Well, after a month of enforced, exam-driven hibernation I’m back. With any luck, this will be the first of three posts between now and friday. At least then I can claim to post once a fortnight on average…
Reproduced below is an article I wrote for a linguistics course I took this semester. I’ll leave it to speak for itself. I’ve neglected to write a headline because I seem unable to think one up. Any suggestions greatly appreciated.
Abe wanted to go to school. It wasn’t because he particularly liked school. He didn’t really. He had few friends and little reason to want to be there. The only thing it really had going for it was that it wasn’t home. He wasn’t sure why it was he never wanted to go home. He tried not to think about the possible reasons.
To go to school he needed his younger brothers to get out of bed and get dressed. It never occurred to him that he could go without them. He took that responsibility upon himself without even realising it. They wouldn’t listen to him, they never did. So, he needed his mum to get up and tell them to get ready.
He couldn’t understand at the time why it was that she wouldn’t wake up. He just wanted to go to school.
Abe is now 21. He thinks he was probably 13 or 14 when this episode took place. Despite his vivid recollection of that particular morning, he isn’t entirely certain how old he was, largely because events like this were not uncommon. They happened with varying regularity from when he was about 8 until he was nearly 18.
She wouldn’t wake that morning because she had taken a non-fatal overdose the night before. He isn’t sure when he realised that was the case.
“For that whole decade, my home life is a tangled web of confusion. I’m not sure when anything happened. It’s just one big mess. Kind of like my life was. So I don’t know when I worked out she’d overdosed. It was probably on sleeping tablets. They were her favourite. Though it could’ve been anti-depressants or pain-killers. She’d take all of whatever they’d given her.”
He’d known his mum was unwell from shortly after she first got sick. It wasn’t hard to tell. Sometimes she was in hospital for months. Despite knowing she was sick, he has never understood her illness.
“Even now I don’t have much of an idea what’s wrong with her. Not even her diagnosis. She’s told me so many different things over the years. I don’t even think she knows.”
According to the South Australian-based Children of Parents with a Mental Ilness (COPMI) program, alarming numbers of Australian children are affected by their parent’s mental illness. Though many children are not impacted, significant numbers face a multitude of challenges, including fear and confusion over their parent’s illness, family stresses, disruption to their study, and an increased risk of mental illness.
When asked about whether he faced these challenges, Abe was quick to agree and add a few more of his own.
“It was really hard, I could never have friends over. That just wasn’t done. I don’t know that I faced the stigma directly, I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I suppose I was lucky in that way. But still, I never had any friends over. I always went to their place and that meant finding transport and that wasn’t easy. Especially since for years Mum was terrified of us kids catching the bus. It was too dangerous. The perverts would get us.”
Abe believes that his mother’s illness has affected him in many ways.
“It was definitely a difficult time. I had a lot more responsibility than a normal kid my age. I fed my brothers most, or at least many, nights. I got them ready for school. Once my Dad asked me to hide the razors from her, ‘cause he was afraid she’d cut herself. I hid them, but I felt really bad. I didn’t know what I was meant to do.”
For Abe, the hardest part was thinking that everything he was going through was normal.
“That’s what shocks me the most. At the time it’s all just normal to you. I never realised that life wasn’t meant to be like that. That it wasn’t meant to be that hard or that painful. I really wish someone had told me that at the time. For so long I thought I was weak and pathetic for not keeping everything together perfectly.”
At least one study has shown that mental health workers believe that learning more about their parent’s illness can be of great benefit to the children. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find any information on these topics, let alone child-friendly information.
Children of Mentally Ill Consumers, or COMIC for short, is a South Australian organisation that was formed in February 2000. They aim to provide education and information on these topics as well as advocating for these forgotten children. Unfortunately, there is currently no way of ensuring that all the children who would benefit from their services can find them. No one knows how many children slip through the cracks.
Abe believes he would have benefited greatly from such a service.
“I wish I’d known about it when I was younger. I know how to find things like that now, but when you’re twelve you don’t know these things. It wouldn’t have solved everything, but it would have made it better and even a little bit better would have been a big improvement.”
He also believes that it would be great if there was a support group service for children such as he was.
“Somewhere to go and talk with other kids who are going through similar things. Somewhere that people understand. Most people don’t. They feel sorry for you or disdain or indifference, they never really understand though and you can tell. It makes you feel so alone.”
This may be why studies have shown that the support of family members, especially siblings is a great benefit and should be strongly encouraged.
“My brothers are the only ones who really understand, and even then they went through it differently. They didn’t have to cook so much. They didn’t hide the razors. The youngest one doesn’t remember Mum when she was well.”
Abe described how, in some ways, he struggled not just because his mother was unwell, but because he had known her when she was well.
“I think in some ways it’s so much harder for me ‘cause I remember what she was like when I was five and she was like the perfect fairy tale mother. She read to me and taught me and my friends to read. She was always there and had all the answers and was always happy and smiling and cheerful. I know that’s through a five year-olds eyes, but that’s how I remember the non-sick mum and it’s just so much harder because I know she’ll never be back. It’s like my mother died and I’ve got a defective replacement. I still love her, but I hate her too.”
It’s a concept he spent quite some time trying to explain, how you can love someone and hate them and even wish that they would die.
“For the longest time I hated myself, because every time she tried to kill herself or overdosed or went in to hospital, I wished that this time she’d just bloody well finish it all off. It would be so much easier if I could just grieve for her once. Instead, I grieve for her every time it happens. I didn’t know how much more grieving I could survive. I didn’t want her to come to any harm, but I wanted to stop hurting.”
COPMI’s aim is “to develop these children into happy, healthy young adults regardless of their parents’ health”. The extra challenges these children face and the less-effective coping skills they learn from their ill parents leave them especially susceptible to developing mental illnesses of their own. Between ten and twenty per cent of children without mentally ill parents will develop a psychiatric illness in later life. Anywhere between one quarter and one-half of children with a mentally ill parent go on to develop such an illness.
Abe now works full-time in the retail industry and hopes to run his own store one day. He has been diagnosed with depression on two separate occasions in the past three years. Though he is quick to take personal responsibility for his illness, you can’t help but wonder if he would be healthier and happier had things been different.
“I lack the coping skills that many people have. I’ve learnt a lot of them in the last couple of years, since I took responsibility for myself and stopped blaming everything on my mum and everything that happened. I think that’s a key step. You have to take responsibility for your life.”
His mother is still ill and he has now distanced himself from her, seeing her only on special occasions and at infrequent lunches.
“It’s not something you want to do. I wish I could have a better relationship with her. But at some point you have to realise that being there in the middle of it all isn’t good. You have to realise that there’s nothing wrong about looking after yourself first. It’s okay to survive. It’s a hard thing to do. If there was one thing I would tell someone in a similar situation to what I was in, it would be that. I’d tell them, it’s important to protect yourself, you have to look after yourself and be well yourself before you can look after them and help them become well.”
Abe spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, as such Abe is not his real name.