Mental Illness

Excerpt  from ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?; A Passionate Quest To Find Answers For Generations Of Defeated Mothers’          


***This page is copyright to author Anne Frandi-Coory. No text or images can be copied or downloaded from this page without the written permission of Anne Frandi-Coory.***

Doreen Marie Frandi. (Painting by afcoory)


Several times I had offered my mother the airfare to come and visit for Christmas, or at some other time, but she always refused. She was always in my thoughts, as I knew she would be missing Kevin dreadfully; this son who’d been everything to her for most of her adult life.

I visited her  a couple of times, as I longed to talk to her and ask her about her life, but she barely spoke. By then, her bipolar disorder, the drugs and the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), had taken their toll on her mental faculties. For, as any person with experience or knowledge of this disorder will tell you, the cure can be worse than the disease; vitality and creativity are sucked dry and emotions are flattened – their whole personality, the person they are, is suppressed.

Once when my daughter Gina and I visited my mother in her little council flat in Newtown, we just sat quietly with her. In an attempt to extract some response, I asked her mundane things like what she was eating, what pills she was taking, anything to make conversation with her, but it was very difficult. She did explain, however, that the pills she was taking ‘stop me feeling anxious all the time’. Her emotionless voice filled me with sadness; her response was to please me, a rehearsed phrase. My heart ached to just take her in my arms and cuddle her, but whenever I had tried to do so, it was like cuddling a piece of wood. Gina and I had planned to spend the day with her, but Gina left for about two hours to visit a friend nearby. My mother and I were left sitting in her pint-sized sitting/dining room, she chain-smoking all the while. I tried again.

‘Do you have any photographs we could look at?’

‘No’ was the soft reply, ‘I sent them all to my sister Betty in America’.

Whenever I think back to that day and her answer, I feel like weeping. She answered my question as though I was a stranger of whom she felt apprehensive. I always got the impression she was anxious I would suddenly confront her about her abandonment of me, so I tread very gently. As we sat on her couch, waiting for Gina’s return, she suddenly turned to me in a cloud of smoke and said in an unusually confident tone, ‘You have a lovely daughter, Anne’. That was it. She turned away again and reverted to her state of narcosis; her fallback position, puffing away while gazing fixedly at nothing in particular.

The years of ECT and powerful mood-control drugs had eliminated every shred of my mother’s vibrancy that I remembered as a child. That bright red hair, that dazzling smile that had once propelled me to obsessively search for her everywhere among the crowds was gone.

ECT was introduced into Porirua Psychiatric Hospital in 1944, where it was used without anaesthetic on patients suffering from acute depression or ‘over-excitability’. My mother was admitted there again and again from the late 1950s onwards, sometimes in the throes of psychotic delusions. Towards the end of her life she would admit herself, looking for comfort and safe haven from the relentless demons which never allowed her any solace in her life, not even at the end of it. When Gina returned from visiting her friend, my mother decided to make us a cup of tea, and as she pottered in her cupboard of a kitchen, Gina said to me gently, ‘Mum, she is never going to love you’. My heart broke again. I didn’t want to hear that, not even as a woman fast approaching middle age. But I knew in my heart that she was too terrified to love me, or anyone else for that matter, except Kevin. She knew the terrible cost and she’d lived her life with the overwhelming guilt of it all.


I loved my mother dearly, and if not her physical being, which, sadly no photographs of her and her children together can bear witness, and without remembered mother and daughter cuddles, then certainly, through a deep primal memory of her, which is still with me today and often overwhelms me. I emotionally clutch my childhood memories, of fleeting visits with her in Dunedin that my father secretly instigated, and the ones when she would creep somewhere to snatch a moment with me, no matter how fleeting. What haunts me is that radiant smile that had a way of spreading over her face and crinkling up her eyes, all framed in wild red hair. I wonder, how did she manage that smile while living in her hell? Those must have been the only fleeting joyful moments in a lifetime for her.


Frandi girls

Anne Frandi-Coory’s mother Doreen Marie Frandi and her two younger sisters

The despair of the mentally ill – sketch by afcoory (after Van Gogh)

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.

See  Crying Out For Help

Worn Out – Van Gogh (May 1890)

Van Gogh spent his life fighting to keep his sanity.  His paintings and letters to his brother Theo give us an insight into his lifelong suffering.

But in Adelaide this week,  an inquest recounted the last hours of a desperate father’s life as his sanity slipped away from him.  The inquest  heard a recording  of David Wyatt’s call to Mental Health Triage Services and the operator advising him to “take a warm shower, a warm drink, and relax”.    A few hours after the call Mr Wyatt stabbed his partner and severed his 15 day-old daughter’s ear before killing himself and his two-year old son Jakob in March 2009.

One of the things Mr Wyatt told the health services’ operator was that he had just smoked cannabis and believed he was going to die.

State agencies obviously failed Mr Wyatt, who was a clinically diagnosed schizophrenic,  after he was released into the community in 2006 on a four-year supervised release licence after being found not guilty of robbing a woman due to mental incompetence.

“Everybody involved in the matter knew Mr Wyatt was taking drugs. He presented to emergency departments in psychotic rages and nothing was done about it,” counsel assisting said.  It is difficult to understand the lack of action by various agencies especially in light of the fact that children were involved.  What came out of this inquest, was that none of the agencies consulted with each other and there was no risk assessment of the children’s safety.  The fact that Mr Wyatt suffered hallucinations, heard voices, and believed he was receiving messages from the Television set, should have set off alarm bells and alerted the services to the danger the children were in, not to mention the children’s mother.

This man repeatedly breached his supervised licence, which led to stints in the James Nash House mental facility, but his licence was never revoked.  Severely mentally  ill people are  abandoned within the community, posing a danger to themselves and others.  Surely Mr Wyatt should have been institutionalised; the answer to this question is always that there aren’t enough beds available.  Apparently this is the reason his licence was not revoked.  It’s like playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.

The truth of the matter is that mental health issues in Australia have been neglected for too long.


More… Mothers With Mental Illness

&       Mental Illness & Asylum

Lunatic Asylums in the bad old days: Seacliff Asylum built on the Otago peninsula c. 1876


The 2011 Federal Budget is especially good news for mothers with severe mental illnesses such as  bipolar disorder and depression.

More money has been allocated for early intervention, so that mothers and their children are not separated.  Mothers with severe mental illness who can’t care for their children, often lose them to social welfare.  This causes so much grief and despair for those mothers, heaped on top of whatever mental illness they are already suffering.  Not only that, the children taken from their mothers can suffer from the separation trauma for the rest of their lives.  I have lived through this because my mother suffered from a severe bipolar disorder and lost her children.  None of us fared well at all and our mother had the added burden of deep seated guilt which she never overcame.  (See ‘Whatever Happened To Ishtar?’)  Far better to offer help before the situation reaches crisis point.

In the dark ages of the past, mentally ill mothers were confined to lunatic asylums (as they were then called) with their babies, and all spent the rest of their lives locked up.  Thank goodness those days have gone, at least in modern western countries.  At the other end of the scale, after asylums were closed down, the mentally ill were all but forgotten.

The Richmond Fellowship of NSW, runs the residential and treatment program at Charmian Clift Cottages, which is one of a kind, supporting some of that state’s most vulnerable women and their children.   A cluster of individual villas house women, suffering severe mental illness, with their children.  The women receive 24 hour emotional and psychiatric support on site as well as ongoing training in parenting skills.   Of course, there are not enough villas available, but the money allocated in the latest budget will help.


Philip Boyce, Psychiatry Sydney Medical School, Westmead,  says this is a godsend for some of these women who will in other circumstances have had their baby taken away from them or placed into care.


See:  Mental Illness & Asylum

Separation; The Wound That Never Heals


Michelangelo Merisi (born c. 1571) known as Caravaggio,  a sufferer of bipolar disorder, shocked  patrons with his intense and life-like paintings of men and women.

 ><                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Understanding Bipolar disorder [BD]–formerly called manic-depressive disorder–is a mood disorder that can cause extreme and uncontrolled swings from dangerous euphoria to incapacitating depression. Although the causes of BD are not clear, emotional, structural and chemical changes in the brain hint at underlying brain areas and mechanisms that contribute to the disorder.


Emotions reflect our experience of alterations in the brain’s structure and function. BD causes swings in mood from states of mania to states of depression, resulting in a range of emotional changes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during manic phases, people can feel full of energy and outgoing, or they can feel jumpy and irritable. On the other extreme, during a depressive phase, people experience feelings of emptiness and hopelessness. In the grip of an extreme episode of mania or depression, patients might experience delusions or hallucinations.


Bipolar disorder might cause or result from changes in the physical structure of the brain. A study in the February 2004 issue of Bipolar Disorders, research using MRIs of the brains of teen-agers with bipolar disorder found that overall smaller volume of the cerebrum, the brain area responsible for processing sensory information, language and learning and memory among other functions. In addition, the study found that bipolar brains had smaller amygdalas and larger putamens compared to brains of healthy people. In the December 2009 issue of Bipolar Disorder, researchers reported that their review of the literature showed that the structural changes in the brain were present during the first episode of bipolar disorder, suggesting that they cause the disorder rather than result from it.


When compared to healthy people, patients with bipolar disorder have different levels of chemical signals called neurotransmitters that allow nerves to communicate with each other. Some levels of hormones, chemical messages made in one tissue that act on another, also change in people with bipolar disorder. Brain levels of opioids as well as neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine and the stress hormone cortisol have all been implicated in mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, according to a May 2008 Science Update by the National Institute of Mental Health. The medications for bipolar disorder such as anti-depressants, anti-convulsants, lithium, benzodiazepams and anti-psychotics attempt to correct the imbalances in neurotransmitters and hormones and smooth out mood. The same principle holds for the use of electroconvulsive therapy[ECT] for bipolar disorder. The passage of an electric current through the brain is thought to reset brain chemistry to a more healthy state.


(parts of the above article taken from LIVESTRONG)

Experts do believe that BD, or the predisposition to it,  runs in families, and there is a genetic component to this mood disorder. There is also growing evidence that environment and lifestyle issues have an effect on the disorder’s severity. Stressful life events — or alcohol or drug abuse — can make bipolar disorder more difficult to treat.   As in my mother’s life; her childhood, adolescence and early married life, set her on a course to develop BD II.   [see Letters To Anne Frandi-Coory]

A multitude of controlled studies of bipolar patients and their relatives have shown that BD is hereditary. Perhaps the most convincing data comes from twin studies. In the studies of identical twins with the same genes, scientists report that if one identical twin has bipolar disorder, the other twin has a greater chance of developing bipolar disorder than another sibling in the family. Using statistical data, researchers conclude that the lifetime chance of an identical twin (of a bipolar twin) to also develop BD is about 40% to 70%.


Paranoia can be a symptom of severe BD.

Many sufferers of BD have heightened levels of creativity, and find taking certain drugs to control the disease, flattens their emotions and blocks their creative talents.   Gifted artists and writers prefer to live with the disorder.

Correct diagnosis of BD  is essential – Sufferers are often mis-diagnosed in the early stages of the disorder, which often leads to more severe symptoms.


Doreen Frandi during WWll. Photo: afcoory

Dear *Francine

I finished reading your PhD thesis *Virginia’s Story last night.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read it in the first place – I feel it was meant to be, like a chance encounter!

While taking in Virginia’s words, I had a little cry, because so much of what she is crying out for – dignity, personhood – is what I so wanted for my mother, Doreen.  She never did receive much of that respect in her life; not from hospitals, men, or from family.  This was my chief motivation for writing Whatever Happened To Ishtar? – A Passionate Quest To Find Answers For Generations of Defeated Mothers’.

By the time I had the chance to really know my mother, it was too late; the drugs and ECT had taken their toll.  Much of what she had experienced in psychiatric wards and throughout the manic, psychotic,  and depressive phases of her life, was passed on to me by my brother, Kevin, who lived with her until he was married.  After that, he spent time with her either at his home or at her council flat in Wellington, otherwise he spoke to her daily by phone.  I tried to obtain her records from Porirua Psychiatric Hospital, but they would not release them to me because I was not listed as her next of kin.  However, as I reveal in Whatever Happened To Ishtar?, Doreen’s psychiatrist did phone me and answered most of the questions I asked of her regarding Doreen’s psychiatric history.  Obviously, she did not volunteer information, so I only have knowledge of a small section of my mother’s official records of the times she was confined at the hospital.

Even though I was never admitted to a psychiatric ward, I came close to a mental breakdown when I was a young woman and my marriage was failing.  I can well understand, therefore, Virginia’s desire to leave her marriage, which was draining her physical and mental strength.   I also experienced what it was like to be denied personhood and dignity, when I was a child and teenager. I was branded and often humiliated by my Lebanese extended family because of who my mother was; her bipolar disorder and her Italian descent.  What I hated most was the way they branded her a “sharmuta” (prostitute) when she was nothing of the sort and could not defend herself.  There are many parallels in my, Doreen’s,  and Virginia’s stories.  I regret so much that Doreen only took Kevin with her when she left Dunedin for Wellington,  and abandoned me.  I believe that as her daughter, I may have been able to empathise more with her, and given support to my brother.  Sadly, I will never know for sure what the outcome would have been in that scenario.  Thank goodness Virginia at least had a loving daughter to look after her welfare.

I was very interested in what you had to say in your thesis about biographies vs autobiographies; about creativity and whether or not bipolar disorder is actually a mental illness.  Many brilliant artists as you know, exhibit facets of the disorder.  I read a medical paper recently which suggested that bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are symptoms brought about through the brain evolving, which of course it has been doing for thousands of years.  An interesting theory.

I intend to contact Bipolar networks in Australia, and perhaps give talks about my and my brother’s experiences with Doreen and her disorder.  If you have any contacts here, I would be grateful if you could pass their name or names on to me.  Alternatively, members of bipolar networks can contact me via this blog and request a copy of the book .

At your suggestion, I called at the  office of the  Bipolar Network after our meeting and donated a copy of ‘Ishtar?‘ which they were very pleased to receive. I told them they could purchase more copies at  University Book Shops. Although the Public Library acquisitions officer requested to buy copies directly from me when I met with her to promote my book, I told her the normal process was that the library purchase copies through  University Book Shops.

Thank you once again for taking the time to meet with me, and for buying copies of my book for the Dunedin University Book Shop.

Kind regards

Anne Frandi-Coory


Bipolar Disorder Blog   (The Crazy Rambler)

Bipolar Disorder; The Little We Know


*Names have been changed for privacy reasons

Updated 15 April 2015

Why is Mental Illness always at the bottom of the Public Health funding list when we all know that mental and physical health are intertwined!?

Mental health expert Patrick McGorry has just been voted Australian of the Year.  It is so good to see such a prevalent disorder as mental illness in the news and highlighted.  Mr McGorry  is also concerned with the plight of refugees, including women and children,  held for years in detention centres or ‘Asylums’.  It has been well documented how detrimental an effect long periods of  institutionalisation has on a person’s  mental health.

Xenophobia is alive and well but not just in Australia.  Western countries as well as developing countries are suspicious of, and fear those from different ethnic groups.  Throw in religion and it becomes a volatile mix which is evident in  the bloodshed in many countries around the world at the present time.

‘Unfortunate Folk; Essays on Mental Health Treatment 1863-1992’ is an  Otago University publication  researched and edited by postgraduate history students at University of Otago between 1972 and 2000.  Attitudes to mental illness in Australasia haven’t really changed that much I don’t think; political correctness has intervened and made the way we speak about mentally ill patients a little less hostile, that’s all.

My mother had a severe bi-polar disorder and spent many years in and out of a mental hospital where she often received Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) in the 1950s and 1960s which eventually left her in a state of permanent mental lethargy.  Apparently it was important to keep her emotions tightly controlled in order to level out her mood swings, but in the process killed off all her creativity.  The right drugs were not available then.  My mother’s traumatic childhood and adolescence probably brought on the disorder and I am sure her stint in a Catholic convent trying unsuccessfully to outrun life in the natural world and become a nun,  added to the intensity of her affliction.  As I write in my book, Whatever Happened to Ishtar?’ mental illness and its attendant prejudices has had a lasting effect on subsequent generations of her family. The fact that she was Italian certainly played its part in other people’s perception of her displays of emotion.

ECT was introduced into mental hospitals in 1943 in Australasia and considerable experimentation with this method of treatment, and new drugs, was carried out on patients.  ECT  was first used without anaesthetic on patients who were suffering from “over excitability” and depression, both of which my mother “suffered” from.

A personal account from a medical student shown around Seacliff Mental Asylum in NZ in 1943:

“A consultant…brought them onto the stage and asked them about things and showed off how tragic they were, but I mean, it was a show and I think they were used to showing off as they were expected to. That was part of it, but the really awful thing was when we went around the wards.  One particular one that I remember…there was this great big ward and there were a whole lot of what looked like old and bedraggled women with white hair all over everywhere and they were all dressed the same, in white hospital things like you put on when you go for a  x-ray and they all came crowding round the trolley, clattering their spoons and tin plates and it was just like feeding the animals, it was absolutely horrendous.  That would have been around 1943 …it was just at the very earliest stages of shock treatment …it was certainly the first time of using unmodified ECT, and no anaesthetic, it was horrific”.

These places were worse than the prisons in which  criminals were incarcerated.  The sad thing is that many people still believe that the mentally ill should be locked away somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

Unfortunate  Folk;                          The Mentally Ill

The above book quotes many interesting statistics:  In 1874,  of in-patients in mental institutions in Otago NZ there were twice as many men as women (mostly gold miners) and the majority of the women were married.  “Most religious denominations were represented but the three major groups were Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic. The numbers of Presbyterian and Anglican patients roughly mirrored their ratios to the general Otago population”…  “However, there were nearly twice as many Catholic patients as there should have been”… “The Irish, who made up the majority of Catholics,were over-represented to the same degree”.

The married women often had their children incarcerated with them in the mental institution.

In 1903, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister, Richard Seddon reported his genuine concern:

“To see the children in the asylum was heartbreaking.  Children of tender years were to be found with the adults, and, in some cases sitting on the floor. In any of the asylums they would find little boys and girls hopelessly and helplessly insane, and to keep them here with such surroundings as they had was not, to his mind, the right thing to do”.

The next significant group incarcerated in mental institutions were Chinese gold miners and they aroused strongly racist sentiment among some of the authorities.   The following is an inspector’s report which defies belief that it could be written by a government Health Official inspecting the institutions:

“There are seven Chinese lunatic patients in the Asylum [it is interesting that the term asylum is still being used in relation to refugees today] and considering the racial antipathy of the European to the leprous Mongolian, I am of the opinion that it is injurious to the European Lunatic being brought into daily contact with the Chinese, and that an additional ward and airing court should be provided for the latter without delay”

The last paragraph in the book is a summary regarding the boundaries between “madness and reason”:

“Patients, families, the public, politicians, and health professionals all upheld the boundaries between madness and reason. Progress in the decade under question was slow and fragmentary, although the seeds for more radical change were soon being laid. From the later 1950s, de-institutionalisation became the focus of mental health policy, and has remained in controversial favour ever since. Large and isolated mental hospitals became a thing of the past. But although this achieved some alteration in the social status of the mentally ill it has not completely destroyed the boundary between madness and reason. The legacy of madness as a separate world remains. In essence, the psychiatrist is still an ‘alienist’ treating those designated as ‘foreigners’ by their families, the public, and the medical profession”. Mr McGorry  might add here, “and the Australian Government’s  health system”.

-Anne Frandi-Coory  15 April 2015 

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