The first time I knew something was wrong with my mum was when I was five years of age and she was threatening to leave home and never come back. Mental health wasn’t something we talked about then, especially not to someone so young. So I tried to stab her car’s tyres with a butter knife so she wouldn’t leave. She didn’t (and obviously the butter knife didn’t work).
Don’t get me wrong, she was a great mother. She really loved my brother and me, she was an outstanding cook and made us beautiful meals (and our lunches were the envy of school mates), she made sure she attended all the parent/teacher meetings, she looked after us when we were ill, she helped us with homework and encouraged us in our sports and extra-curricular school activities. She told us regularly she loved us but she struggled with her demons.
Mum and dad divorced when I was nine; by that time we were living with my soon-to-be stepdad. And while mum and my stepdad were the best of mates and really were soulmates, they fought like Kilkenny cats. That was mum’s illness. One minute she was happy and full of life, the next she was screaming and threatening to harm herself and then locking herself in her bedroom for days at a time. She turned on a dime. We walked on eggshells so we didn’t upset her.
Mum threatened and tried to commit suicide many times. She tried to gas herself, she took overdoses of pills, she drank to excess. They were all cries for help. As a registered nurse, she knew exactly how many pills to take. There were many times my stepdad and I poured her grog down the sink or flushed away her pills; there were many times I called emergency helplines to ask what to do. Sadly, the ups and downs continued. We struggled, not knowing what to do.
My mum did erratic things – she took my stepdad’s clothes out onto the lawn and set fire to them; she made him get out of the car in the middle of the Harbour Bridge; she left him up the coast without a car and drove back to Sydney while on a weekend away because he did something that really pissed her off; she threw eggs and plates at a wall to get her anger out; she got a knife and stabbed a door over and over again; she went to the local club and poured money through the pokies; she smashed several of my stepdad’s computers (she felt she was being ignored/abandoned when he was on the computer).
I contacted her GP myriad times to ask for his help. I thought she had manic depression (as it was then known), but not all her symptoms added up. The GP was useless (he suffered from mental health issues himself and thought that a Valium and glass or four of wine would help her).
As I got older and wiser I did research but could never find out what it was she had. And obviously mum wouldn’t seek help. “I’m alright Jack,” she used to say. It wasn’t until mum was 63 that we found out what mental illness she was suffering from. Mum had a breakdown. She heard “budgies” in her head, drank far too much, poured methylated spirits down her nightie, grabbed a lighter and told my stepdad that she would set fire to herself. She had no intention of doing that, but she lit the lighter and the fumes caught hold. My stepdad grabbed her and threw her on the carpet and put a blanket around her to put out the flames.
Mum and my stepdad were living up the coast at that stage, and I got the call to say she’d been flown to Concord Hospital in Sydney with third-degree burns to 33 per cent of her body. I was there every day of her 8 weeks in hospital and through her many skin grafts. And I was the one who got the psychiatrists and psychologists involved, given she had self-immolated. And finally, we got a diagnosis. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). An awful disorder – not just for the person suffering from it, but also the family. Particularly daughters. That would be me.
Her diagnosis didn’t solve things, but it did give us something to research. And research I did. I contacted BeyondBlue and received information, I got onto a BPD forum (that was fantastic and eye-opening), I read a book about BPD and the different personality types (mum identified with all of them). I devoured information.
I found out that genetic and environmental influences are likely to be involved in causing BPD. Certain events during childhood may also play a role in the development of the disorder, such as those involving emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Loss, neglect and bullying may also contribute. Sadly, mum had been subject to emotional abuse by her mother and much older sister, and then that was perpetuated by my father, who was a real bastard to her. The perfect storm, some might say.
After getting out of the hospital, mum and my stepdad moved from NSW to Victoria. All was well for a while, but as she got older she became more ill – both physically and mentally. She saw a psychiatrist for a while but then packed it in. “There’s nothing wrong with me, it’s all HIM [my stepdad].”
Mum suffered from chronic asthma, osteoporosis, heart problems and COPD (emphysema). As did my stepdad. In 2010 I was on a plane every month to Victoria to help them out when one or both were in the hospital. And then in 2010, my stepdad died as a result of pneumonia. That was heartbreaking for mum and myself– and it removed a buffer. I became mum’s primary target. She really went over the edge – particularly when we brought her back to Sydney to live.
BPD sufferers generally hate change. And these were massive changes. Partner dies, move into a retirement village apartment that your daughter bought for you – and that you hate (even though it’s a gorgeous apartment), new doctor, new people around you. Another perfect storm. But we ploughed on. I did what I could – arranged some fantastic in-home carers (had to go through a few before we found some that mum liked and who understood her), did shopping for her every week (she wouldn’t leave the apartment unless it was in an ambulance, which became very frequent), arranged medical care in her home, liaised with all her health professionals, paid her bills…
Mum was appreciative, but when the demons came along I copped it and was called the most god-awful names in the world. “It’s the mental illness,” I repeated to myself. And it was. Mum’s mental illness meant she couldn’t function normally, wasn’t aware she was hurting those closest to her, couldn’t see any good in the world. Depression and BPD. What a combination. She had difficulty controlling her emotions and impulses.
Those closest to me asked why I stood for it. Well, I loved my mum and knew it was the mental illness talking. Not her. My mum was a highly intelligent, bloody funny, quick-witted, cheeky person. But when the demons got her, she was the devil. People with BPD are not “bad”. People with BPD are often labelled manipulative or attention-seeking. While the things they do may cause distress, this behaviour results from BPD symptoms.
One day mum took an overdose of pills and I contacted the emergency helpline at the local hospital. They put me through to the Aged Care Mental Health Team. They “admitted” her to their program (without her being aware of that). It was an emergency decision on their part. Thank god they did. As usual mum didn’t take enough pills to cause damage, but it enabled the aged care mental health team to be put in place. She was allocated a mental health nurse and a psychiatrist, who visited her at home regularly and put in place a plan. They also met with me and a very close family friend and gave us some tools about how to cope with mum’s disorder. I wish I’d had that information years earlier. It helped enormously.
While nobody could really help mum with her mental illness, it provided us with some clarity and information. Rather than react to my mum’s name-calling and button pressing (she knew exactly which buttons to press), I treated her like a child – as in I set parameters, I talked calmly (if I blew up at her it just fed her ire), I didn’t walk away from the situation (many BPD sufferers have major abandonment issues). And I gave all her caregivers and medical teams solid information, so they too knew how to deal with her mental health issues (BPD sufferers often appear very normal and intelligent with doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists – and anyone else who comes in contact with them).
I also looked after myself. My health – physical and mental health – were important. Her behaviour nearly did me in several times over, but one thing I did get from my childhood was strength (in spades), independence, intelligence and a bloody good sense of humour. Not to mention an amazing partner, who went through the absolute worst of it with me. And fortunately, my mum loved my partner (unlike my ex-husband, whom she couldn’t stand!). That made life so much easier.
My mum died from her physical health issues in February 2015. As she became sicker, her mental health issues weren’t as ferocious. But she kept saying she would be better off dead and that she had the “stash” of drugs to help her achieve this. She drank two bottles of wine every day (starting at 9 am), she ended up in hospital numerous times from falls or pneumonia. She also asked me if I would help her die. Of course, I just shrugged it off. She had a horrible life for the large part and then an awful death. The demons really got control of her, but she wouldn’t accept help. She’d blame everyone else for the “pain” she was enduring. The mental pain at times far outweighed the physical pain. I truly hope she’s at peace now.
I’ve come out of this a lot stronger. I often said I would be both incredibly sad and relieved when mum died. And I was. I miss the bright, cheeky, oh so clever and witty mum I knew. I do not miss the one that treated me like shit when she was in one of her “moods”. Oh, and mum had the last say – as she usually did have. When we brought her ashes home we placed her upstairs above the home office, where we have several computers. One by one the computers went haywire – a couple of them beyond repair. The computer repair guy said about one of them: “I have never ever seen anything like this before. The computer is fried!” And he asked, “What happened to it?” My partner and I just looked at each other: “Josephine,” we said.
Some useful links
Beyond Blue is an organisation that helps support and educate people about mental health in Australia. It has lots of resources to help – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
SANE Australia is a national charity helping all Australians affected by mental illness. It has a number of forums and fact sheets including this one on borderline personality disorder – https://www.sane.org/mental-health-and-illness/facts-and-guides/borderline-personality-disorder
NSW Health department state-wide service delivery framework for Specialist Mental Health Services for Older People across NSW – https://www.health.nsw.gov.au/mentalhealth/Pages/services-opmh.aspx
The Federal Government’s My Aged Care website providing information to older people about the resources available for mental health issues – https://www.myagedcare.gov.au/caring-someone-mental-health-condition
The Aged Psychiatry Assessment and Treatment Team at St Vincent’s hospital in Melbourne (this team helped Lisa immensely) – https://svhm.org.au/home/health-professionals/aged-and-community-care/aged-psychiatry-assessment-and-treatment-team
Victorian Government’s mental health services for older people – http://www.health.vic.gov.au/mentalhealthservices/aged/
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