Life with my mother who is battling mental illness

By Clara How, Feb 14, 2019

Donna (not her real name) is in her 20s, and this is her story about living with a close family member with depression. She has requested for anonymity to protect the identity of her mother, who is still in the workforce. There will be no personal pictures, and certain details have been kept vague to protect her family. 

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My mum has always been an anxious person. She didn’t have any depressive episodes when I was a child, but there were always signs. Like the usual mum, she was worried about providing for the family, and keeping us all safe. But as I grew older and started to see what other women and parents were like, I realised that they weren’t like my mum. That was when I realised she had a lot of anxiety.

It was the little things, like how she hated going out because there would be too many people and it stressed her out. She worried that my then-19-year-old brother wouldn’t have food to eat when he went out late at night. She would get upset if we ate in our rooms. It just wasn’t very normal. She was still worried about the things you would worry about for toddlers, but in our case, we were all grown up and able to take care of ourselves.

When I was 21, my maternal grandfather passed away. He had a heart attack, so it was very sudden and no one was prepared. My grandmother broke down, to the point that she couldn’t go to the funeral. She kept saying that life no longer had any meaning. My mother tried to make her feel better, but she was also going through her own crisis. Mum loves things that are in order. She believes families should be a perfect unit, a house needs certain things like home-cooked meals. 

In a way, her perfect world was shattered.

Everything started going downhill over the course of the year. It happened so gradually that we thought she was just grieving and going through a hard time. She would worry about running out of detergent, that the house was messy, not knowing what to cook and insisting there was no more food when the fridge was packed. She stopped going out with her friends, stopped going for her usual Zumba classes, and stopped using her phone because the WhatsApps would overwhelm her.

She couldn’t sleep, and became very withdrawn and timid, to the point of mumbling when she spoke. We were so used to her being anxious that we didn’t realise it had gotten to the point of illness. And because at the time I was studying psychology in university, I felt like I should have known.

When this was happening, I was impatient with her. I’ve never had a good relationship with my mum, because she’s everything I don’t want to be. Her focus is on being a mother, and I don’t want mothering to be my life. And I didn’t like that she was so bitter towards my dad, whom I’m very close to.

So whenever she got anxious, my instinctive reaction was to lose patience and tell her, why are you worrying? It doesn’t make sense. When she told me that we were running out of electricity, I snapped, “That’s stupid.” I was so unempathetic.

At the point, because I was studying about mental health, I thought I understood it. But when it happened in my own home, I was in denial. I thought it was my mum just being my mum, or just being a little more extreme.

It only hit me when I saw that her body was starting to go because she wasn’t moving. I saw the life draining out of her.

Eventually, it got to the point where she would be immobilised on the couch. She would sit there, and worry about all the things that could go wrong. She stopped drinking water because she thought we would run out of water. And by the same thinking, she also stopped showering.

We began to take shifts to look after her. My dad was working, but my little brother and I were still in school, and my older brother was self-employed. Between us, we made sure there was always someone with her. When she said she didn’t want to drink, we would hold the cup and coax her. Sometimes, it would take half an hour. We would take her by the hand and walk her to the shower and tell her it was okay. It took a lot of patience.

When I wasn’t in school, I was at home. I quit my job doing data collection for a research study because I couldn’t handle it. My closest friends knew the situation, and my supervisor and classmates were very understanding and never pushed me to explain, which I was very thankful for. I tried not to bring things at home into my social life - I was good at switching out of it once I left home.

After class I would go home, and cook for my family. At first we suggested takeaway, but it made my mum upset because she believed in feeding her family home cooked food. So I would take over. For that period of time, I was the mum.

It felt like an eternity that went on forever. What saved me was that there were four of us to share the burden. My dad and I would do the housekeeping but my brothers did their part to make sure everyone was okay. It was like a tag team. But even so, after a year of this, we were exhausted. If we kept it up, one of us would have had a breakdown.

She refused to accept that she needed help, but in the end we devised a plan to take her to IMH. By this time, she hadn’t left the house in months. We told her that we were going for a drive just to look at the surroundings, and she didn’t have to get out of the car. She agreed. But when we turned into the building, and she saw where we were, she panicked. She kept repeating, “I’m not crazy, I’m not crazy, why are we here?”

Before this, my dad and I had done a recce at IMH. It seemed quite calm. But unfortunately for us, that day was a nightmare for the clinic. We took her to the A&E, where people were screaming and hitting things. The wait time was 30 to 45 minutes, and she was freaking out, pulling her hair out and it was hard for us to calm her. Eventually when we saw the doctor, they diagnosed her with depression and gave her a social worker. That made things a lot better, because the social worker put her in touch with psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and made sure my mum got her medication.

In the first month of receiving help, she was very resistant to taking medication. We had to sit with her for hours trying to persuade her to take it. And if we couldn’t, we would wait for my dad to come home and help us. Looking back, I don’t know how I managed it - all those long hours of just sitting there, waiting for her to pop some pills. But once she started on the sleeping pills, it became a lot better because she was getting the rest. Things became easier for her.

We had let the sickness fester in her for way too long before getting her the help she needed, but once she went in, the healing process took four months. She took a couple more months to get off the medication, and she headed back to work. It’s hard to say exactly when it all started, but I would say the whole incident lasted 1.5 years, over 2015.

As a psychology student, I thought I knew how to handle it, and I thought I knew the answers. This made me appreciate that I was not as clever as I thought I was. 

When you experience it firsthand to someone so close to you, you realise that you don’t know anything.

It’s terrifying, because you feel so helpless. Because you’re so engaged, so much emotion and cognitive resources are being poured into thinking about that person and being with that person. It’s like your emotions are tethered together. You can spend just five minutes with them, and feel exhausted. I realised I don’t have as wide an emotional capacity or the emotional resilience as I thought I had. It humbled me a lot.

In the last few months, my mum has relapsed. The trigger for her tends to be the end of the year blues - last year she was getting close to it, but it was still under control. When there’s the year end lull at work, she starts to overthink. She starts to stress about spring cleaning, everything she needs to do for Christmas and the New Year.

Now that we know what to look for, we know one of the early signs is that she doesn’t sleep. She’s also very religious, and when she’s not well, she stops praying.

This time, while we know all the signs, the difference is everyone is more overwhelmed. My youngest brother is now in NS, and my dad has another family member in hospital that he has to take care of. My dad is the MVP in my life. Even on bad days where I need a hug and feel bad for asking even more from him, he’s always there. My little brother helps to keep everyone together when he can and is so patient with my mum. I’m so thankful that everyone is chipping in in their own way.

The thing is, habitually I don’t have good interactions with my mum because our personalities clash. To ask me to suddenly be kinder to her doesn’t feel natural. Since her first recovery, I’ve been working on it for three years or so, but this time around, I realise that I haven’t changed much. 

I’m still that selfish person who needs time to myself, and who still gets angry with my mum. It’s really frustrating and I’m disappointed in myself.

It was such a trying time, and you come out of it thinking it’s a milestone. I’ve grown. I’m great. And you think that chapter in the hero’s journey ends - only to find that you’ve been sent back to where you’re started. You’re still that scrawny loser you were before.

When you go home, you want to find rest. When you go home to a place where tensions are high and everyone is stressed, you don’t get any of that. 

The helplessness just drains you more. I catch myself thinking, why can’t my mum just get her shit together?

It’s important for people to understand that you can’t just be saintly when this happens. Sometimes you hate them. Then you feel guilty because they’re not in control of why they feel things. And that’s why for so long, I refused to see that my mum was sick. I felt she was choosing to be unhappy and taking things for granted. And if you don’t have a great relationship with the person you’re looking after, you wonder if you’re just doing it out of obligation.

We want to be better for the people who need us. But emotionally, you react a certain way when they do this to you. Like sure, I can tell myself that I’m doing it for my family, or doing it for my mum. But on selfish days, I do it for my dad, because I don’t want him to crumble under the weight of the burden my mum has placed on him. And then I feel like an asshole for thinking that.

What really helped me was when I met someone who had depression for 12 years. He explained to me that there are always going to be people who are good at understanding mental illness, but there are people who just won’t get it, and that’s something you’ll have to accept. People think that those with depression need to be understood. But he told me that honestly, they get by with or without you. 

For that person, finding healing is their own journey, and their loved ones, while their support is important, are not the answer.

It was comforting to hear that from him, and that I don’t have to feel like I’m in the way of my mum’s healing.

We have reached out to her psychotherapist whom she saw previously, but unfortunately the earliest appointment is available at the end of February, which feels insanely far away. And she doesn’t want to see a private therapist whom she’s not familiar with.

Honestly, I feel pretty frustrated. We were under the impression that she had been taking her medication, but we found out a week later that she had not been taking them. My dad is stretched so thin as it is, and it’s hard for the whole family. At the moment, I’m speaking to my brother for advice on how to help her, because he has the patience I wish I had.

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