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By now you may have read the account of a pregnant Italian woman who was restrained in a psychiatric facility after suffering a panic attack at an airport in Essex. The woman’s family spoke with authorities and revealed the woman was bipolar. A High Court order was obtained for her upcoming delivery “to be enforced by way of caesarean section.” According to the woman, she was forcibly sedated for the procedures and when she woke up her baby had been taken into care by social services. Fifteen months later the woman’s child remains in Essex Council care, with a recent court ruling failing to uphold the woman’s right to care for her child.
By the time I finished reading the article I was shaking with anger. I wanted to write to the British Prime Minister and I was sharing the link with anyone who would listen. Not only was the child forcibly removed from the woman, the child was taken because the woman is bipolar. This was deeply personal. My mum lives with bipolar. This could have been her. This could have been me.
When I was about 15 my mother went back to university, which was stressful for her. She started talking about being accused of plagiarism, and thought people at uni were talking about her. Mum’s husband, my sister and I took this at face value, it seemed plausible. But then she started referring to family events that had occurred 10 years ago as if they were currently happening. An ambulance was called and she was taken away. Later my sister and I were taken to visit her at the public psychiatric facility where she would live for the next few months.
I was scared and ashamed. I had a “crazy” mum. I started to act out in small ways. I would go to visit her if I was made to, but I would sit there with my arms crossed, judging all the other “crazy people” and wondering why my mum was making friends with them. Also, why was she talking so slowly, and why did she seem so out of it? I wanted her to come home. At this age, the interactions I had with my mother regarding her illness were uncomfortable and stilted, and so I eventually stopped engaging her about it. Instead, I told her she was boring me. I wanted her to be my mum, not my mum with bipolar.
After mum got really sick, things changed for our family. She was given electroconvulsive therapy after consenting to it in a deep depression. Mum said they did it with the curtains open and the hospital sent her home to her two teenage daughters with electrodes still stuck to her head. It took weeks for her memory to get back to normal. Her marriage suffered, her friends stopped calling—it was “too much” for them.
Seeing people abandon my mum when she needed them the most and taking on that supportive role ourselves was hard. My sister and I knew even when we were little that mum was different. But it was not until we were much older that we realised how much she actually hid her illness and symptoms from us.
Although she trained as a social worker, mum managed on little income because full-time work was near impossible, and supportive part-time working environments were rare in those days. She found it hard to find secure long-term housing in the public housing system and we moved often. She struggle without support systems and positive options in the public health system.
I remember mum telling me that when my sister and I were young that she was scared to approach anyone in authority and admit she was struggling, because she feared my sister and I would be taken away. Most painfully for mum, she fought negative reactions from her friends and family. These were the days before organisations like Beyond Blue would raise awareness about mental illness and the stigma associated with it.
But through all this I would never call her an unfit mother. She ensured we went to school and championed education. She told us “girls can do anything.” She would pick my sister and her friends up late at night from clubs because she wanted to ensure they got home safe. She gave us advice and was a mum to our friends. She took us on camping holidays full of fun and adventure.
My mum is fantastic and ensured our childhoods and adulthoods were safe, fun and positive. She often tells me that my sister and I are her two greatest achievements. There is every possibility that the daughter of the Italian woman might never grow up with her mother and hear those words.
A few years ago I organised a quiz night to raise money for the mental health advocacy service where mum used to volunteer. She got up to make a speech, and I knew she was unwell. Inside I felt dread. Would she embarrass me? Would everyone see she was sick? She spoke with intelligence and clarity, thanking everyone for their support and gently, yet passionately, asked people to consider mental health funding and reform in the upcoming election. People came up afterwards and told me how great she was. The venue hosts were so moved they waived their hire fee. They could see something I had lost sight of.
In that moment my attitude towards my mum changed. She isn't a “crazy” person who requires care and management. She is my mum, a fiercely intelligent woman who lives with bipolar and raised two kids virtually on her own with strength, dignity and good humour. My sister is having a baby soon. She told me the case in the UK made her feel vulnerable about her own pregnancy. You see, my sister has had panic attacks too. I keep thinking about the headline of that article, Child taken from womb by social services. How easily everything can be different, for some people.
“While we are making progress to de-stigmatise mental illness, these horrifying events in the UK remind us that elements of the legal and medical profession still consider themselves the final arbiters of women’s reproductive rights, just as the NSW government has done with Zoe’s Law.