My mother, Doreen Frandi, suffered from severe bipolar disorder and as her daughter, not only she, but I also suffered the stigma that goes with mental illness. Because she had to work to keep her son and herself, she never had the chance to really recover or rehabilitate. She had to abandon me and my younger brother because she endured enough anxiety just trying to care for herself and her firstborn. Life dealt her so many blows that, to this day, I don’t know how she continually mustered the inner resolve to get back into life’s stream.
Catherine Zeta Jones, a sufferer of bipolar disorder, had the luxury of being extremely wealthy and therefore able to check herself into a mental health clinic, (no longer called an asylum). No stigma attached to her, just accolades about her bravery in admitting to having the disorder in the first place.
This just doesn’t happen to those people with no family support and no steady income. The wonder of my mother’s situation was that she never ended up on the streets, so I believe deep down there was a hidden strength and a will to keep going for her son’s sake. But the guilt she harboured over her lost children fueled her illness, I have no doubt of that; it came up again and again in her medical file in the psychiatric hospital in which she was incarcerated time and again ever since she was in her thirties. ECT (Electro-convulsive Therapy) was part of her treatments. I learned later, after researching her life, that she had two more children a few years after my birth, who were taken from her and adopted out. see ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’
My mother was a creative person who had to leave school, which she loved, to help my grandmother care for her four siblings. Their household was violent and unloving. Doreen Frandi never had the opportunity, or the peace, to pursue art or writing which could have helped her cope with her illness. We now know that creativity and study of a subject the mentally ill person is passionate about, can be therapeutic. I am not sure if given the same circumstances as my mother, I would have developed bipolar disorder. However, I do know that when I was a teenager I suffered from depression, including suicidal thoughts, but my sheer will power not to become my mother, drove me to find ways of overcoming it. Later in life, I gained a degree, studied art and began writing, all with passion. I didn’t have time to feel depressed, so focussed was my mind on creating. I was lucky, I had the time, the financial means, (even though I jumped from career to career) and a partner who loves me.
Of course, being so intense in one’s passions, can deter friendships and job prospects, but a small price to pay if mental illness is a spectre. And I love the digital age we live in. I have many friends online so I don’t need to become anxious at meeting them when I am not ready to. Yes, I need my solitude and I have learned so well the situations I need to avoid so as to keep anxiety at low levels. The interesting thing is, that I have only just realised lately, (not having the luxury of clinical therapy) that my mantra has always been ‘don’t be, or be seen as, a victim’. I always believed I avoided people because they might emotionally hurt me, partly that is probably true, but now I see that mostly it was avoiding the sense of worthlessness that was instilled in me as a child, whilst enduring the constant scrutiny that my father’s extended family subjected me to lest I show the faintest sign that I would be “just like your mother!”; the mother I didn’t even know.
SANE AUSTRALIA aims to prevent the stigma of mental illness in the media and has harnessed the help of prominent people like Andrew Denton to form STIGMAWATCH. This can only be a positive step. But, like sexual abuse, the stories of the mentally ill that reach the public domain are only the tip of the iceberg. We cannot see what is happening within private family homes. The Australian government must budget and plan for better triage facilities which the mentally ill can access easily and early on before tragedies happen, such as in the recent inquest of the father who killed himself and his son because he could not get help immediately. Obviously we need well trained psychiatrists in attendance. Too often, calls for help are ignored or assessed inadequately. Physical health is important and attracts larger budgets and more practitioners, but I recall the old saying “healthy mind, healthy body”. Lets embrace the wholistic approach.