By Ruby Roberts
Being a parent and having any kind of chronic illness or disability makes for bigger challenges, no doubt, but mental health disorders and the stigma surrounding them make for a unique set of fears and judgments, even calling people’s capacity to be good parents into question at times. Despite the oft-quoted statistic that about one in five of us will develop a mental health issue at some point in our lives, the topic is shrouded in secrecy. Lots of parents clearly have fought this battle, yet nowhere near as many come forward to discuss it.
When young parent JD approached me for my ‘Curiosity, Not Judgment’ interview series, as well as talking about the stigma of being a young mum she told me she also had bipolar disorder. This seemed like a whole other can of worms to open, so I decided it deserved its own article.
When she disclosed that she had the disorder, I made the first big blunder the general public makes, and assumed that she was still struggling with it. I asked her all about how she ‘managed’ to juggle her ‘symptoms’ with motherhood. She told me she had not had a full blown episode since her daughter was born, and that she was doing so well that she only needed to visit the GP every now and again to check in and grab a prescription.
Therein lay my first lesson. Just because someone has a disorder like bipolar, it doesn’t mean that she does not have it well under control. Many people who have quite severe symptoms find a balance of treatments and medications that enable them to live normal lives, not disrupted by their illness at all, or only very minimally affected.
“Managing parenting with my bipolar is good because I have my medication right” JD said.
“I also ensure that I get some ‘me time’ which I think any mum needs to stop themselves going crazy regardless, whether they have a mental illness or not.
I have my good and my bad days but I mostly think that’s just part of being a parent, rather then a parent with bipolar.”
Even when she was pregnant and breastfeeding and came off her medication, JD was able to cope.
“Funnily enough, I was the best I’ve ever been since being diagnosed with bipolar during that time,” she said. Now back on medication, she says she copes as well as any mum ‘dealing with the terrible twos and threes’. She is able to manage her symptoms well and detect any issues well before they escalate to the point of having an episode.
Facing a custody battle in court, she is faced with the humiliating and unwarranted task of demonstrating that her illness does not affect her parenting.
In fact, at this stage in her life, JD is more powerfully affected by this stigma of assumption than she is by the illness itself. Facing a custody battle in court, she is faced with the humiliating and unwarranted task of to demonstrating that her illness does not affect her parenting. She is preparing for a battle with her ex-partner’s lawyer to prove that her disorder does not impact her ability to be a good parent.
JD doesn’t even like to think of her bipolar disorder as an illness. It is true that the condition is quite different from having an illness, like the flu. She says calling it an illness ‘puts me in the wrong mindset’.*
It’s true, as a uni student and active mum, JD doesn’t behave like someone who is ill.
“It’s not my fault I have it,” she said. “My brain is a little ‘disordered’ and can’t get the chemicals right, so needs help with medication.” JD is living proof that having bipolar disorder need not define a person or a parent, or limit their capabilities.
It is wrong to assume that a diagnosis of mental illness means someone will be a bad parent.
It is wrong to assume that a diagnosis of mental illness means someone will be a bad parent. In fact, many parents with mental illness who blog online say that when they are well, they tend to want to make up for it by giving their kids extra attention and time.
Having said that, it would be telling only half the story if I were to claim that no parent with a mental health issue is ever fully capable of the enormous responsibility of being a parent all the time. I am not going to make light of this. I know absolutely that some parents do reach a point where they need support looking after their children, or even for someone to take over parenting duties completely when they are unwell.
Some people have episodes where they are so severely affected that they need help… a LOT of help to look after their kids. I speak of this as someone who has battled episodes of mental illness myself. These episodes were severe enough that I could not have looked after my son on my own. Big breath. My name is Ruby Roberts, I have a mental illness and I am a parent. This is my story. Judge if you must.
I recently watched a documentary by Ruby Wax on mental health issues, where she referred to those with mental illness as ‘my people’. I can relate to her words. I feel as if people who are not quite normal in the head are far more comprehensible to me than those who appear ‘normal’ – if there’s any such thing. I know how they are shunned, misunderstood, stigmatized, disbelieved, brushed under the carpet. I have felt these things myself. These are my people, too.
I have always had support around me, enabling me to crash and burn when I needed to.
I know I was lucky. I have always had support around me, enabling me to crash and burn when I needed to. Really, I think the difference between me and a parent who ended up becoming too sick to cope was that I had support.
Every experience of mental illness is unique, and affected by a range of factors, including cultural background, severity of symptoms, degree of support, level of income, local services available, social skills… the list goes on. No two people experience mental illness quite the same. Some parents are more than capable of holding it together with the support and resources that they have at the time. Others cannot.
True mental illness is quite unlike going through a period of sadness, and it is not something someone can just ‘snap out of’. While some people can deal with their symptoms through therapy or journaling, others resort to medication or hospitalisation. Chances are, in every case, they are fighting as hard as they can to not go under.
I would be razed to the ground and shattered. This experience was quite unlike a period of sadness.
My experience of mental illness was overpowering. Taking up a cheesy metaphor for a moment, my moods were like the sea. Mostly, like everyone, I was tossed about a bit by waves, which was occasionally hard. The difference was, every now and then, a tsunami would hit. I would be razed to the ground and shattered. This experience was quite unlike a period of sadness. Qualitatively, it could not be more different. My body felt like lead. My mind would be so affected, I would struggle to string words together. I once did the same assignment twice and didn’t even notice because I was so absent from my own mind.
Everyone experiences mental illness differently, but for me, it went beyond sadness and into madness. I have been the person who has walked into someone’s house crying uncontrollably and telling them I need them to take my son because I was too mentally unwell to look after him. I’ve checked myself into a hospital, then waited until the next day when my very supportive mother stepped in to look after my son while I recovered. I’ve been there. I was one of the lucky ones. I had support.
I am not ashamed. In fact, I am proud that have fought such a hard battle, and won. Not just once, but several times. I’m a (nearly) reformed crazy person, and proud!
I do know that I have been so unwell I could not have looked after my child without help, but I am not ashamed, anymore than someone with a heart condition should be ashamed. It was not my fault.
I think I could never really, truly describe the acute phase of my illness. In fact, I can hardly remember it. I can remember being trapped in a loop of checking to see if my car was parked too far out on the road. I can remember obsessively cleaning (a renowned slob, that was a big red flag for me). I have surreal memories of being doped up to the eyeballs on sedatives and falling asleep with my nose pressed into the grass near a giant chess set in Alstonville, blinking and watching my mother chase my then-three-year-old around the grass. It felt like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Another time, I saw splatters of dried blood outside a pub, presumably from a brawl the night before, and it set off the most incontinent burst of tears. It was like a dam burst and I could have as soon stopped crying as stop the tide from coming in. It was like this strange, unstoppable emotional incontinence that felt like it would go on forever. Other times, I felt anxious to the point of physical illness. Occasionally, I felt nothing at all. I don’t need to go on, do I? Reading about someone else’s madness isn’t a particularly pleasant thing to do.
Honestly, I will admit it, I was as mad as a cut snake. I want people to understand why it is that some people with mental illness need support. I could not have managed without help.
I am writing this as someone who is reasonably well-known in the MamaBake community. I am fairly intelligent and articulate, I like to think. I put a lot of time and energy into being a good parent. If the black dog can crash tackle me to the ground, it can do it to anyone. There is no shame in it. It’s just dumb luck. I am sharing my experience because I want people feel safe to come out, to reach out and find support, for their family’s sake as much as their own. I want people to know that whatever they are going through, it is not their fault. Hear that, mamas? It’s not your fault. Please believe that.
The truth is, it’s frightfully difficult to access support.
The truth is, it’s frightfully difficult to access support. I remember as a single mum I felt so desperate once that I called the hospital and told them I was sick and needed someone to care for my baby. They told me they couldn’t help me. That left me with… well, nothing that I knew of. I rang Lifeline a lot, sobbing into the phone at three in the morning to some saintly volunteer phone counsellor. I make a point of donating to Lifeline these days, because for me, that is literally what they were. A Lifeline.
I also had a sort of sixth sense for when I was going to really crash and I reached out to whoever I could find at that time. A bit like the mother who leaps up seconds before her child falls off the swing, I knew when that tsunami was about to hit and I was lucky enough to have people I could ring, who would come in and help me out, without judging me. During a couple of really bad episodes, my mother came to live with me full time, taking time off work for several weeks to help me until I was on my feet again.
I was lucky. What about parents who do suffer from episodes like these, who have no help, no family support? The sad reality is that lack of social support and isolation is considered one of the biggest factors in not only poor mental health, but family breakdown as well.
I went online looking for support and resources for parents with mental health issues and was genuinely shocked that there was virtually nothing there. There is obviously a demand. A Victorian State Government report on parents with mental illness cites Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data, estimating that between 21.7 per cent and 23.5 per cent of children living in Victoria, or about 250,000 children, are living in households where a parent has a mental illness. Of these, 34,666 children live in 18,502 Victorian families where a parent has a severe mental illness being assisted by specialist mental health services.
Given this staggering figure, could it be a matter of costing? Mental illness is expensive.
There are plenty of support services for children of parents with mental illness, and adult children, too – but by then it is too late. What’s done is done. There is, as I said, a real lack of support for the parents themselves. The old saying goes, ‘if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.’ It’s not just the person afflicted who loses out when support is not available. The whole family suffers.
My dad was never diagnosed with a mental illness other than depression, and he didn’t get that until we had left home.
I speak of this as someone whose father could have greatly benefitted from some form of external support. My dad was never diagnosed with a mental illness other than depression, and he didn’t get that until we had left home. He functioned well enough to hold down a job, so that was good enough, according to society. At home, though, he fell apart. Living with him was incredibly hard. I didn’t need to be in foster care, but I did need to be somewhere that I could feel safe. I needed a harmonious home.
Fact was, he was not coping well with being a parent at that time. A lot of raging, a lot of yelling; frightening scenes. Lots of weird psychological head fuckers. A lot of very scarring things. There were some ugly scenes at our house. No one ever really knew what was going on. It was our secret. I think my teachers in high school noticed my introversion and lack of engagement but I was quiet and I didn’t stir trouble like the other kids with weird families.
I don’t wish to name all the things that went on or shame my dad. I know he did the best he could, given his situation at the time. I will say, though, that what went on had an impact upon me that lives inside me to this day. Those scars run deep, but so do the lessons. Because yes, there are things I’ve learned, too; enriching, powerful, life-changing things. I’ve learned not to judge a book by its cover. I’ve learned that someone can do a wrong thing and still be a good person. I’ve learned the power of looking more deeply at someone in order to recognise their humanity and forgive them. This has given me much peace of mind, over the years. My dad is a rough diamond with a heart of gold. Seeing someone fight such big demons at such close proximity has broadened my heart and made me gentler on others.
Even so, I know I would have been far better off if someone had intervened, if I had spoken out. I will always wonder how my life would have been different if my family could have accessed some support; if my dad’s poor mental health could have been confirmed and treated. If this had happened, I know I would not carry the scars I do. Who would I be?
“I have decided to be open about my experiences”
For this reason, I have decided to be open about my experiences, to admit when I need support and time to heal. As a parent, I have been fortunate to have plenty of it, and my son has also been blessed. I have never wanted to repeat the mistakes my dad made. Even now, I don’t think he has ever fully admitted to himself that he is unwell. I acknowledge I have a condition that needs treating and I do my best to treat it. My son knows I have a mental illness. I don’t think there’s any more point in hiding it than if I had any chronic and intermittent problem. I believe I have challenges that many parents don’t have, but I am a good parent.
Sometimes my son sees me crying, or has chopped up raw vegetables and a boiled egg for dinner while I doze in and out of sleep. Somehow, I manage to keep our heart connection alive, even when I’m not up to kicking a ball or drawing with him. I’ve let go of being the perfect parent. I’m gentle on myself. I make bonding with my boy a number one priority. If nothing else gets done some days, so be it. I’ve learned I can’t berate and guilt trip myself into being a better mother.
I also know that I don’t want my son to feel disproportionately responsible for what is happening to me. I don’t want him to feel that he must take care of me, or not be a carefree child. Given that I’m not in a position to pretend sometimes, I just tell him that I have something wrong with my brain that makes me feel very sad and tired and it’s not his fault. I tell him I need to rest and take medicine and promise him that when I feel better, I will make some special time for him. I watch movies cuddling him. Ok, I’m actually a million miles away, but my arms are around him. I keep my promises, too. I think that’s the best I can do.
Also, when I am well, I make an effort to keep my eye out for other parents, who might be needing a break. I check in, if they are looking unusually tired, or if they say something that I suspect is a cry for help. I try to be there, offering to take their kids and give them a break, or to cook for them if need be. We all need that extra pair of hands from time to time.
There’s a silver lining to the cloud, too – my atypically wired brain also offers up a vivid imagination and genuine childlike enthusiasm that has come in very handy as a parent. My son and I enjoy a flourishing creative life together, and it is wonderful to feel like that. Having lost much of my fear of looking like a weirdo because I am one, I am not afraid to play handball with the kids after school and don’t worry about a lot of things that might bother other people. It’s very freeing to accept that you are an oddball and that there’s no point in trying to hide it. Like many kids, I have one foot in reality and one in fantasy, and for this reason we tend to get along pretty well.
Mental illness or no mental illness, self-awareness and accountability are key to being a good parent. Kids need a parent who is vigilant, trying their hardest. They need to know that their parent loves them, no matter what. There is a saying that I love: a good parent is a supported parent. Folks with mental health issues may or may not be able to do it without extra support, but there is no reason why they can’t be excellent parents.
One of the best things you can do for a parent with mental illness is to simply help out with practical things. Let them know you are not judging them, take their kids for a few hours, or overnight. Cook for them. Let them know that you don’t care if their house is a mess. Actually, this is the case for parents with any kind of illness. Please remember that the last thing these parents need is judgment.
If you suspect that you or anyone you know is suffering from a mental health issue, please call lifeline on 13 11 14.
The Black Dog Institute and Sane Australia websites also offer a wealth of information on mental illness.
*Bearing this in mind, I would like to respect JD’s wishes and refer to her condition as a disorder. However, I have referred to my own and other people’s issues as ‘mental illness’ or ‘mental health conditions’, simply because it’s a big, complicated area, people conceive of their own mental state in a myriad of ways.