Today’s guest is Amber. Amber and I met at a panel at the Pilgrim Arts Festival down at Huonville, and she talked about her writing and how that helped her process her mental health issues that she might have. I thought what she said was really good, so I asked if she’d come on the podcast, and she’s being very brave.
(laughs) I don’t feel brave.
You’ve done well. So, very welcome Amber.
We’re going to start where we always start- and she’s prepared, so this is wonderful – how did you become a Christian?
So when I was 15 – I’ve always had asthma – I had a very severe asthma attack, and started to die, and then I went down the white tunnel. And I heard a voice, and it said ‘It’s not your time to die, you must go back. There’s something you must do.’ Now, I wasn’t from a Christian family, so all I knew was that there was a God and that He’d reached out to me for some reason.
I started going to various churches, and what usually happened what that at first they’d be really loving, and forgiving and beautiful people, and then they’d start presenting me with a lot of rules. Rules were stuff like who to date, what books to read, what to wear, and I just didn’t – it felt too restrictive for me, and I didn’t think it was for me, so I left.
So then fast forward to the year 2000, I ran into an old friend and she’d changed dramatically. She’d been really quiet, and sort of in on herself and depressed, and now she was all bubbly and enthusiastic, and I’m like ‘Well, what’s this about?’ and she’d grown in her Christian walk. So I agreed to come to church with her and she said her testimony, and I was very moved, and I refused to become a Christian. And then I went back to the church another time and they said ‘Christianity’s not really about rules, it’s about a relationship with Jesus.’ So I’m like ‘Okay God, alright I give in, I’ll become a Christian.’ So that was in 2001.
We’ve talked about the fact that you have some mental health struggles. What sort of mental health struggles do you have?
I’m going to sort of describe it first. So from a really young age I had anxiety and depression. Really young, like probably primary school. I was able to live a relatively normal life until 2002. In 2002 I went psychotic and my depression went extremely severe, and I was no longer able to function or work. So my main symptoms are a combination of depression and psychosis. So many different diagnoses, I don’t think I’ll go into them.
So what usually happens in the depression comes first, and I start feeling so bad that my thinking becomes bad, and then the psychosis and the voices can start. They’re very negative voices, telling me I’m evil, telling me that I should harm myself. After each episode I feel guilty and scared; guilty for burdening so many other people and lashing out at people, and scared that I might actually hurt myself at well. So I was in hospital pretty much all the time from 2003 to 2009, but I stabilised from 2010 until 2017, and I was able to work and do some mental health advocacy, and I also did some qualifications in mental health at TAFE, to help other people. But then, after a very short marriage, everything went bad for the last 2 years. So I’ve been extremely unwell since 2017. I’m hopeful that I’ll stabilise again. I’m getting some NDIS support: an extra psychologist, extra psychiatrist, so hopefully – it just takes so long for those supports to be there, but I’m hoping that with that extra support I’ll start to improve again.
We’re getting better at mental health, I think – we’re getting better at understanding it, and we’re getting a bit better at dealing with it –
– but I know you’ve suffered a bit with a bit of stigma and stuff…
Yeah. I think we’re getting better at some illnesses, but the severe end… no.
Yeah, that’s a good point.
Yeah, people get scared of psychosis, but look at the stigma. When I have depression that’s not psychotic, people are more understanding. But when they realise that it’s not just depression and that I’ve actually got psychosis, then… yeah.
I think all of us suffer a bit – we have down days and whatever, so we can probably relate a bit better to that, but when you get to psychosis, we just don’t understand it.
Yeah. The other thing is that there’s been a lot of awareness around depression, there hasn’t really been a lot of awareness around psychosis.
No, you don’t hear about that much at all. So what sort of stereotypes and stigmas have we had?
So one time I went to the Royal [Hobart Hospital]. It was with a friend, and she was having heart palpitations. We were both on a strong anti-psychotic, which can cause heart palpitations. So I said to the nurse ‘We’re both on this medication,’ and then I said to the nurse ‘Do you know my sister? She’s a doctor at this hospital.’ And the nurse looked at me, so shocked, and said ‘Your sister’s a doctor? You’ve got schizophrenia – are you the black sheep of the family?’ And that was from a mental health nurse.
And the flip side of that is, well, you’re obviously intelligent and articulate, therefore you don’t need any help. You’re obviously able to manage.
I guess because it’s a brain – we expect your brain to either completely work or completely not work, and that’s not the way it works at all, is it?
So that would be quite hard to deal with, I’m sure.
Yeah. I’m writing my memoir, and part of that is so people can understand, and so they can know what to do, and so they’re less frightened. There are times to be frightened – I think if someone’s self-harming I think it’s fine [to be frightened], but not generally.
I guess like with your asthma, as a general thing you’re good and you keep it under control, but if you’re having a severe asthma attack then that’s time to step in and do the emergency care, and it’s very similar to that.
That’s right, it’s the same. Except that I went to a hospital a couple months ago with an asthma attack. I was treated like royalty, they were so respectful and compassionate. Go in there when you’re feeling suicidal, and they’re horrible. They often send you home saying you’re not suicidal enough, or they tell you that they’re manipulating them, or misbehaving, or that it’s a choice that you’re making rationally.
So we’ve got a long way to go. So if we have friends who are dealing with a mental illness of some sort, how do you think we can best help them?
I’ve got some stuff written down… where’s my mouse gone? There we go. As I said, like when people are suffering from an asthma attack, respect and compassion are the things that are needed, and also look at people as individuals. Just because someone has a certain diagnosis doesn’t mean anything much about their personality. Someone might be really sporty and they’ve got psychotic illness, someone might be more into writing like me. Someone might like gardening, someone will be intelligent while another person is creative, you know.
So it’s a case of ‘Let’s look at you as a whole individual and say “Right, what are your hobbies and interests?” Let’s meet on that level.
What are your strengths as well? What are your character strengths as well? Is someone a good listener? We’re all people. Except if it’s life-threatening, just approach the people as people. The other thing is that when there is a crisis, like if someone’s about to self-harm or whatever, I would then get them to hospital. Call the ambulance. Don’t let yourself try and do that yourself. Some people like trying to take the knife themselves, or confiscate… no. That’s not what to do. Also don’t tell people that voices are not real, because they’re real to me. They’re part of my experience. You can be just as traumatised by voices as you can by real events.
Because it’s your brain that’s processing this, in the same way that it processes the real events.
The other thing I would like to add, is when someone’s well – and if they have a support worker or a psychologist they can do it with them – get them to write down what helps, so then when they are in crisis, or even just a little bit unwell, you know what to do. Different things work for different people.
So what you’re saying there I think is have the conversation as well. Don’t be scared to say ‘Okay, I know you’re suffering with this mental illness, how’s the best way to help you out through this?’
Yeah, exactly. But also do that when they’re well.
When they’re well, yeah. Because I think when people are well, we try to avoid it. We try to say ‘Okay, well let’s pretend this thing doesn’t exist.’ When maybe it’s better to say ‘We know this exists, we know you’re well at the moment, how do we deal with it when you’re not?’
It’s the same as having an asthma plan. It’s more complicated, but it’s the same process. I don’t expect people to be a psychologist, you know. Stuff people have done is cooked a meal, that’s nice. Pray with you, because often I can’t pray. Read the bible. Sometimes little gifts. Just loving me. Saying ‘I love you, and so does God, and so does the cat’ or you know, whoever. But it does depend on the person, and people with a psychotic illness are not all the same, at all. Just as different as, I don’t know, people who are Christians.
Exactly. Can’t just put you all in a bucket. I remember I had a friend who was having a psychotic breakdown, and I didn’t recognise it. And she kept telling me she was going to be fine, and we sort of didn’t know where to go from there. Afterwards, looking back on it I thought ‘Oh, we probably should have brought her to our house’, or brought her to the hospital as you say, called an ambulance, but I guess that’s just a case of we need more education in that sort of thing.
Yeah, and you need to establish a relationship and a rapport with someone, and then say ‘What sort of things help you?’ It’s harder when they’re in denial, it’s much harder. It’s the same process, it’s just much harder. I’ve never…. Well. I guess I’ve been in denial, yeah. But I don’t think I am at the moment. I might be wrong.
It’s just like any other chronic illness, I guess. It’s a daily walk, and you just take it day by day.
Yeah, it is.
So you’ve used creative writing to help you with your illness – want to tell us how that’s helped?
When I’m really unwell, like when I’m at crisis point, it doesn’t help to write. I can’t write, I cant even think. So I don’t do that. I am writing about my illness in a memoir, and I’m studying creative writing through Tabor Adelaide, which is a Christian uni in Adelaide. It’s a subject I’m writing about to help people know what to do, to help people feel less alone if they’re going through it, and I’ve also done a lot of political advocacy and stuff so those in powerful positions know what to do too.
But on a personal level, writing makes me happy.
Writing makes me happy too. That’s why I do it – it’s a better day when you write.
Oh, it’s more than that. I feel at one with God, and with the Universe, and that this is what I’m meant to be doing. I don’t know why it took so long for me to realise that. I think maybe that near death experience, there’s something I must do – I think it might be writing. Because I can’t think of anything else that gives me such pleasure, and also it’s my greatest talent as well, you know? Reading and writing is probably my talent and has been since I was 3 or 4.
That was going to be my next question – have you always been writing, all through?
Yeah. So when I was in preschool, in kindergarten, I couldn’t write so I sat with the teacher aide and dictated stories to her and illustrated them. I refused to play, I wanted to be a writer.
So do you write other things? I know you’re writing a memoir at the moment – have you written other fiction or non-fiction?
Yeah – poetry and journalism mainly, yeah. And non-fiction. I have written fiction, but the main thing is I want to take fictional techniques and use them to tell a real story. What I find is a love reading memoir, but some of them aren’t very well-written. They’re great stories, but… so that’s why I’m doing the study and taking such a long time on my work, so that it will be well-written as well as a good story.
Absolutely. So can you share some of your writing with us?
I’m going to share, but it is… just for those who might be triggered, it is about a suicide attempt and it does go into detail, so if you’re going to be triggered by that, just shut off now.
Turn off now.
I’ll just read this out.
It was the 15th September 2004. I was half sitting, half lying on a cold, hard bed in the Emergency Department of the Alice Springs hospital. The fluorescent lights bored into my already dilated eyes. I was struggling to breathe and the nurses had to keep increasing the oxygen. The charcoal they gave me to drink tasted like chalk and stained my fingers and my face. The drip in my arm felt like being attached to a tap that won’t turn off. But the worst thing was the heart monitor. It kept beeping uncontrollably.
I tried to convince myself that heart monitors always beeped like that but I knew deep down that wasn’t true. And people kept staring at me, staff mainly. They would walk up to me, stare for a while and then walk back. I tried to calm myself by humming the tune to ‘The Wheels on the Bus went ‘round and ‘round.’ It didn’t really help much but it was something to distract me.
‘Am I going to be okay?’ I asked the nurse. ‘We’ll do our very best for you,’ she answered. That wasn’t the answer I was longing to hear. I wanted to know that everything was fine. But it clearly wasn’t.
The truth is I had planned my death – the day, the hour, the method – cold bloodedly like a stalker preparing to snare his victim. I had told my doctor that I needed to be on a higher dose of my anti-depressants so that I had access to more tablets in which to do the damage. I wrote a detailed note to my family and included the phone numbers of the friends I wished to be informed of my death. I even bought my family a book called ‘Surviving Suicide’, which I hid under my bed. People often say that suicide is a selfish act. But even as I planned my demise I still thought of loved ones.
So what, then, was I thinking? According to the ‘Black Dog’ website there are many complex factors that contribute to suicide. They include things like trauma and mental illness. But that wasn’t why I wanted to destroy myself. I attempted suicide because I felt guilty. In fact I felt so guilty that I thought my death would be a kind of freedom for my family. They had tried so hard to help me in so many ways. But despite this I just kept getting worse.
I became severely depressed and psychotic in 2002 while teaching at a local high school. Not only was I unable to work I was even unable to cook or clean up after myself. To make matters worse I had become romantically entangled with a very unstable young man. My dad, who is a psychologist, thought he could help me. I moved from Hobart to Alice Springs to live with him. My stepmother and my 10 year old sister also lived there.
They made sure I ate healthily and exercised. I was referred to a psychologist and a psychiatrist. I also tried hard at first. I took my medication and tried various strategies and techniques. But nothing worked. Eventually my father told me that he could no longer cope with me. That triggered a huge red raw bundle of emotions, including guilt.
Before I took the medication that almost killed me I drank some beer. For some reason having a beer helps me concentrate and relax. After that I got out the three packets of anti-depressants that I had chosen to take. Each packet had 30 tablets in it. So I took 90 tablets. It’s hard to swallow that many tablets. By the time I had finished swallowing them I felt so nauseas that it would have been impossible to take more. Then I made a phone call to my father telling him to cancel his visit because I wasn’t feeling up to it.
My father, my stepmother and my 10 year old sister came around about half an hour later anyway. I guess they were worried about me. My sister excitedly ran up the stairs to my room. She was calling out my name. When she got to me I could barely walk. I saw her face turn from excitement to shock. And my father was really angry with me for exposing my sister to my attempt at self-murder. ‘You have traumatised your sister,’ he said in a voice so quiet it was almost strangled. I had been so consumed by my own problems that I had forgotten how I would affect this young girl, this sister, who I loved.
As my stepmother drove me to the hospital my sense of guilt became so strong I couldn’t think of anything else. I wanted some tangible way to show that I was sorry. Especially to my sister. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe my family didn’t want me dead as I had supposed. In my psychotic mind I had done it for them. I was all muddled up in the head. When my dad said he couldn’t cope my mind interpreted it as both colossal rejection and a lack of love. Then there were the voices. Always saying I was evil. They never stopped.
I’m lucky that I didn’t attempt suicide in the Middle Ages. At that time suicide was not only a sin it was an unforgivable sin. The bodies of people who had completed suicide were dragged through the streets and none of them got a proper burial. This sort of attitude would have been so hard for the loved ones of that person.
I’m also happy that my illness engulfed me in 2002. Because just prior to that people, in Australia, people with severe mental illnesses were institutionalised, sometimes for years. Some of these asylums allowed for very little freedom. I have heard it said that clients weren’t even allowed to brush their teeth for themselves.
Nowadays there is the opposite problem. Often people who attempt suicide are sent home a few days later with a psychiatrist referral and no other support. Because of this ten percent of us are readmitted less than a month later. This creates what is called ‘the revolving door’ where we just move from crisis to crisis. And many of us succeed in killing ourselves. Ten percent of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, for example, complete suicide. Less than one percent of people without such a diagnosis complete suicide.
The night I tried to end my life was a long night. Probably the longest night I had ever had. At one stage I started feeling dizzy and the world was turning grey. The doctor said, “Keep her conscious,” and increased the oxygen.
After many terrifying hours, the doctors from the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) arrived. ICU is a ward where there are more doctors and nurses than on other wards. I was relieved to be moved in some ways as so many of the doctors and nurses had been staring at me in shock. I asked them again if I would be alright. ‘You will require careful monitoring,’ they said. This, again, was not the answer I wanted to hear.
On the way up to the ICU the nurse turned away from me for a few seconds. “Why is the patient on a monitor?” the doctor yelled at her.
The view in ICU wasn’t particularly comforting either. All the other patients were hooked up to the same medical gadgetry that I was. Some had tubes down their throats and one man was obviously dead. I remember thinking to myself: ‘This is a place where people die.’
This seemed to shock me out of the funk I’d been in for the last 2 years. I realised that I didn’t want to die. Not this way. Not alone in a ward with sick people. Not by my own hand. I wanted life to be better but I didn’t want to die. “I’m going to fight,’ I thought to myself.
Morning brought a team of doctors who announced. ‘She’s stabilized,’ as if I wasn’t there. But I didn’t care much because, oh the relief, they removed the catheter, the oxygen, the heart monitor, the drip, the blood pressure monitor and the pulse monitor. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I couldn’t see properly and my heart was pounding but I was out of danger.
The afternoon brought an admission to the psychiatric ward and a visit from my family. I apologised and said that I wouldn’t do it again. They were angry. ‘You could have had a stroke and ended up in a wheelchair,’ my stepmother said. ‘We’re all angry with you,’ Dad echoed. ‘You nearly died by your own hand.’ My sister distracted herself by running around . I would have cried but I felt too numb.
According to Psychology today ‘…suicide is seldom the product of rational deliberation…but mostly an act of uncontrollable anguish and despair.’ In my case this was partly true. I certainly felt uncontrollable emotions but I had also deliberated. Maybe not in an entirely rational way but I had still planned carefully.
This attempt on my life made me rethink everything. It was a complete shock. I realised there might be a way out of this but I didn’t know what that way was. There are no easy answers to this conundrum. I needed medication and psychological support – and lots of it! But I also needed hope. And meaning. And part of that meaning involves writing this story. I hope that sharing what I went through will shed some light on what its like for people in dark places.
We need, as a society, to love those of us who are suicidal. Even if we don’t love ourselves. Mentally ill people have the same needs as anyone else. We need love, hope and meaning. I want people to understand what it’s like for those of us who aren’t coping and, in that understanding, be willing to reach out. Don’t be afraid of us. Fear doesn’t help. Love does.
That’s the end.
That’s beautiful. Thank you very much.
I thought it might be traumatic.
It’s deep. Yes, traumatic as well, but…
It’s traumatic for me. I felt like I was gonna cry, with my little sister. That’s the thing that makes me want to cry.
I guess you were so turned in on yourself you didn’t realise what was going to happen to those around.
No. No, I didn’t. I was so consumed by my own problems and my own thinking. Like, I would never have deliberately tried to hurt her.
No, that’s right.
I still feel dreadful that I did. Even though she’s fine now.
Absolutely. Tell us, when do you feel close to God?
I feel close to God when I write, even if I’m not writing specifically Christian things. Sometimes weirdly I also feel close to God after I come out of a psychotic episode. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think it’s God comforting me, and me having the realisation that although I might be misunderstood by people, I won’t be misunderstood by Jesus. That He understands, and He’ll be with me. So last year I was in hospital for 3 months, and I read all 4 of the Gospels. And that was really comforting, and striking as well with Jesus. It was like I was getting to know a close friend all over again, who continues to surprise me and continues to love me. Because I feel very unlovable, but I’ve got to keep reminding myself that God loves me. And I think my Christian friends also help me feel close to God at various times. They’ve always been generous, supportive, comforting. They’ll pray with me when I can’t pray. They’ll look for comforting things in the bible, they’ll step in in terms of my spiritual health when I’m too unwell to do it myself.
Awesome. That’s what the Body of Christ is for, isn’t it?
Yeah, and as I said also they do non-spiritual things as well, which is helpful.
I think there’s something very spiritual about bringing somebody a meal when they need one. What do they call it? Jesus with skin on.
So what’s one thing about God or Christianity that you wish everyone knew?
Because we’re talking about mental health, this is something that really frustrates me: God can do whatever He wants, right? And if He wants to heal people, He’ll heal them. But He doesn’t always. Apostle Paul was not healed. I have not been healed. And not being healed is not necessarily because I’m demon-possessed or I don’t have any faith. In fact I would say that it takes more faith to continue as a Christian when you’ve got severe mental health problems going on than it does to be healed. I mean, I’d love it if I was healed! But that’s not my story. It’s not me that makes that decision. I think if people want to pray for my healing, great!
Thank you! Do it. But don’t criticise me for not being healed. So what I find particularly comforting in Christianity is not the fact that it guarantees you an easy life, because my life is not easy. But the fact again that Jesus walks alongside me in my suffering, and promises me a time in the afterlife when there’ll be no suffering. So that’s something comforting to look forward to too: that this suffering, even if it goes for all my earthly life, won’t go on into eternity.
Amen. Thank you so much for sharing with us so deeply, I really appreciate it.