Written by Katie Feyerabend
The first contact I had with mental health issues was when my mum had to go to the hospital due to her depression when I was ten. I was on a youth camp trip when she was admitted to the hospital and my dad had to tell me what had happened when I came back. I can’t remember how long she was gone, but it felt like forever.
My dad’s parents moved in with us during that time to help us out. As a ten year old child it was a lot to take in. I didn’t understand what was going on, as my dad had only told me that she was in the hospital and very little about the reasons why. I didn’t understand why my mum suddenly wasn’t there, and it just felt like she wasn’t able to take care of my brother and I any longer. At that point, I felt like I had to grow up and be the one to look after my little brother, and make sure that everyone was okay.
When my mum came back she was different. She was on medication and I noticed things in her behaviour that had changed. Suddenly she slept a lot more and it still seemed like she wasn’t back to her usual self.
Over the next two years, she went to the hospital at least once a year due to relapses. Relapses that meant she was leaving me alone again. Thinking about it now it feels incredibly selfish, but at the time I was just a little girl that wanted to be taken care of by her mum. Every time, before she went back to the hospital she did something extremely weird. She started talking to the shower head, and once, I remember very vividly, she was physically trying to push all the evil and bad things out of our house. It was a lot to handle and I felt very alone.
I couldn’t talk to my brother, as he was the younger one, the one that I wanted to protect and take care of. I tried to make sure he was okay and tried to get him to behave, so that we would be good kids that wouldn’t give our mum any reason to relapse again.
I couldn’t talk to my dad, as I could see how much the whole situation was affecting him already, and didn’t want to put any additional pressure on him. I wanted him to feel better and to not be sad, so I didn’t bother him with the things that bothered me.
I couldn’t talk to my grandparents, because even as lovely and kind as they are, talking about feelings or anything deep wasn’t anything they were ever good at. Especially as the generational differences meant that they considered the concepts of mental health to be more myth than actuality.
I couldn’t talk to my friends, as I took pride in the perfect family image that all my friends had of us, and didn’t want that image to be destroyed. I was ashamed of the things happening at home, as I didn’t understand them. I didn’t want anyone to see my family as broken, or to see neither my mum nor I as weak.
Not understanding what depression was and why it meant that my mum had to be away for a while to get better, and not understanding why she was very different after she came out of the hospital, created a huge crack in my mum’s relationship with me. It was like I had lost all faith in her ability to take care of me and therefore withdrew myself from her. Something you can still see in our relationship today. I started to swallow my feelings, keeping them down and out of reach, even building walls, so that no one would see what was going on with me. I started to hide myself from the world.
As I got older I started to understand what mental health issues are and what depression is, but it took me until I was 16 to tell a friend about what my mum went through and how I felt about it. That friend was truly sorry for me and thought it was horrible that I felt I had to grow up at only ten, and that I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone what I’d been dealing with. It felt good to talk about it, yet I still felt like it was that dark thing in my past that would make people see me as a different, maybe even weaker person. My friend never said anything that made me feel this way, it was all just something I had built up in my head.
In the almost seven years since I told the first person, I think I can still count the friends I’ve told, about my mum, on one hand. I have not once received a bad reaction from anyone about it, but it makes me feel weak that I still feel the repercussions of that time.
I still struggle telling people about things that are going on in my life because I am scared of being seen as vulnerable or weak and therefore tainting the image that they have of me. I am struggling to let anyone take care of me, because I am scared that they will somehow leave and no longer be in a position to care for me, just like my mum. The thought that depression can be hereditary is also something that I have been struggling with, since I found out about my mum. Paradoxically, I love taking care of my friends. If any one of them has an issue, mental or physical, I will be right by their side looking after them, not thinking of them any differently.
Growing up I did a lot of research on mental health and have since been to counselling, the process helping me to identify issues and find coping mechanisms and strategies to make things better. It has helped me a lot, as talking about things that worry you and seeking help, is an important part of understanding and dealing with mental health issues.
If my parents and grandparents would have been more open about it and explained it to me at the time, it would have created an entirely different environment. An environment where I would potentially have been able to talk about what was going on with me, the knowledge certainly having been able to benefit both my past and current mental health.