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A Different Kind of Love: Living with Mothers with Mental Illnesses

A Different Kind of Love: Living with Mothers with Mental Illnesses

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  • Life
Top image by rawpixel on Unsplash

Sarah doesn’t remember the last time she brought her mum out to celebrate Mothers Day.

While restaurants will be packed with families tonight paying tribute to the most important woman in their lives, a low-key affair at home would be the best thing that Sarah can hope for.

Her mother is diagnosed with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder which entails a fear of crowded places. She spends most of the time holed up at home alone, and often drugged up on medication that she also takes for depression and bipolar disorder.

At best, her sleepy state causes her to do things slowly. At worst, a simple conversation descends into emotionally charged chaos.

So dinner at a fancy restaurant is certainly out of the question. There also wont be any posts on Sarahs social media to commemorate the occasion.

The reason why she doesnt talk about Mothers Day like most people do is that theres really no need to.

For me, Mothers Day is just a culmination of the years work that Ive put into looking after my mum. Every week requires effort, Sarah says.

Sarah's parents separated when she was four, and since then she's never quite received the full maternal love that some tend to take for granted. (Photo credit: Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash)
Many of us will probably be sharing messages on Facebook and Instagram today thanking our mums for giving life to us and putting up with our crap all these years.

But Sarah, who is 26, has had to live with her mums condition for nearly two decades. Throughout all the important stages in her life, whether it was puberty or taking the all-important PSLE, O and A Levels, shes never received the nurturing guidance that a daughter needs from her mother.

Rather, her childhood is littered with memories of struggling to cope with her mums emotional outbursts.

I was too young to understand what was wrong with my mum. She was crying a lot, and because she was a single parent and I was the only child, I was forced to mature very quickly to be her emotional support, Sarah tells me.

Its hard when youre trying to grow up, but your mum wants somebody to throw her emotions at and you have to buck up. At times, I also felt it was unfair for her to say things like I need you more than you need me.

Loving her mum for who she is also means that Sarah has had to contend with making sacrifices, for example giving up her dreams of studying overseas. (Photo credit: tam wai on Unsplash)
Mothers are typically the main caregiver in most families and the first pillar of support for their children. When they suffer from mental health issues, their childrens development also takes a toll. This is especially so when children have to take on inappropriate levels of responsibility in caring for themselves or their parents and managing the household, says Swanie Khoo, a psychotherapist and family counsellor.

Majority of mothers who suffer from mental health issues also do not realise that their conditions have an impact on their children, adds Evonne Lek, director of Reconnect Child and Family Therapy. For instance, if they are feeling depressed, they may in fact think that they are behaving normally.

Sarah recalls an incident a long time ago that made her realise that she had to be sensitive to her mums condition when speaking to her.

Unhappy about the hairdo she had gotten for a family photoshoot, Sarah decided to undo it in the toilet, only to end up making it worse. Her mum was so furious that her money had been wasted, she flew into a rage and brandished a pair of scissors in front of her threatening to cut off all her hair.

I was terrified and didnt know what to do, especially with the scissors pointing in my face. As a kid, you dont really understand the concept about money yet. But looking back, I can completely understand why Mum reacted that way because we were going through tough times financially.

Extreme mood swings are a common symptom of an underlying mental or emotional condition, Swanie points out. One warning sign is when a parent seems to fluctuate between happy and sad feelings, and lashes out angrily for no reason.

She advises families to openly talk about it and be understanding to the parent who is struggling:

Let them know that you are noticing these changes, and that you would like to know a little more about them. This communicates concern to them that you are not jumping to conclusions and you want to understand.

"Children of parents with any mental illness are at risk of a range of mental health problems, including mood disorders, addictions, and personality disorders. Depressed mothers are less likely to engage in preventive parenting practices and provide proper to their children; and they are more likely to depend on external child health care services," says Swanie Khoo, a psychotherapist and family counsellor.
Another behavioural characteristic that is also a sign of mental illness is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), something which I know all too well.

Like Sarah, my mums condition has been a significant part of my life. But she hasnt been clinically diagnosed, which makes broaching the topic at home even more arduous. At times, she seems to avoid facing the reality of her condition.

She is obsessed with cleanliness, and no one in the family is allowed to touch her belongings not even to take Panadol from her drawer because she doesnt want our filthy hands contaminating them.

Over the years, this illogical obsession has invaded other aspects of the house. My dad has a fixed spot on the family couch, and hes relegated to using the tiny toilet in the kitchen so that the sanctity of the master bedrooms bathroom isnt violated, among other preposterous house rules.

Living at home feels like being under 24/7 surveillance of a micromanaging prison warden.

And from observing her behavioural traits, I suspect this OCD has led to her developing comorbid depression as well, which includes anxiety and panic disorder.

Because we cant openly talk about this problem without triggering yet another outburst from my mum, managing her condition revolves around complying with her demands 100 per cent. Step out of line for even one second, like accidentally brushing past the lid of her washing machine, and the rebuking commences.

Children whose parents suffer from mental illnesses are also affected when they take on inappropriate levels of responsibility in caring for themselves or their parents and managing the household.

For the longest time, I never accepted that I was in the wrong when I was scolded for the most trivial of matters. I would call out her lack of common sense and retort that the family had to make so many sacrifices that she did not even appreciate. This only further upset her, and the walls would reverberate with our shouting contests.

According to Evonne, in cases like my familys, accommodating a person with OCD and going along with the requirements of the changes to the lifestyle only feeds into the persons OCD. It will eventually exacerbate the condition.

It was only last year, after living through this ordeal for 15 years, that I started to come to terms with my mums condition. Each time her nagging began, I had to remind myself that its the condition speaking, not my mum. But its also easy to slip back into a confrontational mode when frustration grows.

Likewise, Sarah says it was tough to embrace the fact that her mum was suffering from a multitude of mental illnesses. Even now, there are times when her mums antics would still drive her nuts, Sometimes it gets so bad that I want to thrash my room, but yet I have to do it quietly because we live in a small three-room flat and the sound of me venting my anger will just further trigger my mum.

The most difficult times were during her childhood and teenage years. Sarah had to not only manage her mums condition at home, but also put up with bullying and teasing in school.

With her mum unable to play the traditional role of a childs emotional bedrock, she had to quickly build up her defences on her own and find a safety net. This came in the form of a close circle of friends and her biological dad who separated from her mum when Sarah was four.

There have been instances when Sarah's mum had chased her stepfather out of the house due to her mental condition. They currently do not live together. (Photo credit: Simon Matzinger on Unsplash)
She tried going for counselling sessions with her mum in the early stages, but it wasnt effective because she would be afraid to speak truthfully in front of her mum.

Its fortunate—a miracle even—that Sarahs mental health remains intact considering the circumstances that she grew up under. Psychotherapists I speak to say that children who do not know how to manage living with a family member suffering from a mental illness often end up with a mental health condition themselves.

They also emphasise the importance of therapy, even though it remains a stigma for many families. Swanie says the outdated notion that seeking help is a sign of weakness or crazy, and deemed shameful still hinders many from doing the right thing.

In fact, it takes a lot of courage and maturity to acknowledge that we dont have all the answers and to reach out for guidance. Its saying to ourselves I want to take responsibility to for this matter and I want to learn to do better. In so many ways, that is strength, not weakness.

"Everyone has limits about how much they can tolerate. Tolerance might mean keeping peace and harmony and putting aside your own needs. The repercussions are that you might feel more and more uncomfortable. I would advise anyone in this situation to seek professional help for the family," says Evonne Lek, a family therapist.
Perhaps the best coping mechanism is to constantly remind ourselves of who it is we’re trying to love and why we love them.

Sarah says her mum would often slip into moments of insecurity, blaming herself for not being able to provide for the family. But she knows that this current mental state is not representative of her mum’s true personality and competence. After all, she was building a successful career before her mental illnesses surfaced.

In the few moments when neither her condition nor medication affects her cognition, Sarah still sees in her mother the woman who loves her deeply and supports her in whatever she endeavours.

I dont feel obligated to love my mum. There are times when I just feel like letting go, but at the same time I feel obligated to not give up on her. I love the whole of her as a complex being. I hate it sometimes and I get angry, but I still love her.

Do you have a loved one who suffers from a mental illness? How do you cope with it? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co

Author

Benjamin Lim Contributing editor