health

"I would wake in the night and find her standing over me."

All of my childhood memories revolve around my mother’s episodes of mental illness. There were moments of fear, concern, horror, dread, embarrassment, relief, confusion and rejection.

 

By NATASHA POYNTON

It is the emotions I had regarding my mother’s episodes of mental illness that I mainly remember from my childhood.

There were feelings of embarrassment, as she would collapse down on her knees in the middle of a busy shopping centre, bags of groceries spilling around her, cans of tomatoes rolling away, while she emphatically threw her arms up in the air and thanked God.  For what she was thanking Him for I don’t know, nor cared.   Or when, in the middle of a short flight between two cities overseas, she stood up in the middle of the plane and screeched out “I am the Devil!” while my sister and I tried to attach ourselves to another family, a ‘normal’ family, for the remainder of the flight.

There were feelings of horror when I would wake suddenly in the night and find her standing over me, looking at me intently and yet not really looking with her own, familiar eyes but someone else’s eyes – a crazy person’s eyes.  Just standing and looking.  And rocking.  Sometimes there would be rocking. Back and forth, from the balls to the heels of her feet. In the night. In my bedroom.

There were feelings of fleeting concern for my safety as she would grab me by the throat, but without too much strength or malice – just that ever, present vacant craziness in her eyes.  There were more often feelings of concern for her safety as she would threaten harm to herself – never to my sister or I – but only threaten to jump as we would talk her down, always hoping and almost believing that she didn’t really mean it. Or on the countless times when she would escape from hospital and we wouldn’t know where she was or where she would turn up next.

Mostly, there were feelings of love and protection.

Then there was that menacing, creeping dread, when she would turn up somewhere unexpected, like at the door of my classroom at school, insisting that my sister and I take tablets to protect us from the AIDS virus that we had never been exposed to; or the dread of her constant pacing, circling around us, like a shark.

There were feeling of confusion where suddenly she would ‘turn off’ and go into a catatonic state that could last for days; when sometimes she would try to speak but no words would or could come out of her dry, empty lips and her dry, empty eyes would stare off unfocussed, to some distant object that none of us could see.

There were certainly feelings of rejection when suddenly she would turn on me and verbally lash me telling me that I had always been a naughty girl, or imply that i had caused the illness that was afflicting her through my own birth, my own presence or the stress of looking after me.  Sometimes I was her angel, but sometimes i was the devil himself.

But mostly there were feelings of love and protection, wanting to protect her from whatever demons were chasing her, from the voices talking in her head or about her behind her back, of the paranoia, of the shaking that seemed to take over her hands. Protect her from whatever it was that drove her out of bed at night, all night and creep around the house.  And wanting to protect my sister from the emotional fallout of our mother.

ADVERTISEMENT

And there were feeling of relief.  The relief that comes from total emotional and physical exhaustion when we were finally able to commit her into hospital and go home to sleep, with no thanking God, with no standing over me in the dark, with no gaunt, pinched face, relentlessly padding around the house on some urgent mission in the night. And then came the guilt.  The guilt that would stay with us for the 2 weeks she was in a locked ward, until she came back home and we slowly, slowly, so painstakingly slowly regained ‘normality’.

Natasha

And permeating throughout all of these emotions was the feeling of abandonment, of being an outsider, slightly adrift from the rest of the world.  We received little help from outside family – in fact, mum’s illness was studiously ignored and any help that was directly asked for was usually refused outright.

For the rest of the family and much of the greater community, it was shameful and not spoken about, not to be admitted that a daughter, step-daughter, sister, cousin, friend was mentally ill.  It was not even close to being understood, nor did many try to understand.

As a mother myself now, I am profoundly in awe of how she was somehow able to look after two small children while being completely and utterly insane at times. Completely out of her tree.

Of course, it was in no small part thanks to my strong father who was able to become mother, psychologist and counsellor for a time. But mainly, it was due to the utter strength and determination of my mother.

Looking after small children is difficult enough, let along trying to look after children while you are hallucinating that your own mother is trying to kill you, or that the devil is talking to you, while, partly real and partly imagined, the rest of the world excludes you.

My childhood taught me compassion, empathy, and a healthy respect for stable personalities in the people I choose to surround myself with now. It has forged a close and unbreakable bond between my sister and I, my father and I.  And yes, over time, with my mother and I.

The illness that plagued her in episodes throughout almost her entire life, these days is controlled, though still not understood.  She is now, not only a source of strength as a mother to me, but also as a wonderful grandmother, able to relive in some small way, a few of the moments she was robbed of with her own children, through her years of mental illness.

Throughout her international career as an award-winning, children’s TV Producer, Natasha has always had a love of words.  As a busy mum to three young children, Natasha has turned her hand to freelance writing, which you can see more of here and with another busy mum has established Your Write, a unique, small business communications company.  Follow Natasha on twitter here and visit her website www.natasha-poynton.com.au.

00:00 / ???