What living with a bi-polar parent taught me about mental illness

Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s fake

One in four people in the UK will experience mental illness every year. Of that number, the most common condition is Depression. You can’t see it, but it’s out there.

My mum has struggled with mental illness all her life. Battling depression and bi-polar disorder since she was in her twenties, her adulthood has been a series of ups and downs. For days, weeks and even months, she’ll be fine. Charismatic, vibrant, doing a thousand things a day, it would be impossible to know that there was anything wrong.  The battle she’s been fighting day in day out pushed down to the point where even the people closest to her couldn’t see it.  She’d get on with everyone, constantly being her best self and a pleasure to be around.

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My mum in her mid twenties

But things would always change. Subtly at first, my mum would become a bit more lethargic, a bit snappier, a bit more irrational. Her reactions to things would make less sense, her positions less thought out. The tiniest incidents sparking the biggest reactions, I watched my mum become a shadow of her former self. The woman who brought up two children, beat cancer twice and on a normal day didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought, crumbled in front of me. She wouldn’t get up in the mornings, but couldn’t sleep at night. Would spend hours crying over nothing in particular. Would be in the bath when I left for school, and still there when I got back. Would make me come to her bedside because I didn’t know how to tie my own tie.

It’s been a recurring pattern since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of ambulance lights on our driveway, my mum comatose, being wheeled out of our living room by paramedics. My dad frantic at her side, her face covered with an oxygen mask. We didn’t see her for a few days.

I didn’t understand what was happening at the time. And in a way, I never had to. It was never spoken about at length and before I knew it, my mum was back to the person I remembered.

For every incident or horrible memory I have, there’s 10, 15 even 20 completely normal ones. The vast majority of my childhood was happy, cloudfree and the same as everyone else’s. My friends from school that came round would never know that anything was wrong.


A picture from my normal childhood

And that’s why for everyone else, it’s easy to ignore. It’s easy to brush aside like it doesn’t exist. To feel that just because you can’t see someone’s suffering, it isn’t real. But it is.

It has physical symptoms. Ugly tears, sleepless nights, slowly losing the friends that don’t want to deal with you. Depression isn’t going to stop your legs from working, but it will paralyse you with exactly the same results. With a physical disease, the pain, the suffering, the fight, is restricted to the patient. Mental illness is far more cruel. The pain seeps out to the people around you, the suffering becomes communal, the fight is everyone’s. It’s easy to rally around someone fighting a physical condition, you all want the best for them, and so do they. But how do you help someone that doesn’t want your help? How do you come together to fight for someone who doesn’t value their life as much as you? Who just wants to draw the curtains until the rest of the world is nothing but a distant memory?

It’s hard to treat people with mental illness the same as someone that’s broken their leg. There’s no real reminders, no visual prompts that mark them as different. When they lash out, it’s the easiest thing in the world to walk away, to put it down to them being nasty, not giving a shit.

But when someone doesn’t realise they need help or won’t ask for it, that’s when they need it most. When the pain they feel is so acute they’re hurting themselves rather than reaching out, that’s when they need someone close to recognise what’s going on. It’s harder than with physical diseases, but much more important. It requires empathy, compassion, real genuine commitment in time and love.

I don’t think you should treat people with mental illness the same as physical. It’s not just a reassuring pat on the back and it’s not bringing someone flowers to a hospital bed while the doctors do the groundwork. Dealing with depression means a constant considered outpouring of care that will be the difference when the person you love is balancing on a knife edge.

And it doesn’t ever go away, it’s not like you wake up one morning and find yourself cured. It’s unrelenting. It’s with you for the rest of your life. The best you can hope for is that the days where you’re yourself are the ones people remember.