Stigma Fighters: Leea Swank-Hillis

My name is Leea and I am the 36 year old child of a parent that suffered from mental illness and the stigma that comes with it. This is a version of my mother’s story, from my perspective.

For my two sisters and me this story unfolded when we were around the ages of 7, 6 and 3. I am the oldest of us 3 girls and I can tell you with utmost certainty that the story that I tell is one that is most certainly different from that of my sisters. We all remember it just a little differently due to our ages,  our experiences with Mom, and how we saw other people treat her and us. However, we can all tell you a few certain facts that are the same:

Prior to her death her last label or diagnosis was one of Schizophrenic Bipolar Manic Depressive also known as Schizoaffective Disorder.

Her ultimate mind crumble came after my dad hit a moose and suffered an almost fatal brain injury among other injuries. Her world and ours, although we were too young to know it, crumbled at this moment and would never be the same again. This crumble would set the tone for years of crumbles to come. Often times different versions of suicide attempts sometimes landed Mom in and out of various hospitals if they were deemed to be serious enough of an attempt based on her previous history. We would find out years later that her first visit to Riverview mental hospital, the “big one” in BC at the time, was at the mere age of 11. Needless to say my mother’s life was never an easy one and she suffered an illness I would not wish on my worst enemy.

The main thing my sisters and my stories share is that she was an amazing mother who could do so many things given she was in the right state of mind. She loved us more than anything in this world and did her very best to try to be strong and normal. She gave us the essentials we needed to become good kind well-mannered young women, who would move forward from our experience and treat it as a stepping stone to being the very best we could. We still use those tools and her love to guide our lives now.

My version is long, so I will give you a snippet of my most painful experience along with an overlook of some of my most cherished memories that helped me cope with my mother’s illness.

From a very young age I remember being hushed and told to keep what goes on at home, at home, to put on a happy face and talk about good things. I used to think it was because my parents were private people. Now I know a lot of it was out of self-preservation and my parents hope to protect us from other people’s pity and most of all uneducated frightened people’s sometimes cruel behaviours. My most painful experience with this behaviour was when I was in grade 6. I went to a school friend’s home for a sleepover. The first night went great so I phoned and asked to stay another night. Later that morning as we finished breakfast her mom cleared the table and I sat while her dad asked me a bunch of questions. He asked me what my parents did for a living; we grew up in a small town so I’m pretty sure he already knew the answer. So like I had been coached by my parents I said” my parents are retired.” To which I was berated by another set of question that ultimately led to this 30 something possibly 40 something year old man telling me I was nothing but a welfare brat and that my parents were worthless lazy scum. At this point her mom came in and rescued me as I was in tears and my parents were called and I was picked up shortly after. Needless to say, that would be my last visit to her home and at school we no longer played together anymore. Maybe because she wasn’t allowed or maybe just because I was too embarrassed and scared. From that point on I was very careful who I told and what I said. I had friends, but very few knew what went on behind our doors and even fewer ever got the privilege of seeing the inside of my home, out of fear that they too wouldn’t want to be my friend anymore because my mom was “crazy.”

Now this is not to say there were not some incredibly wonderful people in our lives. My parents’ best friends took us in for months at a time over the years when one or both of my parents were too ill to take care of us. They treated us like we were their kids. We had our own room and beds and dressers, we could even have friends over. But most of all they made us feel safe, loved and wanted! I also had my best friend and her family. They made me feel normal. For me she made it so I felt like I could infiltrate myself into high school despite my worries of being found out and being punished for something I had no control over. These angels were there to guide us and celebrate our achievements and soften our wounds when our parents couldn’t. But most of all they made us feel normal and that “crazy” was an illness not a plague.

I like to think that things are different now and that the children of people with mental illness won’t suffer and feel alone the way I did as a child. Sadly I know all too well that this is not the case, yet. I like to think that if we can put more stories out like this, that soon people will react to the idea of mental illness like they would if they heard someone say I have cancer; with concern and compassion and not fear and judgment.

You would never tell someone with cancer “it’s all in your head, just get up and think positive and all of your problems will go away.” So why people need to say such things to someone who suffers with a mental illness I will never understand. I hope that in our near future children of parents with mental illness won’t have to hide that one time mommy went “crazy.” That these children can hold their heads up without fear of being found out. That people won’t flee out of fear because they think it contagious, and that healthy parents will let their kids play with the children of parents with mental illness. Knowledge will be our power to overcome this stigma!


Leea is a stay at home Mama of 2 beautiful girls ages 3 years and 11.5 months, and the wife of an amazing man who loves her despite all of her flaws and baggage. She is proud to say that she is the child of a mother who suffered from mental illness and that she too has suffered bouts of mental illness. Mental illness that she has encountered second hand and personally does not define but is only a small fraction of who she is and what she has to offer this world.


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