Sorry my weekend is all “booked”

Image: Elfy Scott.

How writing a book introduced me to my mum

While it has been incredibly rewarding having interactions with a broader community in speaking about complex mental health conditions and the issues with Australia’s mental healthcare system, connecting more with my mum has been the greatest reward of the process.

In August of 2021 I rang my mum to initiate the first of what would be a terrifyingly awkward series of conversations. After seeing a series of stigmatising conversations online and recognising that our dialogue on mental health was still failing to capture vast swathes of vulnerable people, I was coming to think that I should write a book about what my family had always managed to avoid speaking about: the fact that my mum lives with schizophrenia. I knew at that time that I wanted to expose this missing chunk of the puzzle, that while relatively common diagnoses like anxiety, depression, and ADHD were coming to the fore, there were families and people like my mum all over the country living with complex mental health conditions who had scarcely been recognised in news media (and when they were, they appeared almost exclusively as criminals and monsters). 

I called Mum because I knew that, before taking on any such project and exposing some of the rawest aspects of my family life, I needed her explicit permission. Something that you must learn again and again as a writer who often touches on the most intimate details of their life, is that your story is in no way just your own, and autobiography is actually just capturing a collection of parts of other people through your own lens.

Exposing my family’s open secret for the first time also meant that she and I were about to talk about her mental health in the most honest detail that we had ever done in our lives. I had expected her to say ‘no’ and shut down the project from the beginning (which I was wholly prepared to do – writing a book is very hard anyway). But in the moment that I asked her, when I ran my words past the lump in my throat for the first time and asked if she would be comfortable being the subject of my book, what she actually said was “I just want it to help other people”. And that was one of the first ways that she really surprised me. 

Growing up, my two siblings and I experienced what was, in retrospect, a strange combination of chaos and conservatism in our household. On the one hand, my siblings and I were loud and weird, and swearing and pushing each other around was acceptable (and common). But on the other hand, my parents had a very traditional dynamic of a working father and housekeeping mother for most of our lives and – unlike a lot of people that I grew up around – our parents were not our friends, they were just our parents. This meant that, although we were all close in many ways, I really didn’t have much understanding of who my parents were in their own lives and I had a very limited sense of their history. And, being a British and Asian household, we were more than comfortable with the repression of this information, as well as any emotional topics whatsoever. Schizophrenia or not, my mum was always a bit unknowable. 

I dreaded interviewing Mum for my book. While I knew that her voice was going to be the cornerstone of my research, I also felt deeply uncomfortable trying to peel back the layers and asking her intimate questions about her life. It’s strange that, as a journalist, I’m happy to enter into this dynamic with absolute strangers again and again, and yet, when it came to playing that role with my own mother, I felt utterly out of my depth. However, when it came to conducting these interviews, I found stories that I had never even heard traces of, in all my 30 years of knowing her. I heard about her own upbringing in detail for the first time, I heard about which of her eight siblings she loved the most, and the boyfriends she’d had before meeting my dad. I learnt about her school years, her years as a flight attendant on Cathay Pacific, and what it meant to her to become a mother in the first place. While learning about my mum’s mental health was the key reason for our research, the most rewarding part was learning about her as a person. 

I think it’s common that many of us see little of our parents beyond their role as parents. The place that they occupy in our lives means that it’s probably more comfortable for them to draw the curtains, as parenting is as much of a job as it is a relationship. The opportunity to write a book that was partly memoir offered me a glimpse behind the curtains – and in doing so, it made both my mum and myself less guarded. I’ve been awed by her grace and courage in allowing her story to be publicised again and again, and for her support through the process.

A few months after the book was released, I spoke at an event in Marrickville Library in Sydney’s Inner West, with my mum sitting in the front row of the audience next to my dad. At one point, the interviewer asked a question that I thought might be best answered by my mum, a woman that I doubt has had any experience of public speaking in the past four decades. Still, she took the microphone and in a hushed voice, she answered the question, with a small audience hooked on her every word. 

While it has been incredibly rewarding having interactions with a broader community in speaking about complex mental health conditions and the issues with Australia’s mental healthcare system, connecting more with my mum has been the greatest reward of the process. We now speak about schizophrenia in our family but I think we also speak about so much more.