On Tuesday, 10th October, it was World Mental Health Day. I know I am a little late to the party, but it took me a while to decide whether to share my personal history with mental illness out in the open. And not because I am ashamed to talk about it, but because it’s not really my story to tell. However, I will tell it from my perspective. Here goes.
I can’t even remember how old I was when my mum suffered her first psychotic episode. Probably around ten or eleven. It really doesn’t matter, I was a child. A child in love with my mother, completely dependent on her for every physical or emotional need. My father was a meteorite. The kind that would drop in occasionally and leave a crater of destruction behind, before he went away again either with work or some other woman.
I didn’t even notice she wasn’t well at first. She was a devout Christian Orthodox and she would often take me along to the church it was just something she did. I didn’t particularly like standing up for hours with the occasional kneeling for the duration of the sermon, but I didn’t mind it either. I too, believed in God. But she started going further and further away from our local church. Next thing I knew we walked for 10km from the town where we lived to a nearby town where a famous monastery was located. There, she would kneel and pray and cry for hours on end. I just watched as people walked past rolling their eyes and signalling to each other that she was crazy. Then we would walk back home and she would forbid me to look back so I wouldn’t turn to stone. Once we stopped by the railway crossing and didn’t move for minutes on end, even after the train was long gone. She told me years later that she had heard a voice in her head telling her to throw me under the train. To sacrifice me for God.
The voice soon started telling her that she was Virgin Mary (her own name is Maria) and that she had to suffer for humanity. The voice told her that she had to purify everything and everyone in her life. She started with every room in the house but she soon moved onto purifying the cat, chasing him around the house with a metal spoon fumigating with cleansing incense. The voice also told her that she had to pace around the living-room moving her arms in a circular fashion to keep the planet moving. It wasn’t long until my father discovered her new habits, beat her into a coma to ‘bring her to her senses’ and then threw her into a mental hospital.
The way I felt when my mother was taken to the hospital, is, I imagine, how children whose parents suddenly died must feel. Bereft. Scared. Alone. My life as I knew, was over. What would happen to me now? I was pissed off with God. You know, the same God my mother seemed to be more interested in. He was to blame for taking her away from me.
I had no idea how my mother survived that dark episode in her life, but she later told me it was because of the same God that I was furious with. It was the praying and trusting her faith to a higher power that helped her survive the hospital, the debilitating medication that prevented her from talking sense or being awake most of the time, the shaking of her hands (something she still experiences occasionally), the restlessness, the insomnia, the nausea, the chronic anxiety, the fatigue.
It was also her love for me that kept her going. She suffered through all of the above while going through a divorce from my father, moving to another town and looking after me, because she had to look after me. I wish I can take credit for her recovery, but I mostly felt like a burden around her shoulders. She assured me I was her sole reason to be alive, but I often feel guilty about what my mother went through and what little of it I understood or helped her with. But what could I have done? I was only a child. A child of abuse.
When my mother was in hospital, the children in the neighbourhood told me that they’d heard my father had gone insane and was committed in the hospital. I told them it wasn’t true. My father hadn’t gone insane and he most certainly wasn’t in the hospital. But what I didn’t tell them was the truth. That my mother was the one in hospital. That she was the one who had gone ‘insane.’ I was too ashamed.
Today I know there is no shame in what my mother suffered. She was a victim of abuse and her mind had made up stories to help her cope with it. Stories that she was the chosen one and that she had to suffer. How else, why else would anyone endure what she had been subjected to by my father? They’d have to become crazy to make some sense out of senseless situation.
Depression is a horrible affliction. But it is the least shameful of the mental illnesses and therefore the most talked about.
It may be the least shameful, but it’s not the most debilitating. And the ‘crazy’ people are not the only victims. Be aware of that.