It was probably an unremarkable photograph as photographs go.
A childhood picture of Tim Elliott with his father, Max, on the balcony of their Sydney home.
“It was a lovely photo – Dad would have been in his mid-forties, he was in swimming shorts and I was kind of hugging him around the waist,” Elliott recalls.
“When I looked at the picture I could also remember the pair of shorts I was wearing.
“I used to love those shorts; they were a soft grey and i remember the feel of them …”
Elliott chanced upon the photograph while collecting images to pass on to the publisher for his book, Farewell to the Father.
The award-winning investigative journalist has written a moving memoir of growing up with a dad consumed by mental illness – a man who was “lethal one day, loving the next”.
Elliott says his larger-than-life doctor father would have been diagnosed as bi-polar these days.
But most of all I can hear him screaming and ranting, tearing the house down with his big, broken heart...Tim Elliott
He remembers him singing in the shower.
He remembers the sound of his laughter.
But most of all I can hear him screaming and ranting, tearing the house down with his big, broken heart, making it quake with his rage and sadness.
There were ups.
But there were many more downs, according to Elliott.
He would threaten suicide; he would attempt suicide; he would try to strangle me; he would throw my older brother out of the house; he would threaten my older sisters; he would chase our mother around the living room with a carving knife.
Elliott loved his father. Indeed he worshipped him.
When he stumbled across that ordinary, intimate image of father and son years later, the floodgates opened.
“I just began crying on my way to the publishers,” Elliott recalls.
“The feeling came totally out of nowhere but it was just so powerful.”
Equally powerful was the response by readers to Elliot’s first raw revelations in an article for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine in 2014.
The piece generated one of the largest reader responses in the paper's history, which took Elliott by surprise.
“The response was unbelievable,” he reflects.
“I received hundreds and hundreds of emails, support on Facebook and even physical mail.”
What was so fascinating for Elliott was the extent to which people recognised themselves in his story.
“There were so many people who said they’d had direct experience of this in their own lives,” he says.
“One person wrote, ‘It’s bizarre how closely your experience reminds me of my own; it’s almost as if you were hiding in a cupboard at my house’.”
Elliott attributes the huge response to that first article to the intimacy of the writing.
“Writers generally have a game face,” he admits.
“If you drop that facade and write from the heart, and you write truthfully, there is a capacity to reach people very powerfully.”
Elliott’s book arose from the article by the same name.
His story has been described as “one of the finest, most moving pieces on mental illness you'll ever read".
It’s that searing insight into a shattered mind Elliott will share with the Albury-Wodonga community when he speaks at the winter solstice event on June 21.
He joins former NRL great Ian Roberts and Love Your Sister cancer campaigner Sam Johnson to help the Border shine a light on mental illness and suicide as the longest night of the year closes in.
Elliott himself has known dark places.
“I picked up his (my father’s) genes as far as depression goes,” he says.
But with medication and enthusiastically recommended cognitive behaviour therapy, Elliott was able to arrest that “death spiral” of depression and anxiety.
He doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of a take-home message for Border residents – “I grew up in a big city with a supportive family and I was very privileged”.
What he can say, with absolute conviction, is that he understands.
“I know,” he says.
“I know when you say to someone I’ve been through that, they are no longer besieged in their own little castle.”
Growing up in 1970s Sydney, Elliott had a loving stay-at-home mum, a professional father, three siblings, a private school education and endless opportunities to fish and surf at the nearby beaches.
But this was not the idyllic childhood it appeared.
Mum told me that she'd had suspicions about Dad's sanity for years, but his terminal deterioration, his dive-bomber-like plunge into oblivion, began around the time I came along.
There was, therefore, no period in which I can remember him being "normal". But I must have been about seven when it first dawned on me, conclusively, like a flicked switch, that something wasn't right.
By the time Elliott was 14, his father had become too sick to work.
He had bathroom cabinets and bedside tables full of pills, which he washed down with Beefeater gin.
Some of them made Dad impotent, which infuriated him; others made him dopey. None of them made him happier.
There were suicide attempts.
I wanted to save him, I wanted to make him happy. But at the same time I hated him...
Things became so bad that eventually Elliott’s mother fled with him to a secret house for his final year of school.
Elliott visited his father in the former family home with his sisters and older brother.
The mighty Max Elliott would write long, rambling letters to the woman he’d been married to for 30 years.
He was certain she’d come back and then morose when she wouldn’t.
He stopped shaving, showering and eating properly.
Looking back, we must have known, on some deep, unacknowledged level, what would happen.
Max Elliott died by suicide on March 23, 1988.
Elliott says individual recollections and experiences are all part of the story of mental illness.
He spent nearly 30 years searching for the key that might have unlocked his father and made him whole.
But, of course, there is no key for people like Dad … This is what he understood and I did not.
- Tim Elliott’s work is featured throughout this article in italics. If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline: 13 11 14.