The seeds of my recovery: A new community and a little Scotswoman.

I am not sure when it happened. But at some time between naming the dream, and starting to work towards it, in a myriad of tiny little ways, the dream began to take hold of my heart. It transformed from a joke into a deep motivation. I wanted to do this. Kaz would help me to do this. I could do this.

In this article I explore how the seeds of my recovery began to take hold after I went to a community-managed mental health service.

For the first time, I found control, hope, meaningful connections, and eventually, life dreams.

The disappointingly boring day-to-day existence of a mad woman

I hate to ruin a good stereotype, but being mad can be incredibly dull and demotivating.

Despite what most procedural cop shows may have you think, we mad folks do not spend all that many of our days in quests to save the world, conducting serial killing sprees or talking to inanimate objects.

My friend Lyn would like me to mention that we do not cover our walls with pictures and attach string to form odd connections. This is another product of Hollywood, rather than anything we have ever done or seen our friends do.

Although writing on the walls is something we sometimes do. Usually because we can’t afford decent paper, but not always. In a world where you feel invisible, sometimes a blank wall is just begging for a statement.

I’ve decorated a few walls in my time. Once I painted a small wall in a hospital meeting room with giant question marks using my own blood. I was lying on the floor, legs up on a chair, admiring my concise and dramatic commentary on life when a nurse came in. She was, of course, immediately confronted with the glow of my self-admiration and my brilliant artistic exposition. She disappeared quickly.

Cool, I thought, she was moved by my work. But a few minutes later she returned with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. Clean it up, she said briskly, then sat down on a chair to supervise. Philistine.

Given that most of our lives is not particularly filled with dramatic endeavours, you may wonder what mad people actually do use to fill their time. Or perhaps you don’t. Never mind, this is my story and I shall tell you anyway.

Medical appointments fill up much of our time, and excessive sleeping as a result of sedating medication also digs into the schedule.

But once these duties are out of the way, then time stretches out like a river peppered with crocodiles lurking just under the surface. Doing almost anything requires wading out into that river and taking the risk of rejection, scorn, being overwhelmed, drowning or failure. Besides, I had no energy, no money, I looked like a freak and most importantly, had no reason to do anything, anyway.

My future as a mental patient was sealed: I would either stay mad and poor, or at some point I would finally end myself. The safest route for me was to spend most of my time at home doing as little as possible besides trying to survive being me. Television, staring at walls, self-harm, doodling with my art and writing were common activities.

My writing filled many journals with scribbles and philosophical ponderings. Like, a lot. My medication made it difficult to concentrate on reading, but from time to time I would try to take in a book, usually self-help or philosophy. They rarely helped. For some reason that is inexplicable to me today, I would occasionally spend hours sitting beneath the table in my flat. I like to imagine that it felt safe, that it reminded me of building forts under the kitchen table when I was a child. But really I have no idea why I did it. So, that’s probably a little mad, I guess.

Music was a great comfort to me during these years, and I spent many hours lying on my bed or the floor immersed in sounds and lyrics that spoke to my soul. The dark lyricism of Nick Cave always moved me. I felt like he understood, perhaps more than anyone else. Besides which, the man is a poetic genius – the way he paints with words brings a beauty to dark feelings that often helped me to carry on, to find a grace in my pain. The ethereal escapism of Portishead and Bjork carried me away from myself and into a world of sound respite, and in later years Mazzy Star joined this list, too. Listening to Radiohead felt like a sound painting of my melancholy, and I felt their comradeship echo around me in my rage at myself and the world for letting my life come to this.

I sometimes wonder if my musical tastes made me more unwell by reinforcing my dark moods, whether they were a simple regression to teen-angst, or whether they provided a connection and understanding that I couldn’t find anywhere else. There is nothing quite like being immersed in music that reflects your deepest feelings, that wraps itself around you in familiar solidarity. I don’t know the answer to this: perhaps it was both helpful and problematic, like a good friend who keeps leading you into mischief.

My self-harm was wrapped up in my art work by this time, so when I did make art it was macabre and disturbing, although I spent less and less time at classes or in my studio. I took time off regularly, and missed some semesters entirely. Universities have this convenient option called ‘special consideration’ for people with disabilities, so somehow this was OK too.

My career as a low functioning mad woman did not require much in the way of grooming or accessories. As the days rolled into each other it became less and less important to shower, or even to get out of bed. From time to time my mother would visit and point out that I hadn’t been brushing the hair on the back of my head. Painful hours would ensue as I tried to detangle my self-forming mega-dreadlock of horror.

Many mental health consumers struggle with personal hygiene. But even knowing how common this is, and appreciating the reasons, it is nevertheless confronting to look back on myself and know that I had reached such a low point. These days it is a continual reminder of my dreams and new-found strength when I paint my nails, wash my hair or put on fresh new clothes. I love lipstick and wooden beads, brightly coloured tunics and giving myself facials. Yet once I would wear the same shabby, blood-spattered clothes for more than a week.

The points of drama in my life came with crises. When everything became too much, and I would end up in hospital. For a time my hope would heighten that things were about to change, that the cure was about to be found. But then nothing really did change, after all. I always had such hopes that hospital and doctors and nurses would heal me. But more often than not, after a hospital admission, I felt much, much worse.

Finding safe haven: My first encounter with a community mental health service

I spent most of my days hiding inside my little flat. But my friends Athena and Nick (not their real names), who were staying with me for a spell while they looked for accommodation, would regularly head off to attend art classes at a local mental health service called Prahran Mission.

I didn’t know anything about this place, but it sounded like it might be full of evangelical missionaries looking to save mad souls.

It seemed a little odd to me that an independent woman like Athena would attend a ‘churchy’ kind of community program.

One afternoon I asked Athena why on earth she went to this place. She proceeded to enthuse about free art classes, friendly people, a support worker she loved, and really cheap lunches. No preachy stuff at all, apparently. Hmmm.

My finances were in a particularly bad state at the time: not only was I resorting to generic-branded chocolate as my treat of choice, but it was generic-branded, compounded, cooking chocolate. The stuff had the texture of soap and the flavour of an old dishrag, but poor chocoholics do as poor chocoholics must.

Anyway, the idea of a free and friendly art class sounded like something sent from heaven. I was less sure about seeing a support worker, but I was willing to give it a go, especially with Athena’s endorsement. I did not know what I was getting myself into.

After a brief period of practiced avoidance, forgetfulness and procrastination, I eventually took myself along to this Prahran Mission place. It was located smack in the middle of Chapel Street, a grotty reminder of the working class origins of this now trendy inner city shopping strip.

I was assessed straight away and assigned a support worker by the name of Kaz Mitchell. I didn’t know it, but this woman was an angel in the guise of a short, smiling Scotswoman in a cable-knit jumper.

It turned out that Prahran Mission was a government-funded mental health service. What they called at the time a ‘Psychiatric Disability Rehabilitation Support Service’, or PDRSS for short.

I couldn’t even say the thing, let alone make sense of it, but the free art classes were real, and just as Athena had promised, there was not a missionary in sight.

The program was free for people in my situation, and everything was voluntary. It felt like nothing or nowhere I had been before. It kind of felt like home.

What’s more, there were woodworking and writing classes, art therapy, groups on coping skills, and a shabby friendliness that felt nothing like either a psych ward or my imaginary fear of missionaries lying in wait to save my soul.

Funny really, since this place was eventually going to help save me.

About community managed mental health services.
Today in Victoria, these PDRSS services are called ‘Mental Health Community Support Services’. These types of services are run all over the western world as an adjunct to psychiatric, medical services, and they’re typically government-funded and not-for-profit charities. They grew substantially after the mental health system deinstitutionalised in Australia during the1980s, and they provided an essential service to people who had spent most of their lives in locked psychiatric hospitals, and who were now gradually released to live in the community.

Organisations like Prahran Mission and others provided essential support and resources for people to adjust to independent living. For many this involved practical help such as food parcels and shelter, learning to cook, clean and shop. Social activities and human connection was also essential. Over the past twenty years they have developed models of practice around mental health rehabilitation that stretches beyond just practical support. They offer what are sometimes called ‘psychosocial, recovery-oriented interventions’ that can be highly therapeutic. Many of these organisations have been strong advocates of social justice issues in mental health. They have promoted the consumer movements, been leading employers of peer workers, and provided essential alternatives to hospital-based, clinical and involuntary treatment. Most of all, they have embraced the consumer-developed concept of recovery. That is, that recovery does not have to mean getting rid of symptoms. It’s about living a life that we choose and value.

Tragically, in Victoria where I live, the government has been de-funding these services in favour of the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This means thousands of people can no longer access the kinds of life-saving, compassionate support services that I describe in this article. It’s a tragedy and our government should be ashamed.

How this little community changed my life

If you haven’t been there, you cannot overestimate the despair of aching loneliness and self-loathing that so many of us consumers live with.

Human connection is something most people take for granted through family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. But when you look and behave in ways that are strange and different, and when the media promote terrible and untrue myths about us being dangerous… then, well, people have a tendency to drift—even run—away. And those people who do remain in our lives do not always help to build us up, despite the very best of intentions.

People tend to speak about us differently, often patronisingly, and they stop asking for our opinions. Although they are often happy to give us theirs. Loved ones can go to great lengths to try and save us from ourselves. An honourable, though generally doomed, intention. It is hard not to feel that we bring shame and disappointment to our families, discomfort and fear to our friendships, and annoyance and disruption to our neighbours.

Prahran Mission provided me with an equalising environment to the rest of the world.

Everyone is mad here. And nothing bad happens here (unlike hospital).

Oh, what a relief.

When the need to apologise for yourself, and to hide, is lifted, when others may be just as smelly or dishevelled as yourself, and when acceptance of you as a human being, just as you are, is so strong that you can almost feel the embrace of shared humanity wrap itself around you… well, it just somehow feels easier to keep on breathing. To be. To belong. And for me, from this place of belonging came a strength that made so much more possible.

When I first met my own new support worker, Kaz, I was not aware of any of the ‘goals’, ‘work’, or ‘skills’ business, and a good thing too or I probably would have run for the hills. Those free art classes were on my mind, and I was hoping that perhaps this support worker might be someone nice that I could chat with. It gets lonely being mad.

Kaz was, and remains, little in stature, but that is the only little thing about her. A fiery Scot with spiky hair and a cheeky grin, Kaz has an enormous heart, an unshakable belief in the capacity of people to heal, a deep respect for the people she works with, and a great fighting spirit that I am sure her ancestors would be proud of.

Kaz taught me to dream again, to believe that anything was possible. She encouraged me to make art and to take pleasure in small things.

The special gifts of groups

My time in the art room and the woodwork room at Prahran Mission were deeply special to me. It was the first time in years I felt I had a place that was safe, where I would be accepted no matter what, where nothing bad would happen to me and no one would judge me. I relaxed. And in that space I was able to learn to dream again, for the first time in many years.

Groups in the art room were my favourite. Unlike going to art school, where everything was about criticism and theory, or community art groups, where I felt different and unwelcome, or just couldn’t afford them, at the Mission it was just about taking the time to enjoy the process.

I could chat with others, and create anything I wanted without judgment. Mind you, my internal judge was still there and plenty busy with commentary… but having a space that reinforced something different, something positive, was important to me.

I made a friend, Inez, who loved art and was struggling with madness too. She challenged me to believe that beauty was a good thing in art and that I should embrace it. The idea of exploring beauty was especially tantalising to me. So much of my life was caught up with feeling evil and disgusting, that there was something almost sacred about looking for visual pleasure, and about taking the time to appreciate it. I found that the process of art making was soothing, regardless of what I ended up with.

Through group I met many fellow travellers who faced similar struggles, and we shared many long chats after groups where I felt that I had made a new and special understanding. We gave each other hope and encouragement.

Looking back on these years, I think those group spaces provided a kind of launching pad for me to face the rest of the world. In groups I could practice how to talk about difficult stuff with others. I could be brave. What’s more, there are some things you can only really talk about with people who have been there too.

I joined a woodworking group, too, run by a gorgeous fellow called Peter.

Initially I was rather frightened of all the equipment. I didn’t know how to use any of it, and Iwas half worried that I would be tempted to self-harm with the table saw and wind up without a limb.

But Peter took such care to take me through the safety procedures and to make me feel welcome that it would have been a real betrayal to do something like that in his group. He trusted me, and I wanted to live up to that trust.

I remember Peter giving us different blocks of wood and showing us how the grain and colour differed, and getting us to inhale the aroma of the timber. I had never before stopped to smell a piece of wood. A simple thing, perhaps, but still a delicious fragrance in a life that otherwise stank. Little things, big impacts.

One week we put some old reclaimed floor boards through the finisher machine. Some builder had donated them to the Mission rather than taking them to the tip. I was stunned to see these wizened, gnarly old grey planks come out the other end of the machine with a smooth, rich, glowing red finish. The timber was so beautiful, and this beauty had been inside the horrid exterior the whole time. Discarded and unvalued until we found it. It gave me something to think about in terms of transformation and renewal.

One class I told Peter how I couldn’t afford decent presents for my niece and nephews, and that I was fretting over my youngest nephew’s upcoming birthday.

Peter helped me to design and make a wooden jigsaw puzzle over several months, and then I painted it in the art class. It was a little beetle car, with my nephew’s name on the number plate.

Every cut and brushstroke was made with love on that little puzzle. I was so proud when I gave it to him. While it wasn’t as fancy as a shop-bought toy, it had been months of hard work and love. I guess another charity might have given me a donated toy to use as a gift. But I think what the Mission did, in supporting me to make my own special gift with the few resources I had, was far better. Not only did I have a gift to give, but renewed confidence in myself, a sense of pride and new skills.

It turned out that I spelt my nephew’s name incorrectly on the puzzle, so my sister and I had a slight tangle over this. I felt so ashamed, but I compensated by telling her that she had spelt her son’s name wrong in the first place. Perhaps not the smartest of strategies. But we got over it as sisters do.

These woodworking skills were something I would use for years with my nephews. As they grew up we worked together on many projects: planes, robots, cars and monsters. It was a cheap hobby, but a fun one. Despite my lack of money I was able to share something valuable with my nephews. We all loved stretching our creativity to make cool things with little money.

These skills may not seem directly relevant to mental health recovery, but I think they were. They gave me confidence, something to share with those I loved, a way to feel capable and valued, and, perhaps most surprisingly, indirect and existential lessons on life that had a very deep value.

Finding the dream that powered my new life

Kaz would meet with me regularly, and she was unremittingly, sometimes annoyingly, positive.

She pushed me to dream of a future, to dismiss all the messages of the naysayers, and to imagine what I could be if anything were possible.

She spent month and months hounding me to dream, to imagine my future. I thought she was nuts.

I knew my future. Proper doctors had told me about it: I was going to be a psychotic borderline on the pension. I was always going to need these drugs, which meant I was always going to be fat, half asleep and not able to think properly. I would probably never work again. I would never get married or have children. I might end up having to live in a supported home. My future sucked. Unless I found the ‘courage’ to end it all. These were my options. Or so I thought.

In the end, after many months, and almost to shut Kaz up, I said that it would be nice to have her job. Kaz got to help people, she worked in an art room – she made it a better world in kind and creative ways. Kaz had been talking with me about my values, and I could see that her job seemed to embody the things I most cared about: kindness and creativity.

And so Kaz, bless her, wrote that down as my goal: to get my keyworker’s job. She never once tried to limit my dreaming to something more ‘realistic’ as many workers would have, but instead helped me plan how to make this a reality. It was slightly startling. But her faith in me was hard to argue with. I mean, have you ever tried to argue with a Scot?

I began with volunteering in the art room, washing brushes and tidying. A canny move on Kaz’s part, really. Participants were often somewhat sloppy and rarely cleaned anything properly. I saved Kaz many hours of cleaning, and the cost for replacing dried up brushes and skanky, crusted over old palettes. But I enjoyed the responsibility.

I began to really care about the state of the paintbrushes, in particular. I searched on the internet to find out how to best wash and care for brushes. I learned about how paintbrushes were made. Did you know, for example, that you shouldn’t wash a paintbrush in hot water? The heat can weaken the glue and make the bristles come out.

I tried to educate my fellow participants about this and put up instructions over the sink. I decorated an old shoebox and labelled it as The Paintbrush Graveyard, where I laid to rest those brushes that were past saving. Some people took these home to have a go at saving them for their own use.

Eventually Kaz asked me to help her facilitate some art classes, and before long I was ready to run my own class. I hadn’t felt this passionate about anything in years, and I spent days researching and planning each two hour art group. Within a year or so of becoming a volunteer, Kaz had offered to pay me as a casual group facilitator. I was actually earning some money from doing something I loved!

I am not sure when it happened. But at some time between naming the dream, and starting to work towards it, in a myriad of tiny little ways, the dream began to take hold of my heart. It transformed from a joke into a deep motivation. I wanted to do this. Kaz would help me to do this. I could do this.

There is something very different about being told you can do something (hope), versus being supported to actually do it (action). It was a remarkable boost for me, and had all sorts of positive recovery benefits.

My personal hygiene, for example, made huge improvements. In the past, nurses had focused on my need to shower or to get out of bed, and it had never had an impact, because, of course, I had no reason to care about myself. But with big dreams and someone who believed in me to make them real, I had every reason to work on myself. I was up and out of bed, I was planning for the future. I didn’t shower because ‘it was my goal’ or ‘because I should’. I showered because that’s what support workers did, and I was going to become one. This new role and its associated responsibility gave me the motivation to do my therapy, to keep on trying.

I had an identity other than as a madwoman, or a loser, or someone evil, and I loved it.

I thought a lot about my identity at this time, and eventually I changed my name to reflect the other changes happening in my life. I felt like I was being re-born, and I realised that the core values that Kaz had helped me to find, compassion and creativity, were something I must never forget. And so my new name was a way to reflect this, and all the fundamental changes that were beginning to happen in my life as a result.

I chose the name Indigo to represent creativity. It is a colour I love, hovering between violet and blue. It’s the one colour from the spectrum that most often gets forgotten. But it’s beautiful and it’s real. And I chose Daya, an ancient Sanskrit name, that means compassion, kindness, or mercy. The sound of it felt right, somehow. Like me. Like my new life that I was beginning to create.

There was so much more work to come. This was only a beginning. But, oh, what a marvellous beginning.

PS: Incidentally, that dream came true. Several years down the track, Kaz was promoted and I was offered her old job. Kaz went from being my support worker to my team leader, and I became the first consumer hired as a support worker at Prahran Mission. The five years I spent working in that little program were a magical time, and launched my life into many exciting new directions.

Originally published 6 November 2016. Re-published 27 April 2019.

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