While I was quite naïve at school and definitely not one of the cool kids, I discovered binge drinking and marijuana as soon as I got to University. I continued the weed habit after I left (and the drinking, but that tailed off eventually while the dope increased). I didn’t smoke as heavily as some people I knew, but there were few days in my mid twenties when I didn’t relax with a joint after work, and occasionally even at lunchtime. I also very occasionally tried harder “party drugs” like ecstasy and cocaine, but was never a regular user of those kinds of drugs – I was more into mellowing out than hyping up. By the time I had reached 28, with both my career and personal life going nowhere particularly fast, mental illness struck, and struck hard. Just as summer started that year I began to think that I was special, somehow expected to do something that would affect all of humanity. These feelings grew until the point I was in full blown psychosis. Seeing colours that weren’t there, hearing coded instructions from the radio, street signs and the comments of my friends and relatives, pretty much every sensory input was being turned into part of the giant conspiracy underway in my mind.
I was in a completely separate universe that my mind and the cumulative drug use had created. I came to be convinced that I was both Christ and the Devil at the same time (as many people who experience psychoses manifest their paranoia) and that I needed to take my own life for the good of humanity. By this stage my mother had realised that there was something very wrong with my behaviour, and after a couple of attempts managed to have me admitted to a secure psychiatric facility. My psychosis continued to rage while in hospital, seeing visions of silver gallows outside my window at night, bright blue soles on the feet of the fellow patient who I had embodied as Christ (I was now just the Devil) and various other amazing but incredibly disturbing phenomena. There was a lighter in the unit for the smokers to use, and one day I grabbed it and set fire to my shirt, burning my stomach quite badly before I ripped the shirt off. I could definitely still feel pain.
From that point on I entered a five year fight with my mental illness, taking a wide array of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs, while battling against a continuing addiction to marijuana, and making one more attempt on my life. I was able to put the dope away forever within about a year, but I needed to stay on Lithium for years after that before I was stable enough, and understood my own trigger points for psychosis well enough, to gradually be drug free. I was one of the lucky ones, who was able to come back from this wild, scary, uncontrollable place, but there are many others who are unable to return and far too many of them live on our streets or in our gaols, or end up a suicide statistic.
Like so many other major illnesses, like cancer or heart disease, you can never completely be free of this kind of illness, it will always make up part of your lived experience, no matter how stable and predictable life eventually becomes, but anything that can be done to reduce the marginalisation of people with mental illness, and provide them avenues of support, makes a huge difference to their ability to get on with life and be a part of society. Lifeline is one of the most important and visible avenues for understanding and help and its role in providing a calm, non-judgmental ear at any time, as well as its important advocacy work along with other organisations in this area has been critical in our society starting to face up to one of its most important and too often in the past ignored health issues. I feel privileged to have worked for Lifeline in the National Office and being able to support the thousands of volunteers that give up their time to help people in crisis, whatever type of personal setback they are facing, every day and night of the year.