I have grown up with mental illness. Not mine, my mothers. This week is maternal mental health week. A week to shout out about this topic that can be so terrifying, so challenging, yet one that is so common (1 in 5 women will suffer a maternal mental health condition and suicide is the biggest killer of women with under 1’s).
My mum suffered postpartum psychosis at the birth of myself and my twin. This was 38 years ago. An age when mental health was even less acknowledged and the experiences she suffered at that time have gone onto haunt her and her general mental health for decades.
(She went on to struggle with depression and was diagnosed with Bipolar in her 40’s.)
The facts of my birth were only discovered by me, aged 17,when I started A-level psychology and covering the topic of attachment, I asked about my entrance to the world. From that moment, I became my own case study.
What I can see now is that the three children born to my parents were all impacted in some way by maternal mental health before we even knew it. But more specifically it gets me thinking about my experiences of mums mental health, and the vacuum of silence that engulfed us. A silence that was only broken, back then, by me.
I dug around in my great hoard of letters, diary’s, poetry and stories of my youth (yes I’ve hung on to it all) and found some examples of my strength of feelings back then. Below is some excerpts of poetry from my angsty teen self. (Please note I do not publish these words as an example of a great wordsmith! )
“I’m told she’s confused, and doesn’t mean
The words coming out of her mouth.
I must remember she’s “not well”,
and pretend my tears have not been.
I wouldn’t care with any other.
Criticism, hurtful remarks I’d ignore
But this is different
This person is my mother.”
“This is not a dig at parents, but when i grow up I’ll do exactly what they don’t ….. a child is forgotten, its assumed our lives are carefree, we have no troubles….the child feels left out, shouts out and is angry. We feel they do not care.”
It reminds me what of what I remeber during Mum’s bouts of depression. I was 12 when they began in earnest.
- A dark bedroom, mum crying and not getting up
- Learning to use the washing machine
- Distracting my brothers from mums whereabouts so they didn’t see her like that
- Making tea and toast for my brothers and I after school
- Feeling tired and ever so responsible
- Taking calls on mums behalf; lying and making excuses for her because I knew I should but I didn’t know why.
And all this with no explanation of what was happening. I don’t re-call anyone ever sitting us children down and informing us of what was wrong or even asking for any help. Dad was still working full time, which now seems crazy, but I guess he didn’t see any other answer. And as the oldest (and the girl) I assumed the role of (pretend) adult in order to protect my brothers and help my dad. I think I understood early on that depression was what was happening. I overheard phone calls between Dad and family and the knowledge of my Granny having suffered a few years before. I think the overwhelming thought was “this must be bad because mum’s not mum anymore”.
I didn’t speak to anyone about it, not a friend, a teacher. There was no internet. No one offered us any expert advice or support . I think maybe at this stage the adults involved couldn’t see past the end of each day and probably hoped/believed that this would be it, mum would get better and then everything would go back to normal. It didn’t seem the done thing to involve us children at all. But we were. I was.
And I knew it wasn’t ok, I knew my mum was different. I said boldly to friends and relatives that she was a worse mum (than others) and I meant it. I was met with “you don’t mean that”. I did. I was met with “she’s not well and you mustn’t say that”. I was silenced in my beliefs and feelings. And so I became one hell of a teenager. I shouted, I hit out, I lied, and I got off my head to escape.
When raiding through my memories for the poetry, I also found reading and journal entries that I’ve made as a young adult. I see my younger self’s realisation that it WAS OK for my emotions to be different to those around me. I see me figuring out the pattern of my teenage life: I am open emotionally and in return thought of as exaggerated or difficult. I see that I was often holding up a mirror to my close ones and they didn’t like what they saw.
I don’t think its a coincidence that I have held onto all my old notes and writing. Its a great example to me that I DID feel, and that I understood my feelings and I could express them. It was everyone around me who struggled.
I often think it was this inner ability of mine for congruence that helped me to successfully travel through my roller-coaster of an upbringing.
And so I think of the push for mental health awareness around today, I see the amazing online resources out there for people struggling, I see the importance placed on emotional wellbeing in schools. And I’m relieved.
Mental health; for those struggling to live with it, for those caring for them, for those being parented by them. We must not vacuum it in silence. We must be open and honest about the health of our minds and the challenges we can all face when it gets skewed.
It can happen to any of us.