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This article has been written by one of Vada’s contributors and anonymised on their request.
Much is written on mental health issues by those who study and treat them. Increasingly, as perspectives continue to change, more is being written by those who suffer from them. These are both great and undoubtedly progressive things. If archaic attitudes and societal stigmas are to be shaken off – rusting shackles that they are – then we need to hear voices from both sides of the spectrum, from medical professionals and from those living with a mental illness. However, we also need another type of voice, and this voice is that of those living in the wake of someone else’s mental illness.
I would not ever wish to detract from, or in any way denigrate, the suffering of those with mental illnesses. But, like the often voiceless plight of those affected by mental health issues, there also exists the voiceless plight of those affected by mental health issues by proxy. Those on the periphery; those that love one who suffers from mental illness; those that desperately try to help (and, as such, often fail) in any way they can. I am one of those people, I am one of those voices; and so, I begin:
My mum is a wonderful, brave and incredible woman. She has given me everything I value, she has never stopped supporting me, and she has, it must be noted, definitely loved some of my boyfriends far more than I ever did. She is also manic-depressive and a severe alcoholic, and she is about to enter rehab to address her addictions and concomitant mental health problems.
It has been this way for a long time, though it is hard to accurately date due to the repeated denials that both she and me and my brothers have issued when confronted with the reality of her illnesses. She has been ill for so long now that I can’t remember if she drank because she was depressed, or she became depressed because she drank. I think that both are probably true. At some point we realised that she needed help. It is a devastating thing, watching somebody you love, especially somebody that shaped you, seemingly destroy themselves without mercy. That’s how I saw it at the start. It was difficult to grasp that it was beyond her control. I didn’t know who to speak to about it – didn’t know if I even wanted to – and information seemed scarce and unforthcoming in nature. I watched as my mum was replaced by a broken stranger, and nobody would tell me why.
The helplessness is pretty awful, a feeling that I know is likewise shared by those suffering from mental health issues. I don’t know if it’s a male thing, or an outsider-looking-in thing, or just a human thing – but I instinctively, often obsessively, wanted to fix the problem. Not being able to help somebody you love as they continue to deteriorate – sometimes as they actively beg for help – is unbearable. I spent years looking for the right combination of words to say. I rehearsed, quite constantly, the emotional spiel that I would say to her. I became fixated on the correct emphasis, the appeals to emotion, and the perfect moment: the moment where I would convey it all to her, have it click, see the deliverance of epiphany on her face and have me save her from herself. Many times, it would actually happen. Or rather, I would see it happen. I have lost track of how many times this occurred; we would both cry and I could really, absolutely, authentically feel that this time, this time, I’d made a breakthrough. I had fixed her. She would be my mum again.
And then it would completely reset, with morbid perfection, and the cycle would repeat. It is torturous. But it is an illness, it is chemistry, and words and empathy and love – the narrative cure-all – cannot alter chemistry. It doesn’t matter, though. Even when you realise all this, you never stop trying.
I am not proud to admit this, but for a long time there was a distinct feeling of shame, too. I tell my friends everything, but I did not tell anyone about this for many, many years – even when they would encounter it and it became obvious. I wanted a mother, what everybody else had, what I used to have. I did not want to be alone, living with a disturbed impersonation of someone I loved. I did not want to have to pick up, sometimes physically, always emotionally, a permanently fucked and manic parent. I did not want to worry when my mum would sleep and drink and not eat for weeks on end. I did not want to hear her become abusive, confused, and desperately, desperately lost. I did not want to hear her crying, or the self-hatred in her voice when she spoke. I am not perfect; I became selfish, resistant and aggressive: ‘this should not be happening to me’.
It is important that I say that. It is important that this is addressed. I say that because I play a part in the stigma that still ensconces mental illness. It was ruinous seeing how unhappy she was, yet simultaneously I felt embarrassed to have a mother who was clinically depressed and a ruinous drunk. Similarly, I couldn’t stand the thought of betraying her. When I finally started to tell people, I wanted to try and convince them ‘she’s not like everyone else who’s mentally ill! She’s a brilliant, talented woman – this is just a blip!’ But it wasn’t – it isn’t – just a blip, and she is no different from anyone that mental illness happens to. It doesn’t actually matter whether she has three degrees (she does) or three children by three different fathers (she could do), mental illness doesn’t discriminate. Horribly, I wish it did. I wish it had happened to anyone else. I don’t care that I think that – she’s my mum. We can talk and talk and make extraordinary process in terms of social equality and treating all with respect and compassion, but for many – for me – that can completely get to fuck when it happens to someone you love. Again, repetition of the same theme: ‘this should have happened to someone else’.
There really isn’t much said about the people who live in the shared shadow of someone else’s mental illness. I don’t want a medal. I don’t want recognition. I just want my mum to get better. But it’s unbelievably difficult. It’s frustrating. It’s enraging. I have thought and felt some terrible things towards her, and this doesn’t come from a place of being uninformed or ill-educated (although, admittedly, I once was, and still have more learning to do). If we’re going to achieve an open, honest and effective discourse on mental health, then we need to be transparent on all aspects of it. It isn’t just that it isn’t easy, it’s more than that – it’s actively difficult, it’s irrational and it’s heartbreaking. The sheer ruthlessness of mental illness is that it can eradicate, sometimes entirely, the very essence of the person you knew before. It can change them outright, and replace them with someone else, someone confused – sometimes cruel – and it is agonising to behold.
Sometimes I still get angry. I worry a lot that what happened to her will happen to me. I get angry that her relentless denial prevented her from getting help sooner, and I wonder whether or not it’s had a detrimental impact on the lives of me and my younger brothers. But I understand why it went on for as long as it did, why it took her so long to get help. I don’t blame her – not remotely, not for one moment – she tried, I see now, to fight it herself. To maintain the line that she was okay meant, to her, that she really was. She didn’t want to believe that she had failed as a mother. And she hasn’t. She may not believe it yet, and I’m still unsure of it, but she hasn’t.
But now she is getting help. It will probably take a very long time. She may not ever be the person she was before. It might not even work, but that’s not the point. As she makes a positive change, so too do I: I remind myself of the woman she really is. I remind myself of the little legends you hear about your parents, the myths they tell of themselves. She once saved a man that had been stabbed. She travelled across America in an old and broken car. She could sing in French and Gaelic, but one of them was a lie. Her first boyfriend was gay. Incredibly, unbelievably gay. Hey, if you didn’t know already, she has three degrees. And I’m pretty sure she slept with some of the Chippendales. She is the funniest person I know, the bravest, the kindest. She has been my biggest champion, my greatest supporter; the person that helped put me back together when I lost my first love. The person that made it clear she was there for me when she needed my help instead, that’s who she really is.
My mum is an alcoholic. And my mum is manic depressive. But she is getting help – she is also my hero.
For support and advice on living with an alcoholic parent, please visit www.coap.org.uk
For support and advice on living with a family member suffering from mental illness, please visit www.sane.org.uk