Family Madnesses Print E-mail
Written by Kimina Lyall   

by Kimina Lyall Features section page 4, The Weekend Review, September 21,22, 1996, "The Australian".

Many children of mentally ill parents never realised that the violence inflicted on them during their youth was abnormal. Kimina Lyall meets a group of people trying bring their childhood out into the open.


On the surface, the four neatly dressed and quietly spoken sitting in a church hall in eastern Melbourne have little to distinguish themselves from thousands of other suburban lives. Strangers to each other, they ease into shy chatter about the weather as they settle into lounges and shudder the approaching winter. Some have children, jobs, husbands. Others struggle with health troubles. But beneath these everyday exteriors, this is a group of women whose common bond is the secrets in their eyes.

"If she was alive today," says Margot 58, of her mother once the discussion warms up, "I don't know that I wouldn't go and kill her. That's how violent I feel. This is what I suffer from. A rage that's got nowhere to go."

"I could kill my mother too," Clara 41, says quietly a few minutes later. "I could strangle the living daylights out of her and walk away ... I just hate her. I have a whole lot of anger and rage towards the whole family situation. I couldn't stand the hypocrisy of us playing happy families."

Paul Mckillop, the group's facilitator, nods. "They all say that, they all feel that," he says later, claiming it is not a worrying homicidal trend, but a normal reaction to the abnormal lives Margot and Clara shared, growing up with one or more parents who had a mental illness.

He says living in such family is like "never having a childhood". A former mental health worker, he was working as a private counsellor when he noticed that about 85 percent of the people who came to him with other problems, such as stress or work pressures, had lived with a mentally ill parent.For some, it took many years not just to talk about it, but to even discover the mental illness. Judy, who lives in Brisbane, has spent the past few years piecing together her childhood. She has visited family friends, sat on a park bench and spoke candidly to an ageing father, and spent hours in a psychologist's office trawling through memory fragments.From her research, Judy now 53, learned that once, when she and her sister hadn't been to school for a few days, her friend's mother drove out to their property on the outskirts of a NSW town, and discovered the house barricaded up, with the two girls and mother cowering inside.
"I just go round and ask people who can tell me these stories and embarrass them because I need to know," she says. "It's an absolute total puzzle, and nothing will ever be clear."

But Judy has remembered a few things for herself. At about six, being woken by a distraught mother , who was begging her daughters' help to push a bed against the door, and then spending the night listening to her father calculating the velocity of the bullets he was threatening to shoot through it. She also remembers washing the dishes one evening when she was about 16 and turning to find her father holding a knife to her mother's throat. Judy's response was to push him away, telling him "to get back in your hole".

She recalls once puzzling over a neighbour's greeting:" How's your father? Is he still the same way he was?" Judy says at the time she thought : "What's she talking about?" But now she knows. "He used to go off on the full moon. He was basically a lunatic," she says.

In the small Melbourne group, all agree it took many years to discover their parents were sick. As children all they knew was the feelings. Fear. Shame. Loneliness. And hatred.

"To the outside public [Dad] was extremely charming." says Clara, "He was very charismatic, very good looking, very athletic. But I was absolutely scared to death of him. I was nearly hysterical with fear. Whenever he was due home I would just disappear. You'd walk on eggshells, he'd give you a dirty look and you'd just disappear."

This from a woman who as a child was the envy of all her school friends, who longed for the reflected shine of her father, a well-known sporting hero. Although neither of her parents were ever diagnosed, Clara now believes their unpredictable behaviour, resulting in the three daughters spending much of their childhood in their tree house, was caused by mental illness.

But diagnosis doesn't always aid understanding Melanie, 25, began to administer her mother's finances after she was hospitalised at the initiation of the landlord, who hadn't received his rent. "At that time there was complete grief because I'd lost my Mum to a mental institution, and it was like part of her died," she says. "But It was also relief. There was a name to it. There was a name to why she was getting the phone on and disconnected all the time. There was a name for why I didn't have friends over and I couldn't stay at friend's houses. There was a name to why she was thinking the way she was."

Now, Melanie is used to her mother's infrequent hospitalisations. "When she's well I've got my Mum back and when she's not I've lost her again, for a day or two or a week" But being her parent's carer brings other stresses. "I have to hide all the gaps in my resume when I go for job interviews," she says, because she feels unable to discuss her mother's illness. Similarly, few of her friends know, and she sometimes has to make up lies to explain her mother's erratic behaviour.

The legacy of Margot's parents' illness comes at a more personal cost. "I didn't realise I had such an abusive family until the last five years," she says. Now she believes most of her adult decisions have stemmed from a reaction to her violent family life. "Even though Mum died years ago, she's left the scars , and the scars are with my personal and close relationships," she says, "My marriage lasted one year. I ended it one day when he lost his temper and threw a pillow against a wardrobe door. I just went into total terror."

Sometimes the abuse doesn't end with children. Denise, a middle-aged woman with a successful career, sits in her lounge room in outer Melbourne and says she's "been battered by emotions for years and years". She describes a life devoid of joy, and filled with secrets as she tries to hide her background.

Despite not living with her parents for many decades, Denise says she is still bound to her mother in a web of emotional blackmail and sarcasm, "I'm living with It all the time," she says. "Every time the phone rings, I think It's her. You can't describe the emotion."

Mckillop, a former mental health worker, believes stories like these show the adult children of the mentally ill are the forgotten victims. He has begun a group called the National Network for Adult and Adolescent Children Mentally Ill parents (NNAAMI). The Group, which is trying to attract government funding, hopes to provide support groups for adults to resolve their past and time out camps for teenagers still living with ill parents. He says children of the psychiatrically ill learn to adjust, to cope with life and by the time they are adults they have blended into society. But he says they hide deep emotional scars that never disappear.

"Most people who appear to be coping are usually those who are at most risk. Appearances in this don't mean a lot," says Mckillop. "The impact may be greater for those who appear unaffected, who hide behind a facade of normalcy. People who have psychotic parents don't look different. They are normal people who hold down jobs, who don't show the deprivations of their childhood."

But Vicki Cowling, a senior assistant at the Early Psychosis Research Centre at Melbourne University, is worried that any focus on the long term effects on the children will just add to parents' stresses. "The biggest fear people with psychiatric illness have about getting treatment is that their children are going to be taken away from them," she says. "They need reassurance, that they are doing OK, that their kids are fine. Many parents cope very well, and many children are not negatively affected [by mental illness]."

Cowling, who has recently completed a research project studying the needs of mentally ill parents with children, points out that the Government is trying to educate the community into reducing community's judgment about mental illness, and Mckillop's approach, particularly his emphasis on highlighting violence, is detrimental.

But McKillop says he wanted to start NNAAMI up precisely because of this resistance from other professional. He points out that the National Mental Health Strategy - a five-year year State and Federal Government plan begun in 1993 - doesn't even mention children, let alone children of ill parents. "They assume that we're against the parents," he says. "But we're not. We can't hide the effects on the children any more... The stigma for the family is enormous. But I think the stigma for the family is far greater because they haven't even told anybody.  At least there's treatment for the person who's got a illness.  It's not brilliant, there are no cures, but at least it's there. For the children ... there's nothing."

Except each other. In Melbourne the group of adults struggle with their memories, their hurts and their daily lives. In the middle of it all, there are small signs of progress. Says Melanie; "It's just so familiar. Different families, different situations, but so familiar. I know what these people have been through who are older than me. I'm in their shoes. It's just such a relief to know that someone knows your situation without having to explain. You can just not finish a sentence and everyone understands."

Even Denise, whose relationship with her mother is still so tortured says, "I want her to die," takes little steps. "My husband bought me an answering machine for Christmas. It's the best thing he's ever given me. Now, if she rings up, she has to talk to the machine," she says.

Thousands of miles away, Judy is more reflective. "I'm really glad for it now she says of her childhood. "It's taught me so much about myself." These small signs of progress might not sound like much, but as Paul Mckillop says, 'Having a parent get a mental illness is like someone dying. Except there's no closure. It's never over.'"

NNAAMI can be contacted by a stamped, self-addressed envelop Box 213, Glen iris, Victoria 3146.


Jarvis Walker     Arlec

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Featured Articles

The 'Forgotten People'

by Anna Malbon from the Progress Press October 22, 1996

WHEN nine-year-old "Tom" was asked to draw a picture of himself with his mother be drew her trying to strangle him.

Tom entered the world of adults too early. If he was ever immune to the complications and pain of life that adults try to shelter from children, he says he can't remember.

Bulletin Board

I had to struggle extra hard

Her doctors did not bother to enquire about my father and I.

They only listened to her stories ”

“ I grew up thinking - Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to know.”

Hi, I had a mentally ill mother. She passed away last year. I literally grew up hanging around mental hospitals because my Mom's condition was a cycle that always ends in a mental hospital. When I was younger, there was a long period when I cried my eyes out every time I was separated from my mentally ill mother because she had to stay in a mental hospital. After I grew older, my Mom's mental illness became impossible for me to bear.

Literally, my Mom's mental illness ruined my life. I think. I had to struggle extra hard for everything because of my big handicap at home. There was no support at all from anyone other than my father. Nobody else wanted to know about it. My mother's own cousin even said to my father not to bring my Mom to their place. I grew up thinking - Nobody wanted to help. Nobody wanted to know. My mother's own sister has been complaining since 2000 and her last complain was on 5 July 2014. This particular aunt keeps complaining about the same thing. That she had to take my Mom for her weekly injections and complained that my father and I was not around to do it. Then, she goes on to say that she saw my Mom beat me up with a cane. When she said that, I asked my Aunt, you saw my Mom beat me up with a cane? She said yes and than, she walked away.

I feel very sore with this aunt. Number one, the period she was complaining about was when I was still schooling and my father's and my mental health had deteriorated so badly that we had to leave the state for our own sanity. Before joining my father, I had to live alone with my Mom and my baby sister for almost a year. My aunt who lived a few minutes drive away did nothing when my Mom beat me up every day for months until my father managed to cut the red tape to remove me. My body was full of bruises and I was terrified to go home after school. Nobody helped. Not the neighbours who can hear all my mom's shouting at me, nor my aunt, nor my grandparents, nor my school's teachers. Someone should had intervened for a 12+ little girl. No adult helped. My father was trying his best to get me away to stay with him. Nobody helped him.

On XXXXXXXXXXXX, my Mom's sister let slip she saw my Mom beat me with a cane. And yet she did nothing! My aunt even had the cheek to say that my Mom beat me up because I said I wanted to go live with my father. The way my aunt said it was like the beatings were wholly my fault. What is wrong with the picture? You have a 12+ girl being beaten up daily, you are an aunt who knows something is going on and did nothing. Yet for years later you complain about having to take your own blood sister for her injections. And, I do not think she did it for longer than my own experiences. Probably only a few times because my father and I had to travel frequently to see to my mother. Due to the cyclic nature of her illness.

I have been going with my father when he took my mother for her weekly injections as a little girl, knee high, ever since I can remember. My own aunt is so calculative. There was a nurse that visits my Mom to give her her injections. But, the problem is my Mom will not let the nurse into her house that is why the intervention is needed. I have lost count on the number of times I had to go with my Mom for her injections as a little girl.

Her doctors did not bother to enquire about my father and I. They only listened to her stories and full stop. I think my Mom's doctors are the most heartless people I have ever met in my life. Until today, I do not like anyone who officially practices psychology because those doctors etc... contributed to my life being ruined. That is how I feel. I have been scolded by my Mom's medical team and they even dumped my Mom on me after I just turn 18 and there was no other adult around. And, they knew the situation. I was terrified because my Mom was a very violent. My Mom has pitched me, beaten me up, she has biten me with her teeth, she has smashed my head against the table and threatened to beat me with a piece of hard wood. I experienced all these as a little girl at the tender age of 12+ I had to learn karate to protect myself from her violent ways. And, when my Mom was home, I would lock my room's door and place a chair against it. I was that terrified of her.

All our belongings can go missing because my Mom is good at that sort of thing. You never know what is what with my Mom. It is like having a criminal live under the same roof as you.

My aunt kept repeating to me that on my mother's death anniversary I will have go visit her cemetery. I live in a different state from where my mother's cemetery is located. And, my aunt knows that very well. However she repeated her question to me until I said yes. I hate being forced to do something against my will because I have been forced to do things against my will my whole life.

My life is in ruins because of my mother's mental illness and people like my aunt is perpetuating the troubles for me after my mother's death. When I was 12+, my mother's mother said to me that it is my father's job to take care of my mother. In other words, my father's job and mine. And, they never lifted a finger to help. Just helping a little, my aunt has been complaining about the same thing for more than a decade. Unbelievable. Shameful.

Even though my father and I lived in a different state from my mother, we had to travel up and down every weekend because that is demanded of my mother. Sometimes, we had to travel after school and upon our arrival, she won't let us in and we had to travel all the way back. And, my father will not let me sleep at home as it is a school day, I had to go to school. My education was very important to my father. My mother could not be bothered if I succeeded or not.

I have seen more than any of my Mom's relatives have seen with regards her mental illness but people whom I just met behave like I have no idea about my Mom like they are the authority on her behaviour and her illness. Goodness gracious.

Despite this huge handicap in my life I persevered with my studies. My Mom did not give me any moral or emotional support at all. In fact her mental illness cycle will peak just or during my important exams. In other words, I had to deal with my exams and on top of them a mentally ill mother. By my final year in university, I could not take the pressure of exams and a mentally ill mother's break downs anymore.

When I was in my teenage years and early adult years, I was suicidal. I had to call Befrienders a lot. Thank God for Befrienders.

Before XXXXXXXXXXdate, I do not wish my experience to be experienced by anyone else because it is torture. However, after feeling how hard hearted my aunt is. A so called holy person, a church goer, rich person who has successful kids and grand kids. And, she can talk like it is my fault that my Mom beat me up and she (my aunt) had to take her (her own sister) for her injections when I was a kid. I really wish that my aunt must reincarnate as my father (a few lifes) so that she can eat her own words. If my aunt reincarnates and is put in my father's shoes, she would really deserve it. Hope she learns compassion through it all.

Why can't the world give children of the mentally ill a break? I am so fed up with all this troubles that stem from my mother's sister's attitude towards my father and I. After all shel lives a great lives. Rich live. What is wrong with these people? I really cannot stand them. This is my story.

After I wrote the above - I am more myself now, and I totally forgive my aunt and everybody who did nothing to help my father and I. And, everybody else who were heartless towards my father and I. However, I still think that by living a few life times as my father (my aunt) - would do her some good. But, knowing her character, she might become a psychopath and pose a threat to humanity. My father is a very, very kind soul. My aunt is a hard hearted, prejudiced, narrow minded, one tracked mind person.

How I cope? Trying my best to keep out of their way, and hang out with positive people. There are plenty of great people out there. Nnaami is included :)


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