Lost and Found
by See Change Ambassador, Cathy Shah
Just over two years ago I lost all access in the family courts to my daughter, due to struggling from long term debilitating mental health issues. As a single mother and woman in this society, this has been one of the most difficult things to have to go through.
I want to share a bit about my story so that people can understand the difficulties I experienced, particularly how it felt for me and how I felt misunderstood. I’m hoping that by being honest about this difficult experience I can help other single mothers who may be struggling themselves through the same kind of issues.
I wish to convey the clear message that it is ok to be struggling as a parent with mental health issues. I also hope to raise awareness of the stigma attached to this and what I feel can be done through the different levels of society to begin to tackle this important issue.
Roughly seven years ago, after being diagnosed and treated in hospital for suicidal depression and anxiety, I was sent home from hospital with medication and an aftercare plan and sent on my way.
I was a single mother at the time and looking after my young daughter. I felt terrified at the prospect of caring for my daughter and trying to recover as I was still in the middle of a mental health crisis and I just couldn’t understand how I could be expected to care for myself on my own yet, let alone my daughter.
However, this was the expectation from the hospital staff, the doctors, the nurses and my family members. Everybody expected me to go home and continue to care for my daughter as normal after a couple of weeks. I was still struggling with suicidal ideation, psychosis, depression and anxiety which made it difficult for me to even leave my house.
The reason I share this part of my story is simple.
I feel like my symptoms at the time of sending me home from hospital were debilitating in every sense. I felt like I was suffering from brain damage and doing my normal day to day activities just to survive was a huge struggle for me. It is hard to convey just how bad I felt for someone who has never been through this.
(I find it very hard to speak about as I’m afraid people will think I am exaggerating or looking for attention which is what I’ve been told in the past from medical staff and family members)
If I had been sent home with a similar level of physical illness which was debilitating and needed years of recovery time then I would have been treated very differently as a single mother in terms of the supports, compassion, care and understanding I would have received from the medical team, the HSE, my family and just society in general not to mention the expectations placed upon me.
Instead, I was sent on my way and left to care for my daughter while barely being in the right health to look after myself. When I tried to tell people that I wasn’t able to look after her and I was still struggling too much I was basically ignored, told that I was overreacting, looking for attention and she was my responsibility. This was such a scary horrifying place to be in.
As a highly aware sensitive person, passionate about psychology and healing, I knew that looking after my daughter in this state would not be the best for her development. However, I had nowhere to turn and felt trapped. I wanted the best for my daughter but felt I could not give it to her as I was too sick. At this stage I felt like each day was a battle to stay alive.
I needed a lot more help to care for her while I was recovering as I couldn’t give her the emotional care she needed. I also needed for my daughter to be given emotional support and told about the situation in a way that was reassuring. The same way as if I was physically ill and not able to care for her.
This situation went on for years and I kept reaching out to my medical team and family telling them how much I was struggling and I was suicidal. I reached out to her father to ask for support. Eventually he went to court and got full access and took all my access rights away.
My mental health history and use of psychiatric medication and treatment was used in courts against me.
How do I feel this whole situation could have been avoided/improved upon?
- I should not have been expected to care for my daughter when I was so sick and fighting for my life. There needs to be education campaigns set up for families of parents with mental health issues and to educate the medical staff also.
- Extra supports need to be put in place for single parents and societal expectations need to be addressed. Stigma needs to be reduced so that a parent can feel safe to tell somebody they are not able to look after their child without the fear of being shamed, not believed and thinking you will lose your child because of it.
- The support with my daughter should have included ongoing emotional support and she should have been told what was happening in a reassuring way saying that I was unwell but getting treated and that she would be cared for. The main worry and anxiety I had constantly was that she would feel I was abandoning her. It was a terrible space to be in as a mother who wants the best for her daughter.
- There needs to be reform in family law against this type of parental alienation and stigma for parents with mental health issues.
All in all, I feel I should have received the same level of support, compassion, care and help that is offered to a single mother who is struggling through a debilitating life-threatening physical illness.
Everybody I turned to thought I was exaggerating my condition, not taking responsibility or not trying hard enough on my recovery. I did not feel heard, understood and I struggled for about five long years through a nightmare trying to look after my daughter, afraid of losing her, and battling my suicidal depression. I lost the will to live on many occasions but kept fighting to stay here for my daughter.
To make it very clear:
Just as somebody does not choose to have a severe physical illness, I did not choose to be this sick for this long. I was doing everything to recover but couldn’t because of the immense stress I was under.
In the last two years I have made leaps and bounds with my recovery process and for the first time in many years I can honestly say I’m feeling good about life and can envision a bright future.
However, I hope that by shining light on this issue, that no other parent or mother is made to feel the way I felt through my long road to recovery to health. I have gained my mental health back finally, but I have lost my daughter in the process.
In hindsight, I wished I had been brave enough to tell her father that I couldn’t look after her. However, I feared if I did that he would go to courts and I’d lose her…. Which is exactly what ended up happening. I knew that this level of perceived abandonment could affect her well into adulthood and was trying my best to avoid this at all costs.
Would this have happened had I been diagnosed with a severe physical illness?
Absolutely not. On every level from the HSE, the hospital staff, my family, my daughter’s father and extended family. It all would have been dealt with so differently even though I didn’t choose this illness.
Here are the questions I’m left with:
Why was I treated and made to believe I was a BAD PERSON AND BAD MOTHER if I was too sick mentally to care for my daughter?
The shame, guilt, turmoil and loss I have been through because of how this was handled is immense. Honestly looking back, I don’t know what else I could have done as when I reached out I was not believed.
I hope that going forward we can educate families and medical care teams so that the same level of treatment, care, help, understanding and expectations can be applied to someone struggling from mental health issues in the same way they are for someone who is physically debilitated and limited in life.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following