Living with Mental Illness

“When something bad happens to you, it gives you an arrow through your heart – if something bad happens to your child, you have a million arrows through your heart.”

Fran quotes an important Italian philosopher that she does not recall the name of. She looks up thoughtfully, hands clasped together, as tears begin to well in her eyes. She clears her throat and turns to me, the purpose seemingly coming back to her,

“That just always seemed to stick with me for some reason… When you see them suffering, you can’t help but suffer yourself,” she states, her voice trailing off.

Mental illness is a prevalent element of society today. Now, maybe more than ever it is a part of the world we live in. The stigma surrounding mental illness; makes it that much more of a difficult task for an individual suffering, to accept or ask for help.

There are many misconceptions in society in this day and age, largely fuelled by the media, and by misinformed and ignorant people. Many people might find it offensive if one was to suggest them ‘mentally ill’, and react angrily or defensively at the assumption that they’re defective, inadequate or lacking in some way.

Of course, all of this is nonsense and could not be further from the truth. This is a result of the arrogance of people that clearly do not understand. Anything that we as a society can do, to increase awareness further, is a worthy cause. Heightened awareness and positive publicity regarding mental illness, has most definitely increased in past years, but is still nowhere near good enough.

If Hollywood movie producers can blow mental illness completely out of perspective, by referring to mentally ill individuals as lunatics, schizo’s or psycho’s, and other portrayals that view the person as frightening or dangerous, it is absolutely outrageous.

Defining a person by their pathology or illness instead of first seeing them as a person is positively disgraceful. The mentally ill are people too. They have thoughts and feelings and they hurt too. One of the best ways mental illness was described to me makes me feel pride and still have faith in the goodness of people.

Murray aged 60, quite bluntly stated in an interview with me,

“It’s just like diabetes. You’ve got to see the triggers and notice the warning signs, and take your medication…”


Murray’s daughter suffers from bi-polar and he knows that self-care and medication is just a normal part of life for her.

No one would dare question a diabetic or say, ‘you don’t need your insulin’.

Mental illness is the same thing. It is often a lifelong issue, and a lot of the times, so is medication. With the right type of therapy, combination of medication or both, mental illness is manageable and doesn’t mean that people suffering, cannot go off into the world and become successful, powerful people.

For instance, Vincent Van Gough, an incredible artist and influential individual suffered from Bipolar Disorder.

You may think, ‘but he was crazy… He cut off his own ear.’

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the USA, suffered from severe, incapacitating and occasionally suicidal depression. Virginia Woolf, a brilliant British novelist, experienced debilitating mood swings as a result of her Bipolar, producing feverish periods of non-stop writing, and weeks immersed in absolute gloom. Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roosevelt, Drew Carey, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens… and the list goes on.

Many famous, successful, powerful, inspirational people that changed the way we think; influenced the things we say; many people that we look up to in our life or history; have suffered from mental illness.

Why can’t a mentally ill individual go off and live a rich and fulfilling life? They can! It seems like all those negative connotations and heinous descriptions are almost laughable in the face of these accomplishments.

Shirley, a mother of three, confides in me tearfully,

“The worst thing about living with someone with a mental illness is the uncertainty. Not knowing what’s going to happen each day. Not knowing if they’re going to be around… All the unexpected things,” she says.

Shirley tells of her struggles, describing her twice a day feverish routine.

“Every night I used to check to see if she was still breathing… I used to wet my finger and hold it up to her face, to make sure she was still alive,” she pauses for a moment as she takes a deep breath, “All through the night, I used to toss and turn in my sleep, having nightmares about what she could do to herself in that big room. Then when I get up when it’s still dark, I rush to her room to check on her. I repeat this, just to check… Just to know,” She finishes with a shaky voice.

Shirley continued with this obsessive checking for years. Every morning and every night.

“They don’t realise what they’re doing or what they’re putting you through, [It’s their illness]… But I knew in my heart that I would never give up on her,” she admits, rubbing her watery red eyes.

Her daughter is now successfully medicated, with an excellent psychiatrist and is doing great, important things with her life. I asked her how life is different now.

“You’ve gotta (SIC) stay strong for them… Love them unconditionally; no matter what they’ve done… I feel more at ease, more openly able to speak with her about things that are going on in her life… [Mental illness] affects everything. I feel tremendously relieved. Not so heavy and burdened.”


I asked her what advice she’d give other struggling family members.

“Stay true to yourself, don’t molly-coddle them, be there for them no matter what and keep telling them how much you love and care for them,” she confidently replies.

Shirley has gone from thoughts of uncertainty, self-doubt and not feeling like she’s a fit person or mother; to remembering what it was like to be happy. To feel light and easy.

To enjoying spending time with her family, and to not live in constant fear of whether she was going to wake up to find her daughter no longer alive. Shirley smiles. Her tears have dried.

People that have been around mental illness for a while, realise that their life will be different from ‘normal’ people’s lives.

John, a devoted husband and father, speaks openly from his Doubleview home, about his wife’s condition. She suffers from Bipolar.

“It’s like, you have this realisation. That life is tougher than it should be. It’s an extra challenge… But it’s just something that’s gotta (SIC) be fixed… It doesn’t make them a different person.”

His wife is a lawyer and a published poet. Who says mentally ill people can’t achieve great things? Unfortunately some people do not acknowledge that they need help. No matter whom they hurt in the process.

Susanne, a single mother of three used to be married to *Gregory for over 20 years. *Gregory was an unmedicated, violent Bipolar.

I asked her what the most obvious affect his condition had on her.

She promptly stated,

“He made me bossy and cranky and sick to death… Sometimes we make a lot of allowances for someone who is sick… We give the young more chances, but as we age, they run out of second chances.”


She explained the fact to me that she was both a mother and a father to her three children.

She says that his irresponsibility sometimes overwhelmed her, and because of this, he never made decisions and left everything up to the people he lived with. This was very often usually her. Eventually, their marriage dissolved into nothing. She said that she didn’t want to give up on *Gregory,

“But eventually I had to distance myself from him,” she courageously admits.

I asked her how things were now,

“Things are different in every single way… It affected me on every level… They become no pleasure to you… They are always there as a problem, but never part of the solution… I feel lighter,” she says, finally smiling.

Murray tells me that his experience with friends is a negative one.

“There is no empathy… They offer silly solutions, and they just don’t understand. They’re just wasting your time because they couldn’t possibly comprehend,” he says rather stiffly.

What can we do to help support families ‘living with mental illness’? I decided to take this article in a different direction. I interviewed the brother of a clinically depressed individual.

Mark spoke to me with passion and unconditional love towards his sister *Madison.

*Madison has suffered from severe clinical depression for all of her life.

She is now stable on medication and doing brilliant things in her life. She is a successful, mostly happy, working woman.

“Her mood always affected me. I always like to be around happy people… If she’s unhappy, then I am. If she feels ok, then I’m happy.”

Mark talks of the brutal helplessness he feels when *Maddie is down.

“I don’t know how to act or what to do…” He says in a small voice.

Mental illness affects everyone.

Fran dealt with her daughter’s emotions by giving her more material things.

“I could make her happy in a material way.” She admits to me that this doesn’t fix the actual problem, but she tried everything she could do to bring a little sunshine into her daughter’s life.

“I tried to take the pressure off [her] and put it onto [me].”


I asked her whether she ever wanted to give up, because it was too hard. She volunteered her answer nearly before I could finish my sentence.

“No never. Not in a million years,” she said.

Her dedication and love for her daughter was admirable. She continues by telling me how a parent can cope with the anger and hatred thrown towards them in times of depression.

“Don’t take it personally and keep doing the good things that help them through it… You have to be really really understanding, and allow them a lot more leeway than a ‘normal’ person… Remember, they are not in control.”

Dr Margaret Lumley advises me on what family members need to remember also.

“Keep a cool head, don’t panic… Get some help for yourself… Look after yourself; you are no help to them if you are in pieces too… Try to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible…”

“You can’t give up. Even if it rattles you out of your mind,” John, a concerned father confesses.

Be there for your loved one.

Mental illness and depression can make one feel extremely alone.

Mental illness is treatable.

Always remember that.

Let them know they’re not alone and that you are there for them.

As Jenifer Lewis, a sufferer of Bipolar Disorder, said,

“I wanted to not just live, but be alive.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees

Words by Jacqui O’Leary

If you or anyone you know needs help contact:

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