Kay is proud of the framed certificates on her bedroom wall. They are her Diploma of Applied Science and Community Health, Graduate Diploma of Education, Bachelor of Nursing and Membership of the College of Nursing. The context in which these qualifications were achieved makes them remarkable. You see she suffered repeated bouts of severe depression with suicide attempts between the ages of 17 and 40. She is not able to work in nursing anymore.
Kay explained how her last suicide attempt in January 1993 left her with a major memory problem.
‘I’ve been told I tried to hang myself. My brain was deprived of oxygen for an unknown length of time. And I suffered an hypoxic brain injury. I was found half-dead by a person who I have since met again. I told her, “I’m sorry for the predicament I put you in but I’m here now.”’
I asked, ‘Why did you try to hang yourself?’
‘I don’t remember. But I’m told the Kennett Government got in and started shutting down a lot of health care services so I probably realised I would never get another job. That wouldn’t have bothered me quite as much if I hadn’t been depressed anyway.’
‘Are you glad you survived?’
‘I wasn’t up to about five years ago because life had been too hard. It’s much better now but I have no desire to be elderly and not have a comfortable residential situation with staff. I saw the way it was for dad.’
‘How old are you?’
‘Fifty-six, nearly 57.’
‘So it’s conceivable you’ll have 13 up to 20 years of reasonable health.’
‘I’d better have.’
‘You look pretty fit. And you quite often use the expression, “Fit as a mallee bull.”’
‘And twice as dangerous.’
‘How many suicide attempts have you made? ‘
‘I don’t know. Oodles. I can’t remember. Probably about 10 or 20.’
‘You’re not good at it, are you, Kay?’
‘No!’ she laughed. ‘Well, after the last time I tried I gave up. I figured if that didn’t work, nothing would.’
‘And perhaps it’s your destiny to be here for what you can offer me and the world.’
‘I’ll be here. But on my terms!’
I laugh, ‘Well okay, what are your terms?’
‘My current health means I am productive now. But when I turn 60 I will make a directive explaining I will not be resuscitated if I fall ill. For God’s sake, if anyone resuscitates me I’ll have their guts for garters.’
‘Kay, I noticed you suffered a bad depression two years ago. You often talked negatively about family members at the time.’
‘My brother and sister adored each other and I lived out on a limb. I shared a bedroom with my sister and she treated me like a piece of shit. Years later my belief in myself was validated when I was in Exeter in England where my sister lives and the other squash club members said to me, “How can you be so nice when your sister is such a bitch?”’
‘That’s great Kay. You defied all the putdowns.’
‘Yes, I tried to be the best I could and whatever I did I tried to do my best. I figured I wasn’t the piece of shit my sister thought I was. But that didn’t stop my depression developing. That is a biological illness. That’s the part that needs the medication to help it. The rest of it needs me to help it.’
‘It’s a brain chemistry issue isn’t it? The serotonin level drops. That’s the story I understand.’
‘Yes…Yes. Particularly during winter. So I have to take more medication during winter.’
‘What’s the relevance of the weather?’
‘Apparently, when there is less sunlight i.e. during winter some people get depressed and what my doctor realised is that I’ve got both sorts of depression. I’ve got the sort when the serotonin levels are buggered up anyway but I’ve got the seasonal one too. This means I need more medication in winter.’
‘That’s really tough isn’t it?’
‘Uumm. It’s a pisser!’
We laughed.‘Have you any further thoughts about your complicated feelings about your illness and your family?’
‘I was expecting my family to have the same knowledge as me. It wasn’t my fault I had become suicidal but it was my fault I lost my temper. And I lost my temper because of the head injury.’
‘Tell me about your temper.’
‘Apparently I told people what I thought. I did it because I had acquired new knowledge why my memory was up shit creek. And I think I wrongly expected my family to have the same knowledge. But now even after my psychiatrist supplied them with all the knowledge they don’t seem to want to understand or they can’t cope with it. But I don’t blame them; I just wish it would fix itself. My memory of things before my brain injury is fine but trying to remember things that have happened since is difficult.’
‘Nobody lives a life without health issues.’
‘I’ve had it easy.’
‘But the consequences of your memory loss have meant your income and opportunities have diminished considerably.
‘But I’ve had lots of pleasure from community visiting and the other voluntary work I do. What I’m saying I’d rather be dead but if I’ve got to be alive at least my life is contributing something.’
‘Tell me what community visiting entails.’
‘I’ve done it for eight years in psychiatry and one year in disability. Community visitors work in pairs. We visit hospital wards and community residences to talk to people living there. We talk to everybody who wants to talk to us and we discuss the good stuff and the bad stuff with them. We then negotiate and lobby on their behalf. I also work in the Mental Illness Fellowship Opportunity Shop two mornings a week sorting and pricing things for sale and serving customers. I have run a scrabble group in a neighborhood house in Richmond for 12 years but that may finish soon.
‘I’m on the Disability Support Pension. I find that just a little bit difficult. I’m grateful for it. But if it weren’t for my neighbor, Lin, I’d probably be a whole lot unhealthier. She feeds me healthy meals and her dog Zoe loves me. Lin is important to me. She is like family for me and she regards me as family. I listen to her when she’s got troubles and I try to clean her house.’
Kay talked about other important people in her life.
‘I didn’t expect people to understand because I had a psychiatrist who understood. Other people couldn’t understand and take the pain away. Having two types of depression is fairly new knowledge. But my psychiatrist did. He’s great. He accepts me the way I am and helps me deal with what’s wrong. I see him every fortnight for half an hour.
‘I’ve got Benny from ARAFEMI. He’s a psychosocial support worker. He’s married, has a daughter and comes from India. He’s a good listener and he helps me most when dealing with government and semi-government departments. He is also good at telling me where I can get help if he is unable to.
‘ARAFEMI has been good to me for additional reasons. For instance I am able to live in this nice unit in Kew thanks to the former Chief Executive Officer, Judith Player. I serve on the Consumer Reference Group, Carer and Consumer Subcommittee and the Board of ARAFEMI. I might not have a complete memory but I have a lot of knowledge and my judgment is usually reasonable. And my opinion is respected.
‘I think a lot of the time I am fighting battles. Battles in life. They’re only a result of ignorance. And that ignorance in terms of mental health needs to be addressed.’
‘Kay, what do you think about the biopsychosocial and recovery models for mental illness?’
‘It’s a wank,’ she replied, her voice reflecting despair and frustration, ‘it’s not reality. Some people can’t be recovered that much.’
Kay’s recovery is significant but like many sufferers of mental illness she will never achieve at her former level. That is sad. I pay a tribute to mental illness sufferers struggling while attempting recovery.
Interview & writing: Doug Western