I pick up the phone and make the call.
“Hey Pumpkin, it’s mom. Dad and I have something we would like to tell you. Can you come over at 8:30, just on your own.”
Miss J and R have a friend over to stay but this isn’t something I want to tell them. For now, this is an immediate family only kind of thing.
“Is something wrong?” Her voice is deep with concern. “Is everything okay?”
I reassure her it is all good, but that we need to speak to her.
The time arrives and Miss J walks through the door. I am already in my pyjamas. I spend a lot of time these days in my pjs, but if I do need to get dressed to leave the house, it isn’t long before the pjs adorn my body once again. I am packing boxes.
As I turn around to greet her, I can see her eyes already filling up with fear.
We sit down and Mr C calls Master J.
This is the first time in a long time that we have sat down as a family, just the four of us. I miss it.
I launch straight into it.
“You guys know that I suffer from depression, that I get down a fair bit?” They both nod their heads.
In the back of my mind I am hoping I am doing the right thing, but I firmly believe it is important to do this, to communicate to them what is going on, to let them know that none of this is their fault, because I know children, even adult ones, can internalise things. It is important that they know I love them so much I want to be well for them.
“Well, the depression has become more severe. I have started seeing a counsellor who specialises in treating adult children of alcoholics, as well as adults with addictions. Over christmas, things got really bad for me. I tried to hide it and I think I did really well at that but as Dad will tell you, behind the scenes it became pretty bad.
I am searching for some kind of clue as to what they might be thinking. Master J is nodding, matter of factly. Miss J is looking terrified.
“The truth is that I don’t really talk about my childhood very often, but it wasn’t great. There was a lot of anger, and violence, and fear, and being the eldest I copped a lot of it. We learned to not talk about it, or deal with it, or pretend it wasn’t as bad as it was, but the truth is that the brain doesn’t like it when we do that. Over many years since my childhood I have been wallpapering, layering stuff, over the pain of that time in my life, and over the years the joy has slowly eeked out of my life. As I gave up drinking and the reality of the pain I endured set in, I realised that I have no idea how to deal with the pain, but instead of dealing with it, I hid it some more. In recent months, though, something has been triggered, and I knew, Dad knew too, that if I didn’t get the help, I would lose the will to live.”
Miss J is looking mortified. Tears are welling up in her eyes, and my heart is breaking into a million pieces. Why the fuck couldn’t I be stronger, why couldn’t I be a better mom, why did I have to be this way? I begin to question if I am doing the right thing but I press on. They are 24 and 18 respectively, they are not children and it’s important that they know. It is important that the destigmatising starts with us. It is important that they know it is okay to seek help if they one day need it.
“I want you to know that this has nothing to do with you.” Tears trickle down my cheek, and I can see Miss J does the same. It is hurting her to see her mom in so much pain.
“This started happening long before you were born, when I was a child. But the time has come now for me to do something about it. My counsellor has suggested that I attend a residential facility for three weeks. It is a facility that specialises in addiction and depression. They work out a program specifically tailored to your needs. It is 21 days of intensive therapy. I have been told it is like short circuiting stuff, pressing the restart button, and I have been told that it can be life changing.”
“So you’ll be gone for three weeks?” Master J does not sound concerned, only trying to compartmentalise what is happening. This is the absolutely glorious beauty of autism. He doesn’t see me as damaged, only that I need help, and I won’t be here for three weeks whilst I do it.
“But dad has arranged at work to work the majority of the time from home, so you will have dad here most of the time.”
“Is it like me going to Mansfield?”
When Master J was 15, he attended a residential facility for autistic children. It was a strengths-based program aimed at providing children with the tools to know their own worth, to build on their capabilities. It was the hardest thing we have ever had to do as parents – sending him away – and it was the hardest thing he ever had to do – feeling abandoned by us. But it worked. Master J came home after 10 weeks a different person than the suicidal teenager who entered the program to begin with. We credit the program entirely for him finding the strength to get his VCE. They gave him the tools to see his own worth, and to fight through his demons.
“That’s exactly what it is like love. And it was because of your courage to go to Mansfield that I knew I could do the same. They will be working with me to ensure that I have the skills to cope with the painful things that I have endured in my life, and those that may be coming in my future.”
I am worried about Miss J. She is very sensitive. She takes things very much to heart. She has a full heart with oodles of love to give, but she is so incredibly sensitive. Her lip quivers.
I get up and sit next to her. I hug her and tell her it will be okay.
“Mum, I am so sorry, I did not know. I had no idea…”
She is sobbing into my chest. Alcoholism and the effects of it are truly a disease of the family. My heart breaks. I stroke her hair.
“My darling pumpkin, none of this is your fault. I didn’t speak about these things because I wanted to protect you from it. Dad and I worked hard to give you a childhood that was free from pain and heartache. I know that wasn’t always the case, but we did our best. Now though, the time has come to do away with those secrets. Secrets are toxic. They eat away at a person and they cause you to not connect with people. It is important that we are honest with each other. Because we love each other enough to be honest. We owe that to ourselves and to each other, don’t we?”
She looks up at me and nods. I am transported back to when she was five years old and would sit in my lap crying about some thing or other,and I would hug her and let her know that it would all be okay. That maternal instinct never leaves you, even when they are 24, have left home and have children of their own. I hug her tight.
We spend the next while talking about the program. It is a 12-step program, I will be attending lots of meetings, it is a very whole program in that it deals with the person as a whole – healthy eating, exercise, emotional support. I will not be allowed any technology for three weeks, not even my kindle, and I am only allowed to take books on the recommended reading list. The idea is that you get a break from everything and only fill your mind with wholesome supportive things. I am allowed to phone them using the hospital phone and they are relieved at that.
I talk about how I have been unwell for so long. How my body refuses to lose weight and how I believe it holds onto that weight because it needs to protect itself. My physical health is now at risk too.
Master J interjects.
“I’m going to help you with that Mum, we’re going to do cross fit together.”
As a mum with a child on the spectrum, these are the moments you live for.
Master J and I spoke about doing cross fit together when we move to the new house some weeks ago. We looked up the closest gym and decided when we moved that this would be a good thing to do together. In honesty, I dreaded doing the exercise, but I wanted to do something with Master J to get him out of the house. He is so isolated.
In this moment, though, I felt no such dread.
I nodded. “I really look forward to that.”
“And we can do those Italian classes together too, that we spoke about.”
I have never been to Italy, but I have always wanted to go. Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare play which is set in Italy in Messina (Sicily). When I saw the movie, though, it reminded me of Tuscany, and I have always loved the idea of actually living in Tuscany. Master J one day announced he would like to learn Italian and we thought that since I loved Italy so much we should do it together.
I am in love with how Master J is reaching out to me. Understanding my pain and wanting to help me overcome it.
“I cannot wait to do that, it will be so much fun,” I say.
Miss J is still quiet, holding my hand. I worry how she will worry about me.
“Can I tell R & E?”
She will need to process this with someone, and her fiance and best friend are who she will turn to.
“Of course, love. It is not a big secret.”
I am afraid of this, though. I don’t want Miss J’s own family to think she has a defective mother, that somehow she may be defective by association. I quickly pull myself back, though. I know that this is the stigmatisation I am so desperately trying to fight. I know that they won’t think that. I know that they will support and love her, as they have done for years. We need to fight this stigmatisation, we need to tell ourselves a different story, we need to emulate compassion towards those suffering with mental illness.
Boundaries are important, though. As Brene Brown says, you should only tell your innermost thoughts to those people who have earned the right to hear your soul – or words to that effect. This has been one of life’s lessons I have never learned. I have never set boundaries nor protected myself against the ills of the world. Miss J, I believe, has mastered this skill well.
“I leave next Friday, by the way’” I say.
“So we will be moving on our own,” Mr C says. He has said very little up to this point, allowing the children and I to chat things through.
“We will help Dad,” Miss J immediately offers.
“And T has said she would help too,” I say. T is my soul sister and has been a tower of strength to me in this whole ordeal.
“Guess that means I’m going to have to help too,” Master J offers, grinning.
We are all smiling, talking about how bright the future is looking, what wonderful things are on the horizon. The four of us talk about how wonderful it will be living at the new house with all that space around us, and all the family gatherings we will hold. We talk about how we will definitely spend more time together, even maybe go away for Easter weekend. For the first time in the longest time, I feel so fucking lucky. Like the luckiest woman in the world. For the first time in the longest time, I feel the tiniest sense of hope creeping into the recesses of my mind, the teeniest, tiniest bit of light.
Miss J hugs me deeply before she leaves. “I love you Mum. I want you to be well.”
“I love you too Pumpkin. I want to be well too. And I will be. You’ll see. It won’t be easy, but it will be very worth it.”
As I wave her goodbye, I imagine her telling R & E and how they will surround her with love. And that is the thing, isn’t it? As much as the devastation of alcoholism affects a family negatively, love affects it positively, even more so. And that is what gives us hope, because as cliched as it sounds, love truly can conquer all.