I had a pretty normal childhood. But one night, things took a complete turn with just one sentence. As my parents and I were about to head to bed, my mum said: “I have a feeling that I am going to die tomorrow.”
I still remember the shock that took over me and my father after she uttered those words. She then pointed to the night sky and said:
“Look, the sky is splitting.”
I was 11 and I didn’t know how to react—I looked at the sky and it was as normal as it could be. I suddenly felt terrified. Being an only child, my mother was my primary caregiver and pillar of strength during my growing up years. Like any mother, she always wanted the best for me. I could not imagine life without her. What was I supposed to do if anything happened to her?
What I didn’t realise was that things would never be the same after that incident.
After that night, she became a completely different person. She was often trapped in her “own world”, clouded in negative thoughts.
Occasionally, she would talk to herself. When I asked who she was talking to, she said she heard “voices” talking to her. A month later, my father decided to consult a doctor about my mother’s condition.
Diagnosed with depression
The doctor confirmed that my mother was exhibiting symptoms of depression, a mental health condition that negatively affects how one feels, thinks and acts. We then realised she had been showing several other symptoms: at times, she would pace around anxiously and at other times, she couldn’t focus on a task.
My father briefly explained to me about my mother’s condition but as a child, I felt helpless and confused as to why this was happening to my mother or what could have triggered it.
There were times that I wished that I was just having a bad dream and that I would eventually wake up and find out that all was well.
At times, things got so overwhelming for me that I tried to block out what was going on at home by focusing on my studies and drowning my sorrows by listening to music. However, I was thankful that my father and my mum’s family stepped up to care for me.
During my teenage years, my mother’s condition stabilised with the help of antidepressants and regular visits to the psychologist.
At that time, I only shared details about my mother’s condition with my close friends.
It made me feel “safe” that others do not know about my mother’s condition.
I was not ashamed of her—I just wanted to avoid questions about her condition. And essentially, I did not want others to form a negative impression of me just because my mother has a mental illness.
It was only during my junior college days that I started to open up to my peers about my mum’s condition. During a brainstorming session for a project, I told my group mates about my mother’s battle with depression and suggested that we did research on the mental health condition.
Despite knowing about my mum’s condition, my group mates didn’t treat me any differently. In fact, they listened to my story with empathy and helped me to come to terms with my mother’s condition.
Just when I thought all was well, she started having anxiety attacks more often. It got to the point where she had them every day. These anxiety attacks differed both in duration and intensity, so I didn’t know what to expect or how to manage them.
As a result, my relationship with my mother became strained during those years, and I got especially frustrated whenever she shouted at me for no particular reason or repeatedly ask the same questions despite me answering her a few minutes prior.
The episodes continued until my early 20s.
After I became an adult, she often demanded for my attention, especially when she had anxiety attacks. She would ask me to sit with her, hold her hand or hug her and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Sometimes, she would also ask me to scold her harshly, hoping it would “jolt” her back to reality.
At times, I felt helpless for not being able to help her through her anxiety attacks. I also started to feel overwhelmed as I had to be her pillar of support while dealing with stress at work.
There were times where I would suddenly burst into tears as I wanted to cry it out and release my frustrations. I would also write my thoughts in a journal. It did provide some relief and helped me channel my emotions in a positive way.
Darker days ahead
As soon as I thought the worst was over, my mother stopped taking her meds because she thought they were a waste of money and didn’t help her get better. She relapsed deeper into depression.
She would cry for no apparent reason and shout at the top of her lungs while she was at home.
It culminated into a dangerous episode when she burned newspaper on the stove while I was at home with her.
Fearing for my safety, I called my family to alert them about the situation.
With a heavy heart, my father had to make a tough decision to send my mother to the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for her to receive the necessary treatments.
During that period, I remember feeling at my lowest. I felt empty inside. I cried a lot, especially after visiting my mother at IMH and seeing a person I didn’t recognise—depression had consumed her.
She couldn’t even recognise my cousin, who was working at IMH, when the latter went to visit her at the facility. She was often dazed and lost in her own thoughts.
She was also angry at my father for admitting her to IMH and insisted that she was not crazy. She demanded for the nurses to send her home.
My mother stayed at the IMH for about four months.
Coming to terms with my mum’s condition
Now, I prepare my mother’s medicine every day and ensure that she takes them without fail. She still has episodes of anxiety attacks, during which she would pace around and ask questions repeatedly.
During these episodes, she would also start throwing things that are cluttering the house, such as letters and newspapers. She perceives the house as being in a state of mess when in reality, it is relatively clean.
Now that I’m older, I’ve learnt to be more understanding about my mum’s condition.
I would remind her that I care for her and how strong she is for pushing through no matter how tough it gets.
However, there are still times when I have to channel my attention into other things in order to not get overwhelmed.
Having to deal with her anxiety attacks regularly does take a toll on me emotionally but I’ve learnt to let the situation progress naturally.
Instead of constantly coddling her, I use the negative reinforcement technique by letting her deal with the attacks on her own so she can develop her own techniques to manage them since my family members and I may not be around all the time to assist her.
What you need to know as a caregiver
Being a caregiver for my mother is an ongoing journey that is filled with unpredictability. There are instances when I still wonder why this is happening to me instead of other people.
But I realised that no matter how many times I asked “Why me?”, the problem doesn’t just disappear.
So instead of focusing on the negative, I chose to come to terms with my mother’s condition and acknowledge that it’s truly all right to feel overwhelmed at times.
As caregivers, we also have other duties to carry out. However, it’s important to know the most appropriate way to respond depending on the situation.
I hope that sharing my experience as a caregiver helps to bring comfort to other caregivers in knowing that they are not alone.
It is essential to exercise self-care to ensure that we are mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with future challenges.
Text: Adrianna (Name has been changed as per writer’s request)
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