We have progressed a long way in mental health recognition since the 1940s. My message is that our mental health is something to embrace and speak openly about, rather than hide in shame.
The Spot Cafe in Portland, a coastal town in Victoria, Australia, was bustling with people, mainly locals. It was a cool evening early in March 1948. Summer had departed making way for the newness of autumn.
Newness indeed was about to begin for me, a little five-year-old girl.
The tables were set with red and white checked tablecloths, condiments were neatly placed in the centre of the table. Our ordered fish and chips arrived. Wedges of fresh lemon adorned the plate. I watched my father as he carefully squeezed the lemon juice over his fish. The juice flowed freely and plentifully, like the tears pouring from his eyes.
Mum had just given birth to my sister. I felt bewildered. A new person was about to join our cosy little family of three. The fish and chips smelt good. I was hungry having just started school a couple of weeks earlier. It had been a long day. I was tired.
The Spot Cafe was our second stop after visiting my mother in hospital. The first stop was a visit to the clifftop overlooking the ocean and the pier. Dad owned a little wooden fishing boat called Blue Bird. He loved to take his boat to the sea, around the pier, to catch fish.
Two police officers entered the cafe, I don’t remember having been close to policemen before. I felt a sense of excitement. I was even more surprised when they both made their way to our table. The officers seemed kind as they spoke gently to my crying father. They asked us to accompany them to the police station. After my father paid the bill, we followed the police officers to the police station, a short distance away. I sat on the edge of the tank stand at the police station as I watched my dad being questioned by the men in uniform. It was beginning to get dark. Although weary and confused, I was still feeling rather important at being in the company of policemen at the local police station.
As I grew up, I heard it said that after leaving the hospital my dad had driven his car too close to the cliff top overlooking the ocean opposite the Portland hospital. Dad had a prominent business and was well-known in the local community. Perhaps a local resident was worried about a crying man and little girl and notified the police who found us dining at the cafe. I remember admiring the beautiful view with my dad. I did not feel a need to be concerned. I knew I was in safe hands. I did not know that my father, Alf, was suffering from depression. Unfortunately, this condition was deeply misunderstood in the 1940s.
Eventually, we arrived home. Dad tucked me into bed. My father’s tears for the moment had stopped. I slept well and Dad drove me to school the next morning. I didn’t like it at school. There were too many changes going on in our home. I felt lost. I had been the apple of my dad’s eye for a long time, helping him in his many vegetable gardens around our home. The gardens seemed to spread as far as my eyes could see. I enjoyed helping him dig potatoes and driving with him to deliver apples and produce to towns in Victoria. Now I was bundled off to school, while Dad seemed sad and there was a cute new little, black-haired baby about to enter our household.
My mother and my new baby sister returned home. I was no longer an only child. I am sure I did my best as any five-year-old could to come to terms with the new changes. Dad tried to do his best by trying to feed my few weeks-old baby sister chips from the frying pan on the stove, but my mother became annoyed. She became even more annoyed one day after Dad brought me home from school because I didn’t want to go. Upon our arrival home, Mum marched me straight back, wheeling the new baby in the pram. I strutted along beside her. I was embarrassed at being late. It was apparent by then that my father had developed some mental health issues.
I felt upset when kids called out, “Your dad’s a loony,” and later, “Your dad is in a lunatic asylum”. My life had changed. I felt confused, and I also felt sad. I tried to cover it up. I must have succeeded because Uncle Wally called me Jennifer the Sunshine Girl. I liked that name, but for a lot of the time I didn’t feel like a Sunshine Girl.
My father was a kind, gentle man. He was never violent, was softly spoken, and drank very little alcohol. The only time I have heard him raise his voice was when one morning I had caught the school bus outside Malseed’s gate, a large property a few doors down from where we lived. Dad ran after the bus calling loudly, “Stop the bus, stop the bus.” Perhaps he knew his little girl didn’t want to be bundled off to school. Dad’s behaviour was out of character and unusual. The kids on the bus asked me if that was my father. I proudly answered, “Yes.” Even at five years of age, I felt the sniggers and judgment of those around me. Dad did look a bit dishevelled and agitated.
Life progressed for a month or so after this incident until one afternoon I arrived home from school, only to be told that Dad had gone away for a while. I felt devastated, abandoned and sad. I covered up my sadness because I thought I should.
Dad’s condition was rarely discussed at home. Mental illness had a stigma attached to it in those days. I admire my mother for the pain and suffering she must have experienced with a new baby, a five-year-old, no husband for support and a business that needed to be dealt with.
I contracted polio, thankfully, only mildly when I turned six. Polio was also something not discussed. Many visits to a specialist in the nearest medically equipped town of Hamilton took place. Callipers were discussed but deemed unnecessary. Only my feet were mildly affected, along with a small amount of weakness on the left side of my body. I was one of the lucky ones. Mum (Betty), handled everything admirably. This must have been a challenging time for a young, then single mother. Although petite, Betty was quietly confident, strong and resilient and always showed love and support to her two children and others.
I greatly honour my dear father for what he must have endured in a mental asylum, in a city miles from home. He had no family around him and had a misunderstood condition, which these days would have been readily diagnosed and treated.
I am grateful that mental health issues in 2023 are more readily accepted and understood.
The whole story of The Sunshine Girl will be told in my memoir, which I am starting to write. My memoir will share my thoughts as to how those first five formative years influenced my adult life.
Meanwhile, my first book Where Love Is (about to be published) contains meditations and verses that provide insights and tools for living positively. Where Love Is shows that much can be accomplished by exercising self-love through meditation, sharing, and reaching out to others when self-assurance and support are needed.
My memoir will trace my journey to when I discovered “where love is.” It will contain many peaks and troughs and explain how I got to where I am today. Life wasn’t always easy. I am now 81 years of age and lightheartedly embrace my title, the Sunshine Girl, that Uncle Wally gave me many years ago.