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Growing up with a parent suffering from a mental illness is like trying to convince the world that a paralysed person can walk; you hold them upright and hope nobody notices how much you’re struggling to take their weight. From a young age, I knew I was different. I wasn’t sure how, though I remember in Grade 3 we had a parent-teacher evening coming up at school. My teacher asked myself and another student why our parents would not be attending, the other student stated that his mother has the flu and his father was away on business. When It was my turn to give an excuse I had an unidentified feeling that telling the teacher “my mum hasn’t gotten out of bed for 3 days so I doubt she would be coming tomorrow night” wasn’t something I should be sharing, years later I discovered that this feeling was shame.
When It was my turn to give an excuse I had a strange feeling telling the teacher “my mum hasn’t gotten out of bed for three days so I doubt she would be coming tomorrow night,” wasn’t something I should be sharing. Years later I discovered that this feeling was shame.
My mother was a relatively successful woman: married at 25, child at 26 and a PhD at 27. She was on track for a long and accomplished career until a series of unfortunate events, including the still-birth of my would-be younger sister and the death of my father a few months later, triggered her plummet into the dark abyss that is mental illness. To begin with, my extended family were extremely involved and concerned about my mother and myself, though continuous failed efforts to ‘cure’ her began to exhaust them and cause a lack of interest. Eventually the entire topic became taboo. Family events confused me, as I never understood why my mother and I were seen as outcasts to the people closest to us. They tried to surpress the truth of my mother’s condition in the same way I did to my Grade 3 teacher.
As I grew up and my mother’s condition remained stagnant, the people who knew the secret that I had covered up my entire life began to ambush me with questions and their own personal views on the matter.
“Do you hate you mum for exposing you to all of this?”
“You know it’s not your fault.”
“You’re allowed to be angry and hate her.”
“It’s not fair that you had to grow up with such a burden.”
Initially, all that made me furious, though I would later catch myself pondering and justifying their thoughts and my own as teen angst smothering compassion. It was hard to not feel bitter every now and again, considering what I’d missed out on while being preoccupied, listening for any signs of movement from my mother’s bedroom. It was hard not to get lost considering whether or not it would be easier if she just wasn’t around, if I wasn’t around her. Every morning I would expect the worst; every sound, or absence of, would undesirably fill my thoughts with the possibility that I would find her dead, often laying awake in bed until the early afternoon, procrastinating, to avoid discovering my biggest fear. At times, I won’t lie, I hated her. I hated that she didn’t turn up to the “Mother’s day” events at school. I hated that I had upkeep the house when every other kid my age was playing FIFA and talking shit to each other through a headset. I hated that I wasn’t her number one priority. I began to think of her condition as a choice and considered her to be selfish, just as everyone else close to her did.
On my 21st birthday I sat out the back of our house smoking a joint; there was no cake, no celebration. It was no different to any other birthday, or day, that is. My mother sat opposite me with an apologetic look in her eyes and said sorry for the lack of celebration, soon followed by the conversation I had always dreaded having.
“I’m sorry Louis. I’m so sorry for everything. You’re such a good boy and you deserve the world, I never wanted to do this to you, I never wanted you to grow up the way you did. Every day I would wake up wanting to change things, to be a better mother but I just couldn’t. I know it’s hard to understand. I know you hate me, I know you blame me for everything, I know I’m selfish. I’m so sorry I’m so selfish”
With a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes I realised that no matter how hard it has been for me, how permanently alone I have felt, she has had it worse.
I have never experienced normality. Just like someone who is born paralysed has never experienced walking, I cannot crave something I have never tasted; I can imagine what it would be like, but I will never know. My mother tasted normality as if she was an Olympic athlete whom became suddenly paralysed. She knew what she was missing and for that I cannot be ashamed or angry.
The truth is mental illness is like a physical disability that you cannot talk about; people try and hold you up and trick the world, even themselves, into thinking you can stand by yourself, but they can only hold you up for so long before they give up. The ones who stay and hold you up watch the people around them experience things they can’t handle. But those who stay grow stronger in a different way, no matter what they miss out on. And truth be told, they would do it a thousand times over if it meant they got to relive the good days you had.
I wish there was a better ending to this story. A few days after my 21st birthday mum was too tired to stand, even with her hand on my shoulder. A hand-written note was placed on the kitchen bench. “I have to let you live your own life, I love you and I am sorry.” I don’t fully understand it all yet, but I understand why I am not angry or resentful. In my mother’s eyes she was doing me a favour, and although I am hurt I will never experience the hurt she would have felt every day until the end; as much as I want her to be here I am content with her pain and suffering finally being at peace.
Written By Louis Hotham.