I grew up with my mum, dad and three older brothers in a 3 bed semi in normal suburbia. Mum had had catatonic schizophrenia since 2 weeks after marrying my dad. (late 1950’s) He had to section her many times and has dedicated his life to caring for her, despite her awful behaviour towards him at times.
Mum was in and out of hospital during a twenty plus year period, sometimes spending months at a time incarcerated.
In the early days, she didn’t know my dad at all, and he would visit the hospital nearly every day and write her letters every day to try to get her to remember who he was – her husband. When she came out after the longest stay – the first one which happened two weeks after their marriage – she was just like a child again, and my dad had to teach her the smallest of things, like how to pay for something with money. Imagine that? Maybe it is why she spent years wasting money, buying things every day and hoarding them in her bedroom – as a reaction to freedom or maybe just because that was the first thing she learnt to do when she came out.
I admire his patience and commitment to his marriage, and so do many others. But my mum and dad both have their own experience of their marriage, very different ones. I blame the ECT and drugs they gave her for numbing her brain. She has always had trouble having any kind of serious conversation, and even has trouble taking in how to use a remote control past the programme selector and volume control. BUT, she wasn’t simple. Just ill.
And there I was, a child growing up in all of that. I can see myself standing there looking at Dad, pleading with him: “Daddy, please get rid of Mummy. I don’t like her. I want her to leave the house. I don’t want her as my mummy anymore.”
My brothers saw so much more of her illness than I did, they remember those times. I was born after the worst of it. One time, when young, they all had to barricade my mum in and not let her out the door while dad waited for her to be sectioned. She didn’t want to go of course – who would?
Mum was out of hospital during the first few years of my life until I was six (around 1979) and she had one of her ‘turns.’ I don’t suppose I really understood it then; that she was hearing voices, that she was catatonic. I might not have known the word but I see her there – motionless and emotionless, as if everything about her was blank…maybe her kind of lost meant she was unreachable.
In the end she was sectioned and taken into hospital again for a few weeks.
Sometimes Mum was horrible (screaming, swearing, slamming doors) and sometimes loving and soft at home, but I didn't want to leave her behind, and I sensed that she hated that place with all the old people sitting around on worn, dull settees, in a big, plain room, nothing cosy about it, more like a waiting area, with all the people waiting for visitors like me and Dad to come and cheer them up. Mum said a woman in a wheelchair wanted to hurt her. She said the woman chased her up the corridor, wheeling fast, in a kind of fury. She wanted to bash her against the wall. Mum wanted to come home with us but she wasn’t allowed. She didn't want electroconvulsive treatments (ECT) and medications.
The stigma surrounding my mother and her illness, and hospitalisations in a well known mental asylum, as they called them then, is what set off my urge to beat the stigma surrounding mental health much later on
Mum doted on me though and would often take me to the parks for the swings and slides and I felt very protective of her. She was very maternal despite her inner demons. The doctors said it was good for her to have babies, something else for her to concentrate on.
But, it seemed as though Mum wanted to punish Dad and all of us, as if she detested anyone enjoying themselves. When I think about, it’s not hard to imagine how her life was ruined by illness and how Dad was the one who kept sending her to hospital – no wonder she resented him. Maybe she felt that he had ruined her life by sectioning her so she wanted to ruin things for him in return, payback. And then there were the doctors, imagine what they put her through: forced electroconvulsive treatments without her consent, medications that made her lose herself completely and ice cold baths, all of which were facilitated there.
The thing is, with schizophrenia of any kind, psychosis and other mental illnesses, the person only knows what they really feel, see, hear, taste or smell or think. That is their reality. And the doctors and Dad tried to change that. I cannot imagine how awful my mum’s life was – years of torment both from within herself in the voices and hallucinations telling her to kill herself and then on top of that to be sent to a prison like place and be tortured by all those processes, restrained against her will, despite her best efforts to avoid them. But, she had tried to commit suicide too many times, there wasn’t much choice than to keep her in hospital. She’d be found on the beach wading into the sea, or sleeping on benches. Police would be involved. Although her ever-changing moods weren’t anything to do with catatonia, they may have been to do with voices in her head, paranoia, who knows. I have never discussed her illness or moods with her. But what I do know is that I am not surprised she was the way she was, the mood swings. Was she just supposed to come out of hospital after years, months or weeks of incarceration, and be fine and dandy about it, happy with her life.
At times she was hell bent on spoiling everything, and she was good at it too. She could create an all-enveloping darkness, like a cloud descending; anywhere or at any time she chose (although when I think of it now how much of it was really by choice?) Maybe she was jealous of how we all got on so well with Dad. Everyone had to be on someone’s side, and if she thought it was anyone’s side but hers, she couldn’t stand it. Other times it came from stress – perhaps a family get together. Dad saying she had to ‘behave.’ I guess none of us really knew what she might do, and many a time she would refuse to come to family events and get away with it – my eldest brother’s wedding, birthday celebrations, my dad’s work do’s, she just couldn’t handle them.
She would pick an argument, slamming doors as she fled and Dad or someone would have to placate her and coax her out of her room. These are not symptoms of catatonia or schizophrenia, but the product of confusion and resentment; of gruelling medications and physical treatments in the psychiatric hospital. It must have been hard for him to see her catatonic, have her brought home after suicide attempts, section her and have her sent back to the place she hated so much.
But dad was going to be true to his marriage vows. Even though neither of them could ever talk about their emotions, and they still can’t. It seemed that no-one in social services ever came to interview myself or my brothers or anyone to see if we were OK or whether we could cope, so he was alone really but has never complained.
I had trouble at times taking in how dad could let her have four children – what about us? Dad didn’t know better – he was told by certain doctors that having children would benefit Mum and her disease, without a thought for the children that would be born and discover the down sides of that decision and advice. I have thought about this many times in my life, and I do not blame him now (oh boy did I blame him in the past) for the decision to have four children given the confusion he must have been living in, and his dedication to wanting to give my mum some happiness. Over time I realise it’s not the right attitude, and I am so grateful to be alive and I wouldn’t change my family for the world – after all, my story would be quite a different one in other circumstances and I feel that maybe I am a better person for my struggles with mental illness.
My mum goes out nearly every day, by herself, or me or my brother or dad sometimes, she knows lots of people, is sociable and all because of my dad I reckon. Mum shows me off when we are out ‘this is my daughter’ and she loves it when people say that I look like her. She likes feeling younger than she is and hanging out with me, going in pubs, for walks, out shopping. Sometimes when she has a lie-in she says what a waste of time it was, wasting the day being asleep and other times she says that ‘oh at least it made the day go quicker. But she doesn’t know how to pay a bill or take responsibility and she hasn’t cooked for years. We also walk on eggshells to placate her moods if they come.
When dad got ill on his return from a skiing trip, I realised he needed to go to hospital. My mum was there in the house but she was clueless as to what to do and thanked me for sorting it out.
Mum rings me when she cannot get hold of dad and starts panicking that he’s ill or something at work (yes at work he is at 80 yrs of age-my mum is 77 now).
Caring for her if something happens to my dad scares the life out of me. I have only just got myself better, but I know it is something that may be inevitable.
But for now, my mum has a life worth living, and that is just great! She is still alive and I am able to have a good relationship with her. I feel blessed by that because as a child I didn’t understand. Thanks Dad!