I am giving my eight-week-old son a bath. One hand supports his head and neck, the other gently moves a washcloth over his delicate skin. He kicks his legs, rippling the shallow water. His dark eyes stare up at me. Pools of trust. I make a minute adjustment to my hand supporting his neck. His head slips under the water, for less than a second before I instinctively lift him up. He splutters briefly and is fine. But I am not.
I hit the call button next to the baby bath and a nurse pops her head in:
“Are you ok?”
I hand her my baby. Nausea clamps my stomach and works its way up my throat. Black mist hovers in my peripheral vision and I sink to the ground. I put my head between my knees, as red-hot malignant words shoot through me:
“Did I just try to drown my baby?”
Listen: What’s it really like in a psych ward? Honor Eastly wants to change the way Australians see mental health by sharing her story.
I am recovering from an acute psychotic episode, a patient in the mother-baby unit of a private psychiatric hospital. I am now well enough to look after my baby, but I am battered by the experience of psychosis. So I don’t trust the contents of my head. And the media has taught me that I will never be a good mother because I live with a severe mental illness.
That was nine years ago. I’d like to travel back in time and tell myself: “You can’t see it now, but this illness will make you a better parent than you would have been without it.”
The media doesn’t tend to report good outcomes for the children of parents with mental illness, especially when that mental illness includes episodes of psychosis. We hear about murdered, neglected, abused, bereaved children, children who are scarred by what they have seen, and children who are removed from their homes as a result of a parent’s mental illness. And yet, many of us are doing a better job of parenting precisely because we are living with a mental illness.
Great parenting requires insight. In psychiatry, insight means recognising early symptoms of your mental illness and can be the difference between surviving that illness or not. In broader terms, insight means learning about yourself, and how you interact with others, including your children. Gaining insight means allowing your weaknesses to breathe down your neck, acknowledging them, and finding ways of working with them. It is an uncomfortable process and usually requires some structured psychological education, whether it’s one-on-one sessions with a psychologist or programs such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.