As a young girl, I loved playing make believe, watching movies and bribing my family to watch my one woman shows in the lounge room. I was a quirky kid and incredibly close to my Mum and two sisters.
I experienced several challenges early in life which had not been processed, talked about, or healed, and in moments of high stress I would hear voices. I experienced several episodes of psychosis before the age of 12.
Throughout my high school years, I experienced severe distress due to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
At the age of 14 I felt that life was overwhelming and unmanageable.
At the age of 14 I lost hope.
At the age of 14 I tried to end my life.
What helped me at this time was demonstrations of compassion, non-judgement, and unconditional love. I was able to talk openly to my Mum about my feelings of distress and my suicidal thoughts. She asked me directly about my thoughts of suicide and my plans and helped me when things were overwhelming. Following my attempt, she gave me a day off school, bought me a bunch of flowers, took me to the movies and treated me to a yummy lunch.
I continued high school for a few more years, but my mental health continued to decline. At the age of 16, I was having daily panic attacks and I couldn’t cope with the school workload. I was also engaging in Non-Suicidal Self-Injury and my relationship with my Mum and sisters was strained.
Mum arranged for me to visit a GP to seek answers, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression, generalised anxiety, social anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Hoarding. I was also referred to a Clinical Psychologist where I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (it took 11+ years of schooling for this to be picked up).
Despite finally having some answers and despite the best efforts of those around me I couldn’t continue with school, and so I dropped out in Year 11. I enrolled in TAFE to meet Centrelink requirements, but couldn’t manage and soon left. For the next two years I rarely left home, regularly binge eating and quickly gaining 40kgs. I felt more alone, more ashamed, and more hopeless than I ever had in my life.
During this time of social isolation and emotional distress, I was reluctant to seek help and defiant when mum tried to encourage me to get support. My friends were dating, studying, and working, I did not want a support worker! I felt pathetic that someone would be “paid to be my friend”. Behind the scenes, my mum desperately searched for services that could help me, but due to living 50km outside of Perth, the support options were limited.
I was experiencing intense suicidal ideations constantly and due to my hoarding, the house was becoming unliveable and we were about to reach crisis point. Mum eventually gave me two options “a support worker is coming to meet with you, do you want to meet them on Tuesday or Thursday?” she asked. I swore and yelled for a few days telling mum to leave me alone and to accept me for who I am. But I ultimately decided on Thursday… And guess what? My support worker was AMAZING! She was kind, considerate, funny, cool and incredibly patient with me. I had no interest in her taking me shopping, helping me clean my house or to join groups. The only thing that didn’t cause me to have panic attacks was going to the movies – so that’s what we did most weeks.
My GP referred me to an Art Therapist.
Whilst still in school, I visited a number of counsellors and tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And while CBT is an effective treatment for many, it wasn’t for me. Art therapy, however, was the perfect option for me at that time.
When I couldn’t find the right words – I picked a colour.
When I couldn’t articulate my emotions – I painted a picture.
When I couldn’t handle the physical symptoms caused by mental illness – I turned them into art.
I had found a healthy new coping strategy that proved to be an incredible outlet for processing my feelings and allowing me to step back from my overwhelming thoughts.
The Support Worker funding came to an end and I said goodbye to my support worker, but not before I’d built up the confidence to enrol in a local Australian Sign Language (Auslan) class run at a Community Centre. I also returned to church and began volunteering in the youth group and started singing in the band. My church community supported me, loved me, and accepted me fully. They loved the things that I hated about myself.
I still needed professional support, and Mum continued searching for funding and services to support me. Eventually we had success, when I joined Richmond Wellbeing’s Personal Helpers and Mentors Program (PHaMs). PHaMs supported me from 2011-2014. I had a few different support workers over that time, all of whom were incredible! They helped me focus on my strengths, to break down my goals and regain a sense of control. I also attended Peer recovery groups where I met other people who were going through similar experiences and where I learned incredibly valuable insights about mental health and recovery, which I still hold dear to this day.
Mum also began seeking support for herself, she found an organisation providing support for carers called Mental Illness Fellowship of WA (MIFWA). Mum made a phone call to MIFWA’s carer peer support officer who listened to what was going on and offered support for mum. Mum and my sisters attended a 12-week carer peer group called Building a Future program where they learned about different mental health issues, what recovery from mental illness can look like and they were reminded that the person they loved was not gone but was currently covered by the cloud of severe mental health symptoms. Mum would eventually go on to become the Manager of Carer Services at MIFWA.
After several years of maintaining my support networks, I had identified a number of goals for my future. I began walking and in so doing fought my way out of the ‘morbidly obese’ weight category. With the help of a Disability Employment Service provider, I also enrolled in TAFE to further my interest in Auslan, gaining a Diploma of Auslan, an incredible group of friends, as well as overwhelming love and support within the Deaf Community. I still lacked a lot of confidence, particularly around the area of work. During an early support session with my PHaMs worker, she asked me to explore what recovery would look like for me, and I explained that gaining employment would be the ultimate ‘sign of recovery’ because it felt so foreign and so impossible.
One way I got around my lack of confidence about working was by starting my own hobby business making cakes. I also began studying Education Support and a Certificate IV in Mental Health. While I was studying, I received a phone call from MIFWA as they were looking to employ a Community Mental Health Worker with Auslan skills. I was interviewed and even went on some buddy shifts with MIFWA’s CEO to learn the ropes! I was offered a contract a once signed on, I was invited to participate in a workshop where I learned how to share my Lived Experience Recovery story with carers. I went on to become a Peer Facilitator for the My Recovery and Wellways to Work program and am now an accredited Instructor in Mental Health First Aid (standard, youth and teen) as well as a SafeTALK (Suicide Alertness for Everyone).
What has been helpful and unhelpful in my recovery journey?
There are lots of things I found invaluable on my recovery journey including:
- A great support worker
- Focusing on my strengths opposed to diagnosis
- Getting involved in activities that inspired me
- Identifying my hopes, dreams, and goals
- Art therapy
- Finding gainful employment and a supportive workplace
- Finding my tribe
- My Mum getting help for herself, as a carer
- My family learning more about mental illness. They all became more compassionate, patient, and hopeful.
And what was unhelpful?
- During a relapse I was admitted to hospital through ED. The staff downplayed my distress. A Doctor introduced himself by saying “I hear you’re feeling a bit down” (what an understatement) and I felt disappointed in the lack of support or information I received during my admission.
- A psychiatrist slamming his hand on his desk and telling me I weighed too much and that I needed to eat less and exercise more (not helpful!).
- I once had a relief PHaMs worker who had a lot of experience with severe and complex mental health conditions. They asked me what my diagnosis was and when I told them they said “oh, so not too bad then”. While I understood their intentions behind the comment, it felt quite dismissive of my pain and distress. Depression and anxiety are common, but both can be incredibly debilitating and can lead to early death.
I can’t express how grateful I am to the various community services who walked alongside me throughout my journey. Also, to my family who supported me through some very tough and turbulent times, especially when I was not easy to get along with. To the friends I made along the way who saw the best in me.
And especially to MIFWA who have helped my family and me and who continue to help thousands of individuals and families in the Western Australian community.