My Mother’s Daughter: growing up with mental illness

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been mentally ill. According to my father, she used to be a different woman; a fun loving happy person living a spontaneous and carefree life. Unfortunately I can’t remember ever meeting her. I wish I had some memory of this woman; the woman my father fell in love with and wanted to share his life with. Even though over the years, I have come to love and respect my mother’s outlook on life, for many years I held a lot of pent up resentment and anger towards her. It has taken me many years to realise that my mother never chose to be mentally ill. She didn’t choose the life she leads or how her illness impacted upon her children.

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Growing up living with my mother was difficult. I took on a lot of responsibility at a young age and grew up quickly. Being mature and responsible in your thirties is a good thing, but not when you’re ten years old. My mother wasn’t always present in my life, whether in clinics, or so drugged out of her mind, that she didn’t know who I was. I taught myself to do many things, from ironing through to shaving my legs. I missed her the most in the little things. It’s the little things that children take for granted.

I have always been intensely jealous of my friends relationships with their mothers. I used to fantacise that I could one day have the same special relationship that they had. Now that I am also a mother, that desire is even greater. I’ll never get to spend the day shopping with her, or have her look after my girls while I run errands. It’s the little things. I can’t depend on her the way other daughters can depend on their Mums. It’s as if the parent-child relationship has been reversed. It’s also made me reflect on the relationship I have with my own daughters and how I am not my mother and never will be.

Listening to my mother’s life story before I was born, there were obvious signs of her mental illness just below the surface, though I’m not going to get into a nurture versus nature debate here. She had a difficult childhood living with an abusive alcoholic father, a disastrous first marriage and she also abandoned her three year old daughter (my older half-sister) to travel and live on the other side of the world. I will never understand how a mother could leave her child willingly. It’s something I could never reconcile, no matter how difficult my situation. The thought of leaving my children and never seeing them again makes me physically ill. My older half-sister and I once got terribly drunk together and argued over who was worse off; the daughter who was abandoned, or the daughter that was forced to live with her. Yes I know that that’s terribly cruel, but it was cathartic at the time.

Even though growing up with a mother that is mentally ill meant that I had a difficult and sometimes unhappy childhood, I am now grateful and appreciative of how it has formed me. I am the person I am because of my mother. I am strong and resilient. I am independent and resourceful because of her and I wouldn’t want me any other way.

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