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The SANE Blog

A family story, a healing journey.

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Therese is a passionate social work student and hiker who has worked in early education for over 20 years. She grew up with a father who had schizophrenia. Last week Therese spoke with SANE about her experience of living with someone with a complex mental illness, how things have evolved over time, and how talking about everything has helped.

My father and aunty both lived with schizophrenia, giving our family a unique growing-up experience. My father was so beautiful, funny, and creative. He would've done anything for us. He was once a surfer, loved playing harmonica and was an ‘A grade’ rugby player.  

Jude was a hoot; she loved the theatre and loved to act; she was a wonderful woman. We lost Jude last year and dad in 1993. We were so blessed to have dad and Jude in our lives to teach us about grace, respect, and diversity. It has been a gift, for sure. 

“We were so blessed to have dad and Jude in our lives to teach us about grace, respect, and diversity. It has been a gift, for sure.” 

You mentioned your Lived Experience, what impact did this have on your family growing up? 

My family faced stigma, poverty, and challenging times. I clearly remember being unable to play with the neighbour’s kids when dad had psychosis. No one understood back then. I also remember the family at the top of the street hosing us down with water to go away. It is quite horrific. There was so much joy, though; we had a huge family, many friends, and lots of love. Mum let us be so creative, we were riding our bikes, building cubbies, climbing trees, playing spotlight, having barbecues with friends, and many more fun times. I like to honor the fun and the sad times. 

Although, the impact had many layers. It took me a long time to open my heart to love. It took me until my 30s to start my degree because of my perfectionist traits and fear of failure, and the most impactful was living with bulimia from the age of 28 to 37 years old. I am now 47. Once I learned that it was a symptom of unhealed trauma, the healing ramped up, and luckily, I could face my myself, and say “This needs to stop, or it will kill you!” It is how I healed the bulimia in a nutshell. Owning the vulnerability is crucial.  

Did you face any difficulties or misunderstandings due to your family’s mental health issues? 

I had many beautiful friendships growing up, and still do to this day. I value connection more than anything. I think for my mother, it was much more challenging. She would bear the full load when dad was paranoid or really ill. It is fair to say at times, stigma and adversity were damaging. I don't want to sugarcoat it. Mum did the best she could with the resources she had. My mother is courageous and wise in so many ways. My sisters loved dad with all their heart. Now, they are all working on their own healing journeys and giving back with their lived wisdom. 

Have you witnessed any change to this over the years? 

The changes I have witnessed include breaking down stigma with conversation, the latest research, and more acceptance of diversity. I feel so grateful to have lived the horrific nature of stigma in the 80s and 90s and to now witness the narratives changing. My heart is with those who lived with brain diversity or looked after someone, that did not get to experience the kindness that has started shining through society today. It is a superpower... a privilege really. 

What strategies did your family adopt to maintain a stable and supportive environment for each other? 

We grew up with dad's big family, with rich experiences filling our hearts. I remember so much joy in my childhood. Strong family ties were one of them. When I was 20, my mum started getting support for herself after dad's passing, and she began teaching us about repeating patterns and intergenerational trauma. She never stopped pressuring us, reminding us that we would need to go and seek therapy to work through the layers of pain.   

What's your biggest motivation for sharing your story? 

I have had many serendipitous moments through my healing. Sharing my story helps others feel safe and not alone. Shame has this insidious way of weaving and staying in our lives, so when we know this, we can help stop it in its tracks. I really want to help people with that. Shame is hurting far too many people in this world.  

As someone who has experienced stigma first-hand, what message or words of encouragement would you offer to other individuals who are currently navigating life with a family member diagnosed with schizophrenia? 

Bravery creates change! Boundaries are essential. Learning where we begin and others end is ever so crucial for self-respect. Healing takes time; go gentle on yourself. Trust your gut and body wisdom. Be brave, invest in yourself, and advocate for yourself. If you live with anxiety, it is crucial to understand negative thought patterns by self-investigating. You are not weak; you are enough, you are strong, and you are so courageous. Speaking up and speaking about your experience is challenging but incredibly healing. It is a beautiful commitment to self – an act of self-love. Our nervous system holds onto trauma and can cause illness; so having a supportive team around you in the therapeutic space is necessary. Understanding that I was born into an environment where my father lived with delusions and paranoia helped me trust my body's wisdom instead of fearing it. This has been a critical insight. It is effortless to not feel connected with our bodies when we witness someone else unable to trust the world around them. 

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