Stranded in the cuckoos nest Print
Written by Anna   
With fragments of the past creating tiny fissures in my mask of cultivated calm, I struggle to retain my composure as I listen to other people deconstruct the concept of mental illness. One by one the idiotic intellectual abstractions ricochet across the tutorial room, each one penetrating my skin more deeply than the last:
Foucault has theorised that institutionalization of the insane came about as a means to remove unreason.

Only in the mid seventeenth century did madness come to be degraded as an existential condition.

Previously the mad could enjoy the special status of the wise fool, or that of a court jester mumbling riddles.

As the bombardment of words continues unabated I am afraid that any moment my insides will come spilling out all over the place. Yet somehow I manage to keep my mouth shut. Really, I have nothing to contribute to this topic. I am too immersed in the practicalities to make any sense of the theory.

My mum wasn't always as crazy as she is now. My best friend Saffy and I used to say that all the mums are crazy; the dads make them that way over time by being so insensitive. When my dad was around my mum used to crack it whenever he left his tea bags on the sink or when she caught him perving at a naked woman on TV. But it wasn't until dad went away, coming full circle in his marathon fulfillment of the cliches of mid-life crisis, that mum officially left the building.

The announcement, when it came, knocked me off my feet completely. She'd been planning it for a while. She had props ready. Of course she didn't tell me outright that she'd developed schizophrenia, but proceeded to introduce me to her wild new interest in conspiracy theories. She said the best way for me to deal with it was to treat it as a game, that way I wouldn't get too upset. She said that a very powerful and mysterious group of people were watching her every move, were recording her conversations, were bugging the phone, had satellites pointed at the house, and were constantly staging scenarios around her in order to observe her response. She didn't know who was responsible or why they were doing it, but she had first become aware of it in La Porchetta when there had been an abnormal amount of red-headed people in the restaurant. She pulled out a wad of newspaper clippings of articles that she believed had been created in response to things she had said or done whilst she was being observed.

It felt like being in a movie, one of those scenes where the actor comes into extreme close-up and the background shifts out of focus. At first I tried to get her to stop kidding around, then tried to reason with her, then got angry and started shouting. Finally I fell back on my poor sense of comic timing:

That's it, no more Truman Show for you!!!

And with that I was out the door. I went over to Saffy's house and cried and cried. In retrospect I should've seen it coming. There were all kinda signs. The recently acquired habit of laughing randomly and at nothing, the hungry way she would relate coincidences that had occurred, such as too many white cars on the road or people she recognised from Centrelink turning up at Safeway. But she'd seemed less depressed than in previous months, more energised somehow, so that I had focused on the positive whilst ignoring the NQR.

I think I must have been the first, most trusted person that mum had confided in about her suspicions. She had come to me with her paranoia offering it like a gift, like a child's first tentative artistic endeavour, seeking validation, affirmation, someone with which to share her newly discovered world. My response of shock and disgust must have been devastating to her. From the moment of that first rejection mum's attitude towards me changed markedly. I was no longer on her side. My unwillingness to affirm led her to conclude that I myself must be on the payroll of them.

Over the following year mum's illness escalated dramatically, or maybe she was just more open about it. She stopped answering the phone for fear of bugs. She refused to speak to many of her friends, and she began to confide in those she trusted; either way the end result was isolation. She became more and more aggressive towards me, so that whenever something in the house wasn't put away properly, or was left on the floor, or in the wrong spot, she would accuse me of doing it on instructions. Whenever something in the house went missing I would have to drop everything and find it in order to prove that I had not hidden it in the first place.

I have never hurt so much, nor cried so hard as I did in the months before I left home. Living with a schizophrenic you feel as though you are never standing on solid ground. You think that if you remember to put everything back in its right spot, if you follow routine to the utmost extreme then somehow you can avoid suspicion and harassment. But no matter how hard you try, no matter how many things you remember to do right it is never enough. You will always be caught out in some way. And no matter how much you want to be understanding of the illness, sooner or later the barrage of accusations will make you lose your cool. And then the shouting starts, and the tears begin. And the mother who once helped you wipe them away and reassured you that everything would be alright has nothing but antagonism towards you, because she thinks that the tears and the pleas are fake, part of an elaborate script prepared beforehand by some Machiavellian plotter. She tells you coldly: only when you stop following orders will she be your mother again. And you remember how it was before she was ill and it kills you.

If ever you ever find yourself in a situation with a family member who is a paranoid schizophrenic, be aware that there is virtually no social support for someone in your position, no one to help you get your parent or brother or sister well again unless you have something interesting to barter with like bruises.

My first port of call in my quest for assistance was mum's GP. Although he had seen mum on a fairly regular basis over the past two years Dr. Wilson had had no idea what was going on inside her head, as he never thought to extend his consultation times beyond the financially optimal 9.2 minutes. Whilst never delving beneath the surface he had offered mum a smorgasbord of medication, from serapax, a mild anti-depressant, to arapax, which is stronger, to hormone replacement therapy just-in-case she was going through menopause early. He was reluctant to speak to me for long outside of billable hours, indicating that unless mum voluntarily came to see him for a referral, there was nothing he could do.

As the accusations became more and more scary and life became less and less tolerable I turned to the Crisis Assessment Team for help. Calling a team of mental health specialists to come into your house and assess your mum is not an easy thing to do on the sunniest of days. You wonder if your parent will turn on you, or if they will be carted away, leaving you to feel like the evil betrayer-child. As it turned out the mental health people were rather friendly. Mum admitted all her delusions to them without hesitation and they suggested a regime of anti-psychotics. The first time round they considered her a suicide risk, so a social worker came to visit twice a day for about a week to make sure she took her medication, and to suss her out a bit further. When it became clear that she was not suicidal, but merely schizophrenic and delusional, they stopped coming. And mum stopped taking her medication.

I called them a second time, when things got really bad. They came in for a squiz and told me that unless mum was physically a risk to herself or someone else there was no way to force treatment on her. They told me that many people live with delusions. I told them, I'm not coping, I don't know what to do. They said, We don't know what you should do, and left.

Apparently children of parents with mental illness are eight times more likely to commit suicide than other children. Little fucking wonder.

One day I woke up and I knew that I couldn't survive there anymore. Leaving wasn't a choice, it was more like a rubber band snapped inside my head and I just had to go. With a heap of support from my friends and the awesome people at Student Support Services I was able to get myself settled in a new place fairly quickly. What sucks is that I had to leave my two primary school aged brothers behind.

Because they are at an age where she can control them, mum hasn't factored my brothers into the conspiracy yet. And she lives for them, so their lives aren't too bad, or so I tell myself. Aged eight and nine, they don't seem to understand the implications of her raving at the walls. Although I wonder what its doing to them long term, living in a house where mummy spends the better part of each day locked in the spare bedroom talking to her imaginary friends. Wil says that he openly tells his friends that his mum is scrambled in the head. Jamie says it upsets him when mum talks to the walls in the kitchen, but he just pretends its something else.

I hate that there's nothing I can do to help mum get better; I don't think it makes for a great quality of life, being shut up in a dark room most of the day thinking everyone is out to get you not for her, not for my brothers and not for me. I should never have had to leave my family. What's worse is that I know that it is just a matter of time before my brothers' start claiming a measure of independence, at which point she is bound to turn on them too. I don't know what will happen then. From what I've read welfare services are a bit sketchy, the policy is to try to keep the child with the mentally ill parent for as long as possible, supplemented by short stints in foster care.

I read in the paper the other day about a little girl who was placed back with her schizophrenic mum under questionable circumstances, and who one day, without warning, was set on fire. In recovery she would speculate that it was because she wore her hair in a ponytail that day, something she did not usually do.

Up until the part about the being set aflame, the girl's story was all to familiar to me: the unpredictability, the anxious second guessing about what little thing will trigger another round of animosity. At the end of the day I don't care about creating more constructive community attitudes, about removing the stigma from mental illness so that the problem can be made even more invisible. I just want some kind of help with making life in that house livable, so that it's never my brothers recovering in the burns unit.