The American poet, Robert Frost, once said “Everything I’ve learned about life can be summed up in three words: It Goes On”. Some people can spend a lifetime before they discover the true weight of these words, but by my grand-old-age of 21, I stand convicted in the meaning.
It’s difficult to try and think of the right words to express the many feelings you have when someone you love tries to seriously harm themselves; guilt, anger, despair, hopelessness, frustration, fear… The list goes on and on. Looking back, I can now see that the warning signs were there that something was wrong. In 2006, my mum and dad separated after nearly 20 years of marriage. My mum, my sister and I all moved out of the family home and tried to begin a new life.
I can’t even imagine how difficult that must’ve been for my mum; not only having to deal with her own emotions in regards to her marriage, she was now the sole-caretaker to two children and had to learn quickly how to run a house on her own and try and protect us from the situation with her and my dad. In the weeks after we moved out, she seemed very melancholy.
Sometimes, we would be talking to her at length and she would look at us blankly when the conversation finished with no recollection of what had been said. She spent longer and longer in bed – not sleeping during the night and then refusing to get up during the day when she didn’t have to.
Her thoughts of despair had started to overwhelm her; she was suffering from severe depression. But neither my sister or I knew this. We had never had to deal with mental illness before and we didn’t know the signs. We told ourselves that mum was going through a bad patch, which was only natural and she just needed some time and TLC.
Time alone doesn’t help
This can be very good advice. Time to process traumatic events can be healing in itself. But when somebody is suffering from depression, time alone is not going to help them. We discovered this after my mum overdosed shortly after my sixteenth birthday; I found her by chance when I came home from school early. The bottom dropped out of my world.
It was the aftermath of her suicide attempt which was the hardest to bear; the never-ending stream of unanswered questions – Why? Should we have seen the signs? Helped her more? Are we such bad daughters that she doesn’t want to be around us anymore? We felt like we had been neglectful of our mum, which I know now isn’t the case. At the time, we had no way of knowing what we were dealing with.
Nobody had ever talked to us about depression. We might’ve known what my mum would’ve wanted us to do if she was ever in a car accident or got cancer; but the discussion of what we should do should she ever become mentally ill were never discussed. Probably because she didn’t think “it” would ever happen to her. But that’s the thing about mental illness; isn’t it? Nobody ever thinks it will happen to them. It’s not something you factor into your life plan.
“I’m only young, it’s not fair”
So what do you do when it forces it’s way in there? It took me a long-time to try and come to terms with my mum’s illness. If I’m honest, I spent the first year pretty much surviving on self-pity. “Why do I have to deal with this?” I thought. “I’m only young, it’s not fair.” While it was true that this situation wasn’t fair on me, it wasn’t fair on any of us involved. The anger I felt towards my mum wasn’t going to help, and it wasn’t right to blame her for being ill.
She hadn’t asked for this anymore than my sister or I had. The coping mechanisms I initially used of going out and getting drunk on the weekends after spending my week minding my mum/trying to do my school-work at home, weren’t really helping me cope. In fact, they were making me feel worse about my entire life.
I began to realise that my attempts to block out reality with my reckless behaviour weren’t the way to deal with this – all it was getting me was a regular hangover and unstable emotions. I had always enjoyed writing and from a young age, knew I wanted to pursue it was a career. So I began to write about my life, my emotions and all my different thoughts. It was cathartic for me.
Told not to tell
Even though nobody else would ever read the words, by putting them out into the ether, I was purging myself of my harmful feelings. I also began to talk to my friends about what was really going on in my life. Even though they knew something was wrong (I missed a lot of school in fifth year because somebody needed to be with my mum at all times and my sister was working full-time), they didn’t know what that something was. I hadn’t told them because my mum had told my sister not to tell anybody what was happening. There are sometimes in life when you need to completely disregard your parent’s advice – this was one of them.
It is precisely when the big, scary life-stuff happens that you need to talk to someone. So, despite what my mum had asked of me, I confided in close friends. It was one of the best things I could’ve done; talking really is a sign of strength. By opening up to someone I could trust, everything seemed a bit more bearable. Somebody could help support me while I was helping to support my mum. If you’re going through a tough time, you need to have that outlet – be it a friend, a counsellor or your local parish priest – find someone you can trust who can your confidante.
I also realised that I couldn’t put my life on hold. I hadn’t planned a future since my mum had become sick; anything that couldn’t potentially happen in the next week seemed irrelevant. But I began to refocus myself to the schoolwork I once loved but had come to resent as an inconvenience to my situation.
I decided I wanted to go to college and study journalism. Even though it wasn’t easy to study for exams while my mum was ill, I was determined not to give up. This was something that I wanted and needed for myself. In 2008 I was accepted into DCU as a scholarship student and began studying journalism and I graduated last November.
Learned how to deal with things
In the last few years, there have been so many wonderful things that have happened in my life that I am extremely grateful for. In many ways, I genuinely believe I’ve been very lucky. It’s still not easy taking care of someone who suffers from a mental illness and there are times when I feel the complete opposite of lucky. But I can deal with things much better now than I did when I was 17-years-old.
I’ve learned the importance of talking about your problems, of taking the time to pursue activities that make you happy and to make sure that in the midst of a difficult situation, to take care of your own mental health and make sure to find healthy ways of dealing with your stress and emotions.
Living and rebuilding
I stumbled across a D.H. Lawrence quote a few years ago and it is now pinned on a piece of paper in my room. It reads: “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, we scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
My sky has fallen many times and it will fall again in the future, but I will keep on living and re-building. Just because your sky has fallen, it doesn’t mean your world has ended.