Thursday, 11 January 2018

On growing up around illness

CN: bipolar, mania, trauma, suicide, sexual abuse, sexual assault

“We need to talk about mental health” is a kind of strapline that has attached itself to newspaper articles, activist campaigns and public health messages. It rolls off the tongue of liberals and progressives like a cult slogan. But what that actually means, and what it means practically and emotionally to experience mental illness, in the self and in others, is often left desert and unexplored.

My grandma and I once joked that there wasn’t a mental illness out there that our family hadn’t mastered. You name it, we’ve probably felt it, touched it, lived it. Parents, grandparents, uncles, self and siblings, my family tree is a tightly stitched patchwork of losses and gains and misadventure; branches on both sides twisted into form by their contact with precarity.

The 3 months my dad spent living in a tent in my uncle’s garden, as he cried on my 9 year old shoulders- whilst not quite the suburban white leather sofa lifestyle I dreamed of- were formative of a deep and affective bond. From a very young age, we had built up a shared capacity for mutual support: I would spend years feeling able to cry on his shoulder, whenever I needed to.

I don’t need to share physical space with my dad to track his highs. Wherever I am, I’ll receive a paragraph over Facebook messenger, likely in all capital letters, expressing how much he LOVES ME MORE THAN RASPBERRIES AND CHOCOLATE AND RAINBOWS. These are welcomed, and though I know it might be a tiring period for those in his immediate vicinity, it is also full of colour and ideas and laughter.

Those months are a whirlwind of intensity and excitement and exhaustion. Of wonderful hours brainstorming by his side in wild hours of mania. Help with homework from someone in the midst of a manic episode, though knackering, is more often than not frantically fun and creative. Sometimes his bipolar spending has left him without money to buy milk for a week. Thankfully for us, there’s always been a patient grandma or mum at the end of the phone to patch up the pieces.

Trauma travels and it permeates. There are living tissues of the past which you come to appropriate and approximate. It’s relational, and wraps a thick web around people far beyond the trauma spot. My grandad committed suicide when my dad was 11, almost 10 years before I was born. And yet, dulled and softened, that trauma touched me. When you’re 12 or 13, and can only imagine life reproducing itself along straight lines, that word bipolar comes to mean a particular expectation, of loss and of death. You fear, wrongly, that your own dad has a fast approaching expiry date.

My sisters and I- experiencing much of this together- have a thick, steady and unmovable closeness. But knowing your sister is in pain, and not knowing how to reach her, can be impossibly heartbreaking. Realising that you can never know what the world feels like for her, and knowing she wants to be out of that world, out of her skin, produces a kind of physical pain I can’t quite describe. You desperately want to stabilise things, make her world right, make life more liveable, and you can’t. Never ever a burden, but always on your mind.

There have been some really very dark moments, the kind that haunt you. When you ‘lose’ someone, not because they die but because they turn into someone else, turn you into something sexual, and shift not only your relationship with them but your relationship with all things and all people for a very long time, illness in the family can feel earth shattering. For years your family works tirelessly to protect you- from fairy book monsters, alleyway creatures, and ITV Drama villains. No one imagines that- through the channel of illness- unwanted sexual advances will creep inside the familiar, into the body of a person you once loved and admired. We expect people that hurt us to be 2D people, with none of the thinking, feeling, affective properties embodied in a family member. We want someone to blame, but sometimes the perpetrator is just ill and lost. That’s a difficult thing to reconcile.

What my experience of illness has given me, I think, is a great capacity for empathy. And this is true of all my immediate family. You learn that when somebody says they can’t do something, like get out of bed or get dressed, they really mean it.

My family are in general creative, empathetic, courageous and innovative people, working out new ways of being with themselves, of being with each other, of making things work. I have nothing but admiration, particularly for those matriarchs who have had to hold things still, often without time or space for their own crashes and falls.

It took me a long time to realise that there’s no shame in illness. But whether it’s chemicals or contact that means we’re all a bit mad and sad, I have never felt lacking in love or support. A tapestry of challenges and successes, of those around me overcoming, or at least dealing with adversity wherever they face it.

Probably most families tend to colour and scribble outside the lines. I know that my experiences are not extreme, or unique. I think almost everybody has a story, or several. My advice to anyone in contact with mental illness is to reflect on how it has affected them, shaped them, contoured relationships: thinking, talking, beyond a copied and pasted Facebook status, beyond sharing an article on “why it’s good to talk”. Speak to others, if you can, or speak to yourself, record yourself, listen to yourself. It turns the good bits and the shit bits into a genealogy, a retelling of the past to unmask something about the present. Those horrible and hurtful moments, become a miscellaneous part of the way you have come orientate the world.


  1. Great article. Would love it if you could discuss the potential impacts of these illnesses and also how you have overcome them.

    You should be very proud of where you are. I bet you're incredibly glad to have your sisters too, as any cousins and other family you might have.

    How have you managed and overcome these issues to do well? What are your favourite mantras? Favourite books?
    What has made you so strong and what would your advice to other people in a similar position be, so they may continue living their day to day lives?

  2. Thank you! Yes I’m very grateful for the wonderful support network I have, that’s a real privilege. I can’t say I have any kind of step by step advice, because lots of it has just been muddling through, and so strength has come in peaks and troughs- sometimes I really don’t cope very well. For me, writing things down is wonderfully carthartic, and sharing that writing also affects a great kind of relief, like a burden lifted. My favourite book at the moment is Sara Ahmed- The Cultural Politics of Emotion, it doesn’t directly dedicate itself to mental illness but she discusses feelings and affect beautifully, in a way that helped me process/articulate my own


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