TALKING TO YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH; HELPING YOUR CHILDREN COPE WITH YOUR MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.
This text contains some frank descriptions, a swear word and a hint of humour in unsettling places.
Here is an extract from my new novel, Killing Hapless Ally. And in it, I drew very much on my own experience of managing my mental health problems as a mother. In this bit, there are three sons to be cared for and this is how it went when I was once quite unwell and my husband and I struggled to manage until — because for the first time in my life I really opened up — a community of friends swept in. It was this — the honesty of it all, I think — that was a key element in my getting better. Here, in the novel, when the protagonist struggles to hold herself up and doesn’t entirely know what day it is, are three young men, seasoned by fire and the determination of their parents’ love.
‘There was no choice but to let the exigencies of motherhood force Alison to cope. But today, everything was back to front and the wrong colours; clothes were in the incorrect place; there were two packed lunches in one bag and she was crying and her knees were buckling as she came apart. It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.
The boys’ eyes were like saucers.’
The ‘boys’ here recall what I remember, just a few years back, of seeing my two boys go out into the world, with their mother very distressed at home (the third was six months old and so I partly fictionalised the text because he was pre-verbal!). Like anyone who has had mental health problems, I have worried about how seeing their mother so upset and so poorly has affected the boys. But I want to say something about this. It’s not that knowing — and seeing — I am being frank; my boys have seen some pretty raw things — a parent at rock bottom is exactly ideal, but you see they have watched me get better, too. They have a sense, they tell me, that I am strong because they have seen me battle and seen me get better. Of the two, it’s the battle they respect the most, apparently. On Mother’s Day this year my eldest, who is nearly fifteen, made me a home-made card listing the reasons I was ‘Greatest Mum in the World’, and he noted that I always ‘took on’ illness and the problems I had had and that he thought this was amazing. No cupcakes; spendy holidays; kit. Just, ‘Mum. You are amazing. You have had all these problems and you have never given up.’ If you are a mum, reading this, worrying, let it be known that I am giving you a HUGE virtual hug RIGHT NOW. And also commenting that sometimes I feel I learn more from my kids than they do from me. Ever feel that way?
We have given the boys information so that they are informed without being over-burdened with facts, answered questions and told them things about mental health and about how and why (insofar as we know) things can go wrong. Certainly, the older two, who are at secondary now, will learn a bit about moods and feelings and where to ask for help in PSHE, but (as well as being their mum and an author I have always worked with secondary age students and also been a PSHE teacher) mental health is still not addressed fully, I would say, in the national curriculum. In our daily lives, it still attracts some pretty horrid vocabulary and whispered voices. Sometimes — I think of ‘Daily Mail’ headlines and the careless lexis of all kinds of people (including teachers) about ‘psychos’, ‘nutters’ and, most recently, ‘going schiz’ to describe a child’s misbehaviour in class, all of which infuriate me — and I wonder if there is still a hefty element of wishing the crazy people ’round the bend’. That screened place, which, in years gone by, was eclipsed from view after the straight drive swept off in its bend to the psychiatric hospital. And by the way, I am not suggesting that we should be, forever, sharing and emoting left, right and centre; emotional continence and discipline have their place; on the other hand, by demonising ‘bad’ emotions we teach nothing of any real value to our offspring. And when people – or when we – need help and support because things have gone wrong with our minds, moods and emotions, we need to be able to have open dialogue about it just as we might about our physical health; I know that we can create a context for that as we speak to our children.
As parents we have a responsibility to talk to children so that they are not frightened if they know someone — and I want to say that one in four people will have a mental health problem — who is experiencing difficulty and so that they are properly compassionate to others and to themselves. I would want my boys to see the reality of who people who have mental health problems or mental illness actually are: they are us; they are you; they are me. Shame and stigma are destructive and while they obfuscate, they cause more problems and more misunderstanding and, perhaps, cause people not to seek the help they need. Because there isn’t really a they; there’s only an us.
Let me tell you what happened to me.
When I was a child, I knew that, in sections of my large family, things had gone awry. Strange things happened and I had glimpsed into them and listened in, furtively, on private, grown-up conversations. I was forever thinking about some terrible things that might be happening behind the silent screens, behind the whispers, but being entirely kept in the dark about them made them more terrible for me, because my imagination and limited knowledge built them into things of gargantuan proportions. For example, I had an aunt who hadn’t got out of bed for some years and her condition was referred to as overwork, yet I caught snatches of conversation about ‘nervous breakdowns’ and heard one of the neighbours say she was a ‘mental case’; sometimes I heard screaming and then recalled it in nightmares; I knew that at least two of my cousins had disappeared and was hastily told they had brain tumours (I know — a strange things to be saying to a young kid; but you see this must have been considered a better explanation than the real trauma); again, earwigging, I came to understand that they had taken their own lives, and sort of wondered where they had put them. It was my family’s epic-fail mythology, on both sides, but particularly in my late father’s, that all was well and that you didn’t tell for shame. A mythology that the sadness wasn’t, anyway, palpable. Because, of course, it was. As a child I sucked it up and felt sick; it was there on the table with bangers and mash when no-one spoke but sat, as Auden had it, ‘in a place beyond glum.’
No-one spoke about what was going on; I had to over-hear the accounts of wife-beating, of a gold-digger marrying the terminally ill aunt who was the person I loved most in the world; of why another aunt had to be sedated for the vast journey across Somerset; of why the aunt who didn’t get out of bed occasionally threw furniture at visitors. Even as a young kid, I knew she must have been so distressed because I was left in the car outside willing myself to think of something else. ‘Bang!’ That’ll be the bedside table. I was told to shut up when I asked. Because everyone was so dead keen on stifling things, it almost killed me when my father cried at said married-to-a-gold-digger aunt’s funeral. And he was furious with me that I had seen it and belted me for it because his shame was so great. I am aware that my family was dysfunctional, but because they were such pillars of the community — and had apparently joined the middle classes now — there was no-one to tell because, as I wrote in my novel, ‘Who would believe you?’ Ah, keeping up appearances does a lot of damage, does it not?
I could also witness, within my own home, familial mood swings that, to me, were terrifying and I do believe that the secrecy and lack of articulation made me into a frightened child and probably adult, too. Because my family (albeit ineptly) covered it up, it felt worse; moreover I was always taught that moods, and PMT and adolescence and passion and crying apart from alone were signs of the most hideous weakness; at least two of my cousins suffered from eating disorders: no-one called them that; despite the fact that they appeared to be wasting away and there was one cousin whose scratches from self-harming I could clearly see. I feel and see this all so clearly now and I know that I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it all. When you become a parent, maybe you feel more acutely for your child self? And this child self needed to be told that she was okay and coping and she wishes that there had been someone to say, ‘It isn’t you, kid’ or ‘Mental health problems and mental illness are not weakness’ or ‘Your family’s suppression of anything that looks shameful is actually the unhealthy part and totally sucks because the problems are so clearly there.’ And I needed that talk about it because also, as a small child, I began to develop problems myself, in my topsy-turvy, back-to-front world.
My black comedy, sort of bildungsroman of a novel explores the ways in which a child develops problems of some dimensions, has not a soul to tell, is traumatised by many key events in her childhood and is very fearful and full of self-loathing; she scratches and pounds upon herself and uses her imagination to populate a world which, to her, makes no sense. This kid also develops an alter ego who turns nasty. What can I say? I was a funny little girl, but I survived with my unorthodox means. Unfortunately, I also had years of mental health problems — OCD, panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, self-harming, extremely poor coping skills in the face of stress, periods of depression — and I thought that I was a ghastly person who had brought terrible things upon her family and, possibly, on others too; an individual whose presence was always deleterious to those around her. I believe that, at the heart of depression (I am with the Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe on this one),there is a sense one is a bad person, a wicked person; this, unsurprisingly, colours all events that happen to one, making a person feel responsible for things they were not, finding pattens of failure and let-downs and things they can’t do and shouldn’t have entertained. That was me and it took me a long time and many false starts to get better; it was a combination of culling a few people, dead and alive, I am afraid (you’ll have to read the book!), surrounding myself with a good community of friends and getting the appropriate therapeutic support after other systems didn’t work. It was CAT (cognitive analytic therapy) delivered with stupendous skill and compassion that did it and when this worked I want to tell you that things were a different colour and that I fell on the floor, cataleptic with relief. THAT is what skilled support delivered for me and my heart bleeds to think that others cannot access it because they do not have a supportive GP, because they feel they cannot advocate for themselves, because funding is such that the help is sparse — which is the reality in the UK — or because they have always harboured a sense of shame (thus cannot tell anyone) or never received any useful knowledge or information and find themselves stymied by fear: what is happening? Had I been able to ask and tell as a child, would things have been different? I think it likely, although I am no health professional, that they would.
Let me return to that quotation from the beginning of this article.
‘It is a testament to these children that they went off and out, knowing that they were loved. And knowing you are loved is all, perhaps. Not feeling guilty; dirty; too responsible too soon, or with a head full of macabre images and angels howling.’
If children feel loved and if they have some knowledge, but not too much, of what is happening, I think the situation is more manageable for them. I would say that we need to speak frankly and answer all questions — and find out some answers when we don’t — because mental health is still not given the focus it needs. I should like to think that things are changing gradually. Recent books and the excellent work of mental health campaigners and advocates, many of whom are prolific on twitter, and groups with a good presence on social media, such as ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘Young Minds’ are resources for younger people in distress themselves or trying to cope with that of a parent. Mind and Saneline are terrific and I think Matt Haig’s recent book, Reasons to Stay Alive was a sensible and gentle resource which will, in its way, and for a broad age demographic, help to comfort and de-stigmatise; I am a huge fan of everything that Dorothy Rowe (see above) ever writes and I think that Juno Dawson’s recent book Mind Your Head is an excellent guide to mental health for young people. And there’s us — the parents, many of whom, like me, will have suffered or be suffering from mental health problems or perhaps a thoroughly debilitating mental illness.
Something I do is to make sure — and I will always do this for as long as I can — that I give top priority to those people who have given my children a sense of safety and fun and in whom they can trust; for me, this has also meant those who knew how hard things had been for me sometimes and who didn’t walk away. I have been very careful to ensure the children can go and talk to some of my friends because, as I like to say, family is a flexible construct and sometimes, as I have learned over and over, family cripples you if it can’t look something scary in the face or if its sense of shame is so heavy as to weigh down your very soul and the world you walk through. And sometimes family fucks off in a crisis because it doesn’t like unpleasantness. So I’ve been practical and I hope our boys feel they have a loving community around them and that a shorthand exists because these friends don’t judge and know that people are people and that we can talk and break through problems with open arms and through open conversations. And, yes, that it’s an us.
The open conversation and the consoling warmth of an extended hand: they would be good for everyone, wouldn’t they?
Please feel free to comment on what you have read. x