It Wasn’t The Lack Of Compassion That Hurt, It Was The Lack Of Understanding about Mental Illness and Addiction

I had been feeling upbeat over the past few weeks, ahead of our run for breast cancer – which we nailed by the way, raising in excess of $800 for research. And then I stumbled upon a FB share of an old article of mine that was published by News.com last year.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

As a writer of contentious topics (for some) – ADHD, feminism, inequality, mental health – I realise that I put myself in a glass house when one of my articles is published, and I have learned not to read comments from trolls.

This particular article was a highly personal piece about Kurt, detailing his struggles with his mental health, and my reasons for coming full circle on my views about cannabis legalisation. It was an opinion piece – hence, bait for comment and constructive criticism – to which I am always open.

However, many of the comments were not constructive. They were subjective – targeted directly at me as the author and mother. They laid the blame for Kurt’s issues squarely at my feet, and it was that lack of understanding about mental health and addiction that hurt the most – even more than their lack of compassion.

It was a slap in the face to realise that in spite of the attempts of fantastic organizations such as Lifeline and Headspace and various media outlets to improve awareness about mental illness, (as well as the increasing numbers of kids that are taking their own lives), that many people still believe that kids with mental health issues deserve no support, and should even be punished for not towing the societal line.

I am used to being held responsible for Kurt’s choices. Sadly, blame starts with the parents when it comes to ADHD, although there has been a gradual shift in attitude in recent years, thanks in part to the increasing acknowledgement and support of the condition by world governments.

And I can (sort of) see why. A child with impulse control or oppositional issues can look like a monster when you peer in from the outside. However, that refusal to show compassion or to probe more deeply into understanding the condition is why so many of these kids end up being bullied, isolated and rejected, leading to depression, self-harm, OCD and self-medication.

When it comes to inclusion, attitude is the biggest problem we face. But trust me when I tell you that any child with mental health issues who self-mutilates or lines up pills on the carpet is not “attention-seeking” (by our common acceptance of the term). They are seeking attention for help.

Beyond the public condemnation, perhaps the hardest part of the journey for parents or carers is the lack of support, the sense of isolation and the self-blame. That’s why I wrote that article. For others out there, like us, going through what we did and feeling alone.

It has taken years for me to come to terms with the fact that I am not to blame for Kurt’s struggles.

Sure, if I had my time again I would handle some things differently, but I know that no child could have been loved more. We raised our kids identically. We put the same boundaries in place that we did for NC, and like any normal teenager, she tested those boundaries. The difference was, NC was able to distinguish which of her strikes for independence were worth the consequences – unlike Kurt, who was encumbered by poor impulse control.

I try to give people the benefit of the doubt – at the very least until I have all the facts or I have met them personally. Rather than judging a book by its cover or from local gossip, I arm myself with as much information as I can before I draw my conclusions. When did we stop doing that as a society? When did we decide that it was acceptable behaviour to take a pop at someone for our own entertainment?

Surely, there can be no excuse for ignorance when we have access to information at our fingertips?

Social media has made it easy to bully without consequences and I fear that we are losing our sense of compassion. So before you jump right in with your heart rather than your head, remember that there is a real person at the other end of posts or comments, who is often motivated by doing good. That person has a heart and possibly a full wardrobe of skeletons that you know nothing about.

Mothers: Admit It, We Never Stop Worrying About Our Kids

Mothers, be careful with those little comments you drop into the conversation each time you see your adult kids (who have left home) and look like they haven’t eaten a square meal that month.

You know the type – How much fruit are you eating? ARE YOU EATING? You’re looking a bit pale, or How firm are your stools? The type that all of us mums just can’t help ourselves from asking.

Well, take my advice and shut the f..ck up, because those comments could come back to haunt you. Such is my fate since I foolishly peered into my son’s fridge and made an innocent comment about his beer diet.

‘Well, I was thinking…’ he replied the other night when he came around to ours for what looked like his first feed this month, (having obviously decided that this was the perfect window of opportunity for some long overdue Mum -manipulation), “that maybe you could deliver me a care package, once a week, for those difficult days leading up to pay day?’

‘What does a care package entail?’ I asked naively.

‘You know…a batch of Shepherd’s Pie, Bubble and Squeak – I’ll even eat your Lasagne if I have to. Something I can knock up easily myself…’ Ie. In his frying pan, which happens to be the only pan in his unit.

‘Perhaps you need to learn some money management,’ I replied wryly, fully aware of how he prioritises the half of his earnings that don’t go on rent.

‘Perhaps you need to remember that you were young once too,’ he reminded me with that twinkle in his eye that he knows makes me melt at the knees.

And he has got a point. I spent a considerable part of my twenties on the Marlboro and hot chip diet, and it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do in between my three jobs and nagging my husband (!). Of course I can sacrifice a few hours a week slaving away in the kitchen to make sure that my twenty-one year old little boy doesn’t waste away.

But just putting this out there – no one bought me care packages.

So, anyway, call me a “Sad-Fuck-Of-A-Helicopter-Parent, but three Shepherds Pies were dutifully delivered to the next suburb on Saturday afternoon, along with step-by-step instructions for how to heat them up. Of course, the old man refused to have any part of what he calls my “pathetic enabling”, although he did mention that if there were any leftovers, he’d have one instead of salmon on our next fish night.

‘Where are my care packages,’ NC grumbled in a text when she sniffed signs of sibling favouritism from the city.

And so, it appears that the old man was right about one thing and wrong about another. He was wrong when he told me that no one really likes my home cooking – as was the dead fox outside our bins all those years ago that I have been reminded about after every one of my cooking fails. But he has been right all of those millions of times when he has said that I will never stop worrying about our kids.

Whereas, he appears to be coping quite admirably.

My Kids Will Be Able To Say A Lot Of Things About Me, But Never That I Didn’t Love them.

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A friend asked me the other day about how I felt about Mothers Day, and I knew that the question was loaded – you see, I haven’t had a mother for a long time. And for the first time, it struck me that I don’t view the celebration from the perspective of my own mother. I lost her too young to remember her as a real person, so my only association with the day is as a mother to my own kids.

 

There are times when I would love to be able to recount stories of our time together. And in those fourteen years, we did make stories  – on family days out, cheap holidays, when we grew vegetables together at the end of the garden or searched for our runaway tortoise – and yet most of those memories are clouded by her struggles as a single mother, her battle to keep working to provide for three small children, to keep the car running, to keep the smile on her face.

 

Perhaps, that’s why I’ve never allowed myself to fully commit to Mothers Day, with no mother to spoil, to take out to dinner, or to have a monthly spat with – which I understand is very common. And perhaps that’s why I can be somewhat cynical about these ‘special’ days, which can throw up all sorts of pain for those that are excluded or feel isolated – mothers that have lost children, children that have lost mothers, adopted children, mothers that have lost connection with their children. And Mother Day, in particular, sugarcoats a biological responsibility that is not necessarily ‘the best thing’ EVERY woman has ever done. The day can highlight shame and failure for some, as well as the smug gratitude of those women lucky enough to have cultivated perfect relationships with their children – if they do, in fact, exist.

 

Relationships between parents and their children are not always Waltons or Brady-esque. Sometimes, they are not straightforward, as Nikki Gemmell exposes in her book, ‘After,’ which I picked up recently as research for my manuscript. Nikki’s story covers the ways she handled grief after the death of her mother, and yet for me, the greatest comfort I took from the book is her honesty about her tricky relationship with her mother, because it forced me to recognize similarities between her mother’s behavior and my own.

 

Sadly, only after years of distance between them was Nikki finally able to make peace with her mother, only to be shattered a few years later by her mother’s suicide – perhaps, her final act of revenge, in Nikki’s eyes. Personally, I can’t imagine the guilt attached to losing your mother to suicide. Can you imagine the questions you would be forced to ask yourself, even if you knew that chronic pain was at the root of her reasoning? Can you imagine the sense of betrayal? That the person that gave birth to you should choose to leave you in such a way?

 

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: relationships are complicated –  particularly family relationships, where the blood connection can force us to continue with toxic, destructive alliances. Anyone who has produced a child that went against the grain will recognize the sense of shock and the grief for the child you expected to have.

 

The death of my own mother, along with the distant relationship I have experienced with my father at various periods of my life has affected my relationships with my children. Not necessarily for the worst. At times, my insecurity has made me cling too hard and suffocate them; at others, my aloofness, lack of empathy and lack of a filter have left them feeling confused and unloved. I am not a perfect mother; and yet I am the only mother they have. And in the end, when they describe to my grandchildren the ways I fucked up their lives, they won’t be able to say that I didn’t love them. Just like I can’t about my own mother.

 

Motherhood, Togetherness, Warts and All

I’m not proud of the fact that I was so hung-over on Mothers Day that I was on diet soda for my celebratory lunch with my kids. 

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I could blame the friends we had lunch with the day before – a lunch that turned into dinner – although, in our defense, the whole idea of lunch was so we would be able to function the next day. And I might have got away with it if we hadn’t walked into the latest family crisis as soon as we opened the front door – a crisis that required instant love, cuddles and more wine to help us put the pieces back together.

 

It’s called being a mom. It’s not about being perfect and waiting around for the balls to drop, it’s about doing your best when the shit hits the fan. It’s about when your Mother’s Day lunch – meticulously planned by your daughter – goes pear-shaped because everyone’s tired and emotional and one child still hasn’t got over his crisis, turns up an hour late and eyeballs you with genuine hatred throughout the meal. And you feel his pain viscerally – almost as intensely as when you gave birth to him – and want to help him even if he is an adult and has hijacked the one day of the year that should rightfully be yours. Again.

 

But you also know that there is only so much you can do, and your head still hurts from those countless bottles of Rose you succumbed to the day before because kind ears wanted to listen, and although the steak pie is hot and steaming and should be a comfort, there are more mushrooms than steak and it is still not as appealing as your bed.

 

And you look at those two beings opposite you at the table that you made and remember that they are yours, and even if you aren’t that perfect family in the soap powder ads, and those pink balloons above your table are likely to burst at any minute, a rush of emotion and gratitude comes over you, because you are together, warts and all.

Crap Parent Therapy: ‘Consulting’ Rather Than ‘Enabling’

I had to go back for a session of ‘crap parent therapy’ last week, tail between my legs, following another situation with Kurt where the parenting shit hit the fan and the old man and I found ourselves sucked into another potential vacuum of despair. urban-1002149_1280

 

Patiently, the therapist reminded me for the umpteenth time about the distinction between ‘loving’ kids like Kurt rather than ‘enabling’ them, something that is a complicated and fine line in my relationship with my son, due to the allowances I make for his mental health issues.

 

I returned pumped and ready to tow the party line, feeling secure once again in the knowledge that a bit of tough love is what all children need, and that I have to be a “consultant” to my son now rather than a “helicopter;” a “supporter” rather than a “pushover”.

 

The problem with ‘enabling’ is that our kids never learn about responsibility. Because when you help your child out of every mess they land themselves in, they avoid the consequences of their actions and ultimately that reduces their confidence and self-esteem – something many middle-class families are guilty of. Then, when these children reach their twenties without the ability to problem-solve, or seem apathetic or unfocused, we accuse them of being ‘entitled.’

 

It’s not necessarily their fault, or ours for that matter; the problem has developed from the way society has evolved with the move away from close family and its support and to both parents working.

 

‘We used to learn from tribes, or large extended families and communities. Now we have small, geographically scattered families, often with parents who work long hours. Some transfer skills they learned over years in a goal-oriented job to raising their children in the hope this will give them the resources to withstand unpredictable futures.’ (The Kids Are Alright – If You Leave Them Alone by By Shaoni Bhattacharya)

 

I was given my first test sooner than I expected last night, when Kurt messaged me on FB with the message ‘I’m in trouble’ just after midnight – frankly, the stuff of nightmares.

 

Still groggy from sleep, I called him back immediately, imagining the worst, and felt my blades begin to rotate.

 

He was drunk and had been thrown out of a club for disorderly conduct somewhere in Metropolitan Sydney – he had no idea where. As much as the old man tried to reassure me that this was fairly average teenage behavior…not so much when you’re as anxious AF.

 

As calmly as I could, I reminded our son about the Google App on his phone so that he could determine his location, cursing once again that he hadn’t let me add him to ‘Find My Friends.’

 

When he told me he was in Redfern, I almost lost control of my bodily functions. Redfern is hardly downtown LA, but it’s not where you want your son to be non compos mentis late on a Saturday night.

 

After several vain attempts to get some sense out of Kurt, I told the old man I was going to call a cab, and tried to ignore the way he rolled his eyes in despair.

 

Tell him to walk home, he said helpfully, before reminding me about the times he had been forced to sleep under cars or walk miles to get home. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders that I know to be disappointment he pissed off to sleep in NC’s room, putting on his invisibility cloak at the same time.

 

The voice of the therapist in my head tried to remind me that I shouldn’t be problem-solving for our son, who at nineteen has to take responsibility for his choices, but those two words that haunt all mothers – ‘what if?’ – wouldn’t shut up.

 

I ruminated for a minute or two then decided that I would never live with myself if something happened to him in the four hours that he had to wait for the trains to start up again. Even if the old man never talked to me again, I knew I had to follow my gut instinct.

 

Get yourself a cab‘, I told Kurt, knowing it wasn’t the right resolution but needing confirmation that my son would be safe.

 

He was unable to. He hadn’t taken his bankcard out with him, in case he lost it like he had the other ten bankcards over the past twelve months. He told me he would start to walk, while I began to get heart palpitations.

 

Unable to sleep, I called him back ten minutes later, the helicopter blades above my head roaring now. I was ready to take off. Anxiety had stepped in and in a final desperate attempt to ensure the safe journey of my son back to my bosom I offered to get up and pay for the cab at the door when he arrived.

 

It’s okay, he shouted excitedly, ‘I’ve found a bike and I’m cycling back‘.

 

Problem solved.

 

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I decided not to question him about the bike.

Remember The School Gates? Getting Old Isn’t All Bad

A friend recently wrote to me about how old she feels each time she passes the primary school our children attended and sees all the young, hip mums hanging outside the school gates. jump-1154509_1280

 

Being a mum in the playground is personally one of my least favourite periods of parenthood to reminisce about; post-traumatic memories of which I continue to dilute with wine on a nightly basis. Even now, when I’m old and ugly enough to look back on that period with fresher, more mature eyes, along with the rationality and wisdom I have acquired with age, it remains a testing time of my life.

 

In fact those days of being a young, unconfident mum, being judged by the successes and failures of my children, are more haunting than even my own school days as a teenager, trapped as I was in an all girls boarding school with painfully slowly developing boobs, late periods and no outside connection to interesting boys.

 

The playground highlights publicly your popularity and position (or lack thereof) in the mum group, a shame for those of us who are naturally shy, even if we have just as much to give as the more raucous ‘IT’ mums who dominate with their brash confidence and are loved by all, including the teachers.

 

Sour grapes? A little, perhaps. But they’re not directed at the other mums; rather at myself for not having confidence in myself and allowing that feeling of isolation to affect me so intensely.

 

I could blame my kids, of course, too. My kids were never the uber-sporty, theatrical or ridiculously popular kids who got invited to three parties each weekend. No, I was the mum forced to stand and watch the party invitations being handed out… knowing and dying a little inside as I tried to absorb their pain. In reality, it was MY pain. NC was always the kid with one special friend – usually, equally nerdy – and I was always far more affected than she was by the choosiness of her peer group. Kurt was the kid who charged around the playground like a puppy dog on Speed, in his own world, strangely oblivious to the looks and consequences his behavior encouraged.

 

And then there was the excited chit chat in the mums circle about whichever party or dinner party was happening that weekend – that I wasn’t invited to, leading to paranoia and a need to feign disinterest or lie about being busy.

 

Then I’d go home and finish a bottle of wine while the kids’ scoffed their afternoon tea.

 

I had different tactics to avoid standing alone in the playground and looking like the Mummy-No-Mates I was. Some days I’d arrive early and sit in the car until the last possible moment between the shame of isolation and my kids feeling abandoned. Other days I’d drive in conspicuously late and swoop the kids up from the concrete while the car was still in motion. Sometimes I would arrange to meet a friend beforehand and we’d go in together, armed with the false bravado of togetherness.

 

In the school playground you were initially judged by the success and popularity of your child, then forced to become friends with the parents of the kids your children connected with – no matter how wierd – rather than the ones you might have had more in common with.

 

What a relief to be judged on my own merits now. 

Technology And Parents

I had to share this Ronny Chieng video with you that Kurt introduced me to the other night. What is it with us middle-aged women and our failure to grasp technology?

We can all identify with Ronny’s mum’s situation. Many of us will have teenagers and younger kids with cruel stories they retell in public that satirise our ineptitude, to match his.

Unless you work in IT (which begs the question WHY?), many of us from Generation X will identify with that same lack of intuition and confidence when it comes to technology, and in particular computers. The sight of a fresh keyboard with its array of buttons, each with the potential to send my work into computer-world Armageddon, is enough to send me into a full body spasm. I blame technology for my anxiety issues. I will never change my job out of fear of some new machine or programme that will out my lack of technology skills; the same skills I highlighted as ‘advanced’ on my CV.

Fujitsu OASYS Pocket, Japanese word processor.
Fujitsu OASYS Pocket, Japanese word processor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve spoken at length about my own magnetic repulsion to technology before, and like Ronny’s mum’s, it has become a running joke in our family.

The old man was trying to explain to me only yesterday how to download music on my iPhone from iTunes, complicated it by mentioning something about being ‘offline’ and the dreaded ‘dropbox’ (shudder), and I could physically feel my eyes glaze over and my organs begin to shut down. That feeling of shame and frustration at just not getting it, was reminiscent of the feeling I used to experience in my D set maths class at school.

No-one likes to feel a fool, yet they insist on updating technology all the time.

Theoretically, communication should be much easier these days with so many options available, but there are some areas where it just gets harder for the older generations.

Our decision not to get a landline was not a well thought-out plan when it came to our parents overseas, for example. No matter how much we used to explain to the old man’s mother that we didn’t need a landline to call her because we could use the Skype app on our mobile phones, she never understood how we did it, and would talk to us with awe in her voice, like some miracle was being performed.

Catching up with my dad in the UK is always fraught with problems, too.

My dad is far from a technophobe – he was one of the more innovative parents back in the eighties to buy a word processor, even though he didn’t know what the fuck it did. He even worked out how to switch it on that very same day. I still can’t thank him enough for his faith in progress, because without it I’d never have completed my final year dissertation to deadline, and would not now have my worthless degree.

But try organising a phone conversation with him these days.

Aside from the major issue that he still doesn’t understand that you are supposed to respond to texts, there is the added difficulty posed by the time difference.

And let’s not even go near daylight savings…

Having said all that, ten years since we moved to Australia, he thinks he’s a bit of a pro when it comes to Skype – even though sometimes I wonder if he forgets that I can see him too.

‘The tex’t to set up a time is the first step to each call and as I said, for a man who has always been so advanced when it comes to technology, my biggest frustration is when he doesn’t respond to them – to the point where I’ve checked his number several times.

Sometimes, I worry that if anything happened to us over here, he wouldn’t find out until the following Christmas when we pull out all the stops to connect.

I text him. Nothing. I give him the benefit of the time difference of 9-11 hours, even though I know he rarely sleeps more than five hours a night. Still nothing.

Emails are the same. I email him. No response. Sometimes the silence can go on for weeks. When we finally connect his excuse is that he’s been so busy. He’s retired.

‘Dad,’ I say, when we eventually talk, ‘why didn’t you text me back?’

‘I didn’t get a text from you,’ he always responds, defensively.

‘Check your phone.’

Eventually, we agree a slot and I’ll call him at the agreed time. No response. For a highly intelligent man, the whole time difference thing is a step too far. I blame the whisky.

Sydney time zone clock winging it’s way for Christmas.