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Reducing the discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness and mental health concerns is an important component of improving the quality of life and wellbeing of people experiencing mental health problems.
One way we can reduce stigma is by openly talking about our own experiences. One of our colleagues, Annerley, has offered her story so that others can feel more comfortable with talking about their mental health.
Annerley’s story is below, which highlights some important messages:
R U OK? Day - A day in which people are encouraged to reach out to one another and ask if they are ok. A day where mental health is given a voice.
Although it’s been many years since my own struggles with mental health, I thought today would be a perfect day to get a conversation started because you just don’t know what people have or are going through. This is my story...
It was 2002, I was 19. For all that knew me (and to myself), I was a happy go lucky, extremely talkative person who just loved life! I had great friends, a supportive boyfriend, a great job, everything was perfect.
I can’t tell you when it happened or why, I didn’t have a “trigger” event that sent me spiralling. The best way I can describe it is that I went to bed one night fine but when I woke the next day someone had moved all the pieces and the game board was turned upside down.
It initially started with anxiety (although I didn’t know what it was at the time). I didn’t know when it would happen but suddenly, I’d get an overwhelming feeling of impending doom and fear. This would send me into a panic and all I wanted to do was run, run home. I could be mid conversation, on public transport, at the hairdresser when this “feeling” would overcome me. I hid this for a little while avoiding situations I felt were contributing to this “feeling”. Trying to hide what was happening. I mean, how do you even explain to someone how I was feeling?? I wasn’t living at home, so my parents weren’t privileged to the day-to-day goings-on, but my mum definitely sensed something. She would ask “Is all ok” but me being 19 and wanting to prove I was an adult; I was always like “everything’s super!”.
This went on for about 4 months. But then something drastically changed. That panic and fear was now bringing a new friend to the party.... emptiness? I’m actually not even sure what word is best to describe it, or if there is only one word that can??? But that friend was not the one who you could party with, this friend was the one who pulled you into an abyss of, well.... nothing.
I was starting to find it really difficult to be amongst people, I just wanted to hide, I didn’t want to have to make decisions or have conversations, I wanted to lay in my bed and under my blanket. At any given time, I could burst into tears, not little tears, those big ugly crying tears that come from the soul.
I visited my mum and dad one day, this was the only place I felt comfort, love, I felt safe. Mum served up dinner and as she did all I remember is that I broke down. She immediately ran to me, hugged me and tried to find out what was wrong. Did I lose my job, did I break up with my boyfriend, what? It was my answer “I don’t know what is wrong with me” that assured my mum that she knew exactly what was wrong with me. She saw the signs in me that she too had at my age many years before. Depression.
She tried in vain to get me to go to the doctor but like always, I knew better. She did everything she could but knew I was stubborn and reached out to her sister and my cousin (who was like a big sister). They were just beautiful. They talked to me for hours, introduced me to great books, took me to psychotherapy, just really did everything they could. But nothing ever truly got rid of that “nothing” feeling.
I fought with my mum because she wanted me to see a psychiatrist. Why? I’m not crazy (Although in my mind I felt like I was! It was like I was screaming but no one could hear). After another week of not working, not wanting to leave my childhood room, my mum had enough and took me to our family doctor who referred me to a wonderful psychiatrist.
I remember sitting in his dated office, looking around at the “old” people who were in there and wondering what was wrong with them. This older, Indian man came out with a file and called my name. In my head I was like WTF am I doing here?! My mum and I started walking into his office. I asked my mum to leave but she wasn’t having any of it. She was there whether I liked it or not. I sat down and the first thing he said to me was “And what can I do for you?”. I initially resisted, there was no way I was going to tell this stranger and my mum that I was the saddest I had ever been and I didn’t even know why, so I said I was fine. Obviously, they both knew better. Without writing another 10 paragraphs, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and started anti-depressants.
What I can say is how different people can treat you when you say that you have depression. I would open up to people, friends, family, work colleagues, my boyfriend. I’d be vulnerable. I was either met pity or fear. “You’re not minding my child” or “what do you have to be depressed about?!”. These words would kill me.
I lost friends, a boyfriend and left the job I thought I loved, why? Because these people made me feel like having depression was something to be ashamed of, or better still, didn’t exist. I’ll never forget someone (who may read this) tell me to “just think happy thoughts”.
So here we are 20 years later. I haven’t had to be on antidepressants for 18 years. I still have anxiety in certain circumstances but not often. I was lucky, I had people see a change in me that I thought I hid well, I had people speak on my behalf when I couldn’t, and I had people (sometimes strangers) step in and fight for me when others dismissed what I was going through as just made up.
This is MY story, you may have one too, one that isn’t finished. Yours may still be in the first chapter or the fourth, or maybe you haven’t even realized that the book is starting to write itself. What I can say is that talking WILL help. Unlike other illnesses or broken bones etc, people do not know what is going on in your mind, they can’t hear you, so please speak up. Speak up until you find that person who will by your advocate.
To anyone that has never experienced anything like this, and gosh I hope there is many of you that haven’t, please always be ready to listen and more importantly never be afraid to start a conversation. And if you’re reading this and someone lets you in please don’t ever dismiss what they say as nonsense, regardless of where in their life journey they are. They a vulnerable and at your mercy. You have the power to help or hinder. You may just be the tether that keeps that person safe.
So, this was my story. I’m absolutely not ashamed or embarrassed by it. Depression hasn’t defined me; I haven’t actually thought about it in years. I’m not fragile, I am loving, still very talkative, have wonderful family and friends and a job I love. I am lucky and blessed beyond measure. I am me.
Thank you, Mary Juhlin and Deanne Howard, for being my tether x
So, R U OK?
If you or someone you know is not ok, remember the team at Drake WellbeingHub are here for you. If you’re struggling and looking for some additional support, contact our team on 1300 135 600 or via our website