We’d only been married two years when Cathy got unwell, and those two years were pretty horrendous. I was very reactionary — I didn’t know where all this stuff was coming from. I had all the popular beliefs around mental illness, which weren’t good. I’m not proud of it.
When Cathy took her first overdose, I thought she was looking for attention. So when she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder I realised, ’Oh, there’s a reason for all this.’ It didn’t make everything perfect, but it gave us a reason why everything was going on. I realised I had to make a few changes.
Like a lot of carers, I poured everything into Cathy and didn’t look after myself. I had a minor breakdown. As a result, I got introduced to a community of carers and went to a carers conference. I learned there were other people going through it. Until I got support, I felt like I was the only one. It was really good to be able to talk to someone who understood what I was going through.
I grew up with the adage from my nan that you need to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. I trained as a community worker, so I can help other people going through the same issues. I am current doing a mental health peer work course too.
During Cathy’s recovery, I had to take a step back. Part of the treatment program she was on meant that Cathy had to take responsibility for her own illness, and make a commitment to the program. That meant travelling to Melbourne on the train every Wednesday at 6am and getting back at 10pm at night. I’d always supported her and taken her everywhere, so it was really difficult to take a step back.
When Cathy got to that recovery stage, I got really angry for about two or three weeks and couldn’t figure it out. Then a lightbulb went off and I realised I was struggling with letting go.
You get into a situation where caring becomes your life. When that role goes away, I thought, ‘what do I do now?’.
It’s sort of a trauma, I suppose. It’s a common thing with carers that I work with, particularly for older people who have cared for adult siblings for a long time.
They can actually subconsciously sabotage that person’s recovery. Not intentionally, but unconsciously. They feel that without the carer role, what will they do?
You get to the point where it’s your life. It’s like working at a job for 15-20 years and then someone takes it away from you. During the worst part, I had to give up work to support Cathy.
I had to learn to let her take risks. I equate it to what you do with your teenagers. You have to let them go and let them take risks and find their way. I still struggle sometimes. I have to check myself and say, hang on, back off here! And sometimes Cathy has to tell me to bugger off.
Another thing that was hard was the feeling of guilt. I was the sort of person who blamed myself for everything. I had a friend years ago who said, ‘You own what is yours, and you leave the rest where it belongs.’ And you’ve got to do that.
The bottom line is, you can’t wrap them up in cotton wool. After I had a minor breakdown, Cathy’s case manager said I had to go and play golf. I was worried that if I did, Cathy would hurt herself. We drew up a care plan — I took two mornings a week to play golf, and the case manager would check in on Cathy.
It took five or six weeks before I started to enjoy it. I had a fear of what I would find when I got home.
I don’t actually like the term ‘carer’ when it comes to mental illness. I prefer the word supporter, because it implies that we are supporting them in their treatment, rather than doing things for them.
Supported and educated carers play a big role in the outcomes of their loved one. It’s important that the carer can get to a point where they can see it from the unwell person’s point of view, and learn to recognise what’s the illness and what’s the person. Once you get to that point, it makes a huge difference in how you react.