Growing up I realised early on that my mother was different to other mothers. She suffered from insomnia and cleaned the walls with bleach until her hands were pruned and wrinkled. She went on shopping sprees and bought out the Copper Art shop, dazzled by the shiny yellow copper furniture and glass table tops, and emptied our bank account. When she was sick she physically transformed with her green eyes glowing as if she were drug-affected, and she slurred when speaking, as if her tongue was too thick in her mouth. Then there were the delusions that spewed from her lips—that she was going to speak to the President of the United States and stop wars, or that she was training to race an Olympic champion.
I first learnt the name of my mother’s malady when I was sixteen years old and sitting in my high school counsellor’s office. Miss Meadowcroft handed me the sheet of paper about Manic Depression and I started reading, I felt a shock thrumming through my system. I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment would change my life. Manic Depression, or Bi Polar as we call it now, is an illness characterised as having manic highs and depressive lows. When the person was suffering from mania they engaged in impetuous and reckless behaviour, including spending money, being sexual, and losing inhibitions. When they suffered from lows they would struggle with getting out of bed and become suicidal.
I grew up believing my mother suffered from Slom Živaca in Bosnian, which translated to nervous breakdown in English. A neutral name used as a catch-all for any mental illness that required no explanation. That the pressures of her early first marriage at fifteen years-old, and subsequent traumatic entry into motherhood at sixteen, when she was a newly arrived migrant to Australia and gave birth to my sister with no knowledge of English, broke her mind; leaving her whirling and shattered. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to Mum getting sick. She got sick when she was taking her medication, sometimes she got sick when she didn’t. She got sick when she was stressed, and she got sick when she wasn’t. The one thing that was a constant was the complete shock that I felt every time. It seemed as if her illness transformed her overnight from a caring mother to one who was self involved and unaware of anyone else. There was only one solution: take her to the hospital and leave her there until the doctors and their chemical aids worked their magic.
But illnesses of the mind were viewed with shame and most of those with an affliction were bundled off to a state run institution to protect the public from the discomfort of viewing them.
My mother was born in 1954 in Vukovar, Croatia, while her Bosnian-Muslim parents worked as migrant workers, travelling around where the work took them. It was nine years after the second world war and the rise of socialism in Yugoslavia with Tito as a benevolent dictator. With socialism came centralised medical care. To people like my grandmother who lost siblings and children to illnesses such as measles and small pox, immunisations were a miracle. But illnesses of the mind were viewed with shame and most of those with an affliction were bundled off to a state run institution to protect the public from the discomfort of viewing them. This might have been my mother’s fate if she had birthed my sister in Yugoslavia and suffered from Puerperal psychosis, a type of Postpartum depression that affects one or two out of 1000 women who give birth.
Instead when she had her first breakdown in Australia in 1970 she received electric shock therapy, the routine treatment at that time for mental illness. When she returned home the Bosnian Diaspora community accepted and cared for her, but without any understanding of her symptoms. When she suffered from insomnia for days at a time family friends and my father believed a good night’s sleep would end the psychotic break. There were teas, herbal remedies and folk remedies such as salivati stravu that my grandmother performed to end my mother’s torment. This ritual was molybdomancy, a technique of divination using molten metal or tin that was then dropped into water. The diviner would take out the hardened shape and view it, attempting to divine a message from the otherworldly spirits and through the process scare them away. But the ritual never worked on my mother.
Instead her torment was only eased when we found out the name of her illness.
Instead her torment was only eased when we found out the name of her illness. Soon after that when she was hospitalised we had our first family meeting with her psychiatrist and medical staff. My mother began seeing a psychologist and learnt to recognise her symptoms, and seek help based on an action treatment plan that they developed.
A few years ago she was transitioned from Lithium, which had been her medication for decades, onto Volprate, due to Hyperthyroidism. She seemed more energetic and expressive. A few days later my stepfather called to tell me she was going through a hyper phase. I spoke to my mother and she reassured me she was fine, that he was being overcautious. She agreed to an emergency appointment with the psychiatrist and as we searched for parking she saw a car backing out. “I knew my powers would work. I am a holy lady and I wished for it, so it came true.”
When we went to the psychiatrist she agreed to me being in the session. As the doctor asked about her mood and sleep levels mum’s answers were textbook perfect. I realised I had to wade in and tell the doctor about her holy lady delusion. Mum laughed and said it was a joke. The psychiatrist increased her medication dosage and within a few days she came back down to earth.
The psychiatrist increased her medication dosage and within a few days she came back down to earth.
A few weeks later I asked her why she didn’t tell the psychiatrist about being a holy lady. She said that she knew she would get in trouble, and that’s when I realised the most important ingredient to her managing her illness. For so many years we assumed it was the medical profession’s role to heal her, and yet we had the most important part to play. We were the ones who had to be in the room with her—both metaphorically, and with permission, literally—in order to help communicate and manage her disease.
If you need immediate assistance or support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au . For further information about ante/postnatal depression and bipolar disorders contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au or talk to a medical professional or someone you trust.
Amra Pajalic is an award winning author and editor. Her latest book is a family memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me. You can follow Amra on Twitter at @AmraPajalic.