'Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.' 

When people ask me what it is like to have a mental illness, I tend to use metaphors to try to capture my experience in way that others can relate to.

I chatted to a fellow mental health peer recently who describes her experience of schizophrenia as ‘going to Oz’. “Your day starts with the ordinary routine, be it going to school or feeding the chickens. Nothing different. Then you are violently sucked out of your real world and dumped unceremoniously in a very different reality. Only here, there is no friendly scarecrow to point the way to help, no magical slippers to take you home and the flying monkeys are very real and they bite.” I don’t have schizophrenia and I’ve never experienced a psychosis, but it was still relatable. 

I have a couple of ways to explain my experience with mental illness. My first official diagnosis was post-natal depression after the birth of my second child. Becoming a mother for the second time, I foresaw another challenging experience but with a rewarding outcome. It became a ride from hell. 

Imagine yourself on a rollercoaster and the ride starts out smoothly. The rail carriage inches its way skyward, bit-by-bit, and you anticipate the thrill awaiting you at the top: the birth of your new baby. But as soon as the carriage gets over the precipice the world turns dark. Black clouds roil in and suddenly you are the only one in the carriage. All is mute. The carriage hurtles down an abyss on a rickety track, a tunnel devoid of all light, and you feel that at any moment you will be derailed. Just as suddenly, you emerge back into light and the world becomes visible again. The carriage appears to be slowing down for a platform, but it skips it and another long incline back into darkness begins. You hang on, sure that if you get to the top, this time it will be different and when you do get there, you can see, maybe, the end of the ride is not far ahead. It is not and down you go again.

I’ve asked my psychiatrist on many occasions if I will ever get off the ride. I’ve certainly got more than I’d paid for. After all, it’s only been 21 years. The honest answer: I probably won’t, and I’ve stopped at some of the platforms, each with their own surprise. One stop changed the diagnosis to endogenous depression, a Post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, was added later, and the most recent stop put bipolar 2 on the ride.

Yet strangely, the ride has had positive outcomes. I’ve come to know myself so well and through my journey, I came to better understand that of others.

It made me a better nurse: I discovered resilience, determination and collaboration.

It made me a better peer: I learned the value of patience, tolerance and acceptance.

It made me a better friend: I discovered the worth of perception, empathy and sensitivity.

And most importantly to me, it made me a better parent. Throughout the ride I discovered that even though it might have felt like it, I was never alone. 

So thank you for sharing in my metaphor. I hope one day I’ll be able to share in yours.

Fiona L Browning