite a long time, and then they, they decided it would be good for her to go to psychotherapy. And she went for a very long time to psychotherapy. And she told me for one year in that time she didn’t use drugs at all, but she didn’t feel any better, she felt just as bad. She, she, she never stopped having depressions.
 

Helen points out that many people with ‘drug problems’ end up with psychiatric problems. She...

Helen points out that many people with ‘drug problems’ end up with psychiatric problems. She...

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She was under a psychiatric team, not the team that she was with for the last two years, a different one, and when I wrote to them explaining that I thought that actually now she was taking harder drugs, class A drugs, they immediately put her over to the drugs team, and they said that they couldn’t see her at the same time. That when she got her drug problem sorted out, they would see her again in the psychiatric team. But when we got to the drugs team and we spoke to them there, they were really quite annoyed at that, because they said, actually they said, it’s time they came up to the twenty first century, that most people with psychiatric problems, not most but a lot nowadays have drugs problems as well. And a lot of people with drugs problems end up with psychiatric problems. And it needs to be dealt with as a whole thing, not as a separate thing.

 

So there’s a lack of communication as well between the two teams?

 

Yes, Yes. But it, this team at the end they actually did deal with all of it, but not very many, they have so many people on their books, that there’s a lot of people that need their help that don’t get it because they’re just, they’re just over worked.

 

The drug team?

 

Yeah. On the, on the, on the, it’s a psychiatric team.

 

But who are looking after people who have both.

 

They have multiple, they people they take care of have to have multiple problems.

 

But you felt that the original psychiatric team should’ve gone on caring for her.

 

I think they let her down. Yes definitely.

 

Helen had half expected her daughter to take an overdose for a long time before it happened but...

Helen had half expected her daughter to take an overdose for a long time before it happened but...

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I think your initial reaction really is you can’t feel your legs. I mean it’s just you’re so shocked. I mean I half expected this to happen for a long time before it happened, and, part, sometimes, painful as it was, I almost used to wish for it to happen because I used to think she just couldn’t keep on with the way she was. She, she just had such a terrible time for such a long time, and she’d actually talked to me about the fact that she’d thought about suicide lots of times in the past and she’d said the reasons why she’d wanted to, and the reasons why she didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to hurt everybody.

 

Helen also felt a sense of relief when Charlotte died. She says that it’s an awful thing to think...

Helen also felt a sense of relief when Charlotte died. She says that it’s an awful thing to think...

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You said at one time you almost felt a sense of relief at Charlotte’s death. Do you want to say a bit more about that?


Yes. It’s an awful thing to think in a way, and it’s an even worse thing to actually voice, but I did feel a sense of relief because even before she died I used to sometimes wonder how I would feel if, if she did it, because she’d, she’d threatened to do it before. And she had such a horrible time for such a long time, she was in such distress so many times that I felt she didn’t have to suffer that any more, that she was free of it. And also, I didn’t have the worry of if she was okay anymore. Because every day I used to worry how she was.


Of course.

 

Helen’s grandchildren asked many questions about their Aunt Charlotte’s death. As they get older...

Helen’s grandchildren asked many questions about their Aunt Charlotte’s death. As they get older...

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How did you tell them [the grandchildren] what had happened?


I think my daughter actually told, told them that Auntie Charlotte had died and she’d gone to heaven, but they asked a lot, a lot of questions about it all the time. In some ways that was very difficult, but in some ways that helped too, because we had to put it in very simple language to tell them, and they asked where she’d gone, and what would happen to her body, and we had to tell them everything.


Did you tell them that she’d killed herself? Or weren’t you sure at that time?


No, we weren’t sure at that time, no, we said that she’d died because she was unwell, and that she was; they asked where she was, and we told her that she was in her flat, and that seemed to satisfy them. And I don’t think we’ll, we’ll tell them exactly what happened until they’re older, able to take that in. And actually we don’t know.


No.


So, I think they’ll just understand as they get older. But we won’t tell them any lies definitely because everybody advised us, the psychiatric team, and everybody has advised us not to tell them any lies at all. Not to cover up what happened, because that wouldn’t help them in the long run.

 

After the funeral and cremation Helen left her daughter’s ashes at the undertaker’s. After four...

After the funeral and cremation Helen left her daughter’s ashes at the undertaker’s. After four...

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She was, Charlotte was cremated, and I left her ashes to begin with, you can leave them at the undertakers, and so I left them there for a while, for about four or five weeks I think until, and I hadn’t decided where I wanted to put them, but after I’d thought about it a lot I wanted to put them in the parks under a, under a tree. And Charlotte was quite free spirited and didn’t like graveyards very much, and so I, I spoke to the person who runs the parks and he said that he could order a tree, and I could pay for the tree, and they would plant it and they would be there when we put the ashes underneath. And he said, what sort of tree would I like, and I said I want something English and I want something beautiful, and so he said, “How about a Wild Cherry?” So I said, “Yes, that sounds just right.” So when, when we, when we planted the tree her, her father and her step mum and her sister and Charlotte’s little son, and a previous boyfriend and two members, two members of her psychiatric team came. And they’d already, the parks men had already dug the hole for the tree and we all put the ashes in to, underneath, not in the casket, ‘cos I wanted her ashes to become the tree, and it was lovely actually. And I’m very pleased I did that, and it’s not far from where I live, so I go every, but to begin with I went every day, and I talk to it, and I tell her all about her son.

 

Waiting nine months for the inquest gave Helen time to be calmer and to prepare for what she...

Waiting nine months for the inquest gave Helen time to be calmer and to prepare for what she...

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Do you want to say anything about the inquest, and what happened after that? So you had the funeral and then you had to wait, how long did you have to wait after that?


We had to wait until the following May, so she died at the end of August.


That’s a long time.


Yes. And I had to wait until the following May, but again it gave me time to know what I wanted to say, it gave me time that I wasn’t in such a state really that I could be calmer, to go, and it was very important to me that I went and said my piece. So I stood up and I, I said exactly what I felt about everything, and how Charlotte had been found, and it was an open verdict because there were several reasons why they couldn’t say that it was suicide' because she hadn’t left a note; and there wasn’t enough heroin left in the syringe to know if it had been pure, too pure heroin, and the level in her body was enough as an over dose that she would have died fairly quickly. But they didn’t know whether she’d done that on purpose, or whether it was because it was a bad batch of heroin.


What do you think?


I personally am 95% sure that it was suicide. I, I do understand that there’s a possibility that it wasn’t, that maybe it was, there was pure heroin, and there had been a few people the week before Charlotte in her area, that had become unconscious and taken to hospital because there was a bad batch around, so it is possible, but given that she’d tried the week before, and the week before, and that she’d wrapped her phone up, she’d taken the plug out the wall and wrapped her phone up. And I, I, I personally, and there was alcohol on her bed that had been unopened, which she always did when she took an overdose. I, I personally think that she knew exactly what she was doing.

 

Compassionate Friends meet about once a month. After Helen lost her daughter the group made Helen...

Compassionate Friends meet about once a month. After Helen lost her daughter the group made Helen...

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Which other group did you join?


It was called the Compassionate Friends, and they meet about once a month, and it’s usually it’s for parents who’ve lost a child. So it doesn’t have to be a young child, it can be an adult child, and I found that very useful too.


What’s happens when you get to the meeting?


It’s held in one couples house, who lost a child. And they’re just absolutely wonderful and made you feel very welcome. And then you just all talk about, if you want to, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but when you feel ready to you just tell your story, and every body else does the same, and people say how they’ve managed to deal with it, and it’s helpful because some of the people have been going for years, like even ten years. So they’re ten years further on, so they know exactly how you felt but they know exactly how it can change, and how you do feel differently over the years.

 

The first thing the person from Cruse said to Helen was, “You can get over this, but only if you...

The first thing the person from Cruse said to Helen was, “You can get over this, but only if you...

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Would you mind saying a little bit about your experience of seeing a Cruse counsellor?


They saw me quite quickly, because sometimes you have to wait a while. And they saw me quite quickly, and it was a very nice man that I used to see. And he was, he was just brilliant but he used to make me, not make me, but ask me to tell him everything about what had happened, and even down to when I went to see Charlotte after she’d died at the hospital. And of course that was extremely painful and I think I cried nearly through every session, most of the time, but I think you need to get it out, I think I learnt as well with my daughter, because she suffered with depression for so long, if you have feelings that you don’t let out and you don’t speak about, I think it’s much more of a chance that you will become depressed also. And I haven’t taken anti-depressants at all since, after losing Charlotte. I think I’ve just found ways to, to speak about it, but I‘ve only spoken to people that I’ve wanted to speak to, about these things.


And seeing someone from Cruse was helpful?

Very helpful, he was, he was, I can’t remember exactly the things he said to me now but I think that one of the first things he said, one of the first things he said to me was, “You can get over this, but only if you want to.” And at the time I thought it was slightly harsh, but actually it wasn’t, it was very good advice I think. And I think, I needed to get over it because I have four grandchildren, one of which was Charlotte’s. And you can’t live a very unhappy life and be miserable all the time around four children and they were, except for Charlotte’s baby, the other three were all old enough to understand what had happened, and they talked about it constantly.
 

Helen read in a Buddhist book that even when someone is dead you can still do things for their...

Helen read in a Buddhist book that even when someone is dead you can still do things for their...

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…sometimes I actually feel happy now, and I feel about 95% normal, but I think it’s because I’ve found different ways to feel that way. At the beginning I went to Cruse, and I went for about seven weeks, and I went there because my daughter’s psychiatrist told me to go there and that helped enormously. I’ve also started helping at a homeless centre, where my daughter used to go sometimes, although she wasn’t homeless, the people that are vulnerable can go there. People that run out of money half way through the week, they can’t look after their own money properly, they go there, and I’ve felt that, I felt that going there I was closer to her. And I also felt as if I was doing it for her. I read in a, although I’m not Buddhist, I read in a Buddhist book that even when somebody’s dead you can still do things for their soul. And it just seemed very important to me to do that.


So those two things have really helped, Cruse and helping at the Homeless Centre?


Yes. Massively, and the Church too.


And the Church.


But I think of all, the Church and the homeless centre have helped me the most. And I think, not at the beginning, because I couldn’t have done that for the first year, I’ve been going to the homeless centre for 18 months, so it was 18 months after Charlotte died I started going there, and I couldn’t have done that for the first year I think. I think you have to know yourself when you’re ready to do things, and I think it’s different for everybody, on when they’re ready to do things, but for me I needed to go back to work, I needed to, to be doing things all the time. And when I started going to the homeless centre it made a massive difference to me. And I think, because I’d taken care of Charlotte for such a long time, when she died everything just stopped. And that was as bad as losing her really, because I had big holes in my life.

 

Helen had a re-found faith before Charlotte died, which helped enormously after her death. Helen...

Helen had a re-found faith before Charlotte died, which helped enormously after her death. Helen...

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And since then how have you found any help?


I found a lot of help. Before Charlotte died, I can’t remember, I think about a year before she died I’d started going back to the Church, and I’d spoken to a retired vicar on several occasions, I used to have appointments with him on a Thursday morning for about an hour. He was lovely. And, so I’d found a, I’d found a, I had a re-found faith before she died, which helped enormously afterwards, and actually going to the church after she died, I went nearly every week, and to begin with I cried through every service, I think the whole way through, but and I had a feeling that I didn’t have to explain how I felt there, I had a feeling that I was totally understood there, not, not by the congregation or the vicar, but just by God I think.

 

After Charlotte died 3 years ago Helen lost her sense of security and felt anxious about...

After Charlotte died 3 years ago Helen lost her sense of security and felt anxious about...

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After Charlotte died I felt it very difficult to leave where I live, and leave the area where she died. I didn’t want to go anywhere, although she wasn’t there, I felt as if I was leaving her when I went away. But I don’t feel like that at all now. I can happily go anywhere.

 

After you lose somebody from a suicide, or I expect many other types of death, I personally lost my self, my sense of safety, for everybody else. I lost the sense of security, as if anything could happen to anybody at any minute. So I was worried constantly about my other daughter, when she went out in her car, I just needed to know all the time that she was okay, and she said she felt the same way about me. And you just couldn’t stand it if something else happened to somebody else, so you, you’re overly sensitive and overly anxious to everything. And I think that’s, it’s taken a long time but I think that’s nearly back to normal now. I used to, I used to wake up in the mornings and the first thing I thought about was Charlotte, always, and the last thing I thought about when I went to sleep was Charlotte, and for about, over a year I used to wake up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and not be able to go back to sleep, but after about, I think after about 18 months I started to sleep through the night again. And she’s not always the first thing I think about now when I wake up or the last thing at night. I think about her, all the time, every day, and I’m not sure anymore how often I think about her through the day, but lots of things remind me of her, and I often think what she would’ve thought, said about something, thought about something, and if we eat the food that she liked, or when I go round the supermarket I see a food that she liked, so it’s constant really. But it’s not in the same sad way; it’s often in a happy way now. And sometimes we laugh about, my other daughter and I we laugh about things she said.
 

Helen says that sometimes her daughter had psychosis due to the illegal drugs she took and needed...

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Helen says that sometimes her daughter had psychosis due to the illegal drugs she took and needed...

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Do you have any message for health professionals?


I feel that when people have psychosis due to drugs often the patient is not treated in the same way [as others are treated], as they [the doctors] do feel that in a way they [the patients] have brought it on themselves. And that if they put everybody in a hospital bed that had psychosis from that reason [drugs] they wouldn’t have enough beds. And at times when Charlotte was very ill with psychosis, they used to just release her back onto the streets, and at one point they released her from the hospital and she was wandering the streets all night not really knowing where she was. She went back to a previous flat that she hadn’t lived in for about six months, which wasn’t in a very nice area, and she was on the streets all night trying to get in this flat. And I, I think sometimes that no matter why somebody has got a psychosis they should be treated in the same way and be looked after because how can they make good decisions about where they’re going from there when they’re in that state. They need respite to get their head clear so that then they can make better decisions on what to do. And I think she was very vulnerable at that time, hugely vulnerable.

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