I grew up in a home where mental health problems were present, yet no-one ever explained to me what was going on. My mother would frequently disappear, sometimes I witnessed when they came to get her to be sectioned. Father and I would later visit her in 'hospital'. It was clear to me, that it was not an ordinary hospital: no-one looked particularly ill, there were no drips or bandages and no-one was in bed. I never had an explanation as to why my mother was there. No-one told me what was wrong with her. I felt frightened and worried for my mother. Why was she taken away from home? What was the place she was taken to? Was it my fault? Had my mother done something wrong? Was this a punishment?
While I had grown used to my alcoholic father's inability to provide me with a convincing explanation to almost anything, what I still struggle with decades later, is the response from the professionals. They must have know that I existed, yet I do not remember one conversation, where anyone would have at least attempted to explain the situation. I felt utterly alone and scared, abandoned even. Invisible.
There were whispers in the neighbourhood: "with a mother like that, she must be damaged". They were taking about me. Someone had daubed "Heli's mother is mad" under our balcony. The caretaker of the flats we lived in made me scrub it out. I still remember the stinging sense of injustice. It was not my fault, nor was it mother's. She was not mad, she was my mum and I loved her. I was about six.
As I became older, I realised that what happened at home was not normal. Other children's mothers did not just disappear without explanation. I also realised that my mother's behaviour was somewhat unusual, sometimes erratic, often very intense. She would accuse neighbours of making noise in the night to disturb her, of being able to control her body temperature and trying to electrocute her. Even my young mind could tell, that this was not ordinary behaviour.
I had an older friend whose father was a mental health nurse. One day she said: "So your mother is in a mental hospital". Finally! The place had a name. Yet at the same time I sensed that this was still a taboo subject, too shameful to talk about.
When I was a teenager, I accidentally came across papers that had my mother's diagnosis on them. Schizophrenia, in bold letters. I did not want to know. After all, this was what I had been bullied about at school for years. This was about my mother's mental health, a subject so shameful, that even my own father was incapable of talking about it. This is how I grew up. Uninformed, ashamed and completely unequipped to support my mother in her struggles. Such was the stigma, that I was determined not to end up like her.
About a year and half ago, I was diagnosed with severe depression with psychotic symptoms. Nothing made sense; I did not know what was real and what was not. I was certain that everyone was ridiculing me. It was utterly frightening. This was what I had tried to avoid all my life. Was I becoming my mother?
I am convinced that, had I been better informed about my mother's illness, I would have not been ashamed of seeking help for myself and not become so unwell, that I had no choice, but was sectioned. Overall, I have been very lucky and have mostly been treated very well, but please, please, do not bury your head in the sand, if you have a family member with mental illness. Make the effort to talk about it.
Challenge the stigma, explain, that mental illness is an illness like any other and deserves the same amount of empathy and understanding, as a physical illness. It really is time to talk.