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Living Well With a Mental Illness

When dealing with a mental illness, knowing how others cope can be very empowering. Here, three women tell Bonnie Bayley how, with the right treatment, they went on to enjoy happy and fulfilling lives.

Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be overwhelming and brings with it a whole host of challenges, but when managed well and with the right approach and treatment, it’s possible to have a meaningful and enjoyable life, and even experience a full recovery. Here, three women share their inspiring stories from diagnosis to where they’re at today.

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Janet Morley, 46

Diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18, Janet says taking medication, having a routine, and leading a healthy lifestyle  helps her stay well.

“My symptoms started when I was about 13 – mood swings, hearing voices, delusions and hallucinations. When I was 18, I was working in a factory job that I didn’t like and drinking a lot on Friday nights and I had a nervous breakdown. I ended up in hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It took over a decade to ind an anti-psychotic medication that agreed with me, and I’ve been on it ever since.

My schizophrenia isn’t as bad as people assume – I’m pretty laidback most of the time. I still get a bit self-conscious in public, worrying that people are watching me, and very rarely I’ll get name-calling voices in my head. I feel like I’m in control of my life now, and a few months ago I was told I’m in remission.

I’ve had to put up with strangers calling me names in the past, saying I’m crazy. I don’t deserve it because I’m not a bad person. I just want to be treated normally, not like I come from another planet.

I believe you can still have a good life, despite mental illness. I enjoy having a routine, which I’ve learned over the years helps me manage my condition. A full-time job would be too much for me, but I have a gardening job on Tuesdays and a cleaning job on Wednesdays. I go to the Pioneer Clubhouse (a community for people living with mental illness) every day during the week. It’s like a second home and I have lots of friends there.

Having a healthy lifestyle makes a big difference to my mental health. I used to drink and smoke when I was younger but I don’t anymore; I have one cup of coffee a day and that’s about it! I eat healthily and do about an hour of walking each day.

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I’ve got a few goals at the moment. I’d like to lose 6kg and get a part-time job. I’d also like to have a boyfriend!

I’ve had good boyfriends and bad ones in the past, including a few with drug problems. Now I’m after a guy with a good sense of humour who enjoys getting out and about. I hope I’ll achieve all three goals!”

Sue Tredget, 53

Having depression and anxiety prompted Sue to investigate new, more fulfilling ways to live her life.

“Around 2011-2012, I experienced a series of losses and traumas. I lost my sister and both my parents, and a work colleague took her own life. I was brought up to put on a brave face so I just kept going, although I felt increasingly overwhelmed. I was exhausted, irritable, unable to concentrate and I’d lost the ability to experience any pleasure.

Eventually, I just fell apart. I’m a secondary school language teacher and I was at work one day when I started crying uncontrollably. It was a wake-up call that I wasn’t coping.

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I went to see a GP, and she told me that I was depressed and anxious and insisted I take a few weeks off work. She also recommended antidepressants, which I took initially, although I haven’t needed them for two years now. I suspect they calmed me down in the first instance, although they are not a cure. I feel I needed to build strength in other ways.

As part of my recovery, I read about famous and everyday people who’d been through depression. It helped me understand that it’s part of the human condition and nothing to be ashamed of. I also started writing stories for children, tapping into a creative part of me that I didn’t know was there.

Exercise was and still is a powerful healer for me. For me, physical and mental wellbeing go together, and I try to do some form of exercise every day. I love going for walks on my own or to the beach; it’s my time to reflect and lift my spirit.

As part of my healing process I went on two trips, during a year’s leave from work. One was to a health retreat in India, where I met people who have very little but are extremely happy. The other was the Camino De Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, where I felt an amazing sense of connectedness to the world we live in that’s stayed with me ever since. I’m fortunate that my husband was so supportive – he just said, ‘This is your year, you’ve got to go.’

When you go through a tough time you do see who your real friends are. I’ve realised how important it is to stay connected with close friends and family because they love you unconditionally.

I’m in a good place now, but I never take my mental wellbeing for granted; taking care of it is an ongoing thing. Last year, I decided I needed better work-life balance, so I’m now working on a flexible basis, volunteering as a speaker for

Beyondblue and doing my writing. It’s a fantastic balance. I have two sons and we’ve always been close, but these days I’m more present for them and they see the difference in me. Before depression I just kind of lived. Now I’m learning how to live meaningfully and joyfully.”

Julie Leitch, 57

It took Julie 25 years to be diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition she has now learned to manage.

“From the age of ive I had an overwhelming need to keepmy family safe. If dadwasn’t home from work on time, I feared hewas dead. In high school I developed a fear that if I didn’t do certain rituals (like reading sentences again and again) someone inmy familywould die. It became so debilitating that I left school in year 11. The condition got worse in adult life, to the point where I had to leave a job I loved, managing a TAB, and it could take me two hours to leave the house, because I had to keep checking the stove and all the doors.

It wasn’t until I was 30 that I was finally diagnosed and had life-changing cognitive behavioural therapy. For my first  treatment I had to face an imaginary ‘death’ situation by buying a sympathy card, which led to huge panic attacks. My psychologist would take me to funeral parlours to help me confront my fears.Within three weeks of daily sessions I was much better.

I’ve now been on top of my OCD for 25 years, although I don’t think I’m cured. Last year I was in hospital for a foot operation, and was bombarded by OCD thoughts.
Luckily, I was bed-bound and unable to do any rituals, and within a week the thoughts went away by themselves. I’ll still get an OCD thought once or twice a year, but I just notice them and let them go.

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I work as a health education officer atWayAhead, the NSW Mental Health Association (MHA), and speaking to people with OCD helps me stay well. It  reminds me of where I was – and why I never want to be like that again. I don’t take medications and live a pretty normal life. I’ve worked at the MHA for 20 years, and I have a great relationship with my husband and daughter.

My big thing is that I don’t want people to suffer for longer than they have to, like I did. Also, I’d like others to know there is hope. Yes, you might still have the odd day or two when you’re not well, but for the majority of people, once you’ve got the right treatment you can lead an enjoyable life.”

A SNAPSHOT OF MENTAL ILLNESS

Depression: An illness that causes a persistent low mood, often accompanied by other physical and psychological symptoms such as dii culty concentrating, sleep problems, loss of interest in normal activities, changes in appetite and withdrawal from family and friends.

Generalised anxiety disorder: People with this condition feel anxious and worried most of the time (not just when they are under stress), making everyday activities like work and socialising diicult. Suferers may have related disorders, such as depression, social phobia and panic disorder.

Schizophrenia: A medical condition that afects the normal functioning of the brain. Symptoms can include confused thinking, delusions, hallucinations and social withdrawal.

Obsessive compulsive disorder: An anxiety disorder that involves recurring thoughts and repetitive rituals like checking, counting and handwashing.

Where To Get Help

If you’re dealing with a mental health issue, these organisations can provide support:

SANE Australia: 1800 18 7263; sane.org
Beyondblue: 1300 22 4636; beyondblue.org.au
Black Dog Institute: blackdoginstitute.org.au
Lifeline: 13 11 14; lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467; suicidecallbackservice.org.au

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