Raised on Madness Print
Written by Stuart Rintoul   

The Australian's feature article, Friday  31 March 2000
by Stuart Rintoul, reproduced here with permission

AN apple is dropped into a bowl of water.  A young woman is asked to bob for it.  She has her hands clasped behind her back, the way children have to play the game.  Everyone laughs.  But then two people are walking around her, teasing and taunting, picking at her.  And it's not a funny game anymore.

"Young people who have a mentally ill parent are set an impossible task," says Paul McKillop, who has been one of the woman's mock tormentors.  He says it angrily, and says it twice.  "They have to put up with someone else's mental illness every day ... and the little bit of nagging that we did is nothing."

The scene is a conference staged by McKillop's National Network of Adult and Adolescent Children who have Mentally Ill Parents (NNAAMI).  It is the only pretense in a day of draining emotions, captured by a 17 year-old girl who arrives from northern Victoria with her mentally ill mother and reads a poem about their relationship.

I'm searching- for something, that's so hard to find,

I'm falling down mountains I can't seen to climb ...

You push me away when I come near.

I'm scared of you Mummy dear

She walks off the stage and curls into her mother's arms.

McKillop is a  man at war with the system.

Often he is choking back tears as he talks about the plight of children of mentally ill parents, about James, 17, who would find his  mother in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor and the next day use the same knife to cut his sandwiches for school; about Dan, 9, who says his mother is "half a mother and half a nightmare" to him; about a little boy who would climb out of bed in the wee hours to go with the milkman on his rounds just to escape his home for a little while.

These are the invisible victims of mental illness, he says.  Invisible and virtually unfunded despite government reports acknowledging their needs, including the 1998 National Mental Health Strategy and last year's federal Mental Health Promotion and Prevention National Action Plan.

"These children are not going to have it easy, but they deserve to have a few cushions put under them," McKillop says. "I often hear, 'If we could only get rid of the stigma regarding mental illness everything would be better'.  No, I'm sorry. crap.  Mental illness is not going to go away even if you could take away the stigma, the effect on these kids would still remain."

Cerian Jones who, with her siblings, sneaked away from their mother when she was 15

Sitting in the front row, Cerian Jones, 30, is crying.  It was a small thing that started it, remembering how her mother threatened to kill her goldfish when she was a child.  A small thing from a childhood in which nothing was ever safe, or constant. Neither big things such as the direction of her life nor small things such as the color of the walls or her bed-head.

Now she is whispering into a phone and the memories come like shards of glass. She begins with a good memory: tickle fights with her mother - it is a flickering image of a loving relationship overwhelmed by madness.  "When I was 5 1/2 my mother tried to kill herself," she says. "I've been told about it, I don't remember that.  She stabbed herself In the heart well, I guess it was in the heart, and then, she tried to cut out her tongue."
She was diagnosed with schizophrenia. For the next 10 years, before they crept away, the family careened around her madness.  Cerian, her older brother and younger sister did not call their mother "mum" they called her "It".  " You couldn't call her anything else," she says.  "You didn't want to identify her as part of the human race."

"It was like the air was, for me, really mean. If you're a kid and your mother is shooting into the air and shouting at walls and televisions and all sorts of things ... It's like, there would be bad news everywhere, no matter where you were.

"I hated school, because I felt really, really different from everybody, I was really quiet.  I remember sitting in the shelter shed,  I felt like someone was watching me. Because my mother was scared of things that didn't exist she taught me to be scared of things that didn't exist too and because of the things she said, it was like ... I don't know why, it was just like I felt, I felt really, really ashamed just being alive, I guess, and that I didn't actually deserve anything.  I just didn't feel good about myself."

As many as one in five Australians suffers some form of mental illness, ranging from schizophrenia to depression, totalling nearly 3 million people, including children.  It is a baneful statistic, one that drives mental health policy.  But what are its collateral implications?  US research shows that children of parents with depression are eight times more likely to attempt suicide than other children: British research has found that living with a psychiatric illness is an indicator of risk for repeated overdose attempts among adolescents.

For the children of mentally ill parents it translates into hidden feelings of anger, rage, fear, isolation, humiliation, loneliness, guilt, profound sadness, anxiety, the double bind of love for the parent and hatred for the illness, the resentment they feel for never having a childhood, never having fun, never being able to trust.  It is a long inventory of emotional damage that far outweighs the resilience, insight, patience, inner strength, and capacity to love difficult people that might be seen as positive outcomes.

Cerian Jones: "I feel totally isolated and I find it extremely difficult to make friends and actually trust that they are my friends.  Very, very scared, just of nothing really.  In a constant state of alertness, my brain is churning over.

"I just feel totally separate.  It's mainly isolation, even in relationships.  It is really difficult to make a life because I feel like I'm just sitting there, like when I was young and just sitting there waiting.  When I was younger I was waiting to see what happens next, waiting to see how I needed to protect myself next, that sort of thing.

"I can tell you what I've experienced, but sometimes I feet like I don't even know what happened.  A lot of confusion.  It's like you're brought up on another planet and you come down to Earth and everything is different ...

"I was scared I was going to kill myself.  From what I understand talking to people, just about everyone probably thinks chat they will go mad.  When I was about 14, my auntie said,  'Jesus, you took like your mum'.  She was really happy when she said it. but I thought, oh no.  She was identifying me with my mum and that was really scary because that was identifying me as someone who could be mentally ill, I could hurt all these people, I could destroy all these lives, I could be isolated and totally rejected, be a nobody.

"But I still hurt and as a child I still miss her.  I mean, I'm not a child now, but there's this hole inside of me and when I went back to talk with her I think part of me, that child in me, was still looking for a mother."

A politician comes and launches NNAAMI's Web site (www.vicnet.net.au/ -nnaami/).  He cuts a blue ribbon and leaves.  It is something, but it is not the funding for programs targeting those most at risk for which McKillop has been asking.  In the chill of the early evening, a woman sits on a beach remembering scenes from her childhood, talking about the part of her mother that is her, the fear in her that she might go mad too.

"You come home from school, the door doesn't open to a mother saying, 'Hi sweetheart, how was your day at school?
Come in, sit down, have milk and cookies and tell me about your day?"'.  Nothing.  There's nothing.  Open the door, there's no sound.

"Mum's in the bathroom.  I'm under 10, I don't know how old I was, mum was in there for ages, I'm banging on the door, finally she comes out. she's cut off her hair, her eyes are off somewhere and she says, 'Elizabeth is dead'.  That was her name.  That's terror.  I was f... ing terrified, and confused.  What does she mean she's dead?"

"Little dreams that aren't there, you come home and wipe up the blood, and in all my mothers years of psychiatric care, nobody ever once thought about us kids. It was like we were invisible, totally invisible."

p 12 - THE AUSTRALIAN www.news.com.au Friday March 31, 2000