Trish rebuilds life after trauma and dissociation

Trish is coping with mental illness with the support of the Wollongong-based Light and Hope Clubhouse. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

Trish is coping with mental illness with the support of the Wollongong-based Light and Hope Clubhouse. Picture: ADAM McLEAN

During her senior years of high school in the Illawarra, Zoe didn't know which of her mother's four personalities would greet her when she got home each day.

Would it be PJ, the amiable 14-year-old schoolgirl who loved to confide in her? Or Kristen, an angry, suspicious young woman. Maybe she'd encounter Genevieve, the "bad ass".

More than anything Zoe hoped it would be Trish, the mum she knew and loved.

Coping with a mother with mental illness was hard for the bright young girl, who from around 14 to 18 years old was forced to take on the parenting role. She had to cook for her mum, shop and clean up after her, even help her take a shower.

Mother and daughter Trish and Zoe.

Mother and daughter Trish and Zoe.

"Mum has other personalities in her head - three that I'm aware of," says Zoe, now 20 and studying at university.

"PJ, who's linked closely to her childhood, would come out two to three times a week. She would tell me all sorts of things and we became quite close.

"Kristen was a bit of a bully but she didn't turn up quite as often and I only met Genevieve a handful of times.

"When Mum turned into another person she not only acted differently, she dressed differently and her voice changed slightly, although not enough for anyone else but me to notice. Life was very stressful and unpredictable - but for me it was my normality."

For Trish, that time of her life is a blur; for the past two years she's been fighting through the fog with the help of medication and support from groups including the Light and Hope Illawarra Mental Health Clubhouse.

The 53-year-old says she didn't even know about her alter egos till her daughter finally braved the topic and she was subsequently diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder.

The condition, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder, is controversial even among mental health professionals but typically involves the co-existence of two or more personalities.

According to the Victorian government's Better Health Channel, the person is usually not aware of these personality states and experiences them as memory lapses.

Trish says she simply "lost time" when she morphed into another personality, and when she became aware of herself again she had lost minutes or even hours, she had changed locations and even her clothes.

"I've lost time for most of my life - I remember from the age of 14 I'd be aware of what was happening one minute and then all of a sudden I'd be in another place and couldn't remember getting there," she says.

"It happened as an adult - I'd go to a barbecue and then the next thing I knew I was at home and couldn't remember the day - but I always functioned.

"It affected all my children, who are older, but it was when Zoe and I moved out on our own in mid-2009 that things got out of control."

Most mental health professionals believe that the underlying cause of dissociative disorders is chronic trauma in childhood.

It was no different for Trish, who has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, clinical depression and agoraphobia.

"I'm a survivor of child abuse but I'd blocked many memories and when they started to come back in 2009, everything just snowballed," she says.

"I began to lose time more frequently."

Trish's story might sound familiar to fans of the American drama series United States of Tara, starring Australian actress Toni Collette. Collette plays Tara, a suburban housewife and mother coping with dissociative identity disorder.

Trish is familiar with the premise of the show, although has yet to bring herself to watch it.

She has no need to relive that period of her life, a time for which she feels immense guilt for what she put her daughter, and older children, through. She only agreed to tell her story in the hope it would help others with mental illness.

"I want to raise awareness of mental illness - how it affects the person with it and how it affects those around them including the young carers like Zoe," Trish says.

"It doesn't matter where you come from, what colour you are, what religion you practise - mental illness doesn't discriminate. I realise there are people who will judge me for my story which is sad, but if sharing my story strikes a chord with just one person and helps them access the help they need then I'll be happy."

It was Zoe's school teachers who, recognising there was a problem at home, helped both Zoe and Trish get access to help in 2011. Support services were organised to help pick up the slack at home so Zoe could concentrate on her studies, and she graduated as dux of her school.

Trish stumbled, at times she fell, but ultimately she picked herself back up and today she stands strong. Mother and daughter share a close bond, and Trish gains strength and confidence from her association with the Light and Hope Clubhouse located in Wollongong.

It took her darkest days to get her there, but she hasn't looked back.

"There was a time even after I started to get help where I wasn't taking my medication - when I was self-medicating," she says.

"Midway through 2012 I had a stay in the Shellharbour mental health unit to get back on track ... but that October I got in with a bad group of people and everything I'd worked for went downhill. On December 28, 2012, I attempted to take my own life because I thought I'd failed everybody.

"That was the turning point. After a short stay in hospital I got back on my medication, cleaned up my act and the first day the clubhouse opened in January 2013, I was there."

She's still there - every Tuesday and Thursday when the clubhouse is open - spending time with new friends and relishing her role as kitchen manager.

"The support you get at the clubhouse is amazing - it's real, it's honest, it's open," Trish says.

For Zoe, it's just great to have her real mum back.

"Clubhouse has helped her regain some sort of routine and purpose in life," she says. "She started to take care of herself, and her house, and she's started to transform. She's like a new person and I love her so much."

  • The Illawarra Mercury is sponsoring the Highlights for Hope campaign to raise funds and awareness for the region's Light and Hope Clubhouse. As part of the campaign a photography competition, Shoot The Hairdresser, is being run, which will see professional and amateur snappers creating quirky shots of local hairdressers and hairstyles. Entries close on August 26; for details visit highlightsforhope.org.au.

For support and information about suicide prevention contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

* Surnames withheld

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