Her Mental Illness: or how easily I could lose my grasp on reality

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Mental Illness

Her Mental Illness, shared by Francis

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The child in me begins the story with ‘I was 12 and I came home one day and my mother was gone.’
But my 32-year-old self knows a different story. The one that started a few years before, with the constant pacing of my mother in the hallways, the nights not sleeping, stories of the mountains talking, excessive anxiety about the world ending and more than anything, the four suicide memory boxes tucked safely under my mother’s bed; each with one of our names on it, ready to be given out when she had the courage to take her own life.

As the child of a mother who is slowly regressing into the world of a mental illness, you know things are no longer as they were. But for me, it was a subtle transition over a few years which saw my mum become less of a parent, and me more of an adult and less of a child. By the time I started high school, I wouldn’t leave her side unless I had somebody there with her to make sure she didn’t kill herself. I told her when to shower, brush her teeth and put clean clothes on, when to pay the bills and, as her weight plummeted to 37kg, I told her to please eat something. She was surviving on coffee and cigarettes.

My dad had left months and months earlier and when I expressed concern to him, he simply told me she wasn’t his problem anymore. Although different now, at that time we hadn’t had much of a relationship so I didn’t expect anything more. I was 12 years old and I had it under control until one day, I didn’t.

That was the day I came home from school and my eldest sister, who was nine years my senior and who had become more and more of a mother to me while ours faded away into oblivion, told me that my grandparents had come to get my mother and that she wouldn’t be coming home for a while. And worse than that was the news my dad would be coming home to look after us. Second to the heart wrenching reality that my mother had left was the dread I felt in having to live with my dad.

I rushed home, certain mum would have left a note. She would never have just left without leaving me a note. I frantically searched the house from one end to the other but there was not a note to be found. She had really left. Without me. And she hadn’t even said goodbye.

The months that followed involved my grandparents cutting off all contact, referring to us as a burden she didn’t need. I would call every day but they wouldn’t tell us what hospital she had been admitted to or what was going on. She never called so I wrote her letters, begging her to please come home in time for my birthday and to please not be admitted into a psychiatric hospital. As a child, I worried that if she went in, she would never come out. And I just wanted her to be home with me, back to the way it was, regardless of how unconventional that had become at the time.

I created a shrine beside my bed with photos of mum and all of her favourite things. And then I got up each day, went to school and pretended to my friends that nothing was going on. How do you tell your friends, who mostly have both parents at home, that your mum has left, she wants to die and you don’t know if she will ever come home? How do you explain to other 12 year olds the concept of mental illness when you don’t even understand it yourself?

Over the next year, we would see mum sporadically when she was in and out of hospital. The first time she was released, I assumed she would be better and she’d be coming home. I assumed the nightmare was finally over. But it wasn’t. Shortly after this she was readmitted, given further shock treatment, trialled with yet another medication and absent from my life once again. This pattern continued.

Over the next five years, I emotionally took on the responsibility of my mum. I have lost count of the amount of times during my high school years she was admitted to hospital. Sometimes, for months at a time. I knew every psychiatric facility in South East Queensland. I understood terms such as ‘shock treatment’, ‘depression’ and ‘involuntary treatment orders’ and used them in day-to-day life.

When mum was out of hospital, I would live with her. And then she would be readmitted, and depending on the timeline, I would sometimes stay with my dad or live with my sisters. I changed schools six times in five years. At the age of 16 I became my own legal guardian and, as I continued to go to school, stayed out of the legal system and appeared as an incredibly mature and capable young teenager, I was largely left alone under the social system.

There was rarely food in the fridge. Sometimes she would disappear for days at a time and leave me alone at home. I would sit my senior school exams in between admitting her to psychiatric hospitals, picking her up for weekend visits and feeling anxious that every time I walked in the door, I would find her dead.

But as life does, it went on, even with the dark cloud of my mother’s mental state hanging closely over my head at all times. I grew up, finished school, stayed (mostly) out of trouble and I coped. At 14, I made a decision that what I was experiencing was not going to be an excuse for the way I was but would be a reason to be more. In that moment, I decided that my life was going to be great and I was not going to let this experience define me. I would not be my mother.

I finished school and I moved two hours away to go to university. I had just turned 17 and I couldn’t escape my life fast enough. I longed to have a bedroom that was mine. A place that couldn’t be taken away from me or me from it, depending on my mother’s mental state at the time.

For the first time in 10 years, I felt safe and I could protect myself in many ways from the pain of the day-to-day uncertainty that comes with mental illness. It is one thing to be an adult and to be closely associated with instability of somebody who is struggling with mental illness. That is heart wrenching enough. But to be a child who is unable to choose a different path or to create their own safe space away from the chaos, is a whole other story.

Into adulthood, coping with my mum has been somewhat easier, although still with its challenges. These are challenges that have seen her life include so many of the carry on effects of mental illness. Things such as domestic violence, homelessness, an incarcerated, drug-addicted husband, social housing, countless smashed cars, a loss of all possessions and financial wealth, physical illness, a loss of the majority of her family and friendships and more than anything, a world of daily emotional pain.

Many years ago, I grieved over the mother that I had once known when she was well and then lost.

As time went on, my years knowing her in a well and functional state have dithered away in comparison to the number of years that I have known her as a schizophrenic.

On her good days, I sometimes recognise a sparkle of the person I knew as a child and it almost hurts in my chest. It is in these moments I am reminded of the mother I had but didn’t have the chance to continue to know. On her bad days, it is like dealing with a stranger that is somehow part of my life. I feel compassion for her situation and I feel great sadness for her when I see her through the eyes of people on the street.

But on these days I don’t feel a sense of loss, because I don’t recognise the person standing beside me as someone I have ever felt close to. On her bad days, my mum feels like a stranger but I don’t treat her as one. I spent this afternoon calming her anxiety on my verandah as she struggled to breathe. It turns out today wasn’t one of her better days.

I am 32 now and this has been a huge part of my life for 20 years. I am now a wife and a mother of two beautiful children of my own. I am lucky to have a close relationship with my siblings and my dad. I have travelled the world and experienced a huge array of broad and interesting things. The majority of people I am friends with as an adult, don’t even know this story. And it isn’t because I am ashamed of it because I’m not. But it doesn’t come up in conversation because it doesn’t define me. I am not my story. I am who I stand as today.

From my experiences, I am extremely protective of my own mental health and ensure that I have coping strategies in place when I start to feel run down. You see, my mother wasn’t always this way. She was a special-school teacher, a committed member of the community, a gardener, a dedicated wife and an amazing mother herself for 20 years before she lost it all.

I am all too aware of how easily I could lose my grasp on reality. In fact, how easily we all could; finding ourselves unwell, homeless and lost. So the next time you come across somebody who doesn’t seem well, do not judge them. Remember my mum and remember they too probably once had a full and happy life. Yes, it is incredibly hard for everybody who loves them but even harder for the mentally unwell themselves.

And the next time I come across a 12-year-old child with a parent who is struggling, I will tell them this: ‘I know this really hurts right now and that you feel trapped by your circumstances. But life will not look like this forever. Know that you are going to grow older and you will create an amazing life of your own. One that is completely different to the one you have known if you want it to be. And one day, you will look back and say, “I wouldn’t change a thing. Because if it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and who I am is pretty awesome.”’

If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, help is available.

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Beyond Blue
1300 224 636

Suicide Callback Service
1300 659 467

If life is in danger call 000

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