Like many, many people, my family has had its fair share of mental illness.
And like the vast majority of folk, I grew up with little-to-no knowledge of how to deal with it.
The way I dealt with various crises was to dismiss behaviour as selfish and cruel – not realising that it was actually a cry for help or a symptom of a genuine illness.
I felt embarrassed about having friends over because their parents didn’t lock themselves in their rooms for eight hour periods. I was ashamed that other families seemed to be able to get through dinner without someone walking out or crying.
I was the victim of a miserable state of affairs.
In fact, it wasn’t until years later that I realised that actually…it had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t the one having the hard time (well I was, but to the same degree) and actually, I had done little to make the situation better.
At 13 or 14, if you don’t know about depression, you think everything’s your fault. You caused the breakdown; if only you’d tidied your room, no one would be crying.
Obviously, that’s just not the case. And when you think like that, it can lead to feeling resentful. If everything you do results in making adults chronically unhappy, then why even bother?
It’s taken me a decade to realise that my mum’s depression wasn’t caused by me and that not knowing how to deal with it wasn’t my fault. I do, however, blame my school and society in general for the fact that I had no idea what depression was. In the end, I just put down the crying as attention seeking, the terrible moods as being borderline abusive. Clearly, there’s a difference between actual abuse and depression; refusing to talk to someone or shouting at them isn’t a crime. When you’re a kid who’s struggling to get a coherent sentence out of a parent without them flying off the handle, however, it can feel like a personal attack – they don’t love you any more or don’t want to be around you.
Emotional abuse tends to revolve around manipulation and explosive behaviour directed towards victims, while depression is directed inwards. And, of course, abuse can become physical.
There must have been plenty of girls at school either going through depression themselves or living with someone who had a mental health issue (one in four people do so it follows), and yet I didn’t hear about anyone else going through it until I went to university.
While there’s still work to be done but today’s teens only have to log onto social media to find others going through the same struggles.
I wish I’d known how to be more empathetic at the time. My mum recently told me that she went to therapy for a year, during which time she just sat there and cried. It breaks my heart to think of someone going through that alone and not having anyone at home to confide in.
The pressure on parents to keep it together for their kids must be tremendous; no one wants to see that their mum or dad doesn’t actually have all the answers. No one wants to acknowledge that actually our parents can’t cope all the time and that they can be vulnerable.
Anyone who’s ever read or watched About A Boy knows how tough it can be as a kid to understand exactly what our parents are going through when they’re having an episode. Marcus was right – two people isn’t enough…and in my case, a family of four wasn’t enough either. I went through school feeling like Marcus – too scared to go home in case people weren’t feeling good, wishing that we had more human buffers who could sort the situation out.
Today, we have just that. My mum has a network of friends who have all gone through tough times. She lives at the gym – chasing those endorphins. I have plenty of mates and colleagues who either have mental health issues or have dealt with them. Neither of us are alone.
I wish I’d known all those years ago that depression isn’t a voluntary thing – it’s not someone chooses to have because they don’t want to deal with trauma. Hurtful behaviour is a symptom of an illness, and not a choice (that’s a hard one to remember).
But equally, I wish I hadn’t internalised so much guilt and I wish we’d been educated about different states of mental health earlier on. Too many people have to go through this kind of thing alone and in my case, it’s really played havoc with my emotional intelligence in adulthood.
I don’t know if people ever really recover from depression. Hitting rock bottom does change people – how could it not? The trigger might be over (for now) but who knows when something similar might kick it all off again. The next time, I hope to be more compassionate and more knowledgeable about how to help, support and reduce the trauma.
So if you’re sick of reading about mental health, tired of listening to tales of depression and anxiety, just be glad that everything’s cool in your world and that you’ve never had to watch your parents cry themselves to sleep.
Because for the rest of us, we’re still only starting to get to grips with our experiences.
What to do if you’ve got depressed parents
There’s a whole load of advice and support out there, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
It offers free, 1-2-1 confidential counselling. Whether you’re struggling to deal with your parents’ depression or you think you’re the victim of actual abuse, call them.
Phone: 0800 1111
Information, support and listening for people under 25
Phone: 0808 808 4994
it’ll connect you with the right support services and organisations in your area. For anyone aged 11-25.
If you’re worried about your parent, the Samaritans offers confidential listening and support for all ages.
Phone: 116 123