Family Madnesses Print
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.