My mentally ill gran: I was sure she was the worst person I’d ever meet

Coping: Judging something we don’t understand is not fair to the person suffering

‘When she began to lose her grip entirely on reality, I felt sympathy for her for the first time. Her distress was primal.’

‘When she began to lose her grip entirely on reality, I felt sympathy for her for the first time. Her distress was primal.’

 

As a child, I felt sure that my grandmother was the worst person I would ever meet. Her behaviour was consistently selfish, abusive, and often cruel. She was wholly indifferent to my brother who is three years my senior and was for a while her only grandchild in her country of residence. My mother used to tell the story of waddling into my grandmother’s house, approximately (what felt like) 18 months pregnant with my brother, her first child, and my grandmother snapping at her not to call and wake her up if she went into labour in the night. That sort of thing wasn’t uncommon behaviour for her.

She ruined, without fail, every childhood Christmas we had, sitting at the table in an unsettlingly jolly paper hat, insulting my father

She ruined, without fail, every childhood Christmas we had, sitting at the table in an unsettlingly jolly paper hat, insulting my father who we all knew was probably off somewhere drinking our Christmas present money. Again. It wasn’t as though my brother and I, or indeed my mother, needed to be reminded. I never liked my grandmother. There was very little about her – at least about any side of her that she exposed to me – to like.

It wasn’t until I got into my teens and her extreme mood swings began to pitch into psychosis that it became obvious to us all that she was actually seriously mentally ill. When she began to lose her grip entirely on reality, I felt sympathy for her for the first time. Her distress was primal. She saw things that no one else could see, became increasingly paranoid and a danger to herself. Sometimes, in quiet moments, she would express regret for some of the terrible things that she had said and done to others. It was only then that I understood the scale of what she battled internally. There was a tender person in there somewhere, but life and lack of help (and yes, to an extent, unwillingness to accept help when she had been more able to do so) had twisted her inside until she became calloused over by the illness.

Conflict

My grandmother’s condition was very extreme and of a sort which is thankfully not that common, but it has left me with an interest in the conflict mental illness creates in everyone it touches, either directly or peripherally. Last week, Sinéad O’Connor (who I am not equating with any member of my family – she is an individual) released a video via Facebook in which she was very distressed and admitted that she was suicidal. The video is upsetting and uncomfortable viewing and elicited extreme reactions roughly polarised into two camps.

Many of the messages expressed deep concern and fondness for O’Connor, acknowledging that she has battled mental illness in full view of the public and sympathising accordingly. The other camp consisted mostly of people expressing unadulterated disgust and dismissal. There was a tone of “Jaysus this again?” and “attention seeking”.

Those suffering mental illness can be extremely difficult to pity or even like sometimes

We should be more open about the reality of severe mental illness. Those suffering mental illness can be extremely difficult to pity or even like sometimes. Mental illness is, by its nature, completely self-absorbed (I say this as someone who has dealt with my own share of it as well as seen much of it in those close to me). Sufferers can be excessively dependent, aggressive, mean or appear frustratingly incapable of responding to scenarios in a way that makes sense to others. They can do excruciatingly unkind things. At worst, those things can be so bad as to be unforgivable. At best, mental health issues interfere with a person’s ability to thrive. They may fall on hard times, turn to substances to self-medicate or exhibit any other manner of behaviour that we are accustomed to judge harshly or reject.

We don’t have to like a person to love them, or to help them.

We don’t have to like a person to love them, or to help them. Of course, no one can or should engage in an asymmetrical relationship forever and protecting oneself is important. However, treating other people’s crises with levity or disgust breeds a lack of empathy which damages us all. If you haven’t experienced it, mental illness can indeed be hard to empathise with. At the very least, we should be less certain in our judgment of something that we don’t understand.

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