“Mum, I feel sad all the time.”
My fourteen-year-old son and I were lying in bed together, long after his little sisters had fallen asleep. My husband works a night shift job so each evening, after the little ones are in bed, my son and I hang out watching Netflix, doing homework, playing games and talking.
We’ve always had a very open relationship and I make a point of being as honest with him as possible. I pride myself of reacting calmly to the most devastating of his revelations which so far have included, “Sometimes I think of killing myself” and “Last week I packed a bag and almost ran away”.
Each statement is a stake in the heart, a kick in the guts, but none hit me as hard as, “Mum, I feel sad all the time.”
Oh no, I thought, my son really does take after me.
I have a mental illness called Cyclothymic Disorder which the National Library of Medicine describes as a mild form of bipolar disorder “in which a person has mood swings over a period of years that go from mild depression to emotional highs”. Because it is mild it can be dismissed as moodiness or “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”.
At it’s best it appears as though the person is filled with endless energy and extreme joy.
At it’s worst it presents as quietness, voluntary solitude and standing on the edge of a cliff thinking of how wonderful it would feel to just step off, to fly downwards and to slam against the rocks next to the ocean, releasing oneself from having to face the next day.
And the next.
And the next.
My father has it and we've always said I'm a chip off the old block. It's why my dad and I are so close. He and I are the only ones who understand what goes on in each other's head. When I first spoke to my dad about it a look of realisation swept over his face as he understood just how much I was like him. Then his face morphed into one of great sadness.
That's how I feel. My son takes after me, my child, my first-born. He will be prone to the same highs and lows as I have been for my entire life, just as my father has struggled with for his entire life. My son and I will share a special bond because we will each have a profound understanding of what it feels like to be us.
However that incredible bond, all my knowledge and experience, doesn't mean I can help him.
I have enough trouble helping myself.
So I took him to the doctor the next day for a Mental Health Assessment Plan and asked a friend who is a psychologist for a recommendation. I wanted to find a psychologist who specialised in adolescents and teens, who could be there for the long haul.
I arrived late to the therapy scene and feel sad at the years I suffered through wondering why I couldn't control the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart and stomach.
"What's wrong with me?"
My life was perfect. I achieved great success. And yet, I didn't feel it. I couldn't feel it.
In last week's Mamamia Out Loud "Ask Bossy" segment, Kate DB gave advice to a mum struggling with her teenage daughter's mental health issues. Article continues after this podcast excerpt.
Now I can feel it, albeit from a slightly greater distance than most others. I want my son to find that place much sooner in life than I did.
Mental health issues aren't anything to be ashamed of. Last night when I asked him if he wanted to talk to someone I said, "We go to the doctor when we are physically unwell, we go to the doctor when we are mentally unwell."
"You don't have to suffer. Let's find someone for you to talk to so you can enjoy your life."
"What's therapy like," he asked me.
"Wonderful," I said, "when you find the right person for you."
At the doctor's last night he asked if he could speak to my son alone for a few minutes. When I was invited back into the room he handed me the assessment and I had a quick flick through.
Thoughts of suicide.
I folded it up, put it in my bag and gave my son a hug. Once we got back into the car he told me that the doctor wanted him to tell me about their conversation.
They spoke about what was worrying my son - high school, friends, his health, evil people - and he said he had trouble sleeping because of the thoughts in his head. He told the doctor he feels incredibly sad sometimes, even though he knows logically that he has an amazing life.
"When you think about suicide," the doctor asked, "have you ever planned it out?"
"Have you thought of how you'd do it," the doctor persisted.
"I'd probably hang myself, but I don't really know."
If my son hadn't been sitting next to me in the car, if he hadn't been repeating their conversation so matter-of-factly, if the world hadn't been spinning slowly around as it always does and the street lights hadn't been on and we hadn't been minutes away from our home I would have put the car in park, let my face fall into my hands and howled in anguish.
At least he said he felt better after talking to the doctor, and to me.
We arrived home and I gave my husband a look that married people sometimes give each other. It said, We'll talk later, and I started getting the kids ready for bed before sitting down with my husband to agree on a plan of action for our son.
More one-on-one time.
Fun, non-school-related activities.
If you or someone you know is suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.