Monday, January 13, 2014

Like Mother, Like Daughter

This is my lovely mum!

If you had met me when I was 6 or 7 years old, and asked me what type of hair was the best in the world, I would have answered: "Red hair. Red hair is the best and most beautiful hair ever. I wish my hair looked just like Mum's."

My mum had then, and has always had, the most gorgeous natural red hair, cut into a flattering chin length bob. It frames her heart shaped face and makes her look elegant. Even at that young age, I loved it, and I wanted to imitate it.

But it wasn't just my mother's hair I wanted to imitate. I have always loved my mum. More than that, I have always wanted to be like her, to share those qualities that I admired in her.

As I grew up, I tried to imitate my mum. I was the eldest child, and I tried to have the same good influence on my siblings as my mum did. I wanted to be a good housekeeper, just like her, so I became a good cook (even though, despite all efforts, I never had a tidy room!). I saw how much she was interested in learning, and also gained interest and respect for learning. 

By the age of twelve, I was doing my best to be just like mum. I even had my hair cut in a similar bob to hers and wore long skirts and shirts just as she did. I thought it was a compliment when someone said they couldn't tell the difference between my mum and I from behind.

After the age of twelve, I had some very difficult years. It was also then that I found my mum imitation failing. I began to think that I was never going to be like my gorgeous mum, and, worse, that I was never going to make an acceptable woman at all. 

If I had described myself, I would have said I was lazy, undisciplined, messy, fat and sulky. I constantly compared myself to my mum. How come she could get up at 6 am and keep house, care for the baby, teach everyone, pray, make sure the house was clean for dad coming home, and stay cheerful, when I seemingly couldn't even wake up at 7.30 and complete my relatively few tasks?

Maybe it wasn't fair of me to compare myself so closely to my mum. Maybe it was a symptom of mental illness that kept me from seeing things clearly and realising that it was ok to be different. Maybe I was just a confused teenager who took criticism way too seriously and used it to beat herself up instead of motivating her to do better.

But whatever the reasons, when I found myself starting to want to break away, to dress differently, listen to different music, do different things, to, in short, form my own identity, I thought that was terrible. I felt guilty about it, and I was sure my mum wouldn't approve. Maybe, for all I idolised her, I had put her in a box.

When I was 18, I left home. I left my mum's care and went to a convent. I went from seeing her all day, everyday, to writing her a weekly letter, and seeing her once a month for a few hours. I missed my family. I missed my mum. But I didn't think I was allowed to talk to her about anything really important anymore, so I didn't. I was to become a nun, and nuns didn't talk to their mums about their lives and problems.

But I was always reminded of my mum at the convent, mainly because their lifestyle, while different to home, had some similar values. I was at home with a large group of nuns only because of my family, and I excelled at my studies because of my mum's influence. I never forgot her, and at night, when I was at my lowest, and I cried into my pillow, I would tell myself how much I wanted my mum. Not Mother Prioress, not anyone else, just my mummy.

I eventually left the convent. It wasn't the place for me. I felt like a failure, a loser so terrible that even God didn't want me. Anxious, depressed and guilt-ridden, I felt I couldn't stay at home. I felt I had no place anymore. I ended up going to Perth, on the other side of the country. I think I was hiding away.

I ended up renting a little room, alone, while working full-time at a cafe to support myself. I was lonely. But I didn't forget to call home every couple of weeks, and I didn't stop visiting when I could. For all my shame, I couldn't cut myself off from my mum and family totally. And I lived by the standards I had been taught.

It was only until after I met my now husband that I was able to really start talking again to my mum again. So much had happened since we had last really spoken, that we had to rediscover each other. I had to tell my mum about my new diagnosis of mental illness, about Graham, my husband, about the things I had learnt and the struggles I had had. And I found I had been right to admire my mum so much. She really was intelligent and thoughtful, feminine and wise.

The time I spent away from my family, while being the hardest times of my life, did shape me into an individual. I learnt about myself, and I became my own person. By going away from my mum, I found out good things about myself, that maybe I wouldn't have at home. I found I was strong-willed and resourceful, that I had strong principles and a big heart. I found it was ok to be myself.

But its also been amazing to come closer to my mum again. We are both adults now, and I can admire her without needing to try to be her. We still share many, many things in common. Now I am more stable, and have a better idea of who I am, I can talk to her without feeling guilty that I need to be something or someone else.

I love you, Mum. Thank you for always loving me!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Peace Be To You

As far as I can tell, all people strive for something. At its most basic level, that drive seems to be a desire for internal peace. Of course, that desire is pursued through whatever means each individual thinks will achieve it:

"When I have the respect of my peers, I will be truly at peace."

"When God and I are at peace fully, then I will be at true peace with myself."

"When I am financially independent, then I will be at peace..."

...and so on and so forth, with each aim having a lesser or greater effect on how the person feels about themselves. Some are very helpful, while others are detrimental in the long run.

This drive never seems to go away. People can resign themselves to failure, or attempt to forget, or mask their need with self-medication, but I honestly don't think there is a person in the world who would refuse to be at peace should they find the way to achieve it. Our hearts may be restless until they rest in God, as St Augustine says, but I think our hearts cannot rest in God until we have learnt to love His creation which is ourselves. And each person has a deep need to accept and better themselves.

I know I am not at peace. I want to be a better person, more generous, loving and intelligent. I want to look at myself and think: that is Felicity. She's a good person, who has made peace with her past, has a purpose in her present and has a plan for her future. She's good and funny and does all the right stuff. I like her.

I don't look at myself like that, however, and maybe I never have. I strive, and have always striven, through many misguided attempts, to be a better person, or at least to forget I cared, but I can't. As I began my teens, I wanted to be perfect. Throughout my teen years, I think I would have settled for normality or stability. As I ended my teens, I thought I would achieve peace through sacrificing my life in the convent. But I failed at any of those things.

At all times, no matter what I thought I was striving for, I vacillated between two behaviours. One was this intense effort - a huge determination to do whatever it took to be successful. I would do whatever it took to do the right thing. If that meant leaving home to go to the convent, then so be it. Whatever it took, I would be ready. I was a superhero, an over-achiever, a perfectionist and a martyr.

And then there was the other behaviour, the one that emerged when these superhuman efforts failed. I would cry, and wallow in self-pity. I would mourn my failure and then try to numb the sting with escapism and self-medication. I would read obsessively and cram sugary foods into my mouth. And at my darkest hours, I would dream of ending it all, of finally turning my back on my life's struggles and going where there would be no more decisions and all successes and failures are finally weighed.

In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with mental illness, and the roots of these behaviours became more clear. But understanding my failures didn't make them sting less. I became angry that a mental illness seemed to be destroying my efforts to do anything. By the time I started reaching an understanding of myself, I was housebound, so anxious I couldn't even go to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich if someone else was in the house to see me.

It's hard being a driven person without the tools to succeed. To have a massive desire to be good, loved and successful, and then to find that my ability to achieve seems to be far smaller than my desire or efforts! It seemed that no matter how loudly I proclaimed my desire to do well, I would always end up being betrayed by emotions that were too strong, and behaviours that were too far-ingrained. 

But I began to wonder how important these things had wanted to achieve even were. So I was never going to be perfect, or normal, or emotionally stable. Were they going to make me happy? What was? And I realised I wanted to be at peace, just as I was.

I still strive. These days, however, my plans involve a series of very mundane and often seemingly simple tasks. I realise I'm not going to become happy in one enormous effort, and that those efforts set me up to be catapulted into a terrible emotional state. Today, I strive to build myself up in little steps. These little steps include making dinner, doing washing or making sure I take my medication - they are that small.

These little steps are important. I try to do things well, so I can be proud of them. I try to build on skills. I dream of being a regular person, with normal emotions, and a job, and stability and responsibility. But in the meantime, I want to be happy with how I am right now too. I want to be happy that I am trying, maybe not always succeeding, but always trying to hold onto the knowledge that I am going forwards in tiny little steps.

Mental illness has stopped me from doing many things in life. I don't have a degree, or a driver's license or a house or a job. In fact, I look like a failure from an outside perspective. But it also made me re-examine what I truly wanted out of life. It made me focus on what is most important to me. I want to be at peace. I want to have good relationships, to live a life without guilt and be working towards a better future.

I might have a lot of obstacles in my way, but I am going to overcome them, one teeny-tiny step at a time. And even if I can't, I'm a good person for wanting to try. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Mentally Ill Teen, and Other Memories


Recently my mum and I were talking on the phone. Our conversation turned to our relationship during my childhood and teen years. While there were good times, we both remembered many difficult moments, when a first-time mum had to try to care for a particularly volatile teen.

I told my mum that I was sure these difficult times had something to do with my emerging bipolar disorder. Though I wasn't diagnosed with mental illness until I was 22, I was sure I had been displaying symptoms of mental ill-health for far longer than that. Mum agreed with me. Without trying to be mean, she said that none of my siblings had been quite the same as me. They just didn't seem to struggle quite as hard through life, or have quite the same difficulties.

It was an interesting thought, one that I wanted to think about more deeply. I told my mum that I wanted to write about growing up as a child with undiagnosed mental illness, and suggested that maybe she could write something on the same subject, but from a mother's perspective. Mum agreed, and in fact, she wrote something almost immediately, which I think she intends to continue. It can be found here at:

In the meantime, this is my effort to remember what life was like. Here is my childhood as it was affected by bipolar disorder, from my perspective.

As far back as I can remember, I was a headstrong child. I was the toddler who insisted on sitting on her younger brother, and who also had no qualms in sending him flying into a bookshelf as a child in an after-bath tussle gone wrong. I was stubborn, and tended to take threats seriously. I remember throwing a tremendous tantrum when my parents tried to throw away my beloved but draggled first doll, and insisting they retrieve it and wash it. I also remember an incident when I, furious at my mum, declared I was running away. With honest tears in my eyes, I stomped off and even packed my bags!

I was taught to read at an early age, and soon began to enjoy both reading and writing. I would escape into Roald Dahl and Margaret Mahy books, and proudly announced I would become a writer who also illustrated her own stories. Growing older, I also became a keen cook, singer and musician. I was good at the schoolwork Mum set me, and seemed pretty at ease in our ever-expanding family. By the age of 12, I seemed to be growing up as well as any adolescent could be expected to.

I've written before that at age 12 my brother Thomas was, while still-unborn, diagnosed with a birth defect. Despite everyone's best efforts, he died one day after his birth, which had a huge impact on my whole family. I didn't escape being affected by it, and though it seems that I didn't show much outwardly, I definitely felt the loss and grief very deeply.

I think it was at 12 that I first felt true depression. I felt lonely, parted from my friends by an experience they couldn't share. Rather than seeking help from my family, I felt responsible for them, so I tried to hide my own grief in an attempt be a stabilising influence. I became very hard on myself, trying to to do well at everything, trying to be a good, no, a perfect daughter. Inside I felt hopeless, scared and alone.

I wanted to be a good person, I really really did. It became a shame then, that as my teenage years began, I didn't seem to be able to do anything right. I would go through periods of being impulsive, energetic and stubborn. I'd do whatever seemed most appealing at the time, and then lapse back into self-loathing depression when the energy ran out and any bad consequences appeared.

I remember bein
g always on the look out for an escape from a life that seemed too much to handle. I'd try to read fiction books while simultaneously practising my clarinet, or try to smuggle a torch or a radio into bed with me so I could distract myself from my thoughts as I went to sleep. Why life was so difficult, I don't know. I was still doing well with schoolwork, I had a strong network of friends and a loving family. But I felt out-of-control emotionally, one week sad and unmotivated, and the next bubbly and impulsive.

I had heard that teenagers had mood swings, so I always assumed that that was what I was having. I felt bad a lot of the time and paranoid that I would get into trouble if I was honest with what I was feeling, so I didn't share a lot of what I was going through with my mum. I thought I felt bad because I was bad, that I was guilty of something, so I hid everything away. I also took my rising desire to prove myself as individual, to have different looks and hobbies and interests to my mum's, as a very bad thing. I felt guilty about wanting to be different, so I would take any criticism of my appearance or interests very badly.

I began really putting on weight through my later teenage years. I got a job and worked long hours. The extra money meant a source of sugar - my biggest weakness. I didn't realise it, but I began to comfort eat. I'd eat far too much chocolate, feel terrible about it, and then eat more because I felt so guilty. My parents found some of the wrappers and had a serious talk about the health implications of eating so much junk food. I understood what they were saying, but I felt powerless to stop. Eating chocolate made me feel good, even if only for a few minutes.

I remember a particularly bad time of depression when I was 17. I was very focused on music at the time, and I pushed myself extremely hard to do an advanced and difficult clarinet exam. The plan was for me to continue with my clarinet studies after that and gain entrance into a conservatorium of music. I wanted to be in an orchestra. But after completing (and doing very well in) my exam, I lost all motivation. I couldn't settle down to practice. I couldn't seem to do anything. I gave up on music. I tried to decide on another course of action - horticulture, part-time work, anything, but nothing seemed to stick.

Well, at the age of 18 I ran away to a convent. I've written about this before, so I won't go into too much detail here. The short truth is that I began my time there in a definitely manic state, joining in everything with gusto and creating chaos with my impulsive actions. It didn't take long for that to give way to depression, and the sisters' decision to eject me from the convent. Then came a trip to Perth, a struggle with mental illness whilst living alone, and finally the freeing diagnosis of bipolar disorder to make my whole life make sense.

I was initially diagnosed with depression, as you may remember from my earlier posts. I was sent to a psychologist, and we ended up spending quite some time exploring my past to see where this crippling sense of depression had begun. I remembered a lot of times when I felt depressed and hopeless, but I also could track many times of euphoria, times when I was impulsive, over energetic and headstrong. Maybe it was strange, but it was only through examining my past that professionals were able to diagnose my current state.

I have spent a lot of time examining how I felt during my past now. In future posts I hope to think a bit more about how mental illness affected my relationship with my mum, especially as a teen and young adult, and how a once fragile relationship has grown much stronger over the past few years. Hopefully my mum and I will continue to explore this together and come to a deeper understand of our past, so we can have an even stronger love in the future.

This is me as a teenager, with my youngest sister!