Image that your life is futile. That no-one loves you, that you are repugnant, worthless and have no future. Imagine spending great chunks of each and every day crying. Imagine waking before dawn each day only to lie listlessly in bed for hours, your hopeless existence swirling around your head.
Imagine thinking you would rather be dead than live in the shadow of a huge black dog… this is reality for many people suffering from depression!
Mental health is a massive subject and likely to be something that Rebel In A Tutu will keep on coming back to, but as the BBC’s In The Mind season draws to a close, now seems as good a time as any to kick off the discussion.
Depression and anxiety are the most common forms of mental illness and it is estimated that 1 in 10 of us will suffer from one or other of these conditions during our lifetime. These statistics rise to more than 20% in the over 65s and yet relatively few sufferers have access to appropriate or timely treatment and are subjected to ignorance, misunderstanding and stigma.
Having suffered from clinical depression more than once myself, I find it vaguely insulting when people use the term lightly. You know, the person who turns up at work on Monday morning claiming to be depressed simply because they had a crap weekend. As if depression can descend overnight and disappear just as quickly! Real depression can leave a person incapable of turning up for work much less tell all their colleagues how they are feeling.
To the depressed it seems incredible that most people have never encountered the black dog whilst to non-sufferers, understanding depression is equally baffling.
And there’s the rub, depressives judge themselves harshly and feel inferior because they can’t cope with a world that most people seem to take in their stride. The media can play a vital role in breaking down these barriers of misunderstanding, reducing stigma and reassuring sufferers that they are not alone…
BBC’s In The Mind – a two week series of programmes on mental health covering postpartum psychosis and bipolar disorder in depth together with soundbites on changing social attitudes, the NHS and the work of mental health charities.
My mother was an alcoholic. She was abusive, violent and at her worst got through 3½ bottles of spirits a day. It was common place for her to be thrown out of people’s homes and not unusual to come across her on the way to school in the morning – still in her nightclothes – buying alcohol in a nearby supermarket. Despite this she lived into her mid-eighties finally dying in a secure unit for the elderly with mental illness. But I am getting ahead of myself and in the tradition of all good stories, let’s start at the very beginning…
Except that I don’t know exactly when my story begins – when my mother started drinking.
All I know is that before I had even reached my teens my daily routine on arriving home from school each day was to search the house for her hidden bottles and empty them down the sink.
Naively I thought this would curb her drinking but with the wisdom of hindsight I came to realise that all this did was fuel her rage and that the person who suffered the most from my misguided attempts was my poor father.
One of six children, we pretty much brought ourselves up and as the oldest girl I assumed the role of mother to the younger ones and companion to my father. Decades later when I worked in a school and learnt about safeguarding I realised that alarms bells should have been ringing when I turned up at school dirty and unkempt, but back in the 1960s these sorts of things went unnoticed. My teenage years were turbulent to say the least. I bore the brunt of my mother’s abuse, probably because of my devotion to my father. I was always very honest about my mother to my friends and challenged her at every turn – the rows were horrific and her anger all-consuming but I never backed down. I was traumatised and humiliated and finally had a breakdown at fifteen. My mother’s answer to this was to take me away with her to recuperate. Needless to say this was a disaster as day after day I watched her drink herself to oblivion; I can still almost taste my disgust.
Yet despite my family life, when I flew the coop at the age of 17 I stuck around setting up home locally, and continued to see my parents almost daily. Throughout this time my father and I talked frankly about my mother’s drinking and his reliance on me as an ally was a red rag as far as she was concerned. By the time I had reached my twenties she’d been diagnosed with [alcoholic] dementia, yet she continued to drink and as her violent outbursts and verbal abuse escalated so any residual love I felt for her withered and died.
When one day my mother smashed up my dining room in an drunken rage, I banished her from my house for the sake of my children who had witnessed far too many abusive outbursts. But I continued to visit their house, unable to abandon my father.
Finally I had to stop visiting them after she threatened to “personally slit my throat”.
My father by this time was dying of congestive heart failure and Social Services were involved in both their care. I made no bones about the fact that once he died my involvement with my mother would cease. Despite being terminally ill and very frail my mother continued her abusive and violent behaviour towards my father. At night he took all the household knives to bed with him having once woken to find her standing over him with one.
Eventually (and not for the first time) my mother was sectioned but after a couple of months in a secure unit, plans were put in place to release her into my father’s care. Unable to cope any longer he filed for divorce believing this to be the only way that he could be free of her. But he was wrong; as a ward of court my mother had the full force of the law behind her and a judge ruled that despite the divorce proceedings my father was not allowed to move out of the marital home. I was stunned by the injustice of the verdict particularly when the judge told my 79-year-old father “make no mistake, if you defy this ruling I will send you to prison”. Social Services insisted that although legally he could not move out, he did not have to look after my mother upon her return home so we called their bluff and made sure that he was safely at my house when she arrived. As anticipated she couldn’t cope on her own and within hours was back in care. A few weeks later the courts decided that she could never be released. The following day my father collapsed and was admitted into hospital where he died two months later. His greatest fear had always been that my mother would end up on the streets drinking with the homeless alcoholics and I am convinced that Social Service’s decision to permanently detain her gave my father the permission he needed to die.
My mother died almost nine years later. I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in all those years but when I heard that she was not expected to last much longer I found that all the old trauma and pain engulfed me once again. I decided that I needed to see her once last time – I wanted to replace the image of her that I had in my head, an image full of rage and malevolence. The sight that greeted me resembled a pile of bones with Munch’s “Scream” sitting where her face should have been but horrendous as this was, it was preferable to the image I had been replaying all those years.
She was unconscious but still I was terrified. I opened my mouth to speak and managed to whisper just one word – “goodbye”. I had my closure. My mother died an hour later.
I am a survivor. They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I haven’t escaped unscathed. Unlike many children of drinkers, I am not an alcoholic and although I’m no stranger to the black dog, my mental health is relatively good and I understand that it is not natural for a child to shoulder the level of responsibility that I assumed. However, when I did some background reading I came across a list of characteristics common to the adult children of alcoholics and recognised myself immediately. This list, popularly known as The Laundry List, explains why I avoid conflict and panic in the face of other people’s anger, why I try to please everyone, and why I fear losing control.
I do not feel guilty for abandoning my mother to her fate. I did not deserve an alcoholic mother, nobody does. There was a time when I could have forgiven her if she had only apologised and taken responsibility for what she had done but I knew that this was impossible as her crimes were simply too many and too great. This is the most personal post that I am likely to ever pen. I have never written about my experiences as the daughter of an alcoholic mother before but I hope that my words might help others achieve a sense of closure too.