To me, my mum has always felt like my best friend. Growing up it was just her and I in one house in West London so naturally she became my everything. My mother, my friend, my go-to when I needed someone to play every made-up game you could imagine. Not once did my mum ever make me feel like I was a burden, and yet I never fully understood what she was going through. The woman that showed me you could do it all, was doing that and then having to deal with so much more than I could have ever imagined.
I’ve always found it hard to express the emotions I’ve felt as my mother goes through not only a mentally ill stage of her life but a mentally draining one as well. I remember being a young girl and staying at my aunt’s house for long periods of time when my mum was having an “episode” as they like to call it. My family and I are extremely close and I was used to spending lots of time with them anyway and the fact that my mum wasn’t going to work and would be home consistently when I got back from school just felt as though we were on a mini holiday.
Looking back, this illusion I had created for myself became a coping mechanism but I wish I understood more. I wish there was more conversation at the time because really, I grew up not being able to cope that well with it at all. Having that close bond, and those close moments helped me create memories but I feel those memories would have still existed even if more communication had been expressed.
Whenever my mum would go through this part of her life every three to four years, I noticed that it would bring out her most creative side. Being a young girl and not understanding what my mother was going through made me feel like this was a close moment to bond. It felt as though it was time she was picking for me. We would draw together, buy new art products and because I was an only child at this point, these were really fond memories. She was always and has always been my best friend. This isn’t to say that the time my mother and I had together when she wasn’t ill wasn’t fun but this just felt different. I guess because it was.
When I look back, deep down I knew something was wrong because I could feel that shift. The background mutter and chatter from those close to me. My mum and I were the only ones that lived together, which meant I knew her very well, and as a child you can always sense when something is wrong. When it feels good and innocent you don’t want to believe that it’s due to a chemical imbalance, that is actually exhausting your mother the more spontaneous she gets. No one ever explained to me what was happening.
My mum’s bi-polar disorder was always described as her being “ill” and while I don’t judge the way my family has dealt with this, it still didn’t really make sense to me. When you’re a young child and you’re told somebody is “ill” and that’s the only explanation for making sure they don’t get too stressed, it’s hard to push your mind farther than them just needing some paracetamol and a bit of bed rest. Of course, once I got older I realized the illness my mum could incur required a much heftier dose than a spoonful of teeth-rotting Calpol could provide. At this point, the not so tasty (I assume) Lithium had won but I still find it difficult to process and I can’t believe that this is what my own mother has to go through.
When my mother’s not ill, there’s a confidence and self-assured awareness I acquire when discussing this with friends, yet the pain and heartbreak I feel when she has an episode is unlike anything I have ever felt before. Those warning signs make your ears so hot it feels like they’re silencing the sounds around you, your hands shake and your voice quivers.
I’ve always been the first to tell when my mum is on the brink of her bi-polar disorder kicking in to full force. We live together, so I know when something with her has shifted, yet I never speak up about it first to the family. I don’t wait until it gets really bad. The next person to notice straight away will always be my aunt and grandma. They all speak to each other at least five times a day but I always felt guilty to ever bring it up first. I’ve always felt as though I would be destroying her happiness, and then the nightmare that I constantly feared would come to life. That awareness for myself to properly own up to what is happening with my mother is extremely difficult for me to come to terms with. I know that sounds selfish, as it’s not even me that is mentally ill but to see someone you love go through something that changes their own reaction to their environment is chilling, especially when you feel like you’re the only person that goes through it. My stubbornness to the situation creates anger and hostility over something I cannot control.
I guess I wrote this because I’m aware that there are different ways we deal with mental health, whether it’s happening directly to us or not. This reflection comes from a place where I was almost terrified to go deeper and explain it, but the older I get, the more it happens and the more all I can do is accept that this is a part of my life as well as my mum’s. I’ve never felt ashamed, I almost feel as though it’s not my place to but I feel guilty that I can’t do more when I desperately want to. If it comes up in conversation I never feel embarrassed to admit that my mother goes through this because not only is this life, but it could always be a lot worse.
The fact that people are speaking up about it more helps a lot. Reading articles about it is incredibly hard, but just knowing that there are others out there going through something similar makes it better. It’s important to know that talking about mental health is incredibly powerful and may even be helpful to people who struggle with issues similar to this with loved ones or themselves. What you say and how you feel is never wasted.
Written by Savannah Small-Swaby