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Jessica Rowe: "I’ve had a lifetime of rehearsals for putting on a brave face".

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.

Mum and girls -1979 before first breakdown

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.

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Jess and her mum

I remember coming home from high school one afternoon and asking Mum how she had spent the day.

‘Looking at the walls.’

‘Oh . . . You won’t believe what happened at school today. I was swinging on my chair during Latin and then the—’

‘Please stop, you’re too loud.’

‘Can I get you a cup of tea? What about I go down to Woolies and buy you a scorched peanut bar? You know, your favourite?’

‘Be quiet, please . . .’

With that I walked out of the living room back into the kitchen where my sisters sat around the old rectangular pine table.

Listen to Jessica Rowe talk to Sarah Macdonald about how she manages motherhood and work...

Harriet had already set out three glasses, so I got the milk out of the fridge and asked Claudia to reach the Milo in the cupboard. Right, today I would put three tablespoons of Milo into each of our cups. Usually we weren’t allowed to have that much, but right now I was in charge.

When Mum started to spiral downwards she was increasingly impatient with the normal bustle of family life, becoming snappy and then angry with us. One day she yelled through the front door at me when I had left my keys at home. She threw the keys down the stairs at me and crawled back to the living room, unable to walk as the drugs she had been prescribed were reacting very badly with her system. But my sisters and I were unaware that it was the medication that caused such terrible changes to her mood.

I became even more frightened when Mum’s impatience was replaced with a sinister quiet. This had been the pattern of her illness, first the mania, then the irritation and now the stone statue. Sitting in her specially upholstered blue chair, she appeared frozen as she stared at the new couch and dirty cream wall.

My sisters and I would leave her there in the mornings after trying to tempt her with a cup of tea and Vegemite toast. When we returned in the afternoon Mum would be sitting in the same spot, barely registering when I kissed her soft cheek, her tea cold and the toast untouched on the coffee table. It was like our mum was no longer there, just a shell. When she was like this we knew it was time for her to go to hospital, and thankfully she didn’t need much convincing that was the safest place for her.

Three sisters

I remember on one occasion, sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, I first set myself the task of trying to get her to smile.
Just a hint of a smile would be enough; I wanted to see some light and sparkle return to her beautiful green eyes. Instead all I saw was my mother hunched on the corner of her bed staring vacantly at me. The sweet smell of the yellow jonquils I was clutching seemed to wilt when faced with the sadness and desperation hanging in this grim, grey room. There was no place for yellow spring flowers here. How could my naive songs, stories and jokes compete with such choking despair? But still I kept trying to pull her out of despair; that was my job, my role as Miss Cheerful.

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I’ve had a lifetime of rehearsals for putting on a brave face. It is a gift I developed from a young age, and my self-cast role became perfect training for a career in front of the camera, where it’s important to be consistent, calm and cheerful regardless of whatever else is happening in your life. It’s a tendency that I still find hard to shrug off, especially when I need to ask for help. So it seemed a sign of weakness for me to admit I was struggling as a new mum when I was supposed to be happy. I had seen what had happened to my mother when it was all too much, and certainly some part of me was fearful that I too might end up in a psychiatric ward.

My mind was making all sorts of catastrophic leaps and I was terrified about where it would end. Would my life also unravel? Would the despair inside of me leach out and become those same dark, dead of night sobs hidden on the other side of the bedroom door while my baby and husband were locked out, listening on the other side? From the outside, in the sunny light of day, I at long last had my baby. My family was complete, so what reason did I have to feel anxious, insecure, out of my depth and unhappy?

I had everything, but I was struggling. I wanted to be capable and strong, to be everything to my daughter that I felt my mother couldn’t always be because of her illness. I didn’t realise how high I was setting the bar or how much pressure I was putting on myself. Up until then I had managed to crash through and keep going through the sheer force of my cheery personality.

But the skill set and default mechanism that had got me through my 36 years was not working anymore. What I really needed to do was ask for help, but instead I kept up my award-winning performance as the perfect mother with the perfect baby.

Chris, the mothercraft nurse, would call me each morning to talk through how the night had gone. I listened dutifully to her suggestions about the day’s routine, wrote them down and did my best to make it work. Then I’d put on my pink leopard-print sundress with matching pink ballet flats and my big black Jackie O sunglasses to hide my tired, frightened eyes from the world. It looked beautiful from the outside, but inside I felt ugly, unworthy and a failure.

Jessica with husband, Peter - when Alegra was born

I couldn’t stop looking at Allegra as I tried to manoeuvre the orange pram over the giant tree roots. The Moreton Bay fig outside our house has a magnificent sturdy trunk and glossy, green leaves, but the pram’s back wheels kept getting stuck on its unwieldy roots. The safety strap from the pram was wrapped tightly around my wrist as I shoved hard to get it moving along the concrete pavement. I was sure I detected a smile from my baby girl as she looked up at her sweaty mother. Yes, it was a smile, her first smile, even if my aunt would later tell me it was just wind. Was that a dimple I could see in her cheek? I was sure it was. You’re just too good to be true, my beautiful baby girl.

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The pair of us made slow progress along the street.

‘How are you?’ my neighbour asked, as she was walking back from the supermarket with her arms full of shopping bags.

‘Great, just great,’ I replied with a large smile, not wanting to stop for a chat.

This is an extract from Jessica Rowe's new book

Allegra was starting to doze off thanks to the rocky rhythm of the wheels bumping along the footpath and I didn’t want anything to interrupt her morning sleep as we walked down the street to pick up milk, bread and my morning coffee.

‘When are you going back to work?’

‘Soon.’

It was odd. I was always being asked the question about when I was heading back to my job. The work question had now replaced the ‘When are you getting engaged/married/having a baby?’ questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t brush off this latest inquiry as polite conversation but instead used it to put more pressure on myself. When was I going back to work? Back to my life?

I had grown up in a generation of young women who had been taught that we could have it all, and that we deserved it all, too. As a feminist, it was part of my belief system that my gender was not going to hold me back from achieving the work-life balance that I had naively predicted would accompany motherhood.

I would be a superwoman, a supermum who could take it all in her glittering caped stride.

But now that I was a mother, I was forever changed.

Watch Jessica Rowe speak to Shelly Horton about being 'boned' from Channel 9 and how she coped:

This is an edited extract from Is this my beautiful life? A Memoir by Jessica Rowe published this week by Allen and Unwin, RRP $29.99. Click here to buy the book. 

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