In Kerry’s home, it is the small achievements that are celebrated every day.
Like if her daughter Emma gets up and ventures outside the bedroom. Or if she decides to have a shower. Or eat.
Days can pass when Emma won’t even leave the familiar safety of her bed – wrapping herself up in a pile of sheets, blankets and quilts, refusing to get up.
Days can also pass when it is impossible to get her to take a shower. There is no use arguing or fighting. Bitter past battles have shown it only leads to trauma and distress all around.
Emma is Kerry’s beautiful and much loved daughter. At 28 she was a budding journalist in a metropolitan newspaper, living the high life and loving every exciting minute. She had an apartment, a boyfriend, a circle of friends, and career success.
No-one is exactly sure when the wheels started falling off her life, or how long she was sick before her mental health issues were notified to her family. It seems that drug use was implicated.
As in many families where the children have grown up and left the ‘nest’, Emma had lost close connection with her parents and siblings.
Kerry, a social worker, said that she had seen very little of her daughter after she left high school for University in Sydney.
“We talked on the phone a lot for the first couple of years, but then she got busy with study, then she got a media job, and soon she had a huge circle of friends that she preferred to spend her time with. She more or less lost interest in her family. We lived in a rural area near Port Macquarie, so it wasn’t exactly easy to see each other regularly,” Kerry said.
“As a mother, I was sad, of course, but you can’t force your kids to stay close to you. You can’t really make them do anything they don’t want to do once they have grown up. Emma was proud to have her own life and independence. There didn’t seem to be much space for me in her life and although it hurt, I just had to accept it and get on with my life. She knew where I was if she needed me.
“Over the years I saw less and less of her. I gave up ringing and leaving messages because she never answered them, or my emails and letters. It was fine, though. She seemed happy and I had a busy job and a happy marriage and her brother and sister living nearby, so I didn’t push her for a deeper connection.
“But then one day I received a call from her boyfriend. He was worried about her as she seemed depressed. He said she had not left the bedroom for a couple of weeks and he had called her office to report her as sick, but she wouldn’t go to the doctor. He wasn’t sure what else he should do, and as he was ‘going overseas’ next week, he wouldn’t be there to look after her.
“I drove to Sydney immediately and was absolutely shocked and heartbroken when I saw Emma. She just didn’t look like the person I loved and knew. She seemed a complete stranger.
“She was fearful, delusional and wild-eyed. She hadn’t eaten for many days and smelled like she hadn’t showered for a month. She was in bed weeping and rocking and rolling from side-to-side. You just couldn’t talk to her sensibly. Here was my beautiful young daughter struggling to survive every single day. It was awful beyond words.”
Kerry said she almost had to ‘kidnap’ her daughter to get her back home to Port Macquarie. For a multitude of reasons, there was no way she could care for her in Sydney.
Her daughter’s mental illness and subsequent breakdown was deeply traumatic for Kerry. Many times she went into her room and just cried and cried. At various times the family has had to deal with suicide attempts, accusations, manic episodes and paranoia.
“Initially I took a month off work, to try and get her stabilised and to get some mental health support services involved. It wasn’t easy. The public hospital mental health teams didn’t think she was bad enough and they were quick to point out that there were many more cases of people in crisis who were worse off than Emma. They told me that at least Emma had a family looking after her where other people had no-one,” Kerry said.
“It was tricky because when I finally convinced Emma to see a doctor she was able to pull the wool over his eyes and present as being ‘fine’. The doctor said she simply should ‘take it easy’. It was just ridiculous.
“The very next day she was curled up in a foetal position on the floor, moaning and crying. She stopped eating. Stopped all social contact. Sometimes when she did get up she just sat in the lounge room on the sofa and stared into space. Sometimes it seemed she didn’t recognise me at all and just looked at me blankly. Other times she shrieked at me like a monster.
“My feelings of sadness and loss were overwhelming. I wanted my daughter back – the daughter who used to skip into the house after school with a huge grin on her face and give me a gigantic hug and kiss; the daughter who was loving, bright and bubbly and who always had a funny story to tell; the daughter who loved to write amazing stories.”
Kerry has recently been able to get Emma into a private treatment hospital under a good psychiatrist. With medication and behavioural cognitive therapy, she is starting to make encouraging progress.
“The whole process of her recovery is fragile and ongoing.” Kerry said. “I have had to reduce my workload from full-time to three days a week, as Emma needs a lot of supervision, care and intervention.
“As a family we have struggled coming to terms with the fact that Emma has a mental illness. Some of the friends we thought were among our best have in fact simply cut us off. We don’t get the same number of invitations we used to and people don’t include us the way they did before Emma came back home.
“There was one very unpleasant incident where Emma had an outburst at a gathering, and the effect of that rippled through our circle of friends. After that, people stopped inviting us over.
“No one understands what you are going through, unless they have mental illness in their own family. I don’t talk about it with my work colleagues – my friends who are social workers are already burdened with their own cases and really don’t have any time for my problems.
“It is just something we deal with privately and quietly as a family. We don’t talk to anyone much about it. There is still stigma attached to mental illness, even though we like to think there isn’t.”
NOTE: Mental Health Week 9 October 2016 – 15 October 2016 is an upcoming national event, held to coincide with World Mental Health Day (October 10). It’s an opportunity to promote awareness about mental health and wellbeing, and equip people with the right information.
For more information on mental health week visit: http://mentalhealthmonth.wayahead.org.au/
To get support with mental health issues visit: