It was while reading a pile of medical textbooks in her local library, with a dictionary close at hand, that 11-year-old Leanne began to make sense of what was happening to her mum, Isabelle. She and her sister had been told by family members that their mum’s lengthy hospital stays were due to a heart condition.
“They were trying to do the right thing,” Leanne knows. “It was very hard for them after our Dad died suddenly when we were very young.”
But it was not a dodgy heart keeping Isabelle in a psychiatric facility.
“I discovered Mum most likely had a mental illness, that it was an illness. That was hugely reassuring. It gave me confidence, hope and optimism. Now as an adult I know there are limitations to this frame, but as an 11-year-old I didn’t care. It made sense of Mum’s experience.”
Over the years Isabelle would receive treatment at Broughton Hall in the grounds of Callan Park and then Parramatta Psychiatric Centre. Family members could not understand why Isabelle chose to participate in outpatient groups at Parramatta, but Leanne knows it was the power of peer connections that kept her going back.
“I went to quite a few sessions with mum and I have fond memories of Mum’s friends and clinicians. They would save the Monte Carlo biscuits for me. It was a safe place for my mum and it gave me a sense of the importance of peer-to-peer relationships and support, and in my early twenties, an inkling of the potential for peer work. Mum would say that once the doctor or nurse departed from the group sessions, the real work began.”
Leanne says her mother’s depression and mania made for some very hard times, and she lived with extended family on and off from the age of two years. But she also learnt from her mother “about perseverance, about believing in being able to recover, about kindness and being gracious to people”.
“To us, Mum was Mum. We had no doubt of her unconditional love for us, and everyone else.
“There’s quite good sides to having a parent with bipolar, including their enthusiasm for life and quickness and brilliance of thought. Mum always impressed upon us we could be and do whatever we like.”
Eventually Leanne’s mother found a permanent home at Cabrini Cottage at Westmead, and so began a more independent life for Isabelle.
“It was great. She had a room of her own, she was with other people, she had all her meals prepared if she so chose, she could come and go as she pleased. She could stay with us whenever and for however long she liked.
“We couldn’t say it was always easy - there were still episodes of acute illness and each episode was equally tough - but we could say that Mum had a good quality of life.
“My sister and I and our families cherish the memories from those last 20 years of Mum’s life.”
Leanne seriously considered pursuing a career in environmental causes or medicine, before settling on a social work degree. She and her husband are now in their 26th year of running mental health and social policy consultancy Craze Lateral Solutions. Leanne is among the contributors to one of the Mental Health Commission of NSW’s current projects, a Peer Work Guide for employers, due out in April.
“I take great delight, as much as I humanly can without having personally experienced mental illness, helping other people understand it.
“I am delighted when one more chink in stigma’s armoury falls away.”