A series of experiences from everyday people showing the importance of telling our stories and sharing our experiences to normalize all things mental health, bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. The more we share, the more we understand, and the more we understand, the more we can help each other come out of the shadows and into the light.
“Mental Illness has deeply entwined itself into the branches of my family tree for generations, which is probably the case for almost everyone – whether it’s openly recognised or not, though certain family members of mine seemed to suffer on the more severe end of the scale. Trans-generational trauma had gnarled and twisted the branches of our tree well before I made my entrance to the world which, by the way, was on the couch of a hospital TV room- just as the opening credits to everyones favourite TV drama, Home and Away, sang its glorious song. My genes had already predisposed me to being a bit dramatic, and being welcomed into the world by Alf Stewart calling someone a ‘Flamin Galah’ before killing off approximately 3.4 characters had solidified my determination to live up to my destined role of drama kween!
Everything was going to plan in the early years, as soon as I could walk and talk I mastered the art of theatrics- singing, dancing and cracking jokes with the charm of an (earlier) Hugh Grant, though often with my own adorable addition of a jam covered face and shit filled pants. I was successfully capturing hearts and stealing the attention from my older, less deserving sibling. I was winning at childhood. Until it was stolen from me.
As a child, you don’t have the knowledge to identify abuse, let alone the language to express how or why you get scared around certain family friends, who we all thought were trustworthy. Fuck, I barely knew how to spell my own name, I didn’t know how to spell out what I thought would get me in trouble and betray the trust of these people who I’d always known to be my friends. All I knew was that when these ‘trusted’ family friends told me to keep these intrusive interactions a secret, ‘I mean, who would believe a 5 year old anyway?’, I would carry shame with me for the rest of my life. I started to switch off, no longer wanting to be the centre of attention. Each time, my body brought me more and more shame, physically residing in my stomach like acid burning me from the inside out. I started trying to silence the burning with food, and once it started changing my body, it felt like I was adding layers or armour. I created an emotional need to eat in excess, to feel everything through food. My mind was so confused and embarrassed, that I believed them when my abusers insisted to me that nothing bad had happened. They drilled it into me so often that I let myself be brainwashed. Our families fought and drifted due to their own reasons, and without having to see them anymore, I eventually blocked out that whole period from my memory. I would later have that be credited to PTSD, but at the time I was left with this burning guilt and shame and hate for myself, in this new chubbier body, and not knowing how to direct it. I had always experienced that fat was bad and ugly and disgusting, so while I was subconsciously thankful for my body turning people away, I believed that I was all of these things also. It wasn’t until I changed schools to start year 7 that I witnessed the full extent of my depression take hold.
Starting a new school with none of my previous friends is hard enough for a kid going through puberty, though while the emphasis was on everybody making new friends, I was retreating more and more into myself. I hated myself, and while I had adapted a pretty good method of hiding this through self-deprecating humour, I didn’t want to be seen. Teenagers are horrible creatures, and puberty puts everyone under scrutiny so it was impossible for me, with all the space my larger body took up, to go unnoticed. I felt disgusting and alone, and thats when the first thoughts of wishing I weren’t alive started taking over. After it consumed my sleep, my concentration and my energy, I wrote a desperate letter to my friend. She told her dad, who told my mum, who immediately had me put on antidepressants. I was so mad at her but at that point I felt exhausted and defeated. It took a while of trial and error to find the right combination of antidepressants and sleeping pills that didn’t make me vomit or give me migraines or make me unable to stay awake, so eventually I gave up and settled on one that numbed everything down but made me gain weight. Im not saying that it wasn’t the right move to go straight to medication, as it’s what all doctors suggest first, and it was better than trying to kill myself, but I was a 12 year old mess of hormones and emotions, very much still growing and going through physical changes in my brain and body. I cant help but think that external chemicals could have altered the way my brain adapted and I learnt to rely on them to keep me as close to normal as I could manage.
My Teenage years were in the prime of angsty emo/scene culture so I fit in well while at school, though my home life was chaotic dealing with my parents divorce, which lead to my alcoholic dad becoming suicidal (in my presence, on multiple occasions) and a lesbian mother choosing a partner that quite openly wanted mum to have nothing to do with her baggage (us). I was always on edge, either tiptoeing around Mum’s psychopath sidekick, or anxiously waiting to field today’s distraught and incoherent phone call from my dad so that I could jump into action.
Every time I rang the paramedics, they were always so sweet to me, even though they didn’t seem as compassionate towards Dad. I think thats where I first decided I wanted to be a paramedic. I selfishly wanted to be that hero that could reign control over stressful situations. To me, every time I saw my Dad do this it was life or death, though in hindsight I think most of his attempts were in vain, just crying for help and I was the only one left listening.
Dad was hospitalised for the most part of the next few years, with intermittent breaks where he would invite friends he had made in the mental ward to live with him and my brother. By this point I wasn’t allowed to see Dad, Mum and her partner had had a baby so I wasn’t really allowed to be part of their family (unless they wanted me to babysit), and my Brother, who was either surrounded by drug addicts from the mental ward or left alone in the house while Dad was admitted, had followed suit and had started medicating his own traumas with drugs and alcohol- so I wasn’t allowed to see him either.
I took pride in my independence, moving out of home early and semi-successfully ignoring all of my issues. As long as I kept myself busy, I fooled myself into thinking my ignorance showed strength through my adversities. I certainly wasn’t ready to get real with myself and do the mental work voluntarily- I would need the assistance of a full blown mental breakdown.
My 18th Birthday was spent with a group of friends going out in Surfers Paradise, which was a hell of a lot wilder than the little old Canberra that we were used to, so I purposely stayed a few drinks behind. I was still awkward, chubby and was living very firmly under the belief that I was disgusting and not worth anyone’s time- so when a guy actually chose to talk to me over my admittedly hotter friends, that should have been the first red flag. He went to go to the bathroom and asked if I could mind his drink, and in true ‘I’m-drunk-and-poor-and-freshly-turned-18’ style, I sculled the rest of it. I went from being relatively sober to needing help to walk in a matter of minutes, in which time he had convinced my friends we were going for a kebab, and had me in an elevator up to his hotel room. I was fully aware of my surroundings but I had very little control over my motor function. I wanted to scream but I physically couldn’t make out words. I could see my phone ringing as my friends were calling, while more and more people entered the room. I remembered him mentioning something about being on a boys trip with his footy teammates, and I guess this was my warm introduction to the rest of the gang. I don’t know how much time passed, but when I was able to stumble out of the building and find my friends, they fobbed it off as ‘Drunk Kerry’ being overwhelmed by the male attention. I was mortified and still in such shock that I laughed it off and went about the next week travelling around with my friends, hiding the searing pain and bruises and the intense fear that I was now either pregnant or festering with scummy diseases. The dress that I wore that night still covered in their cheap cologne and tainting the rest of my suitcase with the reminder of my shame.
All it took was one week following this and one very questionable ecstasy pill to make my mind unravel. I went to the emergency room multiple times over the next few months, convinced that the physical symptoms of my anxiety was a heart attack, as the list of situations that triggered these episodes was growing by the day. I had a new job working at a law firm (where I met the wonderful Em, shout out 😉), where I felt overwhelmed from the beginning. Never sleeping and fearing that I would look like an idiot at work for not understanding the simplest of legal processes in an office of much older professionals, I started not being able to make it through a full day of work without pain and doom. Next was car trips, and then being in public at all made me physically feel like I would vomit and shit my pants simultaneously, passing out on the pavement while people just step over me. I was confined to my room, terrified of the next bout of being terrified, adrenaline levels always at a peak while I felt like my veins were coursing with razor blades.
The reality of my childhood, of my teenage years, of the recent violent gang rape, were coming back to me like a wrecking ball, and I had never been more confused. How do I tell people what was wrong? Who would believe that I could just ‘forget’ such pivotal, painful moments for so long? Why now? I didn’t have time to deal with these things, I had bills to pay, a front to keep up.
None of my friends would understand, I didn’t feel like I had family to support me. I moved in with my best friends family, who had always treated me like their own and who had fed and housed me for most of my teenage years anyway. This gift would give me some time to gather myself without as much financial pressure, which I will forever be grateful for. I saved what I could and applied for Uni in Queensland. Since coming to the realisation of exactly what happened at the hands of past family ‘friends’, I suddenly saw my abusers everywhere. Canberra was now filled with nothing but painful memories, and I couldn’t seem to escape it- so what better way to run from your problems than to disguise it as a ‘mature new life plan’, in a mature big city, studying a V mature and heroic profession like Nursing and Paramedicine.
Since moving up to Brisbane 5 years ago I’ve had 2 serious suicide attempts, multiple month+ long admissions to a mental health ward (including one back home in Canberra during a small stint back home with my mum, it’s scary how much the mental health system differs!). I have tried every different therapy under the sun, and every different medication. Ive been diagnosed with complex PTSD, Major Depressive Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder. At times, these labels have given me some sense of normal in a mind that always has, and always will function differently to how it’s ‘supposed to’. I have had to come to the very hard realisation that I don’t think I would ever be strong enough to not go downhill after seeing certain things in my chosen profession, which broke me because I had modelled so much of who I was around what I did and who I wanted to become. I was good at something, and finally I had found an opportunity for myself where I wouldn’t constantly look like an idiot. But, Murphy’s Law, I seemed to always attend scenes in the ambulance that hit too close to home. Suicides in general I could deal with, but when I attended more than one scenario of a small kid finding their parent hanging- I automatically slipped straight back to being that terrified teenage Kez. I now knew the look that paramedics used to give me, and I couldn’t give the same strength to these kids who desperately needed it from me. I found myself caring too much.
One thing I never want to convey is that I live my life by the excuses of my past. I explain my past traumas as a story not because I want to evoke pity, but I know that it’s a complex and confusing past that needs context. I still struggle with anger and blame, trying to make sense of why these things happened. I most likely wont ever be able to explain it to myself in a way that will satisfy, but I am fully aware that I need to take responsibility of where I am now. The processes I have taken to get to this stage, and building on what worked and scrapping what didn’t. My struggles tend to come about in a cyclical manner, which has been explained to me as a trait of borderline personality disorder.
When I first researched BPD it just seemed like a whole lot of excuses for shitty behaviour, with a fancy diagnosis slapped on it to make people feel better about it. The more I identify with certain traits I see just how complex and misunderstood each of my diagnoses’ are. I’m allowed to go from being completely okay and juggling everything to all of a sudden go into meltdown at the thought of having to reply to a single text. I’m allowed to have PTSD and still express my sexuality, heck, even learn to love sex again. I’m allowed to take time and take stock on myself at regular intervals, and make the necessary changes I need without being branded ‘flighty’. I’m allowed to show emotion without being labelled weak or hysterical. I’m allowed to tell my story as MINE, and not be accused of being an attention seeker. And I’m allowed to make mistakes in my recovery, because it is and always will be, an ongoing journey.
I am constantly working on myself, constantly learning and growing. My partner has brought me a long way in terms of providing me stability for my insanity. I have stayed in the same house for longer than 12 months, which hasn’t happened to me for about 10 years. I have been out of hospital for the longest time in my adult life, and I don’t feel that any one of these things are a coincidence. I have learnt patience, resilience, vulnerability and forgiveness. I have gained 60 kgs and cry more now than I ever have, but I am happier and stronger sitting here writing this rambled mess than I ever could have imagined. I’m still scared for the future. We desperately want kids but I am terrified of post natal depression or the effects of my traumas being transferred onto my children. But being okay with not being able to control it all, to predict the future, to follow a precise plan that is pretty and shiny for all those outside observers, is my own little ‘fuck you’ to all who will never benefit from understanding me. There is a lot of wisdom, love and perspective that can come out of shitty storylines. And I am thankful for the life I have created.”
– Kerry Murtha
Lifeline: 13 11 14