You before me-supporting a mother with a mental illness when suffering yourself
When I tell my mum I am feeling unwell, she always tells me, “I am so sorry, I have given this [bipolar] to you, I am sorry to see you go through this”. When you go through the same ritual of telling her that it is not her fault, she didn’t know and that just things happen. My mum was diagnosed with depression when I was around 3 years old, schizophrenia when I was around 8 and schizoaffective disorder on my 25th birthday, I am now 27 (she’s 54 if you want to do the maths). Why am I saying this in terms of my age and not hers? Because when she first ran away from my dad, she couldn’t remember how old she was, she just knew how old I was.
I am trying out new meds to keep my bipolar at bay whilst trying to become a “finance person” (my job is incredibly dull) in London. She lives in Malaysia, where she is from and works as a lecturer in Engineering at a local university. We sometimes miss each other on whatsapp, she calls me at 3am forgetting the time difference and it can be weeks before we talk properly. I told her about my struggles, the meds that I take. It turns out that both bipolar and schizoaffective disorders are treated with antipsychotics, so we have chats about what works for us, what types are better than others, the symptoms that we have when taking different types.
In this sense, having my wise mother who has been going through her struggles for so long to tell me of her experiences is great and so helpful. But on the other hand, mum not being well can be hard on my dad and I. My mum was diagnosed in the UK in the 90’s, when the only treatment is thought to be take your meds and the symptoms will go away. If your symptoms are propping up again, the first question (even today) is, “Are you compliant with your medication?” When it is natural for you to have a few ups and downs just not as severe as when you are not on meds. There was no talk about counselling or CBT in general.
Ever since I could remember, my mum would confide in me and tell me how she is feeling. A lot of the time she was delusional which is quite hard to comprehend and make sense of when you are only 5 years old. Still I tried to listen and give advice (as much as a 5 year old could). I would give her a hug and she would give me a brave smile. Her paranoia was based on my father cheating on her and planning to leave her and it has been the source of her delusions for over 20 years, which meant that she couldn’t speak to my dad about how she felt. There was a time when I was very young when she thought my dad was planning to poison her, but I frankly don’t remember that very much. When she did talk to dad, there would be a massive screaming match in the front room. It must have been my 7th birthday where my wish was for them to not argue for a whole week; and if there was a hint of an argument I’d playfully say, “Mum, Dad, It’s my birthday week!”
My dad had a bad temper and I was scared of him. With all the things that my mum told me of him, I didn’t know if I could trust him. To add to that, my dad going away a lot for work and having to live remote from us for 4 years, it was probably the most devastating effect of my mother’s illness on my dad and I.
The second hardest thing to come to terms with was that you ended up being her sole counsellor and only emotional support through all of this. Since my dad could only help so much and was often on the side lines, I had to mop up the tears, hear the woes and try to keep her on the straight and narrow when she had a wobbly few days. I do admit, it was a lot for a child under the age of 10 to cope with, but it became worse when you got older and start talking to your friends as an adult. You come to the realisation that there were some parts of your childhood that you never had. Even till today, she calls me at odd hours and starts going in circles about how my dad is supposedly cheating on her again. I just now know how to calm her down effectively and talk to her when she feels a bit better.
My mental health has gotten worse over the years. As a child I would have panic attacks and cry at random times. My dad used to get frustrated and said to try my best not to cry for as long as I could. I made an attempt on my life at the age of 19 and I have suicidal idealisation every few months. I didn’t normally tell my parents when I am feeling rubbish but I am beginning to now. I didn’t want them to worry about me. The way I see it is that my mum has a more severe illness than me, so I need to cater to her before myself.
When I was 8, I promised my parents that I wouldn’t tell a soul about my mum’s diagnosis, especially in Malaysia as there is such a stigma attached to mental illness. I went through school not telling my friends and most of my family. When my mother was in hospital 2 years ago, my uncle (my mum’s brother) said to me, “I am so sorry for you and your dad for what you have to go through,” I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “It’s alright, she’s always been like that. She’ll be fine.” It was not until I left home that I realised that a lot of people went through what I went through. And that maybe, maybe it’s okay to talk about it to help others.