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: http://www.storiesofanunschoolingfamily.com/2014/01/when-child-has-mental-illness-part-1.html.
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 being 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!