‘Only-ness’ has been a long-time challenge for me. I’ve learned from working at Wellways, that only-ness is very common. I wonder if it is one of the biggest issues faced by people who struggle with mental health issues. On many occasions when facilitating the My Recovery peer program, a lump forms in my throat when a participant declares, ‘I cannot believe I’m not the only one’.
I was a farm kid, and by circumstance a bit of a ‘ratbag’. We were brought up to experience the heavy work and rawness of farm life. Mum would kick the seven of us kids out of the house early to catch the school bus, or during school holidays to wander until sunset. We were unleashed from everyday family hardship to roam, and we did. We kids were cut loose, left to our own devices. There was enormous fun in that freedom, and many risks, with frequent trips to the hospital with broken bones and nasty wounds. Another risk was social isolation, never feeling part of the greater human race.
Mum had a serious physical health issue and, as a result, mental health issues. She was in and out of hospital, so in primary school, my sister and I had to step up to adult responsibilities. We had to cover masculine and feminine roles. Dad was tied up working the farm for very long hours. The 1980s felt like medieval times. We were required to milk a ‘house cow’ by hand twice daily, cart hay and feed the farm stock. We had to cook for the family, tidy and clean the house and nurture the smaller children. But things unexpectedly changed when I hit puberty. I was told to dress and behave like a girl, to stop being a tomboy. I knew this was code for ‘prepare yourself to be chosen by a man, and be supplicant to his needs and desires’. I became immensely jealous of my brothers, because it was ok for them to have grass-stained clothes and a blood nose from playing football. Suddenly my chores were indoors ‘wife work’.
We were sent to Catholic schools to ensure we remain steadfastly committed to the ‘true’ religion. When I was 15, I was sexually abused by a teacher. This created a new layer of secrecy to my inner belief that I didn’t belong anywhere, that I truly was an outsider.
The first of my family arrived in Australia in the 1860s because of the Irish potato famine. Like many current asylum seekers my ancestors came here on ships, one or two siblings at a time. And by the fortune of government policy at that time they were able to bring their parents here too. There were generations behind them, behind me, of poverty, brutality for being Irish Catholic, and pressures to ‘drop the old ways’. My parents did their best, but while the signs of me being abused were obvious, they found a way to not see. I ceased eating for a long period, I became bone thin, was self-harming. I was depressed and traumatised. I was well and truly on my only.
There were many reasons for my ‘only-ness’. Things happened that were consequences of circumstance. There’s a perpetrator who evaded punishment, a family who didn’t know and who don’t want to know. Why I’m writing this blog is to say that being in ‘only-ness’ adds another layer of trauma. It’s like the Little Prince sitting out there in solitude on his tiny planet. It feels like sitting in the middle of the ocean on top of an iceberg and humanity is out of view.
Sometime, a few years ago, I became visible. An empathic and practical doctor assessed my mental state and gave me a diagnosis. Following this, a psychologist validated my traumatised identity as a normal human response to unacceptable violence.
When I started working at Wellways, 11 years ago, I found enormous strength in knowing I’m not the only one—I was among a crowd of peers. The peer connection affirmed my uniqueness (weirdness!) and celebrated the power of non-conformity. One of my life’s greatest fortunes is being employed as an advocate at Wellways, and being responsible for igniting social change, so that people who struggle with mental illness are not only accepted, but become blazingly visible, and are regarded as utterly essential to humanity, and are readily enabled to find what’s needed for healing.
Wellways Consultant for Consumer Advocacy and Leadership