Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent

Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash

Trigger warning: bipolar disorder, cancer, death.

Today’s article is in honour of a reader’s mum who had bipolar disorder and cancer. Sadly, she recently passed away. Sharing Kim’s experience is important to raise awareness about chronic mental health conditions and how it can affect children and families. 

This is for those who are in the same boat and for those who are healing. 

You are not alone.

What is bipolar disorder?

According to The Black Dog Institute, bipolar disorder is a chronic mental illness where people experience extreme mood changes. There is a manic phase (feelings of euphoria, very active) and depressive phase (feeling really low in mood).

Such symptoms can last a week or more and can affect everyday functioning, including work or family responsibilities.

People with bipolar disorder have 15 times greater a risk of suicide than the general population, accounting for up to 25% of all suicides.

Black Dog Institute Australia

Chronic mental health illness is a serious condition. Treatment is required and can be found through psychological support or medication.

The way bipolar disorder is experienced, varies from person to person. One form of treatment may work for someone where another may not have an effect.

Challenges children face living with a parent who have a mental illness

It is estimated in Australia, there are over a million children who live with one or both parents with a mental illness.

There are many challenges that arise in situations like these. Children essentially become a young carer. They take on responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, caring for young siblings and especially for the parent(s).

Children may ‘bottle up’ their feelings as it can be overwhelming. They may also feel it is not a problem when compared to someone who is mentally ill.

This can effect your concentration levels at school, you may withdraw from usual social activities or go out more often.

If you have ever experienced this, you may have felt like you did not receive the support you needed. You may even feel guilt for the way your parents are.

Challenges for parents who have a mental illness

Parents who live with a mental illness have their fair share of struggles too. Not to mention psychological hardship, they can also experience feelings of guilt, frustration, anger and confusion. All they want to do is help their family but chronic mental health conditions can be disabling.

If you are unaware of your parenting behaviour, you may recieve feedback from your children, partner or friends. It can be a shock and will hurt hearing those words, but know that it comes from a place of concern and love.

It is important to begin treatment and reach out if your parenting is being affected. After all, your condition affects not only yourself but also your family.

What about cancer and mental health? What are the effects?

Experiences of depression, anxiety and fear are common through cancer diagnosis and treatment. Not only is it taxing emotionally and mentally, but physically too. Frustration, anger and exhaustion are also common.

In a study done in the UK, researchers explored the survival rates of cancer patients with a mental disorder (depression and bipolar). Although not statistically significant, researchers found that the general wellness rates after cancer were reduced. A number of factors affected this, including living situation and external support.

Maryrose Mongelli, A social worker from Cancer Care, emphasised the importance of a multi-disciplinary team when caring for mentally ill cancer patients. Communication plays a huge role in successful treatment. Oncologists are not trained mental health practitioners so it is important to holistically approach cancer treatment.

Family and friends who have a loved one with cancer, may experience similar feelings of sadness and fear too. After all, mental illness and cancer not only affects the person, but those that love them.

I know someone with cancer. Is there support?

If you’re in Australia, there are multiple organisations out there to support you during this difficult time.

A list of links for support below. Please read the end of this article for more services.

You can opt to see a counsellor or psychologist if you need someone to talk to. Sometimes our feelings become overwhelming and we need to get it out. Please don’t feel ashamed for reaching out – it is a brave thing to do and a good way to process your emotions.

Another option is finding a local support group. Head to Google and search for “cancer support groups [insert city, state here]”. You can also visit a local cancer support or awareness organisation and enquire at the reception desk. You can also call for brochures or pamphlets to be mailed to you, if you prefer.

It is not your fault

Whether you are a parent with a mental health condition or a child in a household, it is not your fault.

You may have faced stigma and a lack of understanding from your school, friends or extended family. It can be an isolating situation to be in.

If you are caring for a loved one with a mental illness, extreme mood changes will naturally affect you. It’s important to strive for a balance life between caring and maintaining a life for yourself.

No one deserves to experience a chronic mental health condition. And children do not deserve to be neglected or deprived of a childhood either.

Look after yourself

As a young carer, it can be extremely difficult to think of yourself when you need to care for a parent, siblings and even hold down a job to pay bills. Please be aware that it can be just as tough as a young adult carer.

It is crucial that you try your best to maintain a life separate from caring. There are groups and resources out there if you are in need. A support group who understands what you’re going through can be a great option.

For many children and teens, it can be extremely confusing if you’re not sure what’s going on. Attending these groups can help you process your emotions. It can also aid your understanding about mental illness.

You are not alone.

It can feel like you are, but there are other people who have gone through it. There are people who are experiencing similar struggles like you.

Healing after a traumatic childhood

The road to healing can be a long one, especially if your loved one has a chronic condition. But it is imperative for your own mental health to heal what has hurt you.

In order to move forward, it is important to address any emotions you may have kept ‘bottled up’.

Finding a counsellor or even speaking to a trusted friend can be helpful steps toward healing. 

Sharing your story whether it is through word of mouth, video, podcast or in therapy is another way to honour your experience.

How do we talk about mental illness with others?

My Asian family and extended family didn’t talk about emotions or mental health at all. There were a few concerned discussions about others, but that was it. There was no education or follow-up of ‘how someone might be feeling’.

If you have grown up in a household like mine and many others, it can be difficult to speak up.

The best way to talk about mental illness is to simply start the conversation. Ask your parents questions. Ask your siblings what they think. Discuss these topics with extended family. Share how you feel often and encourage others to do the same.

Be the change you want to see.

You might find that your loved ones may have been struggling with the conversation all along. You might find that they loath talking about emotions. You might find your family deny any problem at all.

That’s okay. We all process and react differently.

The important thing is that you begin. You never know what could be shared and learned by talking about your experience.

Resources | Mental Health & Cancer


A letter from Kim in Honour of her mum 

My name is Kim and I am the youngest daughter of Katherina Sarellas. Everyone’s experiences would be different to my own. My sisters’ experiences alone would be different. But I feel like if I talk about it, not only does it help me, but I feel will help others feel like they’re not alone. I feel like the more we are open and honest then we are able to feel accepted and unashamed.

My mum recently passed away from breast cancer… She was so strong, and I witnessed this every day since she was diagnosed with breast cancer 3 years ago.

Growing Up

My mum had her good days and her dark days but more than most she had really dark days… As she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder my whole life.

Being a small child and growing up with a parent who has a mental illness was a journey, but the only one I knew. I remember feeling sad and disconnected towards my Mum because I didn’t really have a Mum that could really take care of me.

There were moments where she would hug and kiss us, take us to the beach and parks…

Then there were times where we were woken up in the middle of the night to get in the car, being chased around the house. Not to mention staying in bed all day.

There were even times where we would be spoiled rotten and times where we had nothing to eat at all…

Throughout my life, I always have had conflicting feelings about how I feel about my Mum. I always felt like there was something missing from our relationship. She was mostly unhappy and when she was happy, I was always waiting for the shoe to drop. Putting my trust in someone was always hard to do, because of this.

For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me. and growing up I thought I wasn’t normal. When I was eight, I thought for every good thing to happen and even worst thing would occur… I remember feeling like… “What is the point?”

I became quite numb and placid about life. I never spoke about it at the time and dealt with those feelings on my own. It was unhealthy and dangerous because it manifested. I became someone who was distrusting and I couldn’t be happy because I was always waiting for the shoe to drop. I am still learning, but as I got older, I slowly began to see that there isn’t something wrong with me.

It was challenging growing up with an absent/non-absent mum… I remember I always told myself that she will get better one day.

During high-school I remember seeing a counsellor who told me that it was not my fault… she said I needed to lead my own life, to help myself before I can help her. At this time in my life I emotionally shut off from my mum to protect myself from being emotionally abused.

I saw her every now and then. After My mum was then diagnosed with breast cancer. It was hard taking her to her appointments and watching her go through it, as it would be for anyone else.

She needed us more than ever… and it was hard. Especially because she was not there to nurture or care for me while growing up.

Despite this… She was in pain. She was scared, and especially scared to be all alone. I was going to be by her side as much as I could be.

I’ve opened up to people in my life and it has helped me connect and understand. You shouldn’t feel ashamed about what your going through, if you feel low. Have the courage to speak up about it because you are strong for showing the world your scars.

I understand now, the relationship I had with my mum… I love my mum. In the way that I know what she’s been through, how she has suffered. Life was unfair and never gave her a break. All I ever wanted was for her to be happy.

Overall, my relationship with my mum has given me wisdom beyond my years. There are things my mum could have done better, yes. I know my needs as a child were not met. But also, her brain physically works different than most.

For a long time, I felt guilty for feeling hurt and mad. But you shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling that way, because every child deserves a childhood.

During the Last Days

My mum still had the will power and strength to want to go home. We were up and down that hospital that whole week. She fought cancer with everything she had.

As I laid with her, nurtured her through this… I found myself forgiving her for everything.

I don’t know if she could hear me, I don’t know if she understood. But as I watched her sleep and stroked her arm… I let it go. I spent a lot of time thinking through past events but you can’t beat yourself up for something you can’t change.

It’s okay to be confused at times, it’s okay to feel ambivalent. But let it wash over, it will pass through. Throughout all this I have learned a lot.

My siblings and I have turned out as well as we have because we stuck together. We understand each other in a way no one else ever will. If we hadn’t experienced what we did…. I’m not sure we’ll be this close.

I have learnt through my parents marriage, and their mistakes, that I want something different, for my marriage one day, my relationships and my life.

It’s important that you surround yourself with people who show you the kind of love you need, and take a step back from those who don’t. You need to take care of yourself, for if I want to live a healthy and happy life, I have to work for it.

In the end, I determine my journey as do you.

*This blog provides general information and discussions about mental health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be taken as medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

Announcement: I’ve started writing on Medium! Please head there for my latest posts! Thank you so much for your support~

How Being the “Chip Bitch” Helped Uncover my Confidence

Photo by Dan Counsell on Unsplash

The Foundation of Low-self Esteem

Growing up, I enjoyed reading and spending my time alone. Don’t get me wrong — I still had fun at friends’ parties and loved travelling. But being a homebody came naturally!

Once I started working at age 15, my confidence and self-esteem was quite low. Although I loved to try new things, eat different food and meet new people, a part of me was wounded and festering.

Like most people, certain moments in my life left an impact on me. Unfortunately, it was unresolved until my 20s. These traumatic experiences manifested as anger, sadness and avoidance. Mostly avoidance. At all costs.

Although I was doing okay at my job, I often felt dumb for making a mistake. If a manager was explaining why I was wrong, I felt an urge to stand up for myself. A rebellious streak was shining through and I didn’t know why I felt that way. Under immense pressure, I often fought back by doing my job quickly or I felt like crying. It was a balancing act most times!

Fast-forward to a new job, being trained on fryers. It had been a few months of cross-training in all sections (POS System, grill, burger building, running). The day had finally come to open the store.

As patrons filled the restaurant, I could feel the familiar “fight-back” feeling again.

However, the more dockets that came up, the less I could keep a handle on my anxiety. For some reason, I couldn’t fight back. I was drowning.

One of the supervising managers took one look at me and immediately dropped what he was doing.

The Aha Moment

This particular manager was from another city and was asked to train us as he had enough experience to do so. He was full of energy and confidence.

This manager looked at me and said, “It’s alright. Let’s break this down and see what you need to drop in these fryers.”

I nodded, not believing I could do what was coming next.

He made his way through the kitchen in a few swift movements and read aloud the next orders.

I told myself that I’d be damned if I couldn’t at least try.

When he returned, I was dropping baskets according to what he’d said. I apologised for being nervous.

He told me not to apologise. He explained his own steps when the orders were racking up.

In this moment, I realised that if I could think of it in a simple way, it was no longer overwhelming. I could hear a pin drop. It was like in the movies, how the hero knew it was up to them and they saw everything in slow motion.

That was the moment for me.

Of course instead of a “hero”, I was a food server. And instead of saving people, I was serving people their food.

Instead of thinking “I need to have 50 orders ready”, I thought, “I need 1 order now”.

My manager noticed that my pace picked up.

“There you go! Don’t ever feel bad about asking for help. And remember, if things aren’t working, make a change.”

“If things aren’t working, make a change.”

That quote has stuck with me through the years. It is solid advice I use today in my decision-making.

The rest of the opening went really well. My team and our trainers were happy with the turn out and everyone’s effort.

The wind-down began, and it was well-deserved. We all knew the next few months would be crazy, but not impossible to get through.

Confidence Is Here And She’s Beautiful

Months passed, and I was able to cut service wait time by 50%. Being the chip bitch wasn’t bad after all.

I served over 300 people in my time at this restaurant. I packed over 2000 chip orders in 12 months.

Isn’t it funny what we learn in unsuspecting places? I would never have guessed that — in a restaurant, buzzing with patrons and the smell of burger patties grilling — I would understand what self-belief meant.

During this time, I also started working on resolving childhood trauma in my personal life. It was an uphill battle.

The difference? I now believed in myself. I knew that my skills in customer service and kitchen were good enough.

I didn’t feel bad about asking for help. I didn’t feel dumb for making mistakes.

I will never forget that moment from years ago. I believed in myself because someone believed in me.

This is a reminder to myself and now, to you, that no matter what has happened in the past, that does not define your future.

How to Share Housework and Build New Habits

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Although it is common to see most members in a household contributing in the 20th century, what can we do if that is not the case for us?

Some people may think the answer is obvious, but from personal experience, the lines can become blurry. Especially if you’re not surrounded by examples.

1. Communicate. Set the expectations.

When living with other people, it is important to communicate your expectations. It’s also imperative that you hear out your housemates expectations too.

We all come from different walks of life. One person’s version of clean may be different to another.

When roles are clear, tasks are completed efficiently.

Don’t be that person who writes passive-aggressive notes or letters. Trust me, that is not the way to understanding another’s perspective. Learn how to communicate!

Have a casual, honest chat. See where you’re all at and go from there.

2. Keep common areas tidy.

Out of consideration for others, keep communal areas clean.

The worst feeling is to come home after a long day and someone has left their dishes or takeaway bags all over the couch and kitchen.

Clean up after yourself. It’s as simple as that.

3. Change your habits.

I have a habit of leaving my clothes on my bedroom floor. Especially when it comes to outings or social events!

If you’re starting from scratch, small habits like putting the salt/pepper back after cooking can lead to better habits.

What habits could you change? Are the habits you keep helping or harming you?

4. What is your reason why?

My version of “normal” was growing up in a cluttered home. I couldn’t have friends over. And when I did, it was either messy or I’d have to clean so much clutter, knowing it’d be the same the next day. Over time, community gatherings and parties was a thing of the past. This is my reason why.

Once I moved out, I learned the hard way how cluttered spaces are only a harm to yourself and others.

I am still a work in progress but I am so thankful I’ve learned what I have. I’m learning to live with less and only hold on to items that either bring me joy or practicality.

5. Hold each other accountable.

It’s great when you are able to live with people who remind you to do better every day.

Even when it comes to keeping the house tidy!

Small reminders to do the dishes or fold the laundry can be enough to motivate us.

For myself, I often wonder: “if someone came over right this second, would it be OK for either of us?” If the answer is no, it is time to tidy up! If the answer is yes, I only focus on one area of the house that needs my attention.

Sometimes unexpected visitors come over anyway. Sometimes my boyfriend invites people when there’s a kitchen full of dishes. That’s OK.

Regardless, hold your housemates accountable for their responsibility in the house.

This space isn’t just to exist in, but to LIVE IN, make memories in and to improve as a person. Even if that means your ability to maintain a home.

6. Maintenance is crucial.

What does maintenance mean? the process of preserving a condition or situation.

Once you’ve cleaned your home or a part of your home, maintenance is key.

A small amount of effort each day, goes a long way. Once we set habits that are ideal, it’s difficult to break.

If there are days we are sick, lazy or busy, we can rest assured that we’ve done our part to maintain the cleanliness of our home.

7. Know what habits you are modeling for your children or your housemates.

You know the phrase:

You are who you spend time with.

If you surround yourself with people who model tidy behaviour, you’re likely to follow-suite.

Would you want your children to have a legacy of hoarding? Would you want your children to move on and let laziness take over their wellness to the point of living in a cluttered home?

If your answers are “no”, it’s time to make a change.

If you aren’t surrounded by like-minded individuals, do what I did! I watched YouTube videos, read blogs and books about productive, organised people! Find a community and build your habits up!

Realise that what you do now, can have a profound effect on your family, years down the track.

8. Do your best to balance work and home responsibilities.

Back in the day, I worked 3 jobs just to pay rent. I would have to clean before or after my shifts. It was difficult and tiring but not impossible.

My point? It is important to balance work and home responsibilities.

No one is too busy to maintain the space that keeps you safe from external elements. And if you are, you can find a cleaner on Task Rabbit or other organisation to help.

If you work full-time, and your partner stays home, set fair expectations. Share the responsibility.

These days, working full time is no excuse to learn how to clean a toilet or wash dishes.

If you work part-time, designate days for household activities. E.g. Sunday is laundry day, Monday is vacuuming day.

Be committed to this responsibility. Not everyone has the luxury of a home or a permanent address. Why not look after what you’ve got?

9. Re-evaluate roles if circumstances change.

Working 4 days a week last year, meant less time to cook or clean. My best friend suggested I try a home-delivery company. I picked my meals and all the groceries were delivered to my door. What a time-saver!

Once I started working twice a week, I decided to commit to home-cooked meals at least 5-6 times a week. This also meant that my responsibility of tidying the home had changed.

Sticking to my strengths and habits, I usually do the laundry, vacuum, clean the bathroom and wipe down kitchen counters.

My boyfriend is good with dishes, handy work and outdoor maintenance. My sister maintains her own room and the dishes.

Re-evaluating roles is a great way to maintain fair expectations within your relationships and within a home.

10. Ask for help.

I left this option last. You can imagine why. When it comes to building our habits or creating new ones, it is important that we learn this on our own.

When people do things for us, we seldom find the reason to learn it for ourselves. If we don’t learn how to take care of our space, we cannot expect others to do it for us.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

So my friends, learn how to fish. And if you have exhausted every way possible, or if you have no support, then ask for help.

If you know someone who is great at organising, reach out.

If you know someone who is creative with handy-work, reach out.

There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Maintaining a tidy home reduces stress and improves our mental state.

I hope these tips were helpful and gave you some ideas about sharing housework within your home.

*This blog provides general information and discussions about mental health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be taken as medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

Announcement: I’ve started writing on Medium! Please head there for my latest posts! Thank you so much for your support~

5 Ways to Honour Your Inner Child

What is inner child work?

Commonly, inner child work is associated with trauma and overcoming traumatic experiences.

As adults, unresolved trauma can manifest through our behaviour. For example, if we experienced trauma relating to neglect or loneliness and a plan doesn’t go our way (in adulthood), we may burst into tears or scream or stomp. It is not our adult-self, but maybe our 6 year old self acting out.

On the other hand, inner child work can help us come back to the joyous, innocent and even playful aspect of ourselves.

This is why inner child work is so important for healing and moving forward.

5 ways to honour your inner child

1. Find professional, medical and mental health support

If you have come to realise that you may be experiencing unresolved childhood trauma, seeking a professional can be a safe way to heal and process.

Often therapy and counselling allows us the space and time to truly tune into our emotions and past memories.

By doing this, we can begin to get to the root of the problem and over time, we can heal.

2. Write a letter to your inner child

The goal here is to embrace the joy and innocence we had in the past. Acknowledging this aspect of ourselves can be an affirming experience.

What you felt back then, still matters now. As adults, we may down play our emotions but it is important to honour them.

To this day, I write letters (well, emails) to my future self. That way I can see how far I’ve come from the year before.

Letting our inner child know that we hear them and acknowledge their pain can shift you from thinking in pain to healing and rebuilding.

3. Be the adult you needed as a child

If you needed safety or stability back then, have you been striving for that in adulthood?

Does your life now meet your inner child’s needs?

If not, what can you do in a small or drastic way to achieve that?

It could be as simple as going back to things you enjoyed as a child: drawing, colouring or watching an animated movie.

Get in touch with who you were before the trauma. Embrace the joy, the innocence and curiosity.

For me, safety and stability are a large driving force behind why and how I function as an adult. I strive for a life that is stable emotionally, financially and mentally. I strive for a life that is safe in the sense of being free from violence, toxic arguments and an unsafe living environment.

This will always be an ongoing process, because life circumstances can change (and has changed) in an instance.

4. Speak to your inner child

It may seem really strange so stay with me on this! It can actually be a powerful way to heal and move forward.

Find a place in your home (or within the walls of a therapeutic practice if that is safest).

Imagine meeting your younger self.

Short phrases like, “I hear you” or “I see you” can be powerful when it comes to inner child work.

It can also be unnerving if you’ve never done this before. Alternatively, writing a letter like I mentioned above can be substituted for this activity.

5. Know that it wasn’t your fault

Experiencing trauma as a child is not your fault. Accept this fact and remind yourself if you forget.

You can even create a private blog or write that affirmation somewhere as a reminder.

Inner child work can be rather confronting and we may have the tendency to feel shame or embarrassment for the way we act or even acted when we were a child. That’s okay.

Trust in the process of healing and take it one step at a time.

Healing takes time

Until my early 20s, I was not wholeheartedly aware of childhood trauma or the fact that unresolved trauma can manifest in adulthood in powerful ways.

Once I started seeing a counsellor, I knew that this was a journey that would take years to process and heal from.

Despite the tears, shame and anger that bubbled to the surface, it has all been worth it.

To this day, I’m glad I started this journey. I’ve learned so much not just about myself, but about how supportive my loved ones are and have been.

Life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine and we may experience pain, heartbreak, abuse, loneliness or disappointment. Regardless, know that you are worthy of healing and that it is possible to overcome.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

*This blog provides general information and discussions about mental health and related subjects. The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be taken as medical advice. It is not a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.