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Shattered Dreams – Precious Memories

by Graeme Reid

Mental illness wrecks many families—but it couldn’t destroy this one. Graeme Reid, founder of the Stepping Stone Trust for the mentally ill, shares the story of his own family, and how they pulled the children through their mother’s illness.

The Crunch:

On that cold, wet night in 1971 when I stood outside the Karitane Hospital – which I had just been told was full – our 2 week old daughter in my arms, and our one year old son standing at my side – the full impact of what had happened hit me.

They both wanted their mother (who had just been admitted into the acute ward of Sunnyside Hospital with manic depression) and I didn’t have the life skills to look after these much wanted children.

Our story began in 1969, when I first met my lovely wife Caroline at dance in Christchurch. We continued to date and found we had both come from dysfunctional families.

This became the initial attraction to each other. For the first time we had found a loving and stable relationship. In 1971 we married. At that time Caroline was in her 3rd year of nursing, and I worked on a poultry farm.

Our life together was one of real happiness. At the end of 1971 our son was born. Life was not unlike any other family. In 1973 when our daughter was born, unbeknown to us, our idyllic world was about to be shattered.

Within a week Caroline had a major breakdown and ended up in Sunnyside Hospital for 4 months. For the next 20 years with seemingly endless admissions to hospital amidst an often dramatic home life, the children and I reorganized our lives to adjust to the circumstances that surrounded us.

Caroline’s greatest pain was not so much the illness, but the disempowering effect it had on her not being the mother she so desired to be.

On returning home after that first admission in 1973, I was still very confused and shocked. It wasn’t until a few days later that the realization of what had happened hit me. I was totally unprepared to look after a 2 week old baby, and a one year old.

Because of the stigma of mental illness we isolated ourselves – and people didn’t know how to approach us – or what to say. The hospital staff made several attempts to have our daughter on the ward to try to establish a bond between Caroline and baby sadly Caroline’s illness deteriorated and the attempts were abandoned.

To make matters ever move difficult, very few support services were available, and the Hospital’s focus was predominantly on the sufferer. This has changed to a degree over the past 15 years with more help available for the family. In retrospect one mistake I made was to isolate ourselves rather than allowing others to share and walk with us.

There were times through the earlier years when I just wanted to run from the marriage and the responsibility of the children. On his death bed, my father (who looked after my mother in frequent turmoil) asked me to promise him I’d stay with and look after Caroline and his grandchildren. This promise, and my marriage vows reminded of the commitment I had made.

With this is mind I began by taking my daughter to Karitane Hospital to ask for help. The person in charge was sympathetic to our need, but told me they were full. However as I walked to the car, a voice called out through an open window ‘bring your daughter over here, and we’ll look after her for a few days’. I found out they were the nurses, and they set up a cot in the linen closet. I learnt a great deal, and on several occasions on their way home, a nurse would call in to our home to see how we were doing.

With Caroline’s health changes from home to hospital back to home it wasn’t easy to hold a steady job. In fact I had around 15. With the lack of financial resources, it was amazing how we made our own fun things to play with from cardboard boxes and second hand junk.

The children and I, along with Caroline treasured every well moment, and in 1976 bought a caravan and headed off to Motueka fruit picking. Our son went to the local kindergarten, and we loved the lifestyle. After 11 months Caroline had a severe relapse, and was admitted to Ngawatu Hospital in Nelson. Following this we returned home.

Through God’s help and an unshakable love for each other, we found that amidst prevailing tragedy and many tears, life takes on a new meaning. Its truth and purpose is revealed where, in the midst of darkness good and precious things become much more meaningful.

Schooling was a difficult time for the kids – leaving most days not knowing what to expect on coming home. Unfortunately I had become so consumed with Caroline’s illness, coupled with bouts of self pity, that the needs of the children became secondary.

Looking back, this was a crucial time in my children’s lives, and my relationship with them was severely affected by my lack of sensitivity towards them. Now I certainly listen more, show an interest in the smallest of things, and share my love in a more evenly balanced way.

Caroline’s illness often resulted in bizarre behaviour. In saying this to anyone facing this situation it is crucial, at the earliest age possible, in a language that fits, to involve and educate the children on what is happening. The unknown leaves a real opening for fear and misunderstanding to occur.

The children and I spent 4 Christmas Days at the hospital, joining in the festivities there. Other patients got to know our children and were in the main very kind.

In 1980, in another relapse I decided to forget about working, and stayed home until the end of 1983 as a house husband. There was no benefit for solo dads. The financial pressure was extreme. Precious times camping in an old tent in the Waipara river bed, fishing, picnics, holidays at Karamea continued throughout where possible.

At the end of 1983 I made a decision to become a Christian, and this brought a new sense of hope and purpose. With Caroline also being a Christian this strengthened our relationship. Around 1990 Caroline went to a healing meeting where the ladies told her, that when unhelpful thoughts came, to tell them to go in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

From that time on, Caroline’s mental health improved.

In 1991 Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer. One thing we wanted to do was to renew our marriage vows. This took place in front of 400 people in 1996. The cancer began to spread in 2000, and Caroline died on 30 July 2002, full of love for others, and with an enduring hope in God.

Our daughter is now a loving mother with a degree in Early Childhood Education, and our son passed his university degree with honours, and is currently part way through his doctorate.

The Outcome:

Through our long journey and the things we learnt together, Stepping Stone Trust, a rehabilitation and support service for the mentally ill (now employing 80 staff) has been established.

Along with a team, a new service – The Caroline Reid Charitable Foundation – is being formed to provide a community support service offering personal care and practical assistance for children and adolescents living in an environment where mental illness has invaded the family units’ quality of life.

In her testimony published in 1999, Caroline writes: “For 20 or so years Graeme and I and the children lived (or tried to cope) with my persecution thoughts and manic depression. It is necessary to add here that our children, even though they found my illness difficult to understand, were kind and helpful to me when they could be.

They were always happy to visit me in Sunnyside hospital, and tried their best to help. I’m very proud of both of them, and they grew up loving me and were loved in return.

“Graeme and I both felt it very important to tell our children that we loved them.”

When mental illness unexpectedly invades a families dreams, future and plans – certainty becomes uncertainty – and daily survival becomes the goal.

In Hindsight:

Being asked to write this article has forced me to think on quite a different tack from what I have done up until now, and for that I am grateful.

When Caroline had her first breakdown, I was in a very vulnerable space, into soft drugs and hard alcohol. A neighbour who stepped in immediately, and took the children for the first day or so, soon rang Social Welfare concerned for the children’s wellbeing. The shock of maybe losing them certainly sobered me up!

At a time like that everything is completely full – consumed by the situation. I had no emotional energy for anything except basic survival. As I have thought about it now, I realize I have taken on board the best of my father and my mother, which has saved the day for my family.

My mother could stand up for her rights when necessary, and my father, a fine man of gentle disposition, role modeled a good value system which is deeply ingrained in me.

If I had my time over, I would have taken time out to step outside the situation, and look back through the window as it were. I made a lot of bad choices – reacting to needs and circumstances – and what was needed was time to think.

One thing I would say: It is easy to underestimate / overlook the tremendous grief that takes place in the separation of a child from its mother at any stage, especially when it is intermittent and uncertain. I recognized that Caroline needed go to hospital to keep the children safe, but the children’s incredible love for their mother needs to be nurtured.

One thing I did get right (I have been more aware of this as time has gone on) was to always speak positively about Caroline, realizing that in years to come, things may not be like they were at that point – which proved to be the case.

Although our children went through the difficult teenage years (like all young people do) and because they are very different in personality – they have dealt with it all differently, by the time Caroline died, each of our children had reconciled and come to terms with their childhood.

For this I am most grateful.

At this stage I have a mutually supportive relationship with my daughter, my son and I respect each other, and are working together to get the garden organized for me to cope with on my own.

I am really enjoying developing my relationship with my grandchildren, and am only too aware of what I would have missed out on at this stage, if I had not stuck with my family years ago.

My encouragement to all the men facing similar circumstances is don’t abandon the ship. Your family needs you.

Your children’s future and wellbeing is in your hands. While your dreams may be shattered, my experience now looking back, is that the journey has been filled with precious memories, and how my life – while so drastically changed – has been so much more enriched.

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