Author Elfy Scott grew up in a world where her mother’s schizophrenia wasn’t spoken about – both in and out of the home. In her book The One Thing We've Never Spoken About, she shares how it shaped her life.
When Elfy was little, she would leave other people’s houses with a weird feeling - and it was that something wasn’t quite right at home. “On some level, I knew that mum getting angry at people who weren’t there was strange, but I never had a word for it.” Elfy didn’t hear the word ‘schizophrenia’ until she was in her early teens, when it was mentioned to her by a counsellor at school. “And even then, I had no basis for understanding what it was.” Instead, Elfy tried to connect the dots herself to figure out what that word meant for her.
Many can relate to a lack of communication within families. Sometimes we talk about everything else, but avoid the things that really need to be said. For young Elfy, that meant discussing her mum’s mental health in euphemistic terms. “If mum was speaking to somebody who wasn't in the room, we would say, ‘Mum, it's just your voices’. But it really never went further than that.” She wasn’t told in any detail what was going on. “I don't blame my parents at all for that - the dialogue around mental health is difficult at the best of times, particularly for people of their generation.” She now thinks her parents were trying to protect her.
Of course, kids are perceptive. “When I think back now, I can only really sort of put words to the isolation that I was feeling,” she recalls. “There was always this kind of nebulous feeling that something was wrong.” At some point, she remembers going to one of her mum’s psychiatrist appointments, and being told that mental health conditions were the same as any other condition that you have to go to a doctor about. “I remember him saying that schizophrenia is like diabetes. You've got to stay on your medication,” she says. For Elfy, this helped her understand that what her mum was doing, and her medical team was all pretty banal.
As a teenager, the doctor’s metaphor hit even closer to home. “I was always an anxious child, and what I've been told is that anxious brains become depressed brains, because they are basically exhausted by the process of being worried all the time.” Elfy was diagnosed with depression for the first time when she was about 14 years old. “I started taking SSRIs. I haven't had depression in seven or eight years now, and that's the longest period of my life without it since I was diagnosed.”
Writing a book about her family life has been healing for everyone concerned. Part memoir, part investigation, The One Thing We've Never Spoken About explores with emotion our nation's public discourse, emergency services and healthcare systems continue to fail so many people. “It’s opened up our ability to talk to one another in a way that we didn't before,” she says. “Mostly I'm just really proud because my mum has been so generous both with her story and her time. It's fantastic to see her coming into her own and feeling like she can tell this story to benefit other people.”
“One of the things people don't really understand about the condition is that there is a vast spectrum of experience.”- Elfy Scott
It’s also helped Elfy understand where her mum’s schizophrenia started - just after her older brother was born. “She was a new parent who had moved from London to Sydney, where she really didn't want to live at all. I think that she was feeling really displaced and stressed.” That's when she first started to experience auditory hallucinations. “She heard somebody talking to her in a deep male voice that became more and more aggressive as she ignored it over the years.” Her mum only sought psychiatric intervention when she was pregnant with Elfy. “I can only imagine how alone and afraid you would feel to be experiencing this awful thing that you couldn't tell people about it.” When her mum describes this experience now, “she says that it's really sad feeling like these voices are not only isolating her from other people, but also saying things that are hurtful.” As for what it is to live with someone who has schizophrenia, Elfy has discovered it's wildly varied. “One of the things people don't really understand about the condition is that there is a vast spectrum of experience.” In writing her book, she heard so many different stories. “My mum's treatment has been incredibly effective. She's only had a couple of episodes of psychosis as long as I've been alive, and none have been severe enough for her to be hospitalised.” Of course, not everyone is so fortunate.
As for whether Elfy - in writing her book - figured out the answer to why so many people suffer in silence? There is no easy answer. “Stigma is not a simple, straightforward idea.” It’s hard to grasp why so many mental health conditions remain hidden, and then a handful of others, like depression, anxiety and ADHD, come into the public eye and become accepted. “Stigma is kind of just a way of routinely averting our gaze from the real issues,” she says. So where do we go from here? “The way I have come to think about mental health is not as something that should sit independently of any other part of society, but something that's a product of everything else we do.” Perhaps then, if we are all part of the problem - then the good news is that we all have the power to be part of the solution too.
To view and purchase the book, go to booktopia.com.au/the-one-thing-we-ve-never-spoken-about-elfy-scott