BY MIA FREEDMAN
If you haven’t, you might see bad parents. Parents doing the wrong thing by their son. Parents too caught up in their own lives. Parents with misplaced priorities. Parents being selfish.
But you wouldn’t have a clue.
They recognise the fatigue and despair, the devastation and guilt, the loyalty and shame, the anguish and love, the exasperation and the stubborn hope that things can get better. That their son can be saved from himself.
Our society is incredibly tough on people who don’t appear to display the ‘right’ emotions in public. Remember Lindy Chamberlain? Joanne Lees, partner of English backpacker Peter Falconio who was murdered in the Northern Territory? After losing loved ones in horrific circumstances, they then had to endure the nasty innuendo. ‘She didn’t look THAT upset’ people said. ‘Where were the tears?’ ‘I reckon she was involved...’
Because we absolutely knew how we’d behave if it happened to us and it wasn’t what we saw on the news. Right?
Armchair criticism of public figures is a disingenuous game. I keep hearing people say “Why is Matt Newton in America? Why don’t his parents go and get him? What are they doing on TV instead of helping their son?”
Well, think about your own parents. If you decided to leave the country or stop taking medication or break the law could they do much about it? Assuming you are over the age of 18, it’s unlikely.
As Matthew Newton’s world continues to implode, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he’s unwell. But this isn’t actually about Matthew Newton. This is about the scathing attitude towards his parents that’s been seeping into the conversation.
Bert and Patti Newton’s lives have been in the public eye since before their children were born. They’re entertainers and TV personalities. That’s their job and yet this appears to offend some people. So what’s their alternative?
If someone you loved was in trouble – and had been for years – would you quit your job? Even if you knew you were facing years of supporting them financially? Would you drop everything and rush to their side to ‘save’ them again and again? Even if they refused your help? Would you put your own life on hold forever?
For families of mentally ill people who behave in erratic, destructive ways, their lives are a prison. Friends and partners can drift away and invariably do. But families do not. Cannot. For them, it’s a never-ending struggle between loving the person and hating their disease.
I have no first hand experience of such struggles but I know people who do.
“Mental illness can’t extinguish the love of a parent but my God it can push you to the absolute limit,” exclaims a friend whose brother has schizophrenia. “Mum takes the brunt of it. Greg’s episodes of psychosis often centre on her and he becomes convinced she’s trying to kill him and control his mind. He hates her with such intensity it can be frightening. But until he harms himself or someone else, we’re powerless to have him committed. Even when he’s been really bad and the police have taken him to hospital, he’s discharged after a couple of days because they need the bed for someone who’s worse.”
It has devastated my friend’s family as the waves of her brother’s illness crash through their lives again and again.
And it’s his mother who suffers the most.
“She loves Greg madly but she’s deeply ashamed she cannot fix him. She often questions what she did wrong, did she love him too much? Not enough? They were so close when he was a kid and she anguishes over the fact that she caused him to hate her, that somewhere in his childhood she messed up.”
Their family has tried to get Greg care, by buying it, begging for it, praying for it with mixed results. Similarly, people say Matthew Newton “needs to get help” or “be locked up” if he’s so sick but in reality, the mental health system doesn’t work that way. You can’t force people to seek treatment, confirms my friend. “My parents have been to see dozens of psychiatrists. They’ve paid for him to go to counseling, they pay for his medication. Sometimes he takes it. Sometimes he sells it.” They do all they can to get him hospital treatment and ongoing support but he usually refuses anything but money.
“Mum can’t accept that her son is mentally ill. That he will never be okay. It wasn’t love or lack of it that caused him to be ill. It was just messed up brain chemistry and no amount of love or money can fix that. So you have to keep living, even if you’re dying inside.”
And so it is with Bert and Patti. Public figures who earn their living from entertaining us and who have worked for decades to support their family. They have a daughter and grandchildren. There’s the son they love and won’t give up on. Actions they abhor. An illness they are powerless to control. What would you do? Let’s hope you’ll never have to find out.
Have you ever had any experiences with mental illness in your family? Amongst close friends? How have you dealt with it?
If you are going through a tough time, please make sure you get help:
Call Lifeline on 131 114 for crisis support
Or see your local GP.