Pin It
Blured

My teenage years with a suicidal mum

My mother drinks heavily and has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with part diagnosis of schizophrenia – growing up as her untrained carer was not easy

This week (May 16-22) is Mental Health Awareness Week, with “relationships” as the theme. We’ll be running features all week about the mental health of those close to you, the mental health of the artists that inspire you and the different ways that communities and individuals deal with the issue. Slowly but surely, progress is being made in the ways in which we discuss a problem that affects each and every one of us.

It started with accepting that my mum was crazy. Like, batshit, talking to herself, making you nervous, crazy. On a recent supermarket trip, unable to decide between beef or lamb, she spent twenty minutes in the aisle, crouching and then standing to help her decide. My mum has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) with part diagnosis of schizophrenia. She also drinks heavily.

Almost a misnomer, BPD is a severe and usually untreatable illness, ever distant from the public sphere. My mum does not represent all BPD sufferers: it’s broad in the sense that you experience five of several symptoms to receive a diagnosis, which results in varying experiences for individuals. These can include intense, fluctuating emotions, extreme abandonment issues, little sense of identity, difficulty in forming stable relationships and suicidal, psychotic and aggressive behaviours.  

Her illness has been devastating to her and my life alongside it has been tumultuous too. It’s involved afternoons in holding cells after my mum tried to stab our neighbour and saying goodbye to my siblings before they lived with new parents. Gone are romanticised ideas of weekends in Italy, home-cooked meals or shopping trips which don’t result in her spewing in a panic all over the tube.

In contrast to this, the moment when I realised my mum had a mental illness was undramatic: I was about ten-years-old, and I was reading a book about a girl whose mum had bipolar disorder. It seems funny now, that I had lived ten years without working it out or being told. I love my mum, and mental illness deserves recognition. But when 61 per cent of children of parents with depression develop a mental illness too, we need to pay attention to their loved ones, who often play a vital role in their parent’s care.  

“When 61 per cent of children of parents with depression develop a mental illness too, we need to pay attention to their loved ones, who often play a vital role in their parent’s care”

One time, she didn’t like one of her boyfriend’s daughters so she cleaned out the toilet with her toothbrush. He found out and was furious. My mum and I ran out of the house but he caught her, and he broke her nose. I was stricken with fear as we marched to the police station. Suddenly, he sped past us in a van and she sprang off the pavement and clung onto the open window of the passenger seat while he was still driving.

When she let go I ran down the street to catch up with her, gripping my Furby. I remember looking at her bloody face. As a child, her attraction to such situations was tough. On one hand, she was caring, hilarious, on the other, malicious and neglectful. She deliberately sabotaged my happiness. It was difficult not to wonder if I was a terrible person, because the one who was meant to love me the most, was making me suffer. Self-sabotage often resulted in her ‘why me’ mentality. It’s so difficult to see someone you love make mistakes, and as their dependent, you are pulled into the whirlwind too. 

I later began to figure that her illness had manifested in her behaviour patterns, which often lead her to “act impulsively to relieve her emotional pain”. She will engage in a cycle of nonsensical, negative behaviour patterns, set out to hurt herself or other people, because she seems to get a satisfaction from it. That’s not to say that all things satisfying are positive; lots of people painfully rip bits of skin from their fingers when they’re nervous.

As a child, I found this concept difficult to grasp. Complex behaviours are inherent in many forms of mental illness and it still baffles now how little education we provide for mental illness. We don’t dispute the importance of PE in school (although I did at the time) and children should be able to recognise anxiety, low mood before they might encounter it. Mental illness affects one in four, so it’s actually pretty likely that several children in a class are around it at home. It could really help to have a platform to discuss what is going on at home or inside their head and I know I wouldn’t have felt half as lost if I knew I wasn’t alone.

“Mental illness affects one in four, so it’s actually pretty likely that several children in a class are around it at home. It could really help to have a platform to discuss what is going on at home or inside their head and I know I wouldn’t have felt half as lost if I knew I wasn’t alone”

During adolescence, teenage desires of self-actualisation battled against my mum’s emotional reliance on me. A few days before my 18th birthday, a day at a friend’s house was spent convincing her to section herself, not overdose. I started to drown inside at the sound of her voice. There was no space to deal with normal issues like fall-outs or boys or GCSEs and I started acting out in school. I became absorbed in assessing how much of her destructive behaviour she should take responsibility for. I would spend months oscillating between despising her and then crumbling in guilt because it wasn’t her fault.

All routes lead to the million-dollar question: if all aspects of her illness were lifted, what would remain?  It seemed crazy, that even with a clear mind, she was motivated to walk down a negative path, yet people in similar situations were able to make steps down a positive one. Now, where I lack love in one place, I’m given in ten-fold by others, but adolescence was led by a bereavement, of sorts. It was the realisation that, as she was diagnosed before I was born, I’d never truly known my mum and I could never really know how much was her and how much was the illness.

Entering adulthood, university was punctured with her suicide attempts. Suicide is common with BPD sufferers, with one in ten committing, and it’s a daily worry for me. It was an intriguing emotional conflict, hearing that my mum wanted to die. You lose all sense of the superficial, like: ‘where am I going to spend Christmas?’ or ‘Which type of therapy is most appropriate for me?’  

And you begin to zero onto the heavy stuff, such as, ‘what state of mind allowed her to do something like this?’, ‘How could she try to leave me?’ or, ‘Why have I not been there for her?’ Someone you care about is so unhappy, they’re trying to get away from their life, the one that you exist in. There is no grey area on the emotional spectrum; you feel as guilty as you are rejected.  

Now, to keep her away from self-harm, we devise a plethora of activities to fill up her day, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It can be overwhelming; the pressure of living while trying to keep someone else alive. It’s like not sleeping for three days and heading to a family meal. You’re nodding loads and smiling using most teeth, but the room is blobs of colour and you can’t quite comprehend what anyone’s saying.

Deep down, I knew that attempting to manufacture her happiness at the expense of my own was unsustainable, and recently, I deduced that internalising all her issues is only arbitrary to being supportive. I’ve accepted that she only hurts me because she loves me; hurting her child means sabotaging her closest relationship, thus hurting herself. 

“When the psychiatric emergency services can take three days to turn up, a mentally ill individual doesn’t necessarily just stay at home with a trained support network. They are often reliant on the scared, confused and unqualified people that they live with”

I’m 22 now, and in the last few months, I have felt able to dissociate emotionally whilst trying to still be supportive. Which, despite how utterly depressing it sounds, has been the best thing to happen yet. I think it is important that relatives of mentally ill people don’t feel bad for living their life. In the past, when my mum told me I couldn’t go travelling or she would kill herself, I would totally freak out and not go. Now, I feel like if I went away, and she was successful, I won’t entirely blame myself.

Seeing your mum with ravaged wrists, or whispering to an empty room is one thing. But when the psychiatric emergency services can take three days to turn up, a mentally ill individual doesn’t necessarily just stay at home with a trained support network. They are often reliant on the scared, confused and unqualified people that they live with.

BPD isn’t rare; it affects three times more people than schizophrenia and general mental illness affects one in four. This makes me wonder how many other young people are in a similar situation to me, and are unsure of what conclusions to draw.

It seems a no-brainer that the most effective ameliorative for mental illness could just be talking about it more. Studies show that children are less likely to suffer from serious mental health difficulties in later life if they receive support at an early age. Everyone runs the same race, no matter how much baggage you are carrying or who else had a head start. Let’s not hinder anyone further by refraining from talking.  

I don’t know what will happen in the future. Hopefully, my mum will be okay, but maybe she won’t. Currently, her phone has been switched off for three days, but I hope that’s just because she’s lost her charger. A child of parental mental health should be as supportive as they are happy themselves, and through societal acceptance of it, no one should be responsible for any more than that.