My mother’s battle with depression and why we need to talk about mental illness

I’ve debated writing this for a long time. Why? Because this is my story —or at least part of it, the part I’m currently strong enough to tell— and unlike everything else in the blogging world, it’s not pretty. As it turns out there’s not a filter for every blemish. Of course that’s not the only reason I’ve resisted sharing these things with you. The truth is, I was afraid of what you might think of me, afraid of what you might think of her and God, and I’m very protective of her.

Her, as in my mother, Caroline. On this day, nine years ago (when I was sixteen) she passed away at just forty years of age. That’s right, forty. A beautiful, sensitive soul who would have done just about anything for anyone. To the point where I, as a child, would get annoyed and feel like I had to intervene —in a sense I was always her protector. I suppose you could say there were two mothers in our household. But she suffered from severe depression. A depression that eventually claimed her life.

Looking back I can’t help but curse the health system in Ireland. It just wasn’t (and in many ways still isn’t) equipped to deal with mental health issues. For so long, the solution to depression was to throw the sufferer in the local loony bin  —no joke, and let me tell you, those “institutions” weren’t what you’d call a joke either. And that’s not to mention the “procedures” carried out in the hopes of “curing” the patient in question. I’m not going to bore you with the details but imagine something similar to One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and you’ll most definitely get a good sense of what I’m referring to.

Of course, I’m not trying to say it was only Ireland that failed to respond to sufferers needs in an appropriate way. There was a general lack of understanding when it came to mental health on an international level and while we’re seeing some definite improvements in recent years it’s important to note that we’re nowhere near where we should be yet. Naturally, the stigma, and there is a terrible stigma surrounding depression and all things related, doesn’t help either. How are medical officials supposed to help when sufferers and their family are too afraid to ask for what they so desperately need for fear of being written off as crazy, paranoid, psychotic, schizo, attention-seeker and so on? And these are just some of the derogatory terms associated with the disease.

The day —I should say night really— my mother finally succeeded in her attempts to leave this world and all of her pain behind is one I’ll never forget. How could I? Although shocking, although terrible, although devastating, although haunting, although something that I feel the emotional burden of every single day, I have to say it was, in a very real sense, no great surprise.

Like I said, I had seen my mother suffer from depression my entire life. And while there were good times, in fact there were even good years (from the age of about twelve to fifteen, it was pretty great) she started to spiral downward at a disturbingly rapid rate about a year before her eventual passing. What does a downward spiral look like? It’s hard to say but it was like she, the mom I knew so well and —despite all of our troubles— and thought of as my best friend (as you’ve probably noticed, I haven’t mentioned my father throughout all of this and that’s because he wasn’t there. It was just my mom and I, the two of us against the world) had been replaced by a woman I didn’t recognize.

Her body language, her speech, it was all completely different. She was sluggish. A light had gone out of her eyes and, although I didn’t know it for a long time, she had started to self medicate with both alcohol and sleeping pills.  The fact that someone I no longer care to think about rather mockingly informed me, about two weeks prior to my moms passing, that she had in fact attempted suicide twice before, provided a bit of a, um, warning. So yeah, it came as a shock but not really.

Part of me feels so stupid, so naïve, so mad at myself for not knowing better. I still wonder how on earth I could have missed all the signs, how I could have been duped by someone I was living with and felt so close to, how I could have believed that the changes in her were due to a new prescription given to her by her doctor. Today I feel so educated (I feel like an expert sometimes —a reluctant one) when it comes to depression and all things associated; I know the signs, I know the consequences, I know the treatments and yet, for so long, when she needed me, I was absolutely clueless. Growing up, I didn’t really understand the term depression or what it meant. I didn’t know how to help her. Even at sixteen, I still didn’t get it. I realize sixteen is pretty young but I feel like today’s sixteen-year-olds would know a lot more —for better or for worse— and many of my fellow sixteen year olds would have known better at the time too. That’s a guilt I carry with me and probably always will.

Along with the guilt there’s a sadness, an emptiness, a certain shame (see, as much as I’m loathe to admit it, even I’ve fallen prey to society’s values and am now feeding this stigma surrounding mental health and I kind of hate myself for that) and this unshakeable feeling that I’m different to everyone else, that I’m sort of “marked,” that when I socialize and don’t laugh as loud as the other girls or dance quite as crazily, that people are looking at me and thinking “There’s something not quite right about that girl. She’s weird, she’s strange, is she shy or a b**ch? I don’t think I like her.” It’s hard to explain and perhaps (read: hopefully) it’s all in my head, but going through something like this does change you. It changes the way you interact with people, it changes how you feel about yourself, it changes the biggest and most profound things, the smallest and silliest things.

So, why am I telling you all this? There are a number of reasons really. One, it feels damn good to come “clean,” as if a small weight has been lifted off my chest. Two, I really am sick of things like this being treated as taboo. If someone had cancer, we would sympathize, we would empathize but when it’s a disease that affects the mind, a disease we can’t see, we have no time for it and simply proceed to write the victim off as a downer, as selfish, as cowardly. I ask you, how does that make sense? As a society we need to stop encouraging the silence. It’s the silence that hurts, it’s the silence that kills. People need to know that there is no shame in feeling down, in admitting it, in asking for help. I guess I’m hoping that I can help in some small way.

You know, since I started blogging, using social media, took on the role of editor at Honesty For Breakfast and generally started interacting with and befriending so many people from such a wide variety of backgrounds, I’ve really learned just how many people deal with (directly or indirectly) mental health issues and I want to be one of the brave ones, one of the ones who speaks out and says “Yes, actually I do know what you’re going through.”

Finally, I want to honor my mother and her legacy, I want to find some positive amidst all this negativity. My intention is to help fuel this important conversation, to tell others that if I can make it then you can too. Like I said, I don’t feel as if I can go into everything here but this is not the only pain I’ve had in my life —not by a long shot. After my parents separated, my father was no longer in the picture, my family is not close and for the longest time I had nothing even resembling a support network. BUT, despite all of this, I have a wonderful husband, I have a home, I have a darling puppy, I have a fashion blog, I have a masters degree, I have something to smile about, I have a life that is so worth living and living well —so do you, so can you. I just truly hope that this serves as a reminder that life doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful.

Kerrie Mitchell Burke is an Irish writer and blogger who recently made the move from Dublin to Boston. A long time lover of wine, words and totally unnecessary but always ridiculously pretty things she can typically be found sitting cross legged on her big purple chair with a book in her lap, a glass of red in one hand, and an iPad (for online shopping of course!) in the other. If you can’t find her here just try instagram – she’s hooked!

Filed Under