By Carmel Lillis

For the What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Award

Rachel cannot help but caress the photo she’d trimmed sixteen years before, to fit one flap of her heart-shaped locket. With the tip of her smallest finger, she strokes the wisp of hair and the baby eyes.

Months ago, when the diagnosis first shattered their world, she vowed never to set foot on the treacherous track called Nostalgia. But now she cannot help but remember the child her daughter had been. The little girl who brought her broken toys to mend and grazes to kiss.
Through life’s crashes and crescendos, Rachel had calmed her bit of quicksilver. Chosen by this sensitive child, she could do no less.

With the adolescent crumbling of all that was, just one constant endures. Rachel is still her daughter’s chosen one. Chosen as the enemy when her girl’s disorder split the world into good and evil. As the life-buoy to bob the storming seas buffeting her girl, the scapegoat for every doubt, and the shock absorber when her screams shred the night. Even chosen for her punching bag.

As a card-carrying member of the human race, Rachel never expected suffering to pass her by. But why couldn’t it have been another hole in the heart?

She knows what to do with a hole in the heart. To console, to nurse. Friends bring dollops of sympathy and food, and back them up with offers of relief.

But a hole no x-ray can detect? A gap where Logic and Loyalty and Love should flourish, but where Psychosis and Paranoia have squatted and refused to budge? Fair game, this heart hollow, for every meddler. Even friends shrink away, at best bewildered, at worst whispering uninformed theories that such illness must have been triggered.

If it is the day to hold a pity party, Rachel knows she has been lax about security. Yearnings, suffused with bitterness, crash through. How will she stop this takeover, now she has watered it with time and fertilised it with self-pity to swell it to a force capable of propelling her near the quicksand of paranoia herself. Landing rights, once granted, are tricky to cancel.

Dusk descends. Rachel can no longer make out the image she cradles.

When her mobile sings, she shudders at its cheerful ringtone. It steadies her nevertheless.

Yes, the child in the locket is gone. This pity party has been her wake. But any party must be packed away. A retrospective already beginning to pall.

For who is given the luxury of choosing their grief?

The mantra of her youth: Don’t mourn, organise. It had sustained her when she was a student activist. Might it still?

With an energy powered by love, she switches on the lamp, opens her iPad and begins:

In Biblical times, my mentally ill daughter would have been shunned as devil-possessed.

In Victorian times (think Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’) my daughter would have been incarcerated as hopeless.

In the shift away from blaming the mentally ill, excellent and over-due, has come a shift to blaming the carers. A swing too far.

When my daughter was diagnosed, I wept to a family counsellor: “I don’t know what I did… to be hated so…nor what I failed to do… ” The counsellor held up his hand. “You didn’t do – or fail to do – anything. Your daughter’s brain simply didn’t fuse right.”

A great weight was rolled back. We could move beyond self-searching to accept that this child was destined by life (and the genetic inheritance from a grandmother) to have a disorder. As are 50% + of sufferers.
Sure, abuse and neglect can trigger mental illness. Just as smoking and poor diet can contribute to heart disease.

But many heart problems just are.

When my son was born with a hole in his heart, waves of grief engulfed us. But not grief compounded by blame. ‘What did you do to cause a hole in your child’s heart?’ is absurd.

Compassionate People: Let’s make it just as absurd to hint at blaming parents whose grief for their mentally ill child is overwhelming.

Loved ones: Until society matures, don’t give landing rights to cruel remarks. You will have dark days, but don’t let the negative word distort your heart. Keep loving.

Rachel types the email address for Letters to the Editor.

So much more to do, to be. For she has still to be her daughter’s chosen one. Chosen as the face of forgiveness; as the force that is unconditional love.

On a paper scrap, she writes three words and folds them into the locket. When the next rage unleashes, she will clutch that locket. The words are the psychiatrist’s promise, delivered with off-hand weariness.

Yet no symphony performed to a throng of music lovers ever lilted more melodiously than those words – she can improve – delivered to an audience of two.