The Truth About The Mask Of Mental Illness

So it turns out I haven’t quite finished writing about masks. Today, however, instead of talking about clinical masks, I want to talk about a different type of mask – that is, the mask that society forces people with mental illness to wear.

Sad woman with paper mask over her mouth with a smile drawn on it.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash






It’s the mask of being well – that many of us expect them to wear, even now, in spite of the progress made in terms of awareness.

You see, mental illness is still viewed by some as a made-up illness, or a weakness, or something we should feel ashamed about. And while there are all those wonderful memes that float around the Internet to remind us to be kind and empathetic to sufferers, the reality can be very different.

It might surprise you to know that it is still rare to find a work environment in which you can admit openly that you suffer from depression or a neurological disorder

I’ll be honest, each time someone admits to me they don’t believe in mental illness, I want to scream at them for their arrogance and ignorance. And here’s why. Because, today, with my son’s permission – I’m going to give you an insight into what it is like for him to live with it, and the effect it has on his loved ones.

A few weeks ago, we planned a long overdue family weekend away. It was overdue for many reasons, such as Covid, the cost of taking away a family of four adults (and our very practical concerns about our bar bill), and our annual leave restrictions. However, the main reason the trip was short was because of Kurt, our twenty-three year old son.

He hasn’t really left Sydney over the past two years for all the usual reasons: his bartending job as a casual – which makes it hard for him to make his rent (let alone splash out on weekends away); the organisation involved in planning and booking time away with his ADHD; as well as, erm, certain dependencies he uses to alleviate some of his ADHD symptoms, that are not (shall we say) very transportable.

The main ones, though, are his crippling anxiety and OCD

The outside world may not see what it takes for people like him to leave the house, but trust me, it is no mean feat. There are rituals that his brain insists he must carry out before any transition, there is his fear of change, his laundry (so much laundry), sensory considerations, and an elevated sense of imposter syndrome. In other words, as soon as he steps through the door, our son has to put on a mask.

In other words, he looks like a normal, functioning Millennial, who smiles a lot and converses seemingly naturally. The truth is, however, he would prefer to never have to leave his bedroom.

Few would be aware of the rituals that chain him to his home, his fear of change, or the mental effort it takes to keep himself on track

The reality is, our son doesn’t travel much because his mind won’t let him and last weekend was as much about celebrating mine and our daughter’s birthdays as it was a test for Kurt. It was an attempt to get him to push back from a negative way of thinking that is getting stronger by the day, and as a fellow sufferer (but less severe), I am aware of the dangers of letting anxiety win.

“Avoiding what makes you anxious provides some relief in the short term, but can make you more anxious in the long term. Try approaching something that makes you anxious – even in a small way. The way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t likely to happen – and if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it. ” Beyond Blue

A few days prior to our departure, he decided not to come and I persuaded him to rethink. Genuinely, I believed the change of atmosphere would do him good. As a result of changes due to Covid, he has spent a lot of time on his own of late – which is not good for over-thinkers – and I was excited at the prospect of exploring antique shops together, experiencing the hotel’s leisure facilities, and enjoying the sense of togetherness that other families appear to enjoy.

I’m his mum and selfishly, I suppose, I wanted him there with us, not only to push back his anxiety, but to help me complete the faux image of the perfect family unit I aspire to

Mental illness is often inaccurately portrayed in film. Many films focus on the quirky charisma of the neuro-diverse or mentally-ill characters, rather than the often terrifying complexities of mood disorders. While we are shown aspects of the darkness, there’s very little of the day-to-day reality of living with the illness – the self-harm, the anger, the police involvement, the desperation and the tears.

When our son is on form, he lights up a room; but when he is overwhelmed, it’s like waiting for the White Walkers to break through the wall

I don’t have any photos of the first twenty-four hours of our trip when Kurt couldn’t look at us or speak to us because he was so angry with me for persuading him to come. He was even madder with himself for “being such a cunt.” (His words).

Ahead of our trip, I thought I had prepared for every eventuality and nothing could go wrong. And yet on our first night, I booked a table at a restaurant in town (because the hotel restaurant was extortionate), and that triggered Kurt’s anxiety. He joined us, but he sat in the restaurant, stony-faced, his earphones in, and as soon as he finished his food, he left by himself. Returning to the hotel bar, he set himself up at his own table and refused to join us when we returned.

I know better than to think I can prepare for every eventuality. The unpredictability is, perhaps, the hardest part about mental illness. The three steps forward, and the inevitable four steps back

That night he texted us to say he would take the train home the following morning.

Even now, he cannot explain what triggered his overwhelm and need to isolate, but it lasted until after lunch the following day, when somehow he managed to pull himself back and block out the voices. He apologised to us profusely, told us how much he loved us and hated himself for his behaviour, and our second night together was memorable – one of the best nights we’ve shared as a family.

When family and friends ask us how Kurt is doing, we put on masks too

We wear protective masks as well – from the judgement of being bad parents, weak, enablers, and pushovers – even though we can’t fully defend our actions, out of respect for Kurt’s privacy.

What I will say, though, is that unless you walked in our shoes, you cannot understand – in much the same way that I would have a limited understanding of how to cope with a child with a physical disability or terminal illness.

A person with mental illness may look exactly like you and I most of the time, until the mask slips

That judgment forces people with invisible illnesses to wear masks, and when they slip, society is unprepared for what lies behind it, in terms of both support and resources. But in the same way that there is no shame in having gastro, there is nothing wrong in admitting that your head isn’t well. Everyone feels sad or anxious at times, but it is the magnitude of those emotions that is so different for people with depression and anxiety, or with neurological conditions that make normal life more challenging.

They can’t “snap out of it” to make the rest of us feel better

Most of the time they don’t ask for our help, nevertheless, they deserve our compassion. My desire to paint a perfect family picture of our weekend away made my son very unhappy and his mask slipped – like he warned us it would. Fortunately, this journey together has made us stronger. We have learned not to blame ourselves (or him) for poor decisions, and I’m certain that sometime in the near future we will give the experience another shot.

The outcome may be similar, but the hope is that each experience is one step further away from surrender, and one step closer to recovery.

How You Can Help Bridge The Gap Between Rich and Poor This Valentines Day

I hate to name-drop, but I found myself in the same breathing space as two former prime ministers a couple of days ago. The first was Malcolm Turnbull, one of the many speakers at the Side By Side conference run by the Wayside Chapel, who had been invited to discuss the crucial role of students in political conversation. And the second was an icon of mine, Julia Gillard, whose “misogyny” speech was voted the most unforgettable moment on Australian TV this week, and who was the special guest on The Guilty Feminist, a stage show of the popular podcast that was on at the Enmore Theatre.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Two Australian politicians from two different political parties, who share a similar vision when it comes to how to measure success and how to improve the way we care for the marginalised people in our community.

You may know that during his time as prime minister, Malcolm was criticised for his privilege – for being a wealthy, self-made man – and for not being a natural communicator when it came to the people. And in spite of his valiant attempts to prioritise climate policy in his party – a view that ultimately led to his downfall – he remained a somewhat elusive personality who the voters were frustrated to never really get to know.

From the other side of the tracks was Julia, our first female prime minister, who became a target of the predominantly middle-aged, white men in her party and the opposition party as a result of her gender. Throughout her stint as prime minister, she was forced to fight the sort of infantile sexism and snobbery you expect to find in an all-boys private school. Nevertheless, she stood her ground against it – hence, that speech – and if the level of applause at her arrival on Friday night was anything to go by, her reputation among Australian feminists is legendary.

How wonderful to see, in this terrifyingly narcissistic period of political history, two such prominent figures (who in spite of both being retired from politics), came together to help the marginalised community in our society.

Malcolm was appearing at the Side By Side conference run by The Wayside Chapel, to which I was invited (I assume) because of my paltry donation of a Christmas lunch to ease my guilt for one of their residents last year. The organisation, which is based in Kings Cross in Sydney, works predominantly with and for the homeless – for those who have hit rock bottom due to physical illness, job loss, mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse and trauma. They are citizens and victims who could be any one of us, who have fallen on bad times – typically through no fault of their own – who are being ignored by society.

The Side By Side conference was about reducing the stigma about poverty and exchanging ideas about how we can narrow the gap between us and them.

But change takes time. As Julia Gillard reminded us during her chat on The Guilty Feminist, it will probably take another century before we see any real equality in terms of female leadership in Australia – whether that’s in the workplace or in politics – and without women in those positions, we remain under-represented. The same is true for the poor. Unless society shows more compassion and changes its priorities, the gap will continue to widen.

What is certain is that to effect the necessary changes we need leaders who have vision and who are prepared to listen to our young people and our experts in the field.

It is not only middle-aged lefties like me who are disillusioned with the direction the western world is heading. When a government prioritises a Religious Freedom Bill over crucial preparations for the annual bushfire season, we have to ask why. And our kids are asking those questions too – which is perhaps one of the reasons so many are struggling with their mental health.

The Wayside Chapel’s conference was a call to action. Progressive, well-known CEOs spoke about how businesses can help donate part of their profits to help bridge the gap between rich and poor and to help protect the environment, and the message that stood out was that if we all become a little less focused on success and more on caring, there is a chance that we can do exactly that.

“Together we can make no ‘us and them,” was the clear message of the event. And they’re right. Imagine how frigging awesome it would be if everyone of us did something tiny that could make a real difference to the confidence of one person on the poverty line. Because, trust me, their situation could happen to any of us, and an increasing percentage of the current number of the homeless population are middle-aged women.

I’m aware that “activism” is harder than just sitting at home on the sofa, watching those heart-wrenching stories play out on the The Project. It requires a concerted “movement of feet.” And even though we’ve had to put our hands a little deeper into our pockets of late, I am certain that there is something that most of us can do. For example, this Valentines Day, instead of buying your partner a tacky card and a sad bunch of dead petrol station flowers, you could donate $20 to waysidechapel.org.au/valentines, or any organisation that helps people in need. That small donation will give someone a shower, a new pair of undies and socks and some toiletries. It’s a much more sustainable way to show someone you love them and it will make all the difference to someone who isn’t feeling the love right now.

There Is No Better Education In Love, Compassion And Empathy Than Having A Child With Special Needs

A few weeks ago we went to a fundraiser. It was a black tie event to raise money for the family of an old colleague of the old man’s whose son broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord in a freak rugby accident recently.

Alex Noble is their son’s name, and if anyone feels like funding a real cause, as opposed to other, less noble causes, please feel free – here is the link to his GoFundMe page.

At one point in the evening, Alex’s parents stood up on stage to tell us a little about his story, his progress, and their plans for the future – should they reach their target that night to secure the funds they need to renovate their house, meaning he can eventually come home.

“There’s not a lot of joy in my life right now, but there’s a lot of love,’ his mother said.

It was a comment that hit me hard, because albeit that in terms of bums on seats that night, there was a wonderful level of support in the room, as a mum who is also a part-time carer of an adult dependent, (as well as being a professional cynic), I did wonder how many guests would be there for the long-haul of Alex’s journey, once the glitter is swept away.

Many of the guests were close friends of the couple or friends of their son, so in some ways it felt almost voyeuristic to be there, to witness the pain and rawness caused by such a cruel twist of fate; to sense the fears that his family feel in terms of the uncertainty of Alex’s and their future.

When we plan our children, we never anticipate for one moment that things won’t work out like the parenting manuals told us they will, so I understand what Alex’s Mum was trying to say. I’ve felt that way many times with Kurt – because let’s not underestimate the devastation caused by mental illness or disability, either. Indeed, it was only a week before that I thought that we had lost our son?

Scratch the surface and there is heartache in every family. I can’t tell you the number of times people open up to me about siblings or relatives with mental health issues who have been hidden, the skeletons in their cupboards.

But Alex’s Mum was right about how adversity cultivates love. Because in return for the pain caused by our son’s neuro-diversity, we have been given an education in love, compassion and empathy, and we are better people for that. We are as proud of him as we are of NC – much to her horror. While his steps forward have been slower, they have been celebrated with the same enthusiasm as hers, and his progress has provided us with an invaluable insight into how society should be measuring success.

Admittedly, there have been times when there’s not been a lot of joy in caring for someone who may never get better, and I wouldn’t wish our experience or that of Alex and his parents on anyone. Before his accident, they would have been looking forward to the last chapter of their lives as independent once again, but the ramifications of his physical disability may be lifelong, and they will affect not only them, but his siblings, and possibly future generations of their family.

I’m glad that they feel loved and supported. I hate cliches, but shit like this does make you stronger, because you have no choice but to be strong. But as I said, there are hidden benefits to life’s knocks such as this. While they will have to reset their expectations of Alex, his milestones will be as meaningful as those of his siblings – if not more so. And though it may feel painful at the time, this tragedy will draw a line in the sand between their true friends and their fair weather friends, because they won’t have time for games.

But they will be tired all of the time and there will be days when they feel like they can’t go on and will question why me? So I suppose what I really want to say to all those parents battling through each day with kids with disabilities or dependencies, is that your joy may well be diminished, but like a flower in summer, your heart will be opened to maximum capacity.