“Mothers are all slightly insane,” quipped Holden Caulfield, the seminal protagonist from J.D. Salinger’s 1951 classic, The Catcher in the Rye.
For those of us fortunate enough to know the highs and lows of the mother-daughter relationship, we know how true the statement can feel. Times when you can barely manage a kind word to one another, and when unanchored resentment creates fertile ground for friction. But what happens to this relationship when you grow up with a mother who experiences mental illness?
Sally* is 30 and lives in Melbourne. Growing up, Sally watched her mother endure periods of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and manic episodes. The telltale signal for a depressive period was when her mother could not leave the house. “She just wouldn’t get out of bed, basically. Mum wouldn’t get up, so we’d have to find our own way to school.”
Her mother went through periods of requiring regular trips to hospital, which Sally now attributes to sessions of electro-shock therapy.
“One of the first things I remember is talking to a friend at school, in grade three or four,” Sally explains. “Mum had been to hospital to have lots of tests, and my friend said, ‘Oh I know what that is, it’s epilepsy’. I had a sense it wasn’t what we were talking about, but I said, ‘Oh yes, I’m sure it will be fine’.”
Repression and silence, a condition imposed by social shame, is a well-documented attribute of mental illness. For sufferers, they unwillingly exist in a situation that is socially discouraged (which is problematic, as it implies agency within the sufferer). This stigma transfers to family members, and the message to be tight-lipped is never louder and clearer than when presented to highly vulnerable and impressionable offspring.
Jess Bell, a 28 year-old woman from Geelong, didn’t know how to speak to others about her mother, who began to suffer from an undiagnosed mental illness after her marriage to Jess’s step father broke down.
“During my teen years, I struggled with explaining to others why I didn’t live with my parents, and why I couldn’t see my mum. At one stage, I couldn’t see her for almost two years, as she was in hospital,” Jess explains.
Jess’s situation was extreme enough to involve state intervention.
“[Mum] had changed enough for others to notice. Us kids ended up in foster care on a voluntary temporary order, so she could focus on getting better. But as time passed, she became more unstable, and we ended up on DHS (Department of Human Services) orders until I was 18.”
Teenage years are notable for seething tensions and frequent rifts between mothers and daughters. The rationale for the tension in Jess’s life was so pronounced, she felt as though her capacity for trusting adults altogether was annihilated.
“In my teen years, I started to feel angry at her, and started to hate her, and hate my biological father who wasn’t around. I hated every adult in my life, pretty much – I struggled with trusting anyone, scared they’d leave, too,” she admits. “My coordinator in Year 12 wrote me a note once that said, ‘you are not defined by your circumstances. You define yourself. You are Jess.’ I kept that note for ages, but many house moves later, I’ve since lost it.”
According to NSW Department of Community Services (DOCS), children who have one or both parents with a mental illness are more likely to develop an illness themselves. Tragically, Jess’s family experienced this first hand. At age 17, her brother took his own life in an act that Jess believes was partly, if not mostly, facilitated by shame.
“I think the stigma played a part in my brother’s suicide in 2007. He was two weeks shy of 18. He had kept putting off going to his mental health appointments, and triage in the psych unit could only do so much. There’s a lack of support for families when there’s a mentally ill person,” she says.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”
This endearing quote is appropriated in popular culture, wielded to comment comically, satirically and often quite seriously on the seemingly inevitable power of parental persuasion.
This cultural trope was terrifying for Renee*, a 23 year-old PR executive from Melbourne. Renee had experienced a “normal, happy childhood” until age 16, when her parents divorced, and her mother’s struggle with mental illness began. Suddenly living with a mother who suffered with a “high-functioning but extreme form of depression coupled with a suspected personality disorder”, Renee felt as though she was destined to succumb to the same malady.
“When I was 17, I went downhill pretty quickly. I had the view that I was on a downward spiral, and would turn out like Mum, and that I wouldn’t make it to 20.” She vividly remembers her mother’s drunken episodes, which complicated Renee’s social life. Like so many others in her situation, survival and independence were forced on her prematurely.
“My friends stopped wanting to come over because Mum would open a bottle of wine, and commence a constant stream of verbal abuse. I believed most of what she said. I think I understand why women stay in abusive relationships, because it doesn’t matter how confident you are, if someone you love and respect says something destructive to you every day, you start to believe it,” Renee explains.
When her mother’s partner wasn’t around, Renee’s mother would drop into a paralytic depression. “Occasionally, he would disappear for a week at a time, and she just wouldn’t get out of bed. I had to buy and prepare food for my siblings and myself,” she recalls. One of Renee’s most challenging periods was when her mother tried to take her own life. “She attempted suicide in my brother’s bedroom. I found her, and carried a lot of anxiety and anger towards her after that.”
Renee focused on sport and school from Year 11, and found some healthy distractions from her worries at home. Although her family endured some extremely challenging times, she has been able to extract some value from her mother’s experience, and understand how it has informed their relationship.
“It’s made me quite tough and resilient, but also quite mindful. If I feel things are starting to go bad, I know how to make myself better, by rebalancing my life and focusing more on the things that make me happy, like my friends.”
Having had a relatively normal childhood until she was 16, Renee acknowledges her personal values and fundamental worldviews had been established before her mother’s mental illness emerged.
“I think I have more tolerance. Some kids grow up forming their view of the world in situations like this, and I can’t begin to understand how profound an impact that would have on your life,” she says. “You never know what someone has been through to cause them to act the way they do.”
The pervasive threat and fear of their mother’s suicide is a consistent theme discussed by these women. Marie*, a 35 year-old communications director from Sydney, remembers feeling apprehensive of what she would find inside her severely depressed mother’s house, after her mother repeatedly told her she wanted to end her own life.
“One of the big things in all of this is that she told me a lot of it, and a 12 year-old is not equipped to deal with that,” Marie explains. “I had a younger brother, and I took on most of the caregiving for him. My parents were divorced, so we would leave every second weekend, and [when we returned] I would make sure that my brother stayed outside, and I would enter into the house first.”
Marie would steel herself and brace for whatever state her mother may be in on that particular weekend. “Sometimes, she clearly hadn’t been up all weekend – she’d been in bed crying. Sometimes it would be fine, too, but there was always this thing in the back of my head. She told me that she wanted to kill herself more than once, and once is more than enough.”
The prolific New York writer, Andrew Solomon, released a book in 2012 titled Far From the Tree, which detailed a diverse spread of experiences when parents and children find themselves different from one another. Among many other insightful gems, Solomon said, “Life is enriched by difficulty; love is made more acute when it requires exertion.”
It’s a beautiful microcosm exemplified by the journey Emma Donaldson, a 30 year-old consultancy director from Melbourne, has taken with her mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Emma began noticing her mother’s “quirks” from a young age.
“Whilst thinking my upbringing was fairly normal, I did notice Mum had some difficulties that would leave her distressed and in states of despair. That was debilitating for her,” Emma says. “The behaviours got worse over time, and when it was time for me to leave the country to pursue studies in the city, her condition worsened.”
It wasn’t until Emma was in her twenties that intervention was necessary to get some solid support for her mother. “Dragging her, literally kicking and screaming to the doctor to get help, admitting her into psychiatric hospitals [and] seeing her lose her independence are just some of the heart-wrenching and traumatic experiences etched in my heart and mind that will take a long time to recover from,” she says.
But Emma is in a place now where she can appreciate her mother for who she is.
“Mum’s quirks and creative mind should not go to waste, and that value has been gleaned from having a mentally ill parent.”
Her words of advice for young women in a similar position are searing, and applicable to the tumultuous dynamics of any mother-daughter bond, let alone the complexities involved when mental illness is also a factor.
“Remember that your parent is a human first, whatever label they receive to describe their mental illness,” Emma urges. “They are Peter, Sue, Jenny or Dave first, your Mum or your Dad, with a mind and heart to be listened to.”
*Some names have been changed to protect privacy at the request of participants.
If this story brings up any issues for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
See the original publication of this article at BirdeeMag