The theme of this year’s 19th Annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture is ‘Sharing stories, changing lives’. Each week, as we count down to the event in October, we’ll be featuring blogs from talented storytellers in our community. They’ll be sharing with you their moments of transformation—reflections about overcoming barriers and gaining strength, support and knowledge. The second in our series is ‘Community matters’ by Annie Whitehead, who realised that through finding her 'people', she also found herself.

I was invited to write a blog in advance of this year's 19th Annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture on transformational storytelling. I chose to write about the importance of community. In light of the recent High Court decision and the upcoming postal vote on Marriage Equality, I would like to add a further comment about the largest community that I belong to, the human race and the most important one, my family. History has shown us time and again that when we stand united, we can make a difference. We can change laws, we can change antiquated beliefs and ways of being, we can improve the quality of life for ourselves and each other. 

I have been overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of support I have seen and experienced in recent weeks and I wish to personally thank those people who have stood united with the LGBTIQ community to uphold our human rights. My wife is my best friend, my strongest ally and the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. She is my family and, with our children and our first grandchild, we look forward to the day when our marriage is recognised and valued for what it truly is, the most important community in my life. 

Community has always been important to me. I have been involved in numerous communities over the years; some were fantastic, some were awful and some were so mediocre I didn’t even realise I was part of a community at all. However, regardless of the qualities of the communities I was involved with, I always felt alone. I struggled to stay engaged and I rarely felt like I fitted in, I was too ‘different’.

Looking back, I realise that this ‘difference’ was a combination of undiagnosed autism, internalised homophobia, trauma and the development of mental illness. Raised in a very sheltered community I developed, on top of this multitude of diagnoses, a naivety that meant the ‘real’ world was a big unknown; so much so that I didn’t even know what a lesbian was until I was 19.  

I didn’t realise how important community was to me until I was 16. I grew up in the arms of the Catholic Church and Charismatic Renewal. I was involved in youth group and felt very loved and supported. My community was a huge family and I recognised that I was part of something very special.

My 10th year of high school culminated in a series of traumatic events that led to me running away. After spending four months on the street and a stint in juvenile detention, I came home, pregnant.

My parents were amazing and took me back in and supported me. I returned to church and youth group, went to counselling and started trying to get my life back on track. I was overjoyed with the thought of my new child arriving and desperately wanted to learn how to be a great mum.

One night at youth group, I was approached by our priest and youth group leaders and told that I was no longer welcome. My pregnancy was sending the wrong message to other youth. It didn’t matter that there were kids in the group using drugs and being promiscuous, my sin was visible and therefore not welcome. 

I was devastated.

In one evening, I lost my extended family of 16 years and was told that God didn’t love me enough to forgive me my sin. In that moment, the loss of my community’s support made the soon to be very real challenge of motherhood that much more terrifying. I lost my identity as a Christian and fell into a deep, dark, place.

I’m sharing this part of my story because it was such a crucial moment for me in coming to understand the importance of community support. Over the next 20 years, I struggled in and out of depression, anxiety and suicidality and I found myself desperately trying to recreate the community I had lost, believing that if I could find people who would accept me that I might finally learn to accept myself.

It took me a long time to work out that true healing happens the other way around, but I did find people who helped me on this journey. During this time, I raised five beautiful children, who are individually and collectively one of my greatest blessings and perhaps the most crucial community I have ever belonged to.

Not long before my 40th birthday, I finally started to come to terms with my sexuality and began looking for avenues to meet other members of the LGBTIQ community. 

I attended dinners and annual events that were being organised by a member of the community and it wasn’t long before I volunteered to help at these events. When our event organiser suggested that we should form an LGBTIQ committee and start looking at developing some community action plans, I was keen to get involved. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Over the next five years we consulted with our local community, applied for grants, organised events and training and we grew. We grew in numbers and in maturity and I eventually found myself on the state management committee for Connect4Life Tasmania, as well as Chair of the North-West branch.

During this time, I have been invited to give speeches, do ‘Lived Experience’, liaise with media, politicians, police, organisations, businesses and the community.

During this time, I was also depressed, still struggling with suicidality and trying to come to terms with my sexuality, I was dealing with motherhood on my own and with the constant misdiagnosis of my mental illness, and finally, a diagnosis of autism. 

I felt like a fake. On the surface, I was portraying this seemingly confident spokesperson, who had what it takes to be a leader in the community, while underneath the mask, I was struggling to stay alive. I believed that if anyone realised what a mess I was they would turn their back on me and walk away. 

A friend recently shared a quote with me that he heard at a Tasmanian Suicide Prevention Community Network (TSPCN) conference; a lecturer from the University of Queensland, spoke about grief and different historical models and conceptions of it. One thing she mentioned was about the importance of 'showing up, not giving up'.

I’ve often wondered why I keep ‘showing up’ when my natural inclination is to withdraw. I believe it was those early years in a strong community that taught me that I needed people, even though I find ‘people’ difficult to be around. Over the years, I have been privileged to meet some amazing community members and they have taught me so much. I have learnt to recognise what I need and want out of life, as well as a lot about what I don’t want. I have learnt that by just showing up and not giving up, I have won most of the battle. I have learnt that most people are struggling every day with something, that I’m not unique in feeling like I’m not good enough and that every time I choose to ‘show up’ my self worth grows a little more. 

There are days when I wake up and work very hard to remind myself that I am enough, there are days when I feel good and I’m happy and there are days when it’s all too hard and the depression starts pounding on the door again. When this happens, I turn to my community. I reach out to my wife, my family, the friends I have made, the support networks we have developed and I ask for support. I have learnt that it is ok to say I’m struggling and that I need the support of like-minded people in my life. I have learnt that we are so much stronger when we work together and that strong communities are why I am still alive today. 

Community matters, I urge you to go and find your ‘people’. 

Namaste
Annie Whitehead

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