Words and Wings: our children need both.

You tell yourself at first that this can’t be for real.  That you are imagining things, that the black-dog burden you’ve lugged about for years is just a shadow, that the snapping you think you hear, the teeth you think you feel, are just memory. A learned thing that’s imprinted on your mind. You are branded by it. It’s like a scar. Run your finger across the skin of your life, and you’re bound to feel its raised soreness from time to time. You tell yourself that mental illness is not hereditary because well, you have to, don’t you? 

And then you scold yourself for being melodramatic. You are cross with yourself for slapping a label carelessly. You don’t want to be that person. That mother. You don’t want to reach for reasons.   You have had this discussion with doctors in the past – mental illness, designer disorder; everybody wants an excuse.

But it niggles and it gnaws and you can’t escape the feeling that something’s wrong. Like when you think somebody’s following you and you keep turning around to look. There is a chill at your back. You are sure you saw something, heard something. But you can’t be certain. So you pretend you didn’t and you put your head down and you quicken your step and you hope it’ll go away.

But when mental illness looms large and real, it doesn’t matter how deep you dig yourself into sand, how fast you walk, how much you tell yourself it’s imagination, it’ll stick a leg out and trip you up anyway.

And it’s so much worse when it’s your daughter that’s sick and not your mum.

It’s worse because you’ve fashioned this child, you’ve shaped her. You’ve birthed her, you moulded her and brought her into this world, Brought her up in this world. You cast her life about her. If bits don’t fit, it’s your fault.  It must be. 

And it is much worse to witness a child in pain than a parent.  Much.

When Hat crashed, I cannot tell you that I was surprised. I had witnessed parts of her coming adrift for weeks. Months. I could hear it in her voice, distracted, like a track that kept jumping. I could hear the cracks. I could see it in her face; she sat opposite me at breakfast a million miles away. She curled up tight on her bed, like a comma, an hiatus in her life. She’s stopping reaching up, reaching out and the only thing I am thankful for is that when she fell, I was there to break that fall.  Catch her. She sat, taller than me, 21, in my lap, curled again and she came undone in tears and words that snagged on emotion so that they were hard to piece together.  

But in that unravelling,  I began to understand a little of her enormous, invisible pain.

And I understood a little more when we sat in the psychs’s office in the same London hospital I’d taken mum to years before. Hat and I sat there on a hot Indian summer evening. Mum and I had sat there on a brittle March afternoon. My palms were damp with fear both times.

But I have never understood from the experts as much as I have grown to understand from Hat as  she began to piece herself gently together, as she collected her story and knitted it neatly up with eloquence – in words I understood.  And patience; she has been so patient with at our clumsy efforts to comprehend. With our questions.

We urge those who battle with mental illness to talk but often we don’t factor how hard it is for them to articulate their pain – pain wrought by that invisible, intangible, mercurial mental illness.  It must be so hard to find the words to describe something none of us can imagine. Or feel.

Monsters under a bed that we will never see.   

Almost three years later and despite a pandemic which has been especially hard for my beautiful Hat, she is getting there, one careful step at a time. She tiptoes into her world. She feels her own cautious, characteristically independent, determined way. It is rare now that she must reach for a hand to hold.

You have to give children wings. But you must also make sure they have the right words if they need them.

I’m so lucky Hat did.

6 Responses to “Words and Wings: our children need both.”

  1. Deborah Says:

    And there you are again.
    I have read you for years. I have loved all of your writing – it has always resonated so true within me. Recent posts have had much less of the word combination playfulness of the earliest posts that I read of your years ago.
    But this writing. It feels all you and so deeply felt and so beautifully rendered. And of course, my having had a mum and now a son who struggle with mental health issues – makes it all so heart piercing.
    Thank you for sharing. Thank you for writing. Please keep writing.
    Deborah (Boston, MA, USA)

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Thank you Deborah. Sometimes I feel my words slide away from me. I think writing, like everything, needs practise and when I don’t exercise my literary muscle, it gets slack and the words are harder to find and line up. Your comment has encouraged me to keep going; thank you X

  2. Addy Says:

    Sending ((hugs)). Although my daughter doesn’t have a mental illness, she has been incredibly stressed as a ICU doctor during the covid pandemic and arrived here for Christmas needing much rest and motherly cuddles. It is good to talk things through and can understand how much Hat needed to. She is lucky to have you.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Thank you Addy. I have thought so often about doctors and nurses during the pandemic and the pressure on the NHS, it must be exhausting for front line health workers; the relentlessness of this virus. I am so glad your daughter got to you over Xmas so you could cherish her. Keep well – and warm X

  3. Kelly Says:

    Thank you for this. My child is struggling and in a frenzy of trying to “fix it” I fear I have not listened as I should.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      Oh Kelly, my heart goes out to you. Our default is to ‘fix’; that’s what parents do: try to mend. Listening takes sitting back, sitting on your hands (at least it did with me) and trying to keep my mouth shut. Listening can be very hard for so many reasons. My thoughts are with you both x

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