So, I came out this week. The manager of the company I work for struck up a conversation with me about drug addiction and the physical effects of being high. I casually stated that it reminded me of my mother when she is in the throngs of a high episode. This then lead on to a 1 hour conversation about my childhood and how it feels to be closely related to someone who has suffered with schizophrenia and bipolar. Throughout this conversation I was shaking like a leaf, trying my best to stay composed and not come across like I’ve inherited this awful ailment. It’s a very emotional subject for someone who has had a childhood riddled with hospital visits and bizarre days out. Like the time she took my brother and I out of school to buy matching tracksuits and as many teddy bears as we could carry.
I’ve always been a relatively confident person but when it comes to talking about family issues, especially about my mum, I make sure I always speak openly. I think things have got a lot better since I was young but there is definitely still a stigma attached to mental illness. When I was a child bipolar wasn’t even a medical term, mum was high then she was low and that was just her. During my lifetime she has been sectioned under the mental health act 6 or more times. When we were very young my dad had private health care with his work which meant she sent some time at The Priory in southwest London. Now, if anyone has ever seen this place you’d know that to a 5 year old girl it looks like a castle! I used to love going to visit mum there and walking in Richmond Park, looking at the deer and running around in the open space. A few years later the private health care allowance had run out and she began staying in at the local NHS “mental hospital”, as people would say. When she wasn’t there she was running around our town telling people I had aids and apparently (according to people at my school) snogging the vicar!
Sometimes people feel sorry for me, they say it must have been hard. I tell them it’s been hilarious and it’s very much part of who I am. I feel sad that my mother has gone through some serious low points but at the same time I think she has enjoyed some natural highs that other people can only get from drugs. When she is high I have no doubt that she feels good, she isn’t feeling the anxiety or depression she often gets with recovery. I don’t think I will ever experiment with drugs, it scares me a great deal. Mainly because it’s a reminder of visits to the ward where there were many young people there who had serious problems after using. I remember being around 17 and seeing people at a party on drugs and just running out crying. I hadn’t made the connection between the highs and lows of illness and recreational drugs until then.
Of course there is a much darker side to mental illness and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. There are times when I’ve been very frightened for my mother’s safety, as well as mine and my brothers. I’ve even been mistaken for a patient at the hospital and had to spend 20 minutes trying to prove to the nurse that I was just visiting my mum and would she please let me out the security locked doors! Stuff of nightmares and as I left I realised this must be how she feels every time she is sectioned.
I supposed the reason I’ve chosen to write about this is to tell a little bit of our story. It’s so important to talk and understand that my family isn’t alone, but I think it is safe to say we are a rather extreme case. Many people at some point in their lives will encounter mental illness first hand and for many people this is only a drop in the ocean. A handful of MP’s have come forward this year and spoken openly about taking time out of work for depression. We’ve also seen documentaries from Stephen Fry about his experience, Kerry Katona has famously let cameras in during a very difficult time in her life and I think this has helped the public to start talking about mental health issues. If I could give my mother a gift it would be to help people understand what she has been through and to shout at the top of my voice that it’s not her fault. To encourage the general public to be more sensitive to people who may be having a hard time and not write them off as unemployable, unsociable and understand that a little bit of kindness can be the difference in an otherwise difficult day. This applies to both people suffering from the illness or families and friends having trouble dealing with it. Acceptance is the point where is becomes easier, for people like my mum her illness is very much part of her, however much it has hurt me and my family, she would be unrecognisable without it. To love her is to love every part of her and never be ashamed.