You and your family are off on holiday.
You’re tired and looking forward to some peace and quiet, time to kick back and relax, and find some time to be you again.
Your teenager is looking forward to some space and independence, to explore, meet new people, and try new things.
You’ve waited a long time for this.
You get on the plane to fly to distant shores and you can’t quite believe you’re on your way.
Your out of office is on. Your dog/cat/goldfish is being looked after. The ironing pile is well within acceptable levels, and the milkman knows not to deliver for 2 weeks.
Bring on the Pina Coladas.
You’ve worked so hard and boy, do you deserve them.
You lie back and begin to enjoy the flight.
As a Mum with a colicky baby walks up and down the aisle, you look across at your child, well on their way to adulthood, and you’re grateful you’re through those days of complete dependence.
As you settle into watching the second film of the flight, there’s an announcement.
“Would the passenger in Seat 26C come to the front of the plane please?”
You check your seat number.
Hang on a minute. That’s yours.
You get up, bemused and slightly concerned that your pre-holiday peace has been interrupted and head to meet a slightly flustered steward.
He asks you to step into the empty cockpit. As you do, he points at the controls and tells you that you need to fly the plane.
“What?” you laugh. “Where’s the pilot?”
“You’re the pilot now.”
You look at him incredulously.
“But, what? Why? I don’t want to fly the plane. I want to get back to my seat and eat my pretzels and enjoy the rest of the film I was watching. I’m a few hours away from time to myself, and fun and sun and rest and sleep.”
“Well, you can’t,” he replies, “you HAVE to fly the plane.”
And with that, he slams the door shut in your face.
What on earth is going on?
You can’t quite compute it and shrug your shoulders trying to make sense of it before banging on the door and screaming at him to let you out.
But he, and no one else, seems to be listening, and the door isn’t budging.
As you thump on the door with your fists, indignant and outraged, you are scared and crazy all at once. What on earth is going on? Why is this happening? How dare they do this to you now, just as you’re on your way to paradise?
And then, as the plane lists and you begin to lose your footing, it dawns on you.
You realise that no one is flying the plane.
It is up to you.
As darkness descends, you take the controls and press buttons and levers like you’re playing Whack-A-Mole – each action has an impact and you and your passengers are jolted around inside the cockpit.
Every moment you spend on the unfairness of it all takes away the focus and concentration you need to get yourself and your passengers through.
But you learn fast.
You begin to understand the impact of too heavy a touch.
You understand that sometimes you don’t need to override the autopilot.
And that sometimes, your own judgment works better than the rulebook.
And then, just as you think you’ve got it dialled and can sit back for a breather, you hit some turbulence and it throws you around in your seat.
You become fearful of every dark cloud on the horizon and you start to change course, to try and navigate around them.
And as maps are non-existent and your sense of direction has deserted you, your island paradise could be anywhere because you have no idea where you’re headed or when you’ll land.
Again, you wonder why you’re here and why this is happening to you.
You feel further away from your destination than ever before.
How did I get here, flying a plane I didn’t want to pilot, to a destination unknown?
Then slowly, very slowly, the dawn begins to break.
As the sun rises, you make out a runway in the distance.
You can’t believe it is really there because you’ve been piloting this plane without any understanding where you’re headed for so long. You’ve lost faith that you’ll ever land.
The night has been so long, and you’ve been so alone and consumed by fear.
The landing is less than perfect but as the wheels of the plane touch down on the ground, you realise that wherever you may be, you’ve managed to get there safely.
It’s clear you’re not where you expected to be. Not a Pina Colada in sight.
And you’re certainly not who you were when you left.
Too much has happened.
You’ve piloted a journey most never get to go on, and you’ve arrived in a new and different land.
But you’re all there, in one piece, because of your actions.
The pilot above is either Crisis or Realisation. When Crisis or Realisation call, you have to respond. You have to step up and change your behaviour to get everyone safely to ground.
The journey of mental illness takes us to many new, uncharted, and unknown lands. You probably don’t want to go there, but when you do, you can feel exhausted and spent, or you may feel a sense of calm and inner strength. (Or possibly both!)
Whatever you feel, this metaphor for the journey we all go on as parents of a young person with a mental illness is a unique experience and it has far reaching impacts, both good and bad.
When we go on this journey into the unknown, it’s super challenging. But there are gifts for us along the way – inner strength, new experiences, greater compassion, and deeper relationships with our children.
None of us ever expected our family to end up, alone, on the road less travelled.
We didn’t ever expect to have to take charge of such a difficult and extraordinary experience.
And we don’t always believe we are capable, or strong enough, or able to carry on.
What I know having been through this and been so close to the darkness I couldn’t breathe in case it enveloped us all, and having seen so many of you come along this journey, is that you really are stronger than you know.
Whatever twists and turns there are, you ARE able to cope.
I believe completely in your ability to pilot your family through this time.
And here, we’ll all fly with you wherever you are heading.