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Joel Kleber will never forget the day his life changed course in an instant.
Suddenly, two police officers turned up at the school and he and his younger sister were pulled out of the classroom.
“They basically said your mum’s very unwell, but they wouldn’t tell us what was wrong,” Kleber, who is now 34, recalls.
“We had no idea, other than that she was in hospital.
“You sort of panic, you think of physical injuries straight away.”
Kleber’s mum had, in fact, experienced a mental health breakdown and would soon be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, her children knew none of this.
She was parenting solo. Kleber’s father was working in Saudi Arabia at the time and only coming home two weeks a year.
Kleber says when his mum fell ill, his father chose not to leave his job to come back to look after him and his sister.
With no other family members living in Western Australia, the only option was foster care.
The siblings were taken to a Department of Human Services office to see a social worker and placed into a foster care home that day.
“That same night, we were taken to a strange lady’s foster home,” Kleber says.
“She was a nice lady, but it’s a very scary time when you go from waking up in your bed to then waking up in someone else’s bed with your mum gone in the space of one day.”
After having one day off school, Kleber and his sister were sent back to the classroom “to carry on as normal”.
It was a few weeks before Kleber was taken to see his mother for the first time in a psychiatric ward, where she had been treated with electroconvulsive therapy.
Kleber says he remembers his mum drooling as a side effect of the therapy, but still being in a manic state, rushing her kids around the ward to introduce them to other patients.
“I was just seeing a completely different person to the mum I knew, it was confusing,” he said.
“We still had no explanation of what bipolar was, we didn’t know what was wrong with her, we knew nothing.”
Looking back, Kleber says the signs of his mother’s mental illness were clear.
“She would be staying up very late, you know, staying up for a large amount of time,” he said.
“She was also really bad with money. She would go on spending sprees, buying clothes and toys and living well beyond our means.”
It would later emerge that his mother had not been paying the mortgage, causing the family to lose their home when Kleber was 12 years old.
Kleber said he spent around five years to the age of 12 occasionally going into foster care or being looked after by his friends’ parents in their homes.
“Every so often, my mum would have a relapse. The police and ambulances would come and she would be taken involuntarily into the psychiatric ward, that was just normal for us,” he says.
When the family lost their home, they moved back to Warrnambool in Victoria where Kleber’s mother’s side of the family lived.
Kleber’s mum, who he remained very close to, died earlier this year from a degenerative brain disease. He believes the disease was caused by the electroconvulsive therapy.
After graduating from a commerce and law degree at university, Kleber now works as the chief digital officer for lawn mowing mogul Jim Penman of Jim’s Group,
Kleber says for years afterwards he never talked about his childhood and the effect living with his mother’s bipolar had on him.
“I got to a point where I didn’t really tell anyone until I was probably about 28,” he says.
While many Australian children grow up with a parent who has bipolar, it was not a subject often talked about, he said.
“The podcast is about creating conversations around mental health and, in particular, stories surrounding growing up with a mental illness in the family,” he said.
“As a child of a single mother with bipolar, I wanted to create interviews that would fill the content gap around this subject. Bipolar is not understood by many, yet for those who live with it, whether it be themselves or a close family member or friend, it can be debilitating and extremely lonely.”
As well as sharing his own story on the podcast, Kleber also speaks to guests with similar experiences.
Kleber said he went through a period in his late teens and early twenties where he struggled to put the past behind him but he ultimately learned to use his difficult upbringing as a motivator.
“For kids who grew up in these situations it can go one of two ways I think, you can either really use it to sort of fuel your success, or you can use it as a reason not to achieve or do anything,” he said.
“I did use it as an excuse for a while and half the reason why I’m doing the podcast is to reach younger people or young adults to tell them don’t use it as an excuse because it’s really easy to do that.”