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First encounters with mum's depression

My mum suffered from ‘depression’. I could feel it before I learned what it was called. Everything changed in my life at the age of eight, after a hysterectomy disturbed her hormone balance. Suddenly confusing messages were woven into and between familiar exchanges, and a sense of foreboding and nameless fear washed around the everyday.

I learned that Mum’s particular type of illness was called ‘manic depression’. But I understand now that that there can be elements of psychosis within lowness as well as in elated states of mind. Along with some of the ‘experts’, I don’t see a clear dividing line between most ‘up’ and ‘down’ states. Frenzied frames of mind are not always happy, while feeling rock-bottom necessarily brings about some delusional perspectives which can be so unbalanced they harbour twisted and out-of-touch perceptions of ‘reality’.

You might ask what ‘normality’ and true balance are? I have a poster that says ‘The only normal people are the ones we don’t know very well’. In truth, I’ve often felt that those people who sleep soundly every night and bounce out of bed each morning have an immense, unfair advantage in life when it comes to getting by and, for example, holding down an interesting, engaging, well-paid job.

Money wasn’t really our biggest problem as a family, but there was a lot of tension and dissent. With hindsight, having taken over the job of supporting my mum when Dad died eighteen years ago and learning what a terrible toll that takes, I realise some of my parents’ relationship problems must have been caused by Mum’s illness but of course stress, arguments, yelling and ‘watching for signs’ of different behaviours fuel emotional distress too.

Depression can have a powerfully influential aura about it when people are closely connected, and to a child who is already beginning to ‘care take’ – to watch out for her mother, intuitively realising something is not quite right – it is contaminating.

I remember when a friend and I were going on a summer camp. Mum bravely (I now realise) accompanied us on a train from Bristol to Paddington, and across London on the tube to another mainline station where we would catch the train to North Wales. Having experienced the state she must have been in now myself - as an adult - I can graphically imagine the way she must have felt.

Unfamiliar with London, Mum led us like a drunkard courageously impersonating sobriety. We somehow crossed the city as if through atmospheric glue. I caught her terror at the top of the long escalators as she stumbled trying to balance on the opening metal steps at exactly the right moment, clutching fiercely at us as she did so. She was vague and nervous about directions and, although I didn’t understand why at the time, I somehow realised chaperoning us was requiring enormous effort on her part.

In the 1960s mental health and emotional well-being weren’t a subject for public discussion on any level – there was next to no support for the sufferer and none at all for people’s families – so I clocked this, privately, as the point in life when I started to realise that the world was not, in fact, really the stuff of dreams and fairy tales and I suddenly had to start growing up rather fast.

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