Justin Heazlewood: Schizophrenia Was the Unwelcome Houseguest of My Childhood

29 June 2018 Justin Heazlewood

Justin Heazlewood: Schizophrenia Was the Unwelcome Houseguest of My Childhood

Justin Heazlewood

Justin Heazlewood is best known as The Bedroom Philosopher – particularly for his album Songs from the 86 Tram. In a new book, he explores another part of his identity: as the child carer for a parent suffering from mental illness.

Schizophrenia is a scary thing. I mean, even the word is terrifying. Look at it! It’s from the Greek, meaning “split mind”. Despite containing the same good Scrabble letters as say, “schnitzel”, with a phonetic shape of “arachnophobia”, the associations are scary. Nothing unsettles like the thought of an unhinged mind. I know schizophrenia well. It was the unwanted houseguest of my childhood; the estranged family member coming between me and my mum. Schizophrenia will always be the villain in my story.

I grew up as an only child in Burnie, Tasmania. Mum had paranoid schizophrenia. We never called it that, though. We didn’t even call it mental illness. She was either “well” or “not well”. When I say “we”, I mean me and Nan and Pop (plus Blossum the cat). That was my team. My support network. I never called them that, but I called them up when Mum wouldn’t stop crying. I saw Nan and Pop on the weekends, which left the weekdays. The interminable empty afternoons, jumping on the trampoline, alone with madness.

To quote Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Sometimes I think people don’t understand how lonely it is to be a kid. Like you don’t matter!” I was double lonely, which is like a double rainbow, but the opposite. An unhappy monochrome mouth, squashed on the pillow, hissing and crunching.

People with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. They hear voices. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? Sometimes the voices made Mum laugh. She would be cacking herself on the couch (this in turn made me giggle). Sometimes the voices taunted her. She would grind her teeth and hiss horrible swear words (this would make me angry). I was on the receiving end of Tourette syndrome. Heat-seeking audio blades, spearing into my ears.

My job was to say, “Get up, Mum!” or, “Stop it, Mum!” or, “Mum!” or combinations of anything and everything, all day, most days. My job was to talk her out of getting takeaway and to “please cook”, like the “opposites sketch” on You Can’t Do That on Television. Mum was the delinquent teenager and I was the grown-up child carer. I didn’t call myself that, I just called it “My Unfair Life” starring Justin the Champion, who does his best in everything, whether it’s counting fractions or Mum’s tablets.

Now all grown up, I decided to reckon with my childhood. You better believe I went back there. I wiped my calendar for three years, opened every can of worms and unearthed each time capsule. These came in the form of cassettes. My childhood hobby was recording myself and my family. I collaborated with teenage “Heazy”, taking his tapes and combining them with my own fury and love and skill to turn a silent old story into something bright and new and bold. A book, called Get Up Mum

It’s good work to remember Mum when she was well. She was funny and warm and caring. She fussed and fixed my breakfast and checked my spelling and tucked my tag in. People with a mental illness are still good people. My mum is a beautiful person. She’s not the “crazy person on the bus” you might have in your head. She’d be sitting quietly, hands folded, arranging demons the universe forced upon her.

They say schizophrenia is still the black sheep of the spectrum. That’s understandable, it being so wild. We fear the unknown, so it stands to reason that education is vital. One in 100 people will experience it. Statistically, schizophrenics are more likely to be the victims of violence than the instigators. “Split mind” doesn’t mean multiple personalities by the way, more like “split off” from reality. Sufferers can’t tell what is real and what isn’t. What a mean disease.

My mum is a lovely lady. Our story is a great tragedy. Sundays and seasickness and ‘So Far Away’ by Dire Straits. For my whole childhood she would be well for three months and then sick for three months and then well for three months… That was the cycle. It was probably because she stopped taking her tablets, which is common. It meant she broke my heart over and over again.

Justin Heazlewood’s memoir Get Up Mum is out now.

Illustration: Michel Streich. Photo credit: Elise Derwin.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue edition #565 'The Power of P!nk'