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'Do one thing only for me. Live life'

When Sarah Griffin was nine years old, she began a diary to help her cope with her dad's severe depression. It gives an unflinching account of how the entire family lived with the spectre of his illness, and then his death

Saturday June 2, 2007
The Guardian

I suppose you could say it all began in the early 1960s. Mum reckons it was when she was about six years old. Rivington county primary school playground, St Helens, Merseyside. A little girl called Carol Cook falls on the hard, sloping playground and begins to cry as blood pours out of her knee. Looking up, she sees coming over to help a boy she recognises as the clever one in her class. His name is Robert Griffin.

My mum and dad were only classmates then, rivals for the top spot in maths and the favour of Mrs Hunter, their first teacher. Mum was popular; Dad was quiet and a bit of a loner. Yet maybe the six-year-old Robert saw something he liked in the impish face of young Carol, because his appearances in her life became more frequent after that point, even when they went to different secondary schools at the age of 11.

Their first official date was organised by Dad's mum, Norah; a trip to the cinema to see Please, Sir. They used to go to a youth club and play table tennis, where other kids would tease them by singing Donny Osmond's Puppy Love.

It sounds like a perfect 70s teenage romance, but it didn't stay perfect for long. Things changed when they went to different universities. In the Easter of her first year, Mum started seeing somebody else and told Dad it was over between them.

Devastated, Dad refused to leave his bedroom for three days. Gran began to leave his meals outside his room. It was a sign of things to come. Maybe Mum shouldn't have changed her mind. Yet change her mind she did. She wrote him a letter apologising and asking him to meet her to sort things out. I think at that point, Dad realised what he could lose. He proposed shortly before Mum's 21st birthday on July 15 1978.

But this childhood romance was flawed. Mum began to notice things weren't quite right with her new husband. The big wake-up call came in 1980 when she got a phone call to say Dad had been knocked down in Leeds city centre by a bus. It was believed that he had walked in front of the bus intentionally. He suffered a serious head injury and had to be treated in hospital where they wanted him to receive psychiatric treatment. He refused.

After that there were good days and bad. But their love for each other was great enough to produce four daughters, of which I was the last.

Throughout my childhood, I always thought I was pretty normal, just an average child with an average family.

Then one day, when I was seven, we were walking down an empty street. As we passed a chemist, Mum began explaining why Dad was sometimes a little angry or sad, and why he sometimes wouldn't get up in the morning. I suppose he must have been ill at the time. She told me he had something wrong in his head that meant when he was upset or stressed, things in his brain didn't add up, so he had to take a few days' rest until everything got sorted, and this problem he had was called depression.

"Whatever happens, you have to promise me that you won't tell anybody about this. It has to be our secret."

So when I was about nine, I started to write a diary. It mainly listed things such as what I had eaten for tea or that I hated my sisters because they got to stay up longer than me. But then, slowly, my diary grew into a record of this big family secret. This is my family's story, which is tragic and very personal, but, sadly, not unique.

October 30 2002 [When Sarah was 14]

Today was officially the worst day of my life. I feel like I've aged about 10 years and my childhood has been thrown out of the window. I've just witnessed my dad trying to kill himself.

Mum and I had gone to visit my sister Emma. We got home around 3.30pm. Dad's Land Rover was on the drive, but then Mum noticed that our little car wasn't in the drive where it should have been. We walked round the side of the house and she looked in the garage. "Oh my God," she said. "The car's in the garage and your dad's inside."

For a few seconds I didn't understand and then it suddenly hit me. I ran in front of her, jumped in through the back doorway and round to the door connecting the main house to the garage. I could see a little yellow Post-it note pushed through the key in the door. The first part was illegible, but I could make out the bottom bit: "Sorry, love you all. Dad."

As I screamed at him to get out of the car, I took in the scene. The hosepipe came around the side of the car and dangled in through a small gap in the driver's window. He was sitting behind the wheel. The radio was blasting to cover the roar of the engine. He looked up and I met his eyes. He was crying. As if in slow motion he switched off the engine and opened the door of the car.

We got him out of the garage and sat around the kitchen table. How could we just get up and carry on after that? But just like every other time, we talked until the cows came home, drank sweet tea for our shock and the cracks began to heal themselves. Always the same solution but I know it won't last for long. The nasty **** keeps coming back to mess him up. Will he go all the way next time?

November 2 2002

It's as if the dark cloud has lifted from above our house. A few days ago, Dad was trying to poison himself with carbon monoxide; now it's hard to believe he's the same man. He's been into the office and he comes home and tells jokes at teatime. He's paying special attention to me because he feels guilty for what happened. I don't care. I'm just so pleased he's back again. His eyes have lost their glazed look and I can have a real hug rather than cuddling a stiff, sobbing body.

November 12 2002

How stupid am I? I always let my hopes build up, but already he's back down again. You start to notice it happening just before it actually hits. His eyes glaze over completely and start to sag. He falls asleep anywhere and everywhere, he becomes withdrawn and quiet, and begins to lose his appetite.

Mum gets into her routine. Out come the bananas, the vitamins, the glasses of orange juice, the chocolate (releases those happy little fellers called endorphins). But by that time it's too late. He has gone, slipped away, and there is nothing we can do except wait until he comes back.

July 16 2003

Mum and Dad have gone to a hotel in Warwickshire for their silver wedding anniversary. Despite everything they have gone through, I still think of my parents as being the strongest people I know and my personal heroes. I sometimes think that if we ever suffered a hurricane, once it had passed through and destroyed everything, my mum and dad would still be standing, clutching on to each other for survival.

August 24 2003

The last few days have been a bit of a nightmare. Dad started getting down again last week after an audit in the office. He wouldn't go into work and just spent the day on the sofa, crying, shouting and sleeping. The rest of us are used to the routine so we carried on as usual. Sometimes we cry, but usually we just try to ignore him.

On Friday night we had a family portrait session scheduled. It was part of a special offer Mum had seen. A full hour of smiling at a camera when five members of the family are feeling like they want to strangle the sixth, and the sixth could well be thinking of ways to strangle himself. But we went all the same, and we could tell that Dad was trying.

We all had to do stupid things for the camera. It definitely cheered me and my sisters up when the photographer made Mum and Dad have photos taken of them kissing. Mum didn't seem to be much happier though.

When we got back, Dad went straight back on the sofa and Mum wept upstairs.

August 25 2003

Dad came into my room today and just said he wanted to let me know that he loved me. I didn't say it back. I was too angry with him. I wish I'd told him that I loved him back, because despite everything, I really do.

August 27 2003

He's such a bastard. It's Wednesday morning and Dad's missing. He left a note on the message pad near the phone in the kitchen. We could just make out: "Taking Missie for a walk and then going for a run. New leaf by me today!! Should be back b4 u anyway. X Rob."

It's been an hour and half since we expected him back. Mum says there's nothing we can do until he decides to come home or it's been long enough to call the police. I've gone out walking trying to see him. What am I supposed to do next? I'm a 15-year-old girl looking for her 47-year-old father, who could be anywhere, doing anything.

August 29 2003

On the morning of Wednesday August 27 2003 at precisely 7.40am, my father died. He glanced off the side of a lorry. Yes, he was running on the side of a busy road. Yes, he had been down lately. Was it suicide? That is something I will never know.

I don't know which is worse: to think that he couldn't take it any more and had nowhere else to turn; or to think that after all this struggle, all these years of trying, that he had been snatched from us so cruelly.

I'd persuaded Mum we should go out looking for him. We heard the 11am bulletin on BBC Radio Humberside. It was the main story: "There is a major hold-up on a main route into Hull this morning after a traffic accident about 7.40am when a lorry hit a pedestrian. The dead man, who has not yet been identified, was believed to have been a jogger." We knew then that it was him.

I miss him already. I miss his hugs, the way the atmosphere changed when he walked into a room. I even miss his stupid loud sneezes. Just two days later, though, something else is gone from the house: the threat of his illness. It is like the death of a man who occasionally abuses. Except this was not physical, but emotional abuse, and that is one thing, the only thing, that stops after this. I hope to God that he is happy now.

August 30 2003

We had to venture into the study today; Dad's territory. Mum needed to find insurance documents. She pulled out a big brown metal box where all the important documents were kept. In it we found a narrow brown envelope simply addressed to "The Girls". In the corner was a note that read "ONLY to be read in the event of our deaths! X Dad."

Mum explained that when they had gone to Paris for their anniversary a few years earlier, they had decided to write a letter to us explaining the procedure, should anything happen to them while they were away.

We opened it and Kathryn read it out. It was written in his illegible scrawl with a blue Biro on accounts paper. The first page was simply administration: who would have custody of us, where we could find the life-insurance policies, that kind of thing. The second page was much more gut-wrenching. It read: "Now for the important stuff. I feel silly writing a 'goodbye-just-in-case letter', but what the hell, here goes.

"We've done our best (we think) and tried to impart values and love for each other, plus a work ethic. I've been very short-sighted and never done enough with my life in terms of giving happiness to others - there is very little of my 'misanthropy' in any of your genes and you all have enough ability and confidence to do and be anything you want. Do one thing only for me. Live life. Never have regrets.

"Think of us from time to time. We will be there for you in your darkest hours, and hope these will be few and far between. Always be there for each other and value each other's opinions.

"We love you to bits and are so, so proud of you. Go out and take the world by storm!

"X Mum and Dad"

September 2006

I'm sitting (quite proudly) in my room in halls at Leeds University. I'm studying for a joint honours degree in English and philosophy. Looking around my room, there are snippets everywhere of the person I've become. In the corner of the noticeboard, tucked behind my timetable, is a large colour photograph. The gold inscription at the bottom reminds me it's an official London marathon photo, taken in 1999.

Although it's not a particularly good picture, I chose this photo because it reminds me of the struggle Dad went through every day and that the little daily trials and tribulations I have to deal with are nothing in comparison.

My flatmates have arrived, leaping on to my bed, bottle of wine in hand. I accept a glass and propose a toast. As I raise my glass, in preparation for tonight's big night out, I toast life, living it to the full and not having any regrets.

Cheers Daddy.

? This is an edited extract from Sarah's Diary by Sarah Griffin, published by Virgin. To order a copy for ?7.99 with free UK p&p go to The Guardian bookshop or call 0870 8360875
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