When a Child Has a Mental Illness: the Diagnosis

This story follows on from Life After the Convent

The phone rang and all the girls ran to answer it. Gemma-Rose got there first. “It’s Felicity!” she shouted. My eldest daughter wanted to speak to me. She had some significant news to share.

“I have depression! It’s been diagnosed.” Felicity didn’t sound depressed at all. Actually she sounded rather excited.

“Depressed? Are you sure?”

“I told a friend about my problems. She said I sounded depressed and suggested I see a doctor…”

A few days later, Felicity rang home again: “The doctor has upgraded my diagnosis to clinical depression.”

And then not long after that: “I have bipolar disorder.”

Felicity sounded happy that someone was taking her problems seriously, that there could be a physical cause for her failure to cope. But as far as I was concerned, it was all bad news. Every time my daughter called home, the news seemed to get worse and worse. I started to dread the phone ringing. What would she tell me next?

I remember a friend once speaking to me about her teenage son’s bipolar condition: “He’s gone away to a camp for children with mental illness. He’s making jokes with the other kids about how weird they all are, but how good it feels to be ‘normal’ for once.” I felt so glad my children weren’t affected like hers. I couldn’t really understand how she could talk about it so openly. Wasn’t mental illness something people kept to themselves. What would people think?

And now Felicity was telling me that she was actually suffering from bipolar disorder too..

I knew nothing about mental illness. I wasn’t even sure mental illness really existed. Surely if everyone bucked up and got on with life, they’d be okay? Maybe Felicity just had to face the fact she needed to work on her self-control. When I was a young person I had a quick temper but I wasn’t diagnosed as having a mental illness. I just faced my problem, worked hard and overcame it. (I make it sound easy, don’t I?) I changed. Why couldn’t Felicity do the same? 

But I remembered my friend’s son. I’d heard about other people who’d had a hard time coping with life. Yes, maybe mental illness was a valid condition. But still I couldn’t accept my child was suffering from it. I rejected the diagnosis because I just didn’t want it to be true. 

I thought about how I’d felt when I’d held Felicity in my arms for the first time. All the dreams and hopes I had for her didn’t include mental illness. I had wanted to keep her safe and bring her up well. She was going to develop her talents and use them. I was sure she would do spectacular things, change the world. Most of all I wanted her to be happy. Yes, bipolar disorder had no place in my plan for my daughter.

“I’ve been prescribed some medications,” Felicity told me.

I had a lot of questions. “Are the medications addictive?”  Wouldn’t it be better, even if the diagnosis was true, not to become dependant on drugs? I didn’t like to think that once Felicity started taking them, she would need them for the rest of her life. “Will they affect your health? What about when you are married and want to have children? Will they harm an unborn child?”  

Did Felicity really need the medications?  I didn’t want her to take them. But my opinion didn’t matter. She took the drugs anyway. 

At regular intervals, Felicity would phone home.

“How are you going?”

“I had to have my medication adjusted. I felt manic for a while. I’m okay now.”

I’d listen politely, not saying much. I didn’t know what to say. I’d learnt that keeping quiet and standing well back was the safest option when talking to Felicity.

Then Felicity came home to celebrate Christmas with us. She brought Graham with her. “You’ll like him, Mum! He’s just like Dad!”

One evening, a couple of days after Christmas, we all gathered as a family to sing carols together. Like usual, everyone sang a favourite by herself. Felicity seemed reluctant when it was her turn.

“Come on, you’re a good singer!” I encouraged. “We’d love to hear you sing.”

Under protest, Felicity started singing but before she’d got too far, she made a mistake and lost confidence. She looked upset and refused to sing another word.

“Don’t be silly, Felicity,” I said. “Carry on!”

But she wouldn’t. I sighed deeply and rolled my eyes. Any moment now I expected her to burst into tears. And then I noticed Graham. He had his arm around her and was whispering something in her ear. Felicity regained control of herself and things were okay. You see, I didn’t take Felicity seriously. I just wanted her to pull herself together and get on with things. Graham was more sensitive. He understood her problem.

So life continued like this for a long time. I guess I gradually came to accept Felicity’s condition even though I didn’t want to. I accepted her need for medication. I know she did what she felt she needed to do. Maybe she couldn’t endure the condition any longer. Perhaps she hoped she could live a normal life like everyone else. Sometimes people don’t have much choice.

But even with acceptance, I couldn’t seem to connect with Felicity properly. Oh yes, things looked okay from the outside. We talked regularly and said all the right things. But something was missing. The past few years were definitely getting in the way of our relationship. 

Then Felicity created a blog. It’s called Felicity’s Felicity. She started writing about herself, her thoughts, what she’d experienced. And suddenly I was seeing inside her head. I understood. I left a couple of comments on her blog or Facebook. Then Felicity picked up the phone and we started talking, really talking for the first time in years. Oh there is so much we keep hidden within us, so much it feels safer not to reveal. But when we are brave enough to talk, we can begin to move towards healing.

It’s still not easy in some respects. I don’t like getting phone calls where Felicity says, “I’m phoning from the mental unit of the hospital. I’ve been admitted because I’m hearing voices. I need my medication adjusted.”

What do I say? “I hope you feel better soon”?

It’s frightening, especially when you are told your child is under 24 hour surveillance. Surely my daughter isn’t at risk? She’d never take her own life, would she?

I once ventured onto a bipolar disorder Facebook page in order to understand the condition better. I hated being there. I hated even more the thought my daughter was one of these people. “Stay away from people with bipolar. They’ll make you more depressed,” I yearned to say. But then I remembered the comfort it gives me to talk with other bereaved people. Everyone needs others who understand. They can help and I admit I can’t.

So Felicity has bipolar disorder.She’s had it for a long time. It has caused her a lot of confusion and mental anguish. Because of it, she has been misunderstood and judged. She hasn’t understood herself. Now her disorder is controlled by medications. Even with them, she can’t function like me. She has many talents, but she isn’t always mentally healthy enough to use them. But she tries and one day I hope she will feel able to do all she wants. For her sake, not mine. I love her just the way she is.

You know, I think it’s love that brings us through such difficult times. Sometimes it seems to get buried under a whole pile of problems, but it’s still there. It won’t let us give up on each other. And eventually it starts to emerge again, as we begin to heal. I know Felicity’s and my love will keep on growing. You see, we’re mother and daughter again. I really am Felicity’s mother.

And so I come to the end of this story. It’s not really the end. Maybe it’s only the beginning. For when we ignore our fears and step out of our comfort zone, facing the mistakes of the past, miracles can happen.

I’m hoping for a miracle for my daughter, the daughter I love very much. 

Image: I stole this image from Felicity. I hope she doesn’t mind. I rather like it.

Thank you for reading such a long series. And thank you so much for your comments. I am glad I have been able to share this conversation with you.

These posts have taken up a lot of my thinking and writing time recently, so I haven’t had much time left over for blog reading. But now I can catch up. It’s now my turn to visit you!

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    • Amy
    • January 17, 2014

    Thank you for writing your story, and Felicity's. I think it is incredibly awesome that you both are talking about it to each other and on your blogs, letting us, your readers, in on it! Hopefully that makes sense. The alternative, NOT talking about it, is how my family operates. My brother is ill, but does not ever talk about it, so no one else dares to either.

    1. Reply


      I'm sorry to hear your brother is ill. Talking does helps. We don't have to tip-toe around the issue, and we understand one another better. You know, once I got started on these posts, writing about this topic wasn't so hard after all. Everyone has been very kind and no one was critical of my past mistakes. Yes, it's been good!

  1. Reply

    Thank you both for being braveand open. In Denmark a year or so ago a campain for mental illnes avarenes was in the busses and everywhere. It shoved a lady wiht a leg in a cast and crutches, and a normal looking lady with a sign om her stomach saying "Mental illness" The writing on the sigen was: "Why not be ashamed of a brioken leg?" I don't think this campain helped a lot, but still silence never did any good.

    God bless

    1. Reply


      Oh your story illustrates such a relevant point. People who suffer from mental illnesses look just like those who don't. The symptoms are on the inside with the pain. But they are still 'broken'. Maybe the shame comes from other people not taking their suffering seriously, dismissing it. We've had a few mental illness awareness campaigns here too. I wonder if they are unsuccessful because everyone likes to think that mental illness has nothing to do with them. It always happens to 'other people'. It's shocking when it does in fact happen to us or those we love.

      Thank you so much for reading this series!

  2. Reply

    Well, I hate mental illness!! Do you think that is OK to say? But, I could very well say that I also hate cancer or anything else that ravishes my child and their quality of life.

    Somehow, I got a hold of The Catholic Guide to Depression. I am thanking God immensely for this book and for your story. I have begun to take this diagnosis much more seriously.

    One of the things that I have learned so far is that I cannot "talk" my daughter out of it. She cannot pray her way out of it, although prayer is always good. The saints who have gone before us experienced darkness and depression among other afflictions and they didn't neglect their spiritual life.

    Mental illness is very complicated and each case is unique.

    It has it's roots in the fall. But, Jesus has redeemed it along with every other affliction. That means that there is always hope for a cure or wholeness in this life. But, if not, we can resign ourselves to whatever our cross and rejoice in the fact that Jesus has given new meaning to suffering.

    The struggle for me right now, is acknowledging sickness, yes, but what to do with bad behavior. It's one thing with a younger child, but seems different with a full grown adult. It is sometimes hard to be compassionate when it affects the quality of life for everyone else and specifically the little ones. I know this may seem bad or mean of me, but they are my feelings and I'm still learning and trying to make sense of it all.

    Thanking God for you and also for Graham.

      • Fliq
      • January 17, 2014

      Hi Michelle! I hate mental illness too! However, I have learnt some very important lessons through mental illness, and I have met some people who have told me that they would not choose to be cured of their mental illness, even if they had a choice, because the mental illness is now such an intrinsic part of themselves. I think I would choose a cure, but I wouldn't want to go back in time and erase my experiences of mental illness because I have learnt so much through it.

      As someone who knows many people with various mental illnesses, I can say that reacting to circumstances badly can be unavoidable for some people. But deliberately refusing to learn to do better, or using mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour, is unacceptable. I'm not always able to control my emotions; I can do things out of impulse, say hurtful things to others or fall into harmful patterns of thought. However, I am always trying to do better – I regularly attend classes, see a psychologist, take appropriate medication and watch my behaviour. I may not seem better, but I try and I always apologise if my behaviour hurts others.

      I guess, that even though things are made a bit harder for me through mental illness, that does not excuse me from all responsibility. I am still responsible for my behaviour, and I need to do all that is in my power to gain control back of my life. On a personal note, although I am friends with quite a few people with mental illness, I am reluctant to make friends with anyone who doesn't have an on-going plan of recovery for their condition.

      Wow, that was quite a wall of text! I hope that clears up my views on mental illness and personal responsibility for behaviour though!

    1. Reply


      You said, "One of the things that I have learned so far is that I cannot "talk" my daughter out of it." Oh yes! I tried to do that so many times. A priest once described my period of grief as a 'dark night'. I wonder if depression could be similarly described.

    2. Reply

      Felicity, I love what you have written in this comment. Especially the next-to-last paragraph, where you speak of needing to do all you can do. I see you looking at this "hand you've been dealt," and saying "Okay. This is the way things are. So now, what do I do to make the best of this that I can?" What a solid approach. You're not letting yourself be a victim. You are moving forward, with the kind of ongoing plan you want to see others have. I absolutely feel like applauding, giving you a well deserved standing ovation.

      Even though it's only through "cyberspace," I feel so proud to know you.

  3. Reply

    Mental illness needs to be talked about, and talked about without fear. Yet I think it is hard when a member of the family or a friend has a mental illness because it can change their personality making it somewhat different from a physical illness. It is scary, especially for the individual suffering. Both of you are brave talking about it and in doing so you are showing that people are so much bigger and more important than the illness, and that a happy, fulfilling life can be lived with the right treatment.
    I wish Felicity every joy in her life.

    1. Reply


      Uglemor and I mentioned shame in an earlier comment. Maybe this comes from being unable to control oneself due to the illness, knowing one's behaviour is affecting others adversely. Felicity would know.

      "people are so much bigger and more important than the illness" Yes, we love regardless. Felicity mentioned how she has learnt so much and grown a lot because of her illness. It's the same for me. When faced with such a situation we have the opportunity to be supportive and loving to the person affected, despite the difficulties. In doing so, we grow too.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts and the wish for joy!

  4. Reply

    This has been a beautiful series. Thank-you BOTH for your honesty.

    1. Reply


      Thank you! I was a bit apprehensive at first, but everyone has reacted very kindly to my posts. I really appreciate your feedback. Thank you for stopping by!

    • Hwee
    • January 17, 2014

    Thank you both for sharing your struggles. It is indeed bewildering and heart-wrenching both for the one who suffers from the condition, as well as those around him/her watching it from the outside.

    Being a very left-brain-trained kind of person, my first inclination when I come across cases of emotional/pyschological/behaviourial issue is to try to isloate and locate the causes. So far, my research points to many corrleations in the areas of:
    1) food
    2) environmental toxins
    3) neurology
    4) endocrinology
    5) cell biology
    6) the role of enzymes

    It might be worth your while to look into these areas. 🙂

    1. Reply


      I get the feeling you know so much about health issues like this one. Perhaps mental illness comes within your professional field? Thank you so much for passing on the main points of your research. It is always good to investigate. Several people have mentioned diet. It seems food can have a greater affect on our health than we sometimes realise. I'll do some reading.

      Thank you for reading my posts and adding so much to the conversation.

      • Hwee
      • January 18, 2014

      I'm just an interested party who is curious enough to do detailed research. Nosey, as some would call it. 🙂 I became very interested in health issues eversince I became a mother and wife, as keeping my family's health at optimal level is my top priority.

      Logically speaking, if we think of our body as a mini universe of its own with millions of biochemical reactions taking place within it every day, then it is not too far fetched to think that anything that upsets the balance of those naturally occuring biochemical reactions will in turn have a great impact on one's physical and mental health. Just to take my point a little further: what we normally consider to be "behaviour" or "outward reactions" are really biochemical responses within our brains and nerves/neurons, which are in turn affected very much by digestion (hence what we eat becomes the raw ingredients fed into our body) and how those broken-down foods are being absorbed by the cells within the body.

    2. Reply


      I think mothers know far more than many health professionals about some issues. We have a vested interest, our intuition and we take the time to research things properly. I do appreciate you sharing what you've found out.

      The mini-universe image of the body is very helpful. Thank you!

      It's been good sharing this conversation with you. Thank you for taking the time to stop by!

  5. Reply

    Sue, thank you for sharing this. This story affected me deeply as I remembered my own struggles with accepting my father's bipolar diagnosis when I was young. Felicity is a brave and beautiful girl and I can see how proud you are of her. Our family dealt with it by NOT talking about it and this harmed us all in the long run. It especially harmed my youngest brother who felt nothing but shame when he started struggling with mental illness as well because of the way my family dealt with my dad's illness . Now we understand so much more about brain chemistry and are far more open with each other.

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for sharing your own mental illness story. I'm sorry to hear your brother is affected too. Your story shows how important it is for parents to share their own struggles with their children. You know, I have shared so much with mine through blogging, probably things I would never get around to talking about normally. I guess this is good!

      We seem to be very wary of anything we don't understand. Sharing openly helps us all to be informed and I think we also grow in compassion for one another. That can only be good too!

      Mary, thank you for your kind words. May God bless you and your family!

  6. Reply

    When I was in my early thirties, I was (finally) diagnosed with "major depressive disorder", and "anxiety". I still suffer from both. They come and go. They have kept me from doing things, scared off friends and potential friends, they've made hate myself and resent certain people. Because of insurance changes, I've not been able to go back to a doctor about it. And to make matters worse, my eldest daughter also suffers from panic attacks like I do, and I fear she may have depression also. Currently we are both self-medicating, holistically. Gaba Calm is our choice, as it helps with panic attacks and helps us "deal" with things when the crying jags start. I hate it. I wish no one had to suffer with it. I hate how it makes you feel, how you feel you have no control, the fears.. and then to have others laugh about it, ridicule you for it, roll their eyes and think you're doing it for attention.. really, REALLY makes me angry. Acceptance is not that common… I wish more people could be understanding and less judgmental.

    I have appreciated very much, this series. It's not easy to admit to, talk about, and 'bring out' for all to see. Yet you have, with love and hope. God bless you both, Sue and Felicity. ♥

    1. Reply


      I really appreciate you sharing your own feelings and reactions. I have never experienced anything like this. We tend to judge others on what we know ourselves, and of course we usually get it all wrong. So it can only be helpful for us to see how things are from your point of view. I am so sorry you are suffering in this way. You have a big cross. It must be very difficult, especially when friends retreat. Perhaps they don't know what to say and do to help you, so they back off. Some friends did this to me when I was grieving. It hurts so much. At a time when you need people, they are too scared to hang around.

      When I started writing about grief so many people felt able to 'come out into the open' and admit they were suffering too. Grief can feel lonely. It can make you feel crazy in a 'normal' world. Maybe mental illness is similar. When we start talking about it, it gives others permission to talk about it too. And that feeling of being alone can be decreased and we can help one another.

      I have rolled my eyes in the past and accused Felicity of seeking attention. I am grateful I've had the opportunity to learn better. I always think that without my experience of grief, I would still be insensitive to those suffering loss. It's the same here. By sharing your experiences with those who don't really understand, you are giving us the chance to grow in compassion. Thank you.

      Thank you for sharing my stories, Susan. May God bless you too.

    2. Reply

      And by the way Felicity, I LOVE your hair!! 🙂

  7. Reply

    I've really enjoyed this little journey with you and Felicity, not in an "entertained" way but in a deeper understanding of people way 🙂

    1. Reply


      Thank you! Yes, we can 'enjoy' sharing each others' stories, even the painful ones, because they lead us to greater understanding of each other. That can only be good. Thank you for reading my series. God bless!

  8. Reply

    Thank you so much, Sue. This must have been a lot of mental and writing work for you. I have been busy in the last days but today I have catched up on the "story". I read comments about Felcitys husband looking like Andy. I would have said, Graham looks like Duncan. But maybe I'm the only one. Anyway, your posts have made me quite thoughtful. I will also take a closer look at Bipolare Disorder. I wish you and Felcity and her husband the very best on your continuing journey through life. Hope you can relax somewhat now…

    1. Reply


      It did take me a long time to write these posts. I kept adjusting my words as I remembered more I wanted to say. But I am glad I did it! I have sadly got very behind on reading all my favourite blogs though. I am looking forward to finding out what everyone else has been writing about while I've been immersed in this story.

      Andy, Graham and Duncan all have beards. Callum does too but he has a different build and face shape from the others. Maybe Felicity thinks Graham is like Andy in personality to, so that's why they remind her of each other.

      Thank you for reading this series of posts, and thank you for your kind wishes!

    2. Reply

      No problem, Bernice. I didn't even notice. Actually, I typed Felcity instead of Felicity dozens of times while I was writing these posts!

    3. Reply

      Oh, sorry for the misspellings. Of course it's Felicity!

  9. Reply

    Sending hugs to you and Felicity. I have really enjoyed your story, from both points of view.

    PS – My Miss 11 just wandered past, saw Felicity's picture on the screen and said "pleeeeease mum, can I do my hair like that, it's so awesome!" … lol

    1. Reply


      Thank you for the hugs and your kind words!

      I've missed your blog posts. I guess you've been taking a break over the holidays. But when you return, will there be a photo of Miss 11 with pink hair for all of us to enjoy?

  10. Reply

    Sue and Felicity, thank you both. You have been so brave to share your stories with such honesty here. I just read through this series and some of the comments. I'm sure you have been a blessing to your readers and to others who are still to come to these stories. 🙂 God bless you both.

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for reading our stories and stopping to comment. It is always good to hear some feedback. The conversations that developed from my posts were very interesting and helpful. Readers were very kind sharing their own experiences and thoughts.

      May God bless you too!

  11. Reply

    oops, hit enter too soon as usual and I forgot to say how much I love that picture of Felicity at the end of this post! 🙂

    1. Reply


      I am an expert in hitting 'enter' too soon! Thank you for returning to comment on the picture. I like it too!

    • Anna
    • September 27, 2016

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    It can feel so very lonely when you are suffering from a pain like this, a mother's heart aching for her children.
    Once I was feeling so broken hearted and was vulnerable and cried and shared about my daughters illness and was told our family had a spirit of witch craft over us. I think a hug and a meal would have been kinder.
    It can be so lonely being guarded even with those who are friends.
    Your story is so important and you and Felicity are so brave in telling it. Thanks for being brave it helps so much to know that one is not alone. That we are not forsaken by God in our troubles.
    God bless you all.

  12. Reply


    I'm so sorry to hear about your daughter's illness and the unhelpful reaction from people around you. Does your daughter suffer from a mental illness too? Mental illness is so misunderstood. As I said in my posts, it took me a long time to come to terms with it. I didn't want to believe it was real. I guess it's hard for people to know what we're going through, but they could be kind regardless. Yes, a hug and a meal would help especially if no one knows what to say. The wrong words can hurt deeply.

    I'm glad I wrote this series of stories even though it was difficult to put things into words. Maybe we need to talk more about these issues, bring them out into the open, so more people become aware of them. I never would have written Felicity's story without her permission. I didn't even consider doing this until she suggested it. It turned out to be good. We got a very much needed opportunity to talk things over. And maybe, like you, some readers now feel a little less alone.

    It's good to chat. May God bless you and your family!

    • Anna
    • October 1, 2016

    Yes, anxiety and depression.
    It is helpful to bring mental illness to the surface.
    I am so proud of my daughter. It takes a lot of courage and strength to get out of bed when you struggle with depression and anxiety.
    Let's see that as strength not just what is seen and perceived as weakness. They fight everyday to be brave. This is strength not weakness.
    Blessed by your blog, videos and especially your kindness Sue.

  13. Reply


    I'm sorry to hear that your daughter suffers from depression and anxiety. Mental illness is such a big suffering. It must indeed take great strength and courage for your daughter to get out of bed each day and keep moving.

    I can feel the huge love you have for your daughter and how proud you are of her. She must be so thankful for your understanding and unconditional love.

    Anna, you are the one who is kind. Thank you for your comments and generous words. It is good to share with you.

    God bless you.

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