Trigger warning: This post deals with mental illness and suicide.
Our mother’s mental illness is something we have always known. Its ebbs and flows have been our normal. We have known the days where she hid from the world in her bed and escaped into her dreams; and the days where she had no sleep, believed she was in contact with her dead mother and had to be reminded to eat, drink and shower. Our mother may have lost the ability to sleep without medication, but she has never lost the ability to love and raise her two daughters.
Pivotal to us now as young adults is the fact our mother is not ashamed of her illness. Her honesty about bipolar and her experience means we do not fear it and for the most part we can laugh about her “mad” moments. There are the times however where Mum is overwhelmed with guilt over what we have been through and times we can’t reassure her enough that there is nothing to feel guilty about.
When my sister Madeline and I were little, we would often lay on each side of Mum and sing to her to drown out the voices she was constantly hearing in her head. We knew the song You Are My Sunshine off by heart at the age of four. Where those voices went is anyone’s guess but they no longer plague our mother. I hope this reassures others who might be going through the same thing.
Our mother has always acknowledged us as young carers and this is how we have always seen ourselves. Mum says I have been a carer since the age of five as I needed to “manage my little sister” when she wasn’t coping. When Madeline got older we shared responsibility about how our house operated when Mum was unwell. It might sound bad to others but my sister and I also share a sense of pride that we are mature and independent and have compassion and understanding of what it is like to struggle with a complex mental illness… Something that affects four million other Australians just like us.
The times we have hated the most have been when Mum has gone to hospital. This brings her great distress and worry and it’s traumatic for all of us. We often believe that we can look after Mum better than the professionals, as “there is no place like home.” During these times we have had the support of our extended family who have stepped in to help out, staying with our grandfather (Goog), while our Uncle liaises with the school and our Aunty helps with running us around. We try and visit Mum as much as possible and when we do she has said how proud she is of the compassion and kindness we show for other patients.
Osher Gunsberg talks to Mia Freedman on No Filter about his mental health.
When Mum comes home we usually help her with remembering medication. We take on differing roles; Madeline is very practical and motivating and seems to enjoy getting up and about and cleaning. I support Mum emotionally as Mum says I have a calm, soothing manner. We have never seen our mother as a burden and we hope that she has never felt like one.
Last year Mum disclosed that she has been extremely suicidal at times with thoughts that maybe Madeline and I would be better off without her. Thinking about how she could want to leave Madeline and I upset me at first but as Mum went on to explain it has been the trust and bond we all share that has kept her alive.
The new dilemma Mum, Madeline and I now face is about moving away. Madeline is in her final year of high school and I am working so there is no rush but when the time comes we know we will worry about Mum, even though she assures us she will be fine. I think that once a carer, always a carer, and letting go can be hard.
While it might sound like our family has dealt with a lot, it has always been balanced with plenty of good, inspiring times with Mum studying; worrying about our schooling; providing discipline; and sitting as a director on the SANE Australia board, where she works to help others just like us. I hope people can draw strength from this and know that having a mental illness is not all bad, you can live a meaningful life.
I feel like our family is normal and faces difficulties just like any other family does. I would like to think that other people see us the same way too. Mental illness affects so many of us, the difference is we aren’t afraid to openly talk about.
Emma-Leigh is 19-years-old and lives in country Victoria with her mum Kylie and 17 year old sister Madeline.
See more of Emma-Leigh’s story on Insight, Tuesday night at 8.30pm on SBS.