FAP Winner – MEAA Member: Sanity sleuth

I don’t think there’s ever really been a time when my mother wasn’t terrified of her own existence. This realisation oozed out in a toxic haze over my childhood, and lingers to this day.

If we’d had money, she would have been ‘eccentric’. As it was, people seemed to think of her as somewhere between ‘a bit odd’ and ‘batshit crazy’. It’s not like she had ‘episodes’, it was more like a constant stream of strange.

At school, I’d field endless questions from other kids about why I wasn’t allowed to do normal things like everyone else. Why can’t you come to swimming lessons or on school excursions? Why can’t you go over to other kids’ houses to play? Why don’t you ever have a birthday party? Why? Why? Why? It felt crummy enough watching everyone else having fun while I watched from the sidelines without the added responsibility of trying to explain the inexplicable to others through gritted teeth and fighting back tears.

Some of the perversity of our existence could be put down to poverty. My parents split when I was four and it was just my mum and I surviving on a single parent pension and living in run-down public housing.

But that’s not the whole story. It doesn’t explain why she had a deep distrust – almost fear – of technology. Any time an appliance broke down, which was not infrequently, she’d refuse to replace it, despite having savings in the bank. ‘I just have bad luck with fridges,’ she’d say, and then get rid of it rather than going to the trouble of having it repaired or buying a new one.

She’d go shopping every day for groceries, spending hours traipsing between Coles and Woolworths and discount supermarkets to save 10 cents a pack on toilet rolls and 50c a kilo on potatoes. Anything perishable would have to be used up that day, so we’d either go without things like milk and ice cream, or scoff the whole carton in one sitting.

In my teens I finally grew jack of it and bought a tiny bar fridge so we could at least stock milk and orange juice and keep meat cool for more than an hour. I also used the $6.50/hour I earned at Maccas to buy our first VCR, along with a TV when she threatened not to replace our old one after it wheezed and died. She used to joke about wanting to live like the Amish, churning butter and ploughing fields. I failed to find it funny.

Her lack of get-up-and-go when it came to fixing things extended to other areas of our existence. She was deathly afraid of making waves when it came to big businesses or the government, never ringing the maintenance number to report anything that broke around our place to the Housing Trust or rectifying any errors made by the phone company or Centrelink. If we wanted to get our money back or avoid being greatly inconvenienced, I’d be the one phoning up or peering over the shop counter to find a solution, basically from the time I could walk and talk.

Meanwhile, the family next door was one of those ‘Neighbours From Hell’ stories you’d see on Today Tonight or A Current Affair. The mother and her three daughters were fond of throwing used pads and tampons over the back fence, dobbing us into the Housing Trust for imaginary infractions, and generally ensuring our lives were as unpleasant as possible. When I was in high school, they egged my car, punched our screen door in several times, and had drug-fuelled raging parties with blaring music until all hours of the night.

They also stole a car from the pot-growing gang members living around the corner, smashed the windows, torched it and strategically parked it outside our house. In a surprise twist, the gang members worked out who the real culprits were and got their Asian mafia friends to throw a brick through our neighbours’ front window, which freaked them out for quite a while. No one ever said they were bright.

The eldest daughter would wait for me after school at the end of the block and follow me, yelling and swearing and promising to punch my lights out. I was too petrified to go home. She had a face like a smashed pie, was built like a toilet block and was so terrifying she once pushed me off a fence in front of my 6’5 high school boyfriend and he was too scared to defend me. Last I heard she’d moved to Melbourne, become a prostitute and married a drug dealer. Fearing reprisals, my mum would grow hysterical if I suggested we call the police or report the family to the Housing Trust, preferring to live in silent terror.

The threats didn’t need to be real, though, for my mum to be afraid. She’d perform extreme feats of contortionism to get out of going to events where she might have to talk to more than one person. She never attended a parent-teacher evening, or a school concert, or took me to a Carols by Candlelight, or the zoo, or a museum or the movies or the Adelaide Show. Holidays and happiness didn’t exist in our household. We sat at home and waited for the next bout of bad luck.

My dad was no help either. He only visited once or twice a year between shearing and fruit-picking jobs. If I’d ever raised my mum’s odd behaviour with him, he’d have shouted and sworn at her while I stood nearby trying not to bawl.

Meanwhile, he wanted me to fix all in his problems too. Growing up in Longreach as one of twelve children in a deeply impoverished Irish-Catholic family, he’d been forced to leave school at a young age to go out to work at low-paid menial jobs and boost the family’s income. Having been a bright kid who’d come dux of every class he’d ever been in bar one, working all his life for rich people who assumed he was an idiot sandpapered every nerve he had and resulted in the shortest fuse I’ve ever seen.

He was determined I’d go all the way with my education. Perhaps this was for me, but it seemed to be doubly for him, to prove his intelligence by having such a smart daughter. It was going to be his nest egg too – I’d be keeping him in pluggers and Winnie Blues in his old age, he joked, but the expectation was real enough. He carefully put aside cash for me to go to university and drilled into me that that’s where I was going, come hell or high water. But when all his plans came to fruition and I went to uni, he got jealous, screamed obscenities down the phone at me and never spoke to me again.

The emotional labour of fixing my parents’ problems was like an ever-growing brick wall being built on my back. It was a neck-and-neck horse race out of my mum and my dad as to who was more unbalanced, but since I saw my mum every day, her behaviour impacted me the most. Somehow, we’d switched roles – I became the problem solver, an invisible carer, the parent instead of the child.

Growing up, not only did I have the burden of emotionally supporting my own mother, I foundered trying to explain my predicament to others. I was well aware that we were far from normal, that she was far from normal, but I had no words to explain why, and even if I suspected it was a psychological condition, I had certainly had no proof.

Even now, it’s hard to impress upon people who haven’t met my mum the toll her behaviour takes. She’s an expert at creating problems for herself, asking for help, and then fighting you tooth and nail while you try to solve them. I’ve talked to plenty of folks with elderly parents who can relate, but I’ve been dealing with this behaviour my whole life. I’m expected to drop everything to fix her problems, pushing my work, relationships and mental health to the side.

Everyone says their family drives them crazy, but my mum will truly drive you bonkers if you have to spend any extended period of time with her. People often don’t understand if they meet her briefly just once on a good day and I find it nigh on impossible to explain it to them.

She does have her good points — she’s kind to animals, would give you her last dollar, and is an exceptional budget-keeper. This would make her a pleasure to be around if she’d look on the bright side of life… ever. Her ability to find the shade in every sunny day has meant she’s whittled her life down to the bare bones and then seems to be determined to keep going until there’s no joy left.

She doesn’t drive and refuses to use public transport or taxis. It’s pretty much impossible to buy her gifts because she takes pleasure in nothing, has no hobbies or friends and never goes out other than to gather essentials. She doesn’t wear makeup or jewellery, has no interest in fashion, hates reading, has given up cooking… and these days, has diabetes, so even chocolate, the perennial gift of the desperate and unimaginative, is off-limits.

I don’t tell her when I’m going on holiday, especially not when it’s overseas. For one thing, she’s a Chicken Little who thinks the sky will fall down and take my plane with it. Or the terrorists will attack. Or any other possible or impossible disaster will befall us. She’ll literally worry herself sick. If she finds out I’m overseas while I’m away, two weeks after I arrive back home, she’ll need me to take her to the emergency room for some psychosomatic illness. It sounds paranoid and horrible, but in my experience it has been almost invariably true.

In November 2016, a fortnight after we arrived home from Japan, my aunty rang to say my mum was having her leg amputated in hospital. Heart in mouth, I rang the hospital, to be told this wasn’t the case, just the story care workers had threatened my mother with to convince her to go to hospital for blood tests. My panicked mum then rang my aunty, who rang me, then dropped the baton and ran like buggery.

The nurse I spoke to was a gentle soul.

‘Your mum’s terribly worried about how she’ll get home. She doesn’t have any money on her to pay for a taxi and doesn’t know what to do about it,’ she said. ‘She’s just getting older and is a bit confused.’

‘With almost every other human being on the planet that’d be true,’ I said. ‘In my mum’s case, that’s her personality, not her age. She’s always been like this.’

‘Yeah, the nursing staff noticed something she was acting strange. What’s wrong with her?’

Lady, I was hoping you’d tell me.

She has always been like this. In her twenties she seems to have had a fleeting period of relative normalcy – cleaning and dish-hand jobs, scraping together enough for a trip to New Zealand with her friend, Boxy Polaroids of Rotorua. But that period was short-lived.

Aunty Marilyn says her older sister was always ‘contrary’ and ‘stubborn’ growing up, but stops short of offering a helpful opinion as to why. To be fair, I think she’s just as mystified as me and has long since alley-ooped it into the too-hard basket. This would have been okay if there were literally anyone else around who could help.

Talking about mental health isn’t something working class people do, especially not if you were brought up in the 1950s, like my mum. You can barely afford to go to the doctor for physical ailments, let alone psychological ones. Aside from the not inconsiderable worry of whether you can scrape up the chunk of change for doctors’ fees and a pharmacy visit, there’s the shame and the stigma.

When you’re poor, you’ve already plummeted so low, any further blow to your pride and reputation feels like it might actually be fatal, or at the least would chuck you on the unemployment cue indefinitely, which is near enough. If they have any interest in digging themselves out of this quagmire, poor people have to relentlessly try to keep up appearances to shoehorn themselves into a society that is urgently and incessantly trying to flush them out and escort them back to their seat.

My mother would talk in hushed tones of someone else ‘having a nervous breakdown’, but wouldn’t even entertain the idea of admitting to mental health issues herself and fights tooth and nail if anyone dares suggest it.

When I was ten years old my mother went to the emergency department complaining of ear pain. I remember them quietly shuffling us into a room and asking her questions.

How often do you feel tired?How often do you feel hopeless?How often do you feel like everything is an effort?I remember her huffing about them assuming anyone they couldn’t diagnose properly must be making it all up in their heads. She had a point, but they had one too.

The doctors were searching for the answer to a different question: Why does she behave that way? It’s the question I’ve been asking my entire existence. It’s not nice to speculate about someone’s psychological problems, but without a formal diagnosis or her being willing to talk about it, that’s all I can do.

A few years back, I made an appointment with my mum’s GP to discuss it with him, but despite being an old-fashioned, no-nonsense kind of guy, doctor-patient confidentiality meant he couldn’t tell me jack, other than vaguely agreeing that she has some ‘mental health issues’.

Dr Google has been my last resort. He and I are on a first-name basis (it’s Frank) and I’ve gradually cobbled together an identikit image of my mum’s psychological make-up. I’ve become an armchair expert on terms such as ‘avoidant personality disorder’, ‘social anxiety’ and ‘covert narcissist’. Since I can’t track down my mother’s medical history, I’m reverse engineering it. It’d be nice to finally have a neat, shiny label to slap on the problem.

Do I love my mum? Sure, but it’s intertwined with thick lashings of guilt and shame and frustration and a black, seething resentment. Maybe it’s overpowered by them. Maybe I’m the problem, after all. I teeter between ‘Why can’t I fix you?’ and ‘Why should I?’ before losing my grip and plunging into an abyss.

Is that really how normal people are supposed to behave?


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Rebecca Douglas

Rebecca Douglas is an award-winning Adelaide-based writer whose work has been published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Overland, Verandah journal, Tincture, Visible Ink, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum and various other lovely places.

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