Stand by me: a tribute to my parents

I am told I was not an easy child. My mum says that when I was little, if it was quiet that almost certainly indicated I was up to something impressively destructive. I didn’t follow rules, I fought with my brother and I was very intelligent. Intellect is not necessarily a good thing in a child like I was as it meant I was extra challenging. Despite these things I’m told I was very loveable and quirky and most adults liked me. My grandma thought I was just wonderful as I was the youngest and she loved ‘the naughty ones.’ 

As I grew older I became less challenging and more compliant but my life was really difficult due to bullies at school. My parents were not aware of this but for me family time was my favourite time. I loved being home with my family and it was the only place I felt safe. 

When I was a teen I was quite troubled and felt very isolated socially. To address this I joined a socialist group which meant I had 100 instant adult friends. I was socially accepted by people outside of my family for the first time. Unfortunately my acceptance as a socialist led to me rejecting my family, especially my dad. We argued constantly and I left home at the tender age of 17. From this I went from bad to worse. At the age of 20 I had a partner who was a dangerous criminal and as a result of this I ended up in prison. When I was released I self-medicated with drugs and ended up getting a schizophrenia diagnosis which I still have now, almost 30 years later.

This is where my parents came into their own. Apparently one of my relatives said to my mum that she would move to Peru if her child went to jail. My mum was horrified and knew that she needed to be there for me more than ever before. Peru was simply not an option! I spent five years in prison and other institutions, unwell with mental health issues and very self-destructive. Every month I was in jail my parents would come and visit me. I spoke with them on the phone and sent them letters. Their love was so evident, even if I didn’t see it at the time. I knew my parents loved me and always would. It was the one constant in the chaos that was my life.

When I was released from my final sentence my parents were front and centre. I remember them going overseas for a holiday and coming back with loads of gifts for me. I love to imagine them being optimistic about my chance to change my life and wanting to affirm the positive choices I was finally taking by giving me thoughtful presents. I have always loved gifts! My mum observed that in prison the inmates from a middle class background usually didn’t get visits from their family. Their families tended to distance themselves. She decided that was not the outcome she wanted in our lives.

I now recognise the significant act of love my parents demonstrated by standing by me. The amount of stress involved in watching someone you love more than anything continuously sabotaging themselves must have been horrific. In addition to being supportive when I was in a dire situation as a prisoner my parents also have some other great qualities. As an autism advocate of 16 years tenure I have seen a lot of different parental attitudes around their children’s autism. Many of these attitudes have been quite damaging and unhelpful. Autistic children have been viewed as a burden, autism as a ‘curse’ and children being in need of ‘fixing.’ I remember very early in my advocacy career having a parent ask me, in front of her adult daughter, ‘how can my daughter get friends? She doesn’t have any friends and she annoys everyone.’ I wasn’t quite sure how to respond but wanted to suggest the mum may have been part of the issue! These negative views about autism and autistic kids are very unhelpful. Thankfully I can say two positive things about this, the first being that I have seen these attitudes changing over time and problem parents are less common. The other thing is that my parents have never been guilty of this sort of thing. The only issues were some stereotypes in the 1990s after I was diagnosed but to give my parents credit this was a time when there was very little information on autism available and the information that was available was often not very accurate anyway.

I often say that I owe my life and my advocacy career to my parents. When I left prison I threw out my address book as all my contacts were druggies and criminals and I wanted to escape that world. For about two years I had four people in my address book – my parents, my brother and one friend I had met in a mental health residential program. My parents love and support not only changed my life but it allowed my to live and to thrive. Our relationship has not always been easy but we have all worked on it and created a very close bond. I call them most days and they are my favourite people in the world. If you are a parent I think my parents are one good example of how to do it well. I hope none of your kids ever have to go through the drama and misery that I did but if they do experience hardships then being there for them regardless is a good thing to do. 

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