Jessica Rowe reveals what it was like growing up in the shadow of her mother’s mental illness and how it became the perfect training for a career in front of a camera.
Mum’s bedroom was right next to mine, the walls not thick enough to muffle the cries that got louder and louder. Frightened, I would creep out of my single bed and walk to her closed bedroom door, sliding my back down it to sit on the floor, still and quiet.
Frozen in that position, I was torn between opening the door to comfort her and sneaking back to bed. But each night I couldn’t move from that spot until the terrifying sounds on the other side of the door had stopped; only then would I go back to my bed and sleep.
I never asked her about those noises in the night. The smiling, happy mother I knew in the waking hours was so different to the woman I heard behind her closed door once the stars had come out to brighten the night sky.
I was an eight-year-old, obsessed with ballet and chocolate Monte biscuits, but already I’d learnt about putting on a brave face.
Mum was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was about ten years old. Thankfully it’s an episodic illness, so there are plenty of times when she is well. But there have been many times when she has fallen into the dark hole of severe depression. Mum has spent months at a time in psychiatric wards, taken numerous medications, and endured endless bouts of electroconvulsive therapy to try to shock her brain out of that terrible place in which she has battled to survive.
Throughout my teenage years, Mum was hospitalised at least every twelve months. I had become expert at looking for the warning signs, Mum’s face becoming drawn and the dark rings under her eyes more pronounced as she existed on almost no sleep. My sisters and I would be woken by the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the night as Mum’s illness made it hard for her to sleep. I would spy Mum dressed only in her singlet and underpants, vacuuming the bookshelves. Other times we would wake and find twenty homemade hairclips that Mum had painstakingly sewed with fake flowers and pretty blue velvet ribbon during the night. Once we came home from school to find a whole new lounge in the living room; that was quite a surprise as Mum didn’t have a lot of spare money to be splashing out on new furniture. The next day she bought five straw sunhats, identical apart from their colours. She said she couldn’t decide which one she liked best.
My sisters and I didn’t realise at the time but this behaviour meant Mum was in the manic phase of her bipolar illness.
She would be full of extreme ideas, have extraordinary energy and not want to go to sleep. Her mind was operating on fast forward.
Soon after this sort of exuberance, Mum’s mood would inevitably darken. She would snap at our chatter, telling us we were too noisy. But I couldn’t stop trying to make her laugh or smile. I was on alert, ready with my repertoire of funny stories.
The doctors were trying to work out the best medication to keep her stable as she couldn’t tolerate the standard lithium treatment that worked well for many bipolar sufferers.