‘Our frightening family secret’
Amra Pajalic was four years old when she went into the backyard and saw her mother climbing up the side of their house in the suburbs of Melbourne with her eyes closed. She remembers feeling terrified.
"I was watching and really scared and going, 'this is scary, is she going to make it? Is it going to be OK?'" she told news.com.au.
"But it was also like, 'she's an adult, she's knows what she's doing'.
"My brother and I were playing in a sandpit and she was doing the washing and she just had this thought."
Amra's father had recently died, and this was the first time the little girl realised something wasn't right with her mother. Fatima's manic episodes and "nervous breakdowns" were becoming more frequent and confusing, but the family would not realise she suffered bipolar disorder for years.
"She believed (our father) was in the house and he was haunting her and so she taught us this prayer at night," said Amra, now 41.
"She had people coming through the house - there was a guy who claimed he was a imam, he went around doing prayers and putting prayers into a plastic bottle of water, sprinkling water around the house, which was quite bizarre."
Fatima cycled through a series of bad relationships and hospital visits as she searched for someone to help her cope, constantly moving house and placing the kids in new schools. One boyfriend was so controlling and abusive that they had to run away with just a few clothes and stay in a tent while he tried to find them.
Eventually, Fatima could not handle her mental health problems any more and the family's friend realised they had to take serious action.
"She wasn't sleeping, she wasn't functioning at good level," said Amra, who was then aged five or six.
"It was reaching the end and they knew she couldn't stay home with us and could not care for us, but she refused to be in hospital.
"She locked me and my brother in the room and she was like, 'we're going to pray'. When one of the family friends tried to come into the room to take us out, my mum fought with her and physically pushed her out and locked the door.
"In the end, the police came and entered and took her away.
"That was like a really traumatic episode, to see your parent taken away like that."
Amra and her brother went to live with the family friends, but a neighbour notified the Department of Human Services that they weren't equipped to care children, because they were elderly. The police returned - and the children went into foster care.
Now a mother to a 10-year-old daughter, Amra remembers virtually nothing of this time, while her younger brother recalls being given toast and told not go outside alone. She believes the trauma has wiped her memory clean.
When Amra turned eight, her mother took them to stay with her grandparents in Bosnia.
"We had stability, but for mum it wasn't so great because there was no understanding at all of mental illness," she said.
"The medication she was taking over there did not stabilise her, so she was cycling through mania, through different emotions and she taken to hospital."
The facility was filled with recovering alcoholics, with cold showers, unwashed bedsheets and no therapeutic program. Patients simply sat around and smoked, Amra recalled.
"So that's how she ended up marrying my stepfather, because she needed someone ... it was a marriage of convenience for a while, before they fell in love."
The family moved back to Australia. Amra, 12, has a normal life for the first time, going to the same school, living in the same house and regularly visiting her mother when she was in hospital.
It was only when Amra went to see a high school counsellor aged 16 after skipping school that she spoke about her mother's condition. The counsellor gave her an information sheet, and the family finally understood Fatima's condition.
That hasn't made it easy. Fatima, now 65, still has manic episodes, although she can recognise the signs. Her medication does not stabilise her as well after physical health issues forced her to switch to a different drug. She has been married to a man she loves for 31 years, but some of her extended family find it hard to accept her actions when she is "high".
She has accused her daughter of abandoning her, and made Amra's husband of 22 years physically vomit after saying "really horrific" things to him.
"I've had to learn how to go, yeah, that's my mum, but it's not," said Amra, who has written a memoir about her experience, Things Nobody Knows But Me. "And yeah, those are hurtful things but they just have to go in a box and not exist and then when she's better - she can remember to a certain point but then when she's really high she has no memory of what she said, so you can't hold someone accountable for that."
The high school teacher and author - whose debut novel The Good Daughter won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature's Civic Choice Award - says writing the memoir has helped her process her traumatic memories.
"I had post-natal depression after my daughter was born and I felt like I was suffering from PTSD, where all these memories from my childhood kept coming back as if they had happened yesterday," she said.
"I found the process of writing it and putting it in its place and trying to understand her perspective and why she made some of the decisions she did and what she was trying to do really helped heal me.
"Everything that she'd been doing, there was no malicious intent. She was honestly trying to survive the best she could, she was honestly trying to do the best she could by us, but she had disadvantages - she had no education, she had no family. She really was battling
"It took very a long time to write and, honestly, there were parts of it that felt a bit like torture but I felt I had to get it out of me - like trying to get poison out. I was extracting the poison, putting in these pages.
"Writing makes memories fade so some of the things I wrote about, talking about them now feels a bit, like, not as vivid. When I would talk about it before, I could see the colours, I could see it like a picture in my head, whereas now when I talk about it ... it doesn't feel as present and I like that it's faded.
"Now I get it ... You just have to let things go, you just have to let it float away."
Things Nobody Knows But Me by Amra Pajalić is published by Transit Lounge and is on sale now for $29.99.
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