Thursday, October 9, 2014

Life With A Mentally Ill Mum

"A truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively or hurt you." - The Dalai Lama

I'm very open when it comes to talking about my mother's mental illness and the pain it has caused my family. I'll readily discuss it with pretty much anybody who asks and I find that speaking about it sometimes lightens the burden.

There are loose narratives, characters, emotions and indirect references to her situation in songs of mine, but I've never sat down and written about it explicitly. With her illness currently at its most dire point - a dilemma that happens to coincide with Mental Health Week in Australia - I feel that now is as good a time as any.

My family and I are currently in the process of taking action to have her medically assessed against her will, because she is now in significant financial trouble and her quality of life is so poor that things cannot continue like this.

Over the past 10 years, I've watched Mum slowly slip away from reality and from the people dearest to her. She now lives in a world of delusions, mistrust and isolation. She hears voices and responds to them - chatting away incessantly to invisible demons.

I can't imagine what it must be like to always live under a fog, your mind reverberating with disembodied instructions. To be in a constant dialogue with someone or something that doesn't exist. It must be unbelievably distracting, haunting and excruciating.

She is paranoid about technology and is incapable of concentrating on anything for more than a minute at a time. She believes the world is against her and that people are spending her money. That there is a detonator in her roof. That there is a conspiracy to prevent her from getting a job. That the boat parked across the road from our old family home was equipped with a camera which was monitoring her every move.

She lives alone and she has pushed away all of her close friends - believing that most of them are embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy and are out to get her.

Our best guess is that it's schizophrenia, as she seems to tick every box, but we can't be sure, because she has refused to see a doctor. Anyone in my family who suggests she might need help must prepare themselves for a potential outburst and a slew of f bombs. Maintaining a sense of humour in these situations is crucial.

I often wonder what strangers who encounter her at the shops think when they see her nattering to herself, hunched over, chain smoking and dishevelled, with a distant, expressionless look in her eyes.

To the other people in the block of townhouses where she lives, I'll bet she's "the crazy lady". To my siblings and I, she will always be Mum. A highly intelligent, loving and unique woman who became lost in the wilderness, trapped in the prison of her own mind. I know that if it were me, she would not let me suffer alone, and so I can never give up on her.

The person she is now is almost unrecognisable from the person she once was. Mum raised my siblings and I selflessly, giving ever ounce of her being over to ensure we had the best possible upbringing. She loved us unconditionally. She helped us with our homework. She was a wonderful cook. She challenged us. She picked us up and dropped us off at school, at the movies, at friends' houses and at parties. She was very open minded when it came to us drinking, partying and staying out late. She came to all of our musical performances. She encouraged us to always read and learn as much as possible about a subject before constructing an opinion. She has three university degrees. She lent an ear and listened for hours whenever I had a ridiculous 15 year old self esteem crisis. All my friends loved her.

Her decline has been very gradual, but severe. It's shocking. Anyone who knew her a decade ago could never have imagined that things could get this bad. It's so difficult to comprehend that someone you love is suffering from delusions - so much so that when she first displayed paranoid symptoms, we actually believed the scenarios that her mind had concocted.

A good piece of advice I read is that it's ok to love the person and hate the illness, and I would recommend that anyone facing a similar problem remind themselves of this as often as possible. It's easy to feel hopeless, but empathy and patience must be practiced.

People in situations like mine shouldn't suffer in silence and shouldn't be embarrassed. The more people around you that know what you're going through, the better. Embarrassment feeds the stigma that still surrounds mental illnesses. These issues are indeed very common. It is not a sign of weakness, and it could happen to anyone. Conversations save lives.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." - Ian Maclaren/various


IvanP said...

Uncle Ivan here - beautiful piece Edward

Anonymous said...

Very sad for everyone. What a wonderful tribute to your mother. I hope you can find some resolution.

Jenny, former Darwin classmate and fellow ANU law student with your Mum