Throughout my adolescence my mother’s life was punctuated by visits to specialists and trials of alternative therapies to help manage the pain and debilitating effects of the arthritis that existed in every joint of her body. She also continued to do battle with depression and was hospitalised several times following suicide attempts. I became accustomed to waking in the middle of the night to the lights of an ambulance in the backyard coming to take my mother away once again. By this time my sister Heather and I were old enough to stay home and care for our little sister so we no longer had to endure long periods of exile at relatives’ homes.
My father worked doggedly and quietly at his rehabilitation. He taught himself to write with his left hand as the right side of his body had been compromised in a way similar to that of a stroke victim. His ability to return to work part-time as an external marker is testament to his strength and determination as well as the high esteem accorded to him by his colleagues. He eventually returned to the classroom teaching one entry-level subject. By this time he had also spent many hours teaching himself to write left-handed on a chalkboard.
When I was seventeen years old my mother was diagnosed with secondary amaloidosis, a complication of the osteo and rheumatoid arthritis. The amaloidosis affected the functioning of her kidneys and at the time of the diagnosis she was told that she had five years left to live. I remember the day she told me. It was in the afternoon after I had come home from school and as usual she was in bed. Looking back I know my reaction was inappropriate and must have hurt my mother deeply. At the time though I felt so relieved and happy that she had a whole five years left to live! I thought it was wonderful because I had spent a large part of my childhood dreading coming home from school because I expected to find her dead from one of the many ailments that plagued her. This diagnosis meant that I didn’t have to worry for another five years, what a blessing.
The next three years passed with no major events. At the age of twenty I married my husband, and we have now been married for thirty-three years and have three amazing children. However at thirty-three years of age I experienced my first episode of major clinical depression. My journey with depression and anxiety had begun and it is only now, twenty years later, that I fully understand its purpose and lessons.
At the time of my father’s accident I was thirteen years old and beginning to feel better about high school and life in general. My best friend from primary school was with me, and things at home had settled into a bit of a rhythm. My younger sister and I were quite infatuated with our little sister who was pretty and out going. My mother still struggled with her health, both physical and mental, and would run the house from her bed. Despite this, or maybe because of it, Heather and I had a lot of freedom riding our bikes and our horses around our local streets and the large paddocks at the end of our road.
All of this came tumbling down on the day of the accident. I can remember it clearly. My best friend and I were on our way home from school when her mother unexpectedly pulled up along side us in her large station wagon and beckoned for us to quickly get in the car. As I got into the back seat I saw the burlap from my father’s motor bike that he had had made to protect his legs from the bitter cold as he rode across the mountains and back to teach at the TAFE college. It was explained that I would be taken home to my mother and that my sister Heather was being picked up and taken home as well.
At home my mother sat both Heather and I down and told us that our father had been in an accident and was seriously injured. Afterwards Mum pulled me aside and told me that Dad wasn’t expected to live. She asked me to explain this to my little sister Anne, who was 5 years old at the time, because my mother didn’t think she had the strength to do it herself. As asked I sat Anne down and told her that Daddy wouldn’t be coming home because he was going to live with Jesus in Heaven. We had been attending Sunday school all our lives so I hoped that she would be able to understand.
My father did survive, but remained first in hospital and then in rehabilitation for many months. When we first visited him he seemed pleased to see us, though he didn’t remember our names. I was shocked by the crew-cut misshapen being that had replaced my beautiful father. Before me was a dribbling embarrassment whose every second word was a swear word. Nevertheless, I felt certain that he would recover fully and return to us the intelligent and proud man he once was. Needless to say this didn’t happen.
When my father was eventually discharged we all arrived at the rehabilitation centre to bring him home. The trip home in the family car was a slow one. My father could not cope with the stimulus of the car travel, finding it frightening to travel at the speed limit. So my mother drove the 28km home at 30km/hour. I remember feeling embarrassed and terrified. If my father couldn’t even travel in a car, how could he ever get back to work?
By this time my family was existing on a disability pension and the food hampers that the local Catholic priest delivered. Mum’s own church community was conspicuously absent. The two horses, Lady and Billy, that Heather and I had charged around on were found new homes because we could no longer afford to feed them. It was a sad parting but my sisters and I knew that it had to happen. Our mother was very stressed and this worry over money made her illnesses worse.
Photo by K Baker
My youngest sister was born when I was eight years old. She was referred to as a “change of life” baby as my mother had apparently reached menopause at the ripe old age of forty-two. Six weeks after her birth my mother was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis in every joint of her body. And so began my mother’s years of wheel chairs and confinement to bed.
When my baby sister was six months old my sisters and I were left with an aunt for the fourth and last time. Our mother had once again been hospitalised with depression. The main difference this time was my baby sister. The aunty we stayed with on this occasion was understandably less than enthusiastic to find two small girls and a baby in her care. Squeezed into the small three-bedroomed house were now six children, two parents and two grandparents (one with dementia). As the eldest of my little band of displaced children my aunt and uncle told me that the care of our baby sister fell to me. This involved all nappy changes, sterilising of bottles, feeding and comforting. Somehow we muddled through and all three of us survived this period of neglect.
By now my father was struggling to make his business pay it’s way. The story goes that he would accept payment in kind from clients which included items such as cabbages and oranges. I am told that everyone was feeling the economic crunch. My parents kept the business going as long as possible but eventually my father had to close his dream down and begin a career as an accountancy teacher at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges. To supplement this income my father also worked one day a week at a local accountancy firm.
This work load was not so bad while my father taught at a local college which was only forty-five minutes drive away. However, once he was transferred to a college ninety minutes drive away over a mountain range things began to pile up on him. To save fuel my father bought a motor bike to make the commute. This was not such a hardship as a my father had had a long love affair with bikes which he found gave him peace and freedom that was lacking elsewhere in his life. Nevertheless to this day I do not know how he managed the ride over the mountains in winter when black ice covered the patches of road as he travelled home at night after teaching his classes.
But it wasn’t the mountain road that finally saw the end of his riding days. It was a piece of flat mud-covered road that he travelled on the way to his second job at the accountancy firm. We were told that he lost traction in the mud and came off his bike, hitting his head on a solid wooden guide post at the side of the road. This accident did not kill him but left his brain damaged and my beautiful intelligent father became a shadow of his former self.
As the storm clouds threatened to take over my mother’s life my father started his own business, an accounting company, which he eventually ran from home in a purpose built office separate to the house. My mother worked with him putting sixty hours a week into the business while running the house and caring for two demanding little girls who consistently deprived her of sleep.
This gruelling work load eventually took its toll and before I was five years old my mother was hospitalised for the first time with major depression. She stayed in hospital for several weeks during which time she was subjected to Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and placed on heavy medication that left her feeling groggy and disconnected from life and the world around her. As always in a crisis my mother’s spirit family, led by Steven, gathered around her offering comfort and support. My mother tried to resist them because she knew too well the consequences of ‘communing with the dead’. Their loving energy that promised to soothe and heal proved stronger than her fear of god’s retribution and she began once again to talk with spirit. Unfortunately seeking such solace resulted in dire consequences, not from god but from the medical staff at the hospital. My mother’s stay was lengthened and and her doctors began considering that their patient had experienced a psychotic break.
Could my mother’s shame be any deeper? Hospitalised for a mental illness and needing one of her sister in-laws to care for her two daughters. For years to come my mother’s hospitalisations were to be referred to by my father and his family as ‘stays in the nut house’. The stigma of her illness was immense. When my mother returned home this first time she presented my sister and I with a wicker doll’s cradle each. She had woven these during her stay in hospital as part of her therapy. Even then I could sense an air of humiliation around each cradle and something in my mother’s eyes as she gave them to us made me want to look away in shame.