When I was younger, my dad took my brother and I out to shop for shoes. The experience; driving to a new place, parking, and talking to sales assistants, was so confronting for my dad we left abruptly without buying a single thing.
On the way home, I noticed my dad glancing repeatedly into the rear-view mirror. He sped up the car. ‘We are being followed,’ he announced. The fear clutching his throat made his voice tremble. We were children. We believed him. Adults are always supposed to know precisely what is going on, with perceptive accuracy.
We returned home and my father went straight to bed. Disturbed, my brother and I relayed the events to our mum. She rolled her eyes crossly, letting out an exasperated huff.
She knew, of course, that we were not being followed. My dad’s anxiety had become paranoia, making him believe that a harmless road-user was following us home.
My dad’s anxiety had become paranoia, making him believe that a harmless road-user was following us home.
Dad did other things that I now understand as the behaviour of an unwell person. The day I received my ATAR, I was surprised to discover I was ranked among the top students in the state. I entered my parents’ bedroom to let my dad know. ‘That’s great,’ he murmured hazily, rolling over to fall back asleep. It was almost midday. Another time, he came home with a newly-purchased BMW that my parents, domestic cleaners, could not afford. Another time, against our pleadings, he bought a failing newsagency. As predicted, it bankrupted, also bankrupting my parents and leaving them with nothing after a lifetime of work.
In my early 20s I moved out to begin a new life for myself. I clutched desperately at consistency, balance and routine. A child measures normalcy according to what occurs in the family home. Once they leave, they hold up their childhood to the light, applying different lenses, various epiphanies popping and sprouting to reach the surface.
I began to understand I had spent my entire childhood not really understanding my father. I had mistaken his mental illness for his complete personality. For children, the behaviour of their parent and the symptoms of their mental illness are impossible to tell apart.
I was on the bus home from uni one day when I received a call from my mum. ‘Your dad is in hospital,’ she said plainly. ‘He has had a breakdown’.
Dad had become dissociative, manic, deliberately pouring boiling hot water all over his own hands. Mum called the CATT (Crisis and Assessment Treatment Team) to finally give my dad’s mental illness the treatment required. After a brief stint in a mental health ward, my dad emerged medicated, calm, new.
My father’s mental illnesses were held within our family like fragile heirlooms; we clutched them to our chests afraid to expose them to others for fear that it would reveal our homelife for the shamble it often was.
However, the profound change in the ways conversations around mental health take place, no longer in hushed family whispers but aired in public spaces, and resolutely resisting shame, had a tangible impact on the way my dad treated his own health. He sought therapy, shared his diagnoses, and began to accept that medicating for mental illnesses is no different to medicating for physical illnesses.
The unburdening of stigma freed him to speak openly about his trauma, his treatment, and to pursue what was necessary to stay well. He continues, today, to be as well as he can.
Growing up as the child of a mentally-ill parent made me a hyper-vigilant adult. Even so, I wasn’t able to tell when my own mental health was declining. I was unable to distinguish between my reality and what my mental illness was building around me.
Growing up as the child of a mentally-ill parent made me a hyper-vigilant adult. Even so, I wasn’t able to tell when my own mental health was declining.
Once, I presented to emergency at 3am with a resting heartrate of 130 bmp and shooting pain in my left arm. Straight through to the only available bed, the doctor arrived, hurried and puffed, to find me sitting calmly. The safety of the hospital had cooed my body into rest. The panic attack had ended.
Recently, while moving house, I found a letter from my psychologist to my GP, providing a summary of my treatment. It read: Diagnosis: Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder. Protective factors: A stable long-term relationship and high intelligence.
These things mean very little to me. My mental illness has become the quirks of my personality, which I accept and observe affectionately. Even still, they can take their hold and spiral me into periods of unwell.
Now, I accept that I need to medicate each day to come the closest I ever will to equilibrium. As the child of a mentally-ill parent, you medicate not only for yourself, but also for the people who love you. The things you learn about the daily work of managing mental illness, perhaps the opposite of what your parent did, become the most powerful tools in your armoury.
It is important to write about mental illness because things become less taboo once you speak them aloud. Radical honesty is radical bravery. Once you say it, you open up wide spaces for other people’s vulnerability, and work towards shedding stigmas that bound our suffering tightly to our minds and bodies.
I grew up to become a teacher who worked in student wellbeing, I had a knack for talking students down from PTSD-induced panic attacks. I knew the language of pain and the language of comfort. Disclosures that might shock some were familiar stories to me.
To my psychologist’s list of strengths, I would add: Resilience, the desire to help others work through pain, generous empathy, and a capacity to sit with others through suffering. These are the lessons learned from being raised by a mentally-ill parent.
*Real name has not been not used