This blog has taken a while to make it to paper. Most recently I’ve been overwhelmed with the urge to write and then, just overwhelmed. People tend to think of this as a bad thing. To be overwhelmed is to be out of control or have your power taken from you. I know...preaching to the choir. But my most recent experience was not.

Around 18 months ago I attended my first Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) conference. It was awe-inspiring. I’d had no idea, even when I did volunteer work in the field, that there is such strength in numbers and experience in the world of the mental health consumer. It spear-headed my fervour to join the ranks of those who have gone before me;  not just raise awareness of the  lived experience of mental ill health, but to change it through action and leadership. I too wanted to lead.

Worthy aspirations, but like many before me, I had to find my way, my mission, my place. So I’ve joined committees, attended forums and conferences—even the ones directed at the clinicians. I’ve become a part of co-production projects, networked shamelessly whenever and wherever I can and finally found myself being paid—some of the time—for my valued expertise as a lived experience person. But 12 months later, I still didn’t feel like I’d found my place.

So, I expanded my skill set. I now write and blog and present at public speaking engagements. I was interviewed for the radio. I have also become un-apologetically likely to speak publicly about the lived experience anywhere the opportunity allows it. I found my voice, but still not my place.

Then, I attended the annual Bruce Woodcock Memorial Lecture. I admit, in this public forum, I did not know of its existence until this year—to which I did a Derryn Hinch to myself to say “Shame on You!” (Look it up on Google young-uns). I saw faces in the crowd of people I’d meet in the previous year, I remembered a few names; a big ask for me, and a couple of people even recognised me. And yes, I was chuffed and a little bit proud. But this quickly shifted to being inspired and humbled as I listened to Uncle Jack Charles’s truly transformative story. I gained a better perspective on what it actually takes to be a leader. Enduring the truly hard shit, without kudos or a round of applause, for the sake of those you have chosen, your choice, to lead. So I thought maybe in this room with all these other leaders, I might have found my place.

But it took going full circle, attending the 2017 VMIAC conference for me to finally get it. Every speaker I listened to also had a story of leadership, hardship, victory and plain old true grit. Be they the well known Consumer Leaders and Activists such Indigo Daya, Fay Jackson and in spirit, Jackie Crowe. Thank you Fay for bringing her back into the fold to us that afternoon and reminding us why we all became a part of the Consumer Movement in the first place. Be they emerging leaders such as Hamilton Kennedy and Lorna Downes. Or be they the you’s and me’s of the consumer world.  Every single one of us is a leader and has a place in this, our world. Whether you identify as a consumer, patient, psychiatric survivor it doesn’t matter. We are all part of MAD, emotional, scary crazy group of people who are one. One tribe, one family, one people. And in the end, I was overwhelmed as I realised how blessed and privileged I am to have become one of its fold. I have found my place.

By Fiona L Browning