During the last week, Australia’s public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has produced and aired a series of programs about living with mental health. Under the title of ‘Mental As’, television, radio and on-line programs covering different aspects of mental health graced our airwaves and dignified our web pages. The subtitle for Mental As is, ‘talk, give, seek’, which also summarises the ABC’s goals; raising awareness by encouraging people living with mental health problems to tell their stories; raising money for research into mental health; and encouraging people with mental health issues, and their friends and family, to find help when they need it. Although there are inherent problems with devoting but one week per year to this issue, the ABC has opened discussions about mental health, how it feels to suffer from a mental illness and has encouraged Australians to think about the growing number of people who live with mental health problems.
In the spirit of the ABC’s goals, and as indicated in earlier posts, I have dealt with depression for most of my life. Sometimes it has been so severe I have had to take time off work. At other times it is like a faint stain on the fabric of my being, something I try to wash away but never completely eliminate. The initial causes of the depression are not important; this blog is not about the traumas, the tribulations, the stress, the wrong-headed decisions, or the disasters that darkened and swelled the stain. The focus of Reflective and Therapeutic Writing is healing, how to live with and learn from depression. I will say, however, that I believe working in a job not of my choosing, and ignoring my desire to write, contributed to my persistent melancholia, while the false starts, frustrated attempts at stories, incomplete poems and the feeling I have missed my chance to have a writing career, have led to bouts of depression.
My mother also experienced poor mental health. She was born in 1930, the second child and eldest daughter of a Scottish mother and Welsh father, both newly arrived from the United Kingdom. My grandmother had twelve pregnancies and raised nine children. The family survived the Depression because they had enough land to grow vegetables, keep chickens, cows, ducks and geese, make their own cream and butter, bake their own bread and sell the milk, eggs and vegetables they could spare. My mother helped my grandmother with these tasks; when she was twelve she cooked a roast dinner for her entire family. Apart from being a gifted cook, gardener and seamstress, my mother was beautiful, elegant and intelligent. She was also a tormented, troubled woman. My mother never sought help for her condition. No one in our family was allowed to think, let alone say, my mother had problems coping with life and both my parents distrusted psychologists and therapy of any kind. There was no doubt my mother loved me, but when I was a teenager I start to challenge her behaviour, and our relationship became, at times, difficult and often destructive. Despite that, I owe her a great deal; she taught me to read when I was three and she was determined I used my intelligence and my education. My mother was diagnosed with emphysema in the late 1990s and with Alzheimer’s in the early 2000s. My father and she refused to accept the latter diagnosis; both abhorred the idea anything could be wrong with my mother’s fine, erratic, shrewd and at times, extraordinarily wise, mind.
When my mother died it fell to me to write and deliver her eulogy. I had done the same for my father eight months earlier and I was not going to let her down but I agonised over what to say that was true to the woman she was. My mother always insisted we never speak ill of the dead. Was mentioning her mental well-being speaking ill of her? I was in the middle of my PhD at the time and aware of the power of therapeutic writing. Would sharing the struggles and triumphs of my mother’s life, diminish that life? I discussed the eulogy with my partner and my children then wrote, and several days later, delivered these words:
As most of mother’s family knew, my mother sometimes had her problems but back in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s – well for most of her life – such things were not talked about, most of all by my mother. These problems have, over the years, been labelled nervous breakdowns, depression, emotional disturbances and, now, ‘mental health issues’. Perhaps none of these terms applied to my mother but no matter how well she lived her life, how much she was loved, how accomplished she became, she often felt unhappy, unloved, and unaccomplished. She was also feisty, stubborn, determined and most of all mercurial: subject to sudden and often unpredictable changes of mood or mind.
My father was her lighthouse, casting a steady beam of love to my mother as she tossed on the seas of her sadness – or whatever it should be called. As Mum’s Alzheimer’s progressed, Dad’s light remained strong. It is easy to love someone when they are pleasant and even-tempered; for these reasons, and many others, my mother was easy to love. It is harder to love an agitated, anxious and difficult person and sometimes my mother’s behaviour made loving her a challenge.
There’s still a stigma attached to mental health issues: people are frightened of what they don’t understand, they feel out of their depth or helpless. I believe my mother was frightened of it too, which made it hard for her, as well as for her family, to accept, let alone address, what is an achingly common problem. Sometimes there are things that you can’t fix, but that does not mean you stop trying. My heroic father, with his unswerving love, could not fix my mother but he never stopped trying.
While I devoted the bulk of the eulogy to my mother’s skills and abilities, I am glad I also referred to her problems. Her surviving brother and sisters, and the nieces and nephews who were able to attend my mother’s funeral, supported my choice. Several weeks later, one of my cousins gave me an inkling of what might have triggered my mother’s moods by providing information about a tragic family loss and its devastating aftermath. No child could cope with what my mother experienced without loving support; in 1942 people were told it was best to get on with life. They were never told how to do that.
I like to think that programs like the ABC’s Mental As sparked discussions across Australia about our mental health, how precious it is, how we can support our loved ones when they experience loss, trauma or are unsettled to the point where they can’t cope. I heard Cold Play’s song, Fix You, just before my mother died and although it was not a song she knew I chose to play it at her funeral. Every time I hear it I think of my parents and their love story. No one can fix a loved one’s imperfections. Maybe all we can do is be the light that guides them home.