I came home one night, I would have only been about 17. I sat in my room with a hip flask of vodka and a whole bunch of pills and tried to imagine what things would be like if my chest stopped rising. What would happen to my brain? Would it stop altogether, I wondered? What about all about all my things? Who would take them? Would my sisters fight over my wardrobe, or might they be too sad that I was no longer around that they couldn’t bear to see them? Shame I thought, if that were to be the case.
Trivial maybe. But entirely a valid question. All of these were probably pretty valid questions.
So why was I sitting in my room contemplating a life that I didn’t exist in, if I didn’t even really want to die?
The answer? I thought that was the only way I would get the attention I desperately craved from my parents.
Pathetic? Cliched? A tiny bit embarrassing?
Yes, all of the above.
Also embarrassing was that when my parents took me to the emergency room at the hospital I overheard the nurse scoffing at my so called ‘attempt’ at suicide. “Not even close,” were her words. But how was I to know that 24 pills wouldn’t do the job? This wasn’t my game. Suicidal was not what I was. I was seventeen, happy and enjoying life most of the time.
Unfortunately in the small percentage of my life when things weren’t happy and bright – they were painfully grim. Dark. Terrifying. Confusing. And for the most part, felt entirely unfair.
I come from a family of eight kids which is just as brilliant as it sounds. Except for the fact that the statistics are totally stacked up against us. You see, it is the unfortunate truth of this world that one in five suffers a mental illness. And the statistical cross that we were to carry just happened to be schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia, my god how I hate that word.
Anthony (the third child in our family) has, at best bet, been schizophrenic since he was about thirteen years old. I have to say ‘best bet’ because it is difficult to tell if the early stages of teenage delinquency could be attributed to ADHD, drug abuse or just the fact he was born a right little shit.
Anthony, or Tone as he is better known, started doing marijuana when he was about thirteen years old. That soon progressed to ecstasy, then speed, then whatever else was going, before he found his true poison and the monster in my closet – heroin.
He used heroin for around about a good ten years. And I saw way too much of it.
I watched drug dealers pull up in the leafy streets of Malvern. Their beefed up Suburus leaving poisonous stains on the street outside my home.
I knew they didn’t care that I was watching. And I had an idea it wouldn’t help that I used to tell the police officers that visited my primary school every month about what I saw outside my home. But I kept watching, observing what was going on, frightened that if I stopped anything could happen. Or perhaps nothing.
So where were my parents? How did they let this once private school jock turn into this monster with swollen veins and tiny pupils? Well they were there. Fighting with everything they had to keep a normal life for the younger half of the family, all the while trying to work out a way to save his life.
But unfortunately, for me, they didn’t do enough. They couldn’t do enough.
You see – from those days of peering over the fence, watching those deals, terrified of his shrunken pupils and furious that yet again the family computer had ended up at the local Cash Converters – grew a resentment.
And it probably started like all resentments, small. But as time went on, and they continued to support him at the detriment of my quality of life, I grew angry. Really angry.
They tried. In fact they tried their absolute best. But unfortunately for me, trying just wasn’t going to cut it.
I saw how my friends’ parents spoke to them. Candidly asking them questions about their lives and genuinely wanting to know the answer. That sounds an immature observation, and it was. Well, it is. But I was just so angry that no one ever asked me how I felt about Tone. It killed me that Mum thought I would be able to ignore it all if she just bought me everything I wanted. And I was embarrassed that my friends had to see him smacked out on our front steps whenever they came over to play.
And when I made attention seeking comments like I hated him and wished he was dead. No one ever asked why. I was just told to stop being ridiculous. Which in hindsight is probably fair enough. They had their hands more than full.
But God when you are eight years old that is hard to be OK with.
And the thing is, although most of the time I said I hated him out loud in the way someone might say they hate rain or Eddie Maguire, I did genuinely want him to die. I wanted him out of my life. I would fantasise about his funeral and the closure it would bring in my life. I figured we would all be really sad for awhile. I would obviously have to take some time off school. But then it would be okay. He would be at peace because he would no longer be tormented by the voices, and all of us would be okay because we would no longer be tormented by him.
And he came close a few times. More than a few times actually. You see he knew it takes a little more than 24 Panadols to do the trick, and he gave it a few decent nudges. Some intentional, but I suspect most were simply were acts of greed or overindulgence.
When I was in my late teens this came to a head. Not for the first or the last time. From memory the triggers came from missing out on a leadership position at school and being told by my then boyfriend he had kissed someone else in Byron Bay. I needed someone to be there for me. I needed someone to tell me that one day I would be 23 and this would be something so insignificant that I would have to try really hard to even remember why I felt that low. But once again Tone was sick, and Mum and Dad were stressed, so I was alone in this.
So I sipped on the vodka. Envisioned a new home for my wardrobe and cruelly thought of my parents -‘this‘ll learn them.’
But when they took me to the hospital the vitriol soon disappeared. I could see their pain. I could see they cared. But more than anything I could see were bloody terrified. While they weren’t watching, another one almost slipped away.
I would love to say it was at that moment that the walls came down, that my family begun to open up and started talking about what was going on. The moment when Tone stopped being the gnawing ghost, haunting our lives and started being something we tackled together. But unfortunately not.
For a period my attention seeking paid dividends. I was sent to a doctor, which I guess was what I wanted. However, she simply confirmed everything I already knew- I was resentful at never getting my ‘turn’ to be a kid.
I realised then that things probably weren’t ever going to change, that this was the way things were going to have to be. So instead of continuing with my own doctor I went and saw his. I wanted to know what life was like for him. I needed to somehow find a way to understand. And it worked. I could see it for the illness it was. With his permission, she told me about the things they talked about, about the way he felt most of the time, and quite frankly, it was terrifying.
Armed with understanding, I could now move on and rationalise things. I had to accept that my childhood was never going to change. I would never get that back. And I had to simply embrace that my experiences put me in the privileged position of some kind of understanding and gave me the gift of compassion.
The only problem was, it didn’t do anything to make the resentment towards my parents go away.
About a year ago now he came really close to the edge, so my siblings and I decided to do some family counselling to deal with what we believed at the time to be the inevitable. And it was in these sessions that I discovered for the first time in my life that all that time, when I felt so alone and so isolated in this whole thing, that there was actually six others beside me going through the same thing. That was greatly comforting. Although it did make me feel like a right idiot for thinking I was the only one genuinely affected.
But the most important thing I realised during these sessions was, for us, at many times in our lives we have been able to switch it off. To turn away from it all. Simply chuck it in the bottom drawer next to all those other things you can’t be bothered figuring out and move about our day to day lives without so much of a second thought for him.
However, for Mum and Dad there was no switching off. And there still isn’t. Every now and then just when they think they might be able to relax or for a second allow themselves to think that after raising eight children it might be their time to enjoy each other, he finds a new definition for rock bottom.
And as painful as this is for us to watch, and frustrating as it is for us to stand by as he manipulates them, takes their money, destroys their home, rips apart their relationship one more bloody time; this is their reality.
Try as they might, they can’t simply brush it to the side. They cannot shut him out. And as much as we beg them to give up – they never will.
That’s just the people they are.
And that’s impressive, if not entirely unbelievable.
And so, it is through this understanding that I have learnt to forgive them. And let go of all the resentment.
Because Gen, you selfish idiot, it never has been and never will be, all about you.
If you need immediate help, you can contact:
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78
SANE Australia has fact sheets on mental illness as well as advice on getting treatment. Visit www.sane.org or call 1800 18 SANE (7263).
Genevieve Liston is a twenty something Melbourne based producer. After a somewhat frightening two year stint in Right Wing Talk Back radio, she is currently on hiatus from news and current affairs and instead fills her days with football and funnies working on Network Ten’s Before the Game. You can find her on Twitter here.