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My mum had a mental illness, but she was not mentally ill

Sunday, 9 May 2021  | Gordon Preece

My Mum had a mental illness, but she was not mentally ill. The phrase is carefully chosen. It is not ‘my Mum is mentally ill’. She died suddenly on November 7, 2004. Even allowing for that weighty change of tense, it is not ‘my Mum was mentally ill’. For mental illness is not all she was. She was much more. Australian philosopher John Kleinig taught me years ago regarding homosexuality (wherever we stand on the issue), that despite identity politics it is not the whole of a person. And my asthma educator wife teaches me regarding her and our three children’s asthma – we don’t say they are an ‘asthmatic’ – as if that is all they are – but ‘a person with asthma’. This is not mere political correctness, despite the clumsiness of the terminology. Our rush for brevity can reduce the person to a sexual orientation or an illness. The illness is not their identity. My Mum was a person with a mental illness. While there were bad times when it seemed like that was all there was, she was much more than her mental illness. That was her shadow, not her substance or her self, in her own, others’ or God’s eyes.

Mum grew up in an alcoholic family. Her English shoemaker father, Harold Popplewell, moved to Australia and married her much younger mother. Perhaps because of the age and cultural difference and his loss of both legs because of the Great War, they had little in common beside the bottle. I remember my grandmother turning up drunk at my cousin’s wedding. And her burning down the house and her later de facto partner when smoking in bed. These binges mortified Mum leading to a lack of contact with her mother for many years till just before Nana’s death.

Poverty – material and emotional – left its mark on Mum – on her physical and mental health. At 17 she was strikingly beautiful – I discovered a stunning photo portrait in her house. ‘Miss Legs of Sydney Council in 1950’, she used to tell us. But she lost many of her teeth due to the poor dental care she had as a child. And try as they might the dentists’ duplicates never did quite clone closely enough. One day at Copacabana Beach she lost them in the surf. The next day they heard that a pair of false teeth had been found next door at Avoca Beach. So they raced around to Avoca only to find they didn’t fit! We all had a good laugh at the funeral about that. But because of her teeth problems she guarded our teeth like gold. She gave us daily fluoride tablets. None of the three (living) children had anything wrong with their teeth till Mum accidentally whacked my front tooth on the squash court when I was 14. She was so upset – all that fluoride for nothing.

I said living children because Mum and Dad’s firstborn and my elder brother Guy died at six weeks of a bowel blockage. It was the sort of thing that would be easily fixed today. Mum knew something was wrong but couldn’t convince the doctors – what would a mother know? She thought God was punishing her by taking Guy. One day about 18 years ago she phoned and we shared tears as she told me she’d found Guy’s death certificate showing he’d died the day I was born. It was actually a year to the day before I was born. Mum had forgotten this tragic date because of the shock treatment she’d had when I was in my teens, for two nervous breakdowns, to use the precise psychiatric terminology we used in those days.

His death and my birth were somehow strangely bound up with each other. Now I knew why I longed so much for a brother, though I had two wonderful younger sisters. Why too I longed so much for male friendship. Why my now young adult son Lachlan has been like a brother to me. Maybe too I longed for what Mum might have been without his death.

I can’t remember precisely when the nervous breakdowns started, but remember my usually loving Mum saying things she’d never say in her right mind. I remember the neighbours putting her into a cold bath to calm her hysteria. It was the same bathroom I locked myself in at my 10th birthday after a fight with my best friend. It was my party and I cried even though I didn’t want to. There followed a tearful adolescence in sympathy with Mum.

Mum was taken to Wardell House in Ashfield for weeks, maybe months, of treatment, including shock therapy. Whether it was like One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest I don’t know, as years later I read the Christian psychiatrist John White’s Masks of Melancholy, including an attack upon Ken Kesey’s novel and the film and a part apologia for shock treatment in severe cases. Regardless of the merits of shock treatment, Kesey’s spirited protest in favour of the humanity and personhood of those with mental illness was overdue.

Around the same time I remember playing soccer, my refuge in which I invested too much of my own mental health, at Callum Park Mental Hospital. (It is now closed, like Kew and Fairfield in Melbourne, nominally in the name of de-institutionisation, practically in the name of cost-cutting, and turned into luxury residences for the sane, while former inmates wander homeless). I was, unusually, in goals that day, down the end where they had, before the days of chemical straitjackets, severe patients, pacing around and screaming in cages a couple of hundred yards from my goal. I played running goalie that day, ready to make a quick run for it in case they escaped. Seeing those poor wretched human creatures, and the remnants of those days during a week’s pastoral training at Parramatta psych hospital in the 70s, gave the story of Jesus and the Gadarene demoniac a strong contemporary resonance for me.

Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina that ‘all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – and he knew the latter from his own family. I don’t think we were an unhappy family and I have many photos of happy times with Mum (and Dad) but perhaps Tolstoy’s latter point applies also to members of families afflicted by mental illness. Experiences of those on the receiving end of mental illness are different, depending on their developmental stage, birth position, gender and personality. I became a very teary, highly-strung teenager needing the help of a psychologist to correct a difficult time in high school and intelligence tests to convince me of my abilities. Thank God my parents had the foresight to send me to him and the ability and willingness to pay. My younger sisters spoke at Mum’s funeral of having ‘lost’ their Mum during that period. And in recent years in particular they’ve done a lot of heroic mothering of Mum, taking guardianship of her affairs, and giving her a last three best years in a long, long time. But the intimate mother–daughter dynamics were deeply affected by Mum’s mental illness.

We all learnt to live with Mum’s ‘stress’ as she called it – ‘the doctor says I can’t have any stress’. We learnt to tiptoe around Mum so we didn’t trigger the omnipresent ‘stress,’ but over time grew cynical at this form of manipulation, of how the victim could victimise others. It was often hard to discern the difference between sickness, stress, mental illness and sinful manipulation. Yet it was important not to let Mum lose herself and her own sense of responsibility in the maze of mental illness and in the psycho-babble of a therapeutic culture. Mum’s illness had various labels, ‘schizoid’, ‘borderline personality disorder’, etc. Exact precision isn’t possible. Psychiatry is as much art as science.

But still I’m grateful for psychiatry, imperfections and all. And thank God for their drugs! Mum refused to take her medication for many years, due to side-effects, but in the last three Stenazine gave her back more of herself and more of our Mum and the kids’ grandmother. After a messy divorce three days before my parents’ 40th anniversary, my sisters’ and their and my children often saw Mum at her worst. I remember returning from PhD study in LA and driving seven hours from Sydney to see Mum in Port Macquarie. My sister Gina’s family were already there and Mum was so excited to see us, over-excited. We lasted one night before she booted us out. The large house was covered in locks like something out of Mel Gibson’s Conspiracy Theory, where he had to unlock five locks on the fridge to make a cup of coffee for a female friend. I perhaps foolishly took a key with me to get back in when I went out to make some calls to tee up alternative accommodation (not wanting Mum to overhear). Mum’s paranoid mind decided that I was making copies of the keys for the people she thought were invading her house and taking and later returning her photos. Fear does horrible things to people – especially when, like more and more, they live alone without the antidotes of relational reality and media literacy to the fear-mongering current affairs shows and right-wing radio shock jocks. They bear considerable blame for much postmodern paranoia.

We returned to Melbourne to a Ridley faculty dinner, and were asked how our holiday went. My youngest daughter wide-eyed and innocently told the whole group how Nanny had gone crazy. My eldest daughter used to talk about her ‘crazy Nan’, but did so with real affection, not contempt. At Mum’s funeral my sister’s daughter spoke fondly of taking Nan driving in Mum’s sporty coupe with the top open and Mum’s hair flying in the breeze and crying out ‘ah, freedom!’ The grandkids saw her mental illness as an extension of eccentricity.

Mum was a gifted china painter and photographer, but manically spent a fortune on both, dissipating her divorce settlement. Her taste deteriorated over time, or perhaps relapsed back into childhood. She lovingly made dinosaur t-shirts for my teenage son. She wore wild-coloured socks and her own lavishly hand-painted hats with everything. After the divorce Mum decided to change her name from her married and maiden names. During a fairly manic stage she told us she wanted a ‘flower’ name, as she loved her garden and once won a prize from radi-personality John Laws for it. So we spent a fun night coming up with names like Joan Chrysanthemum, or Joan Gladioli etc. Eventually she settled on Graceline – though we thought it sounded more like a removalist’s name. But it was laughing with her rather than against her, and the children learnt to do this too. It was one way to keep our own sanity, but with charity.

Mum had a beautiful singing voice, but the harsh comfort of cigarettes destroyed it. She had a beautiful face, but the lines from smoking, anxiety and fear ravaged it. But she could still smile and laugh, despite her loneliness, fears and losses. My favourite memory of Mum was when she wept when I told her, holding back my own tears, that I’d missed out on the state U/16 soccer team by a point (due to a selector knowing the boy who beat me). Even after she’d largely lost the natural therapy of tears because the shock treatment stole many of her memories, Mum’s tears gave me permission to weep, and her mother’s weeping eyes. That momentarily recovered emotional literacy and sanity I treasure, along with her laughter, eccentricity and beauty, even in the midst of mental illness. I miss my Mum. She missed much, but not the whole, of herself. My Mum had a mental illness. But she was not mentally ill.


Gordon Preece is Zadok Commissioning Editor and Director of Ethos.

This article was first published as the editorial for Zadok Perspectives issue on ‘Refugees in their own land – those with mental illness’ (no.87, Winter 2005, pp.2-3). It won the Australasian Religious Press Association’s Gold Medal in the biographical article category.

Image: Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

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