“Because she is my mum, and I love her”
My story is not like everyone else’s. I know total cliché line to open with. It is something, that I have learnt to accept and I am very open with. To tell my story I need to also tell my mums.
Mental health is the norm for me, over the years, I have learnt not everyone has as much knowledge or experience with mental health, and that is ok. I encourage people to ask questions. I grew up as the child of a parent with mental illnesses, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, multiple personalities, anorexia, bulimia and borderline personality disorder.
At times, during my teen years, it was hard to communicate with my mum, due to the combo of me being a teen and her not always following her treatment plans. One of the best things she taught me was to live in the present. When I asked her what subjects I should pick as electives she told me “You’re smart, you’ll always do well in school, so just do what makes you happy now.” I think a part of her lived vicariously through me. When it came to my art she would come to the exhibitions, beaming with pride. Once upon a time, she was an artist. I used to tell her to draw again but she wouldn’t.
I didn’t live with my mum, she had made the hard choice of voluntarily giving myself and my four younger siblings up, to be placed in foster care when I was 10. She wanted to get better. And she did when I was 18. She was doing great, she had a new zest for life, new friends, was doing art again. I think she even had a boyfriend though she denies it.
Around this time I became a peer mentor for young people who have a parent with a mental illness. Everything was going great, my mum was proud of me, she encouraged me to drag my brother (who was three years younger) to the program I volunteered at.
Then, 3 months later, I got a call. My brother rang in the middle of night, slurring his speech. He didn’t sound right, not the usual prankster that I was used to. Something was wrong. He confessed he had taken a bunch of pills he found in the cupboard and now was scared he would die. He was panicking. Myself and his youth worker (my brother didn’t live with my mum or his dad) had to kick the front door in. That was when I realised my brother was depressed. That it wasn’t just mum that needed help.
My brother seemed ok for about three years. He got a job, got his own place, even had a fiancée, and eventually a baby boy. He was proud of the life he had built. Mum was doing great too. Mum’s birthday was coming up and I pestered my brother to come over to mum’s to visit her, “I can’t I have work at 2.” I didn’t think anything of it. He popped over for a few hours, and then left.
It was just after midnight, it might have been closer to one, my mum was about to head to bed and I was sleeping on the blow up mattress in the lounge room. There was a knock at the door. Nothing could have prepared us for that knock. I remember mum waking me up, telling me there were two police officers wanting to talk to me. She had made them break the new to me.
“Your brother has passed away”
I repeated a few times that he had gone a holiday and they kept saying “No he is gone, he has passed away.”
Everything was a blur. I wanted to vomit. He had taken his life a few weeks shy of 18.
The next day I made a zillion phone calls, speaking to mums mental health team, her GP, anyone that she might need, making sure they knew what was going on just in case I required urgent help with her. I spent three weeks begging mum to eat, she didn’t want to eat, she didn’t want to do anything. I forced her to have Sustagen. Grief is funny, you just lose all motivation to do things. I felt afraid to leave her alone.
My mum turned to alcohol after my brothers funeral. She didn’t want to talk about it, she wanted to forget. She wasn’t the type to drink as soon as she got up in the morning, it was more a night time thing, when she felt lonely.
A few years went by, I moved interstate. My mum had been upset at my moving, she worried she wouldn’t see me again. “You wont want to come back” she said as I waved goodbye. She learnt how to use a computer so she could use Facebook. She would show her mental health workers photos of her grandchildren.
But behind all the Facebook updates and smiling photos I posted was a secret. I was struggling. I had always been the one who looked after everyone, the strong one, but there I was sitting in the GP’s office being told “your chest pains, they are due to anxiety. Do you know what that means?” Everything was a blur. I remember the doctor discussing options, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), medications, it all went in one ear and out the other. It was too much to take in.
A few weeks went by and something snapped. My chest felt tight. I felt like I was dying. I thought I was having a heart attack. I rang my partner for help, he came rushing home from work. Once we got to the hospital with three kids in tow, I collapsed.
I came to with several doctors hovering over me, staring with concern. My partner looked upset and scared. I was poked with needles and tests were taken. Tests came back that my medication had caused my heart rate to drop too quickly and had subsequently caused my collapse. I was given the all clear to go home.
At home, I worried I would collapse again. My partner was a truck driver, often working as far as four hours away, and with three children aged under the age of six it was hard to make time for myself.
I made a call to my mum “Mum, I have anxiety” I cried over the phone. “Its ok Jess, don’t cry. What does the doctor want to try?” mum replied. We talked for hours, bonding over the shared experience of anxiety.
A few months later, my partner and I decided to come back to Victoria, we told no-one but his mum. We decided to time it so we could surprise my mum on her birthday, even though her birthday was often a hard time for her. Our cover got blown when my brother spotted me at the local shopping centre. He told me mum wasn’t doing well.
We went to my mum’s house and it was like stepping back in time to when I had been caring for her.
“Mum? Are you ok?” I asked, as I stepped in the door.
“Who are you?” My mum stared at me.
“It’s me, Jess” I replied.
She walked over and stared at me. But she seemed different, like she was a different person. Her body language and her voice were different. “What do you want? We didn’t tell you to come here.” I sat down on the couch. Her lounge room is adorned with photos of all her children, her grandchildren, and her pets. “Mum, do you want a cuppa?” I asked after what seemed like hours of silence. She nodded.
That’s how my mum and I still are. We don’t need to talk much to know what’s up, I can see straight through to the real stuff. When she learnt that I was studying mental health she said “You will be great at that, you already know more than those fancy textbooks.”
She was right. I have learnt that I have more ‘on the job’ training from my personal experiences than most of my teachers. Not many of my teachers have stories of being involved with police negotiations and putting themselves in harms way to diffuse situations. When I told my teacher about the time I stood between my mum, who was holding a knife, and police, who were armed and ready to shoot if she charged at them, my teacher asked “why did you put yourself between them? You could have been hurt or killed.” I replied “because she is my mum, and I love her.”
Mum is doing really well these days. She has even been planning an interstate holiday, which is a huge for her. Once upon a time she couldn’t cope with a drive to Melbourne. I am proud of her recovery, it has been a long journey and I have always had her back and she knows that. We both have been each others cheerleader.
I have finished now my diploma in counselling and and am working toward my diploma in mental health and diploma in community services. I will continue on to university and continue to learn. There are so many people out there that need help and I intend to do whatever I can to help them.
Written by Jess Bell for The Joys of 3 Boys
If you or a loved one is in need of some help, I urge you to speak up! There is no shame in it. Let’s band together and end the negative stigma surrounding mental health.
You can check out PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia), their helpline is 1300 726 306.
Beyond Blue has a great page with places to get help. Check it out here: Beyond Blue
Or if you just want someone to chat to you can click here, fill out the form, and it will shoot me an e-mail. I’m always up for a chin-wag x