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Hear Erik's story

Erik's story of holding on to hope through a difficult childhood, a life changing accident and the stresses of being an elite athlete, father and partner.

About the episode

Life says athlete Erik Horrie is full of if onlys, if only his mum had chosen a different partner. If only he'd driven through that intersection two seconds later. If only the hospital hadn't confused him with another patient. But along with the bad decisions that have shaped his life, there have been good ones from the moment he fell in love with partner Michelle, to the night a Lifeline volunteer recognized Eric was in crisis.

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Announcer: 

This podcast series will share personal moments of connection and deeply felt experiences. If anything you hear has a triggering effect, please reach out to someone who can help keep you safe. Or remember you can phone lifeline at any time on 13 11 14

Erik: 

We are all humans and I think that's the biggest thing. Society has athletes in a certain, I guess they put them in a bubble and they don't think everything affects them because they're paid millions of dollars and they travel the world and all this sort of stuff, but in reality, that's not how it is. Our jobs are based on our performances. If we don't perform, we don't get supported. So you'll go from having funding to basically getting a hat and a tee-shirt and a Pat on the back. So emotionally athletes are put under a lot of pressure. Exactly the same as everyday people. Okay. I'm an elite athlete, but I'm no different. I've been at rock bottom.

Bev: 

Welcome to Lifelines, holding onto hope, a podcast in which people who've considered suicide explain how they found joy in life again. Life says athlete Eric Horrie is full of if onlys, if only his mum had chosen a different partner. If only he'd driven through that intersection two seconds later. If only the hospital hadn't confused him with another patient. But along with the bad decisions that have shaped his life, there have been good ones from the moment he fell in love with partner Michelle, to the night of Lifeline volunteer recognized Eric was in crisis.

Erik: 

People's decisions affect everyone and for example. Yeah, my mum made a number of decisions when I was younger, which I guess put my life to be on a trail that I wouldn't want anyone to be on. Her decision I guess to choose her second husband, over me, was most probably one of the biggest, it's a question that I don't think I'll ever get an answer for. And to be honest with you, I don't know if I really want to get an answer. It might sound a bit weird, but I don't think I'd want to hear the answer to that question. If I actually sat down and asked her that. It's her decision to put me in the home full time, to sign all legal rights to me over to the government. It was actually something that I think set my life into a pattern that was some of the worst times in my life, uh, from her decision. No decision on my own. It then affected I guess my behavior. It affected my self-esteem, my whole aspect on life. I become a number and I think that was actually one of the hardest things. It wasn't the fact of being placed into full care. It was the fact of I basically become no longer Eric. It was just a number.

Erik: 

I was based full time from seven. I was basically taken from the home, after an incident where my stepdad had beaten me up that badly that the police and ambulance service were brought in. I was then taken to the police station and hospital photographed because of the extent of bruising and the beating that I got from his steel-capped boots. And it was, that was basically the last day that I was there. I have an older brother. Um, he, he never went for the situation that I went through. So it was a case of he was at home and I was gone.

Erik: 

Being in full care, It was hell. Most probably some of the worst stuff that's happened in my life happened within that home. Just the abuse, the beatings, just everyday life was hell. You had to fight everything. You were basically under lock and key. You were no one. And you were literally told that you were no good. One of the biggest memories was within 12 hours of being in the home, I'd had a broken arm. You have the pecking order. You had the older group of boys that would have been there for a long time. They were in charge and I was a new person in and had to be shown that this is the way it runs here and if you don't like it, this is the stuff that's going to happen. Yeah, it was. You learnt very quickly that you stood up for yourself. And as I say, I guess you then sort of find the pecking order and fight or that fight or fly sort of situation.

Erik: 

And it was a case of you just have to fight. You're made to feel worthless, made to feel like you are the worst person around. You're not worth anything. Your Nobody, your mom doesn't want you, your family doesn't want you. That's why you're here. I mean, it was told to me constantly and I think it has actually throughout my life made a big impact of how I trust people. I look at different people in different ways and I guess a lot of my behaviour was framed and shaped by my mum's decisions. That's why I always say people's decisions shape your life and your parents' decisions, are, some of the first people, they're decisions shape your life and decisions really shape, shaped how I, I grew up.

Bev: 

When he was 12, his biological father came to take him away.

Erik: 

Dad couldn't handle having a 12 year old son. It affected his whole way of living. He couldn't just go out and do stuff with his friends and stuff like that. He had to look after me and stuff. So it didn't work out. And then I ended up being kicked out of dads. So it was um, an actual friend of my dad's took me in, the decisions once again. His decision to actually step up and drag me to his place was, um, a decision that really shaped and changed my life.

Erik: 

I always made my life as a photo frame and portrayed an image that looks like there's never been anything wrong. And I guess that's the biggest thing I was trying to do, hide the fact that even back then when I was younger, I was broken. I didn't know how emotionally to deal with a situation. The only way I knew back then, like when I was sort of 15, 16, 17 to deal with a situation was with my fists because the whole younger life, that's how I dealt with something. You see the biggest person in the room, I would go and fight that biggest person. Lose 90% of the time. But that was how I grew up.

Bev: 

Eriks foster parents helped him find work and self-respect so that when he met his partner, Michelle, he was able to recognize a good person when he saw one,

Michelle: 

I met Eric, he turned up my birthday party and he was sharing a house with one of my friends and she brought him along, actually, he was with his girlfriend at the time and yeah, I was a bit sceptical at first because he had a girlfriend at the time. So yeah, I made him work for it.

Erik: 

Meeting Michelle. It's just one of those moments, I guess where you see someone and you click and it was that, that click, I mean she was sitting on the balcony at the table with her friends and, and stuff and I got introduced to her and I don't know what it was. It was just that instant attraction, that instant like, wow, you're amazing. Um, and she is, she's unbelievable. And yeah, meeting her was, I never actually felt that sensation that I did when I laid my eyes upon her. I mean, a lot of people might laugh and think it's funny when you say love at first sight, but I, yeah, just fell madly in love with her as mad as I was. But yeah. So it, it made a massive difference. Um, yeah, meeting Michelle in my life and really I guess changed my whole pathway and the way I looked at a lot of stuff.

Michelle: 

Well, like I invited him over to my house, I showed him how my family and I hung out. What we did. So, I just welcomed him into our family. Um, and showed him, you know, what love was all about

Erik: 

When Michelle fell pregnant. I wanted to work as hard as I could, work as many hours as I could to support Michelle and to give our a newborn baby everything. The lifestyle that I never had. And I think that's every parent does that anyway. But it was something that I really wanted to make sure that my child would never, ever think or have any thoughts of what I'd gone through.

Michelle: 

I could tell he was, um, he's, he's family was very what I called wierd. Um, there was no loving whatsoever. And yeah, it was complete opposite to my family. Just, yeah, it was, it was quite sad actually.

Erik: 

Yeah. Having Michelle and then having Madison our newborn baby was unbelievable. It was so amazing to be able to hold a newborn baby and just being so happy and it was the best time of our lives. That was for four months. It was, and then that 6:15 at night, a person made a decision, they changed their mind and which way they wanted to go and it turned my life upside down again.

Bev: 

Erik was just 21 when the terrible accident happened.

Erik: 

We'd, invited my brother over to have dinner at our house and picked him up, driven home. He then realized that he had left his medication at home. So Michelle jumped out of the car with Madison and we then, my brother and I, raced back down to his house and he ran in, grabbed his medication. I didn't turn the car off. I was sitting in the driveway. He then ran back out, jumped in the car. We left, just got up the road at a set of lights. Light was went green. That split second, everything stopped.

Erik: 

The person that was in a compulsory left hand turn lane changed their mind, jumped over the Island and went head on into us. I can to this day still see the person's eyes staring straight at me. That was just before the car impacted and everything happened.

Michelle: 

Well I thought we were going to be like a little normal family, get married, him have a job, I have a job and you know, buy a home and everything. But once he had the car accident, things just totally changed. And we went to one hospital where we were told he was at and then they said, no, he didn't come to this hospital who was worse than what he was, what was expected and we sent him to another hospital. And um, I turned up at the hospital and he had a neckbrace and he had all these braces all over him. And yeah, it was quite devastating. When we were at the hospital, we were probably sitting there for about two or three hours and I had the baby with us. And his father was also there and mother and um, they asked me if he'd ever, um, broken his, I think it was his neck, I remember correctly. And I said, well, you'd have to ask his family and because of how dysfunctional it was, no one could answer that question. Um, so about 10 minutes later they said, Oh, he's okay to go home. And I was quite dumbfounded because his father and I actually had to carry him out to the car because he couldn't even walk and the hospital said he's okay to leave.

Bev: 

It turned out Eric should never have been sent home. He'd been mixed up with the patient in the next bed, but his treatment now wasn't much better. He left hospital unable to walk. It was the beginning of another nightmare.

Michelle: 

So We took him home in my car and I had a friend with me helping me with the baby because she was only five months old at the time. And we went home and for the next six weeks he just laid on our sofa lounge. Um, just laying there. He couldn't do much. I used to put anyone over my back and drag him to the toilet if he had to go to the toilet, which was very rare. I'd take him to the doctors and they'd just give him uppers and downers and sleeping pills and all sorts of medication that didn't actually make him get any better. And then this one particular day I come down with like a flu type of infection and I rang my mum and just crying saying, I can't do this anymore. Cause I used to go to work. I worked full time also. I had a five month old baby and I'd come home at lunch time and I'd make sure he had something to eat. Get him a drink and then go back to work and then come home in the afternoon. Thankfully my parents were around. They looked after the baby for us while I went back to work at the time, and I was so run down that I just rang and my mum said, ring an ambulance. I rang an ambulance and they came and got him

Erik: 

The ambulance service when they turned up, seen a picture of me before my accident and then looked at me lying in the, in the lounge room on the lounge and straight away said, no he's gone to hospital. Little did we know what was happening internally with my body? Um, my bowels hadn't worked, so I'd started to go septic and infection inside from the complications that come with spinal cord lesion

Erik: 

I was put into the palliative care ward at the age of 21. So I spent three and a half months, nearly four months, basically every night hearing the buzzers go off, seeing the trolley go past, um, being the youngest person in that ward by at least 30, 40 years. It was most probably bit of a hard time dealing with a situation, not knowing what was going on, why I can't walk, why everything happened

Michelle: 

When he was released from hospital, they didn't even give us a wheelchair. They said to us, you need to go and buy your own. Make sure you return the wheelchair when you put them in the car. And all they did was gave me a piece of paper of the companies that sold wheelchairs. So No, no handover of what to do, what to buy, where to go. Just here's a piece of paper off you go. And he was really angry, um, throwing things around the house, very frustrated. And he did ask me to go back to my parents' house for, he said, go move back there for two weeks to give me some time to adapt with what's going on. And so I packed up and Madison and I went back to my parents' house. Um, instead of being there for two weeks, we end up living there for five years. Um, Erik's anger got really bad to the point that, um, I was too scared to even visit him. Sometimes I wouldn't take the baby. Sometimes I would, because you didn't know what sort of, um, environment was going to be in when you saw him.

Lifeline : 

No one should ever have to face their darkest moments alone. Lifeline is here to help. Please call 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au

Erik: 

I was frustrated. Um, and yeah, we separated and I basically went back into my little box, I was supposed to be getting counseling. Uh, once again, I wasn't, I was always worried that if people found out they could use that against me and attack me in that way. And I guess it was, um, coming back to bite me in the bum

Michelle: 

When he come out of hospital. He's father said to him that he didn't want nothing to do with him because he didn't want a son in a wheelchair. So that was hard for him to cope. Also coping with being in a wheelchair. So my parents took on that role of being his parents. Um, we tried our best, he was going to, um, well what we thought was counseling. I would drop him off at the train station because he wanted that independence of getting on the train and going to the hospital himself instead of me driving him. But actually he was going to the pub and not to the counseling sessions.

Erik: 

I mean, I knew no one in a wheelchair. I mean, I fought. I was the worst person in the world. No one else had been through what I was going through and just all these different emotions that I couldn't answer. Michelle couldn't answer. No one could answer. The counselor could not answer them because when I went there they said, Oh, they get, they can understand what I was going through

Bev: 

Eventually, Erik was put in touch with someone to measure him for a wheelchair and introduce to wheelchair sport.

Erik: 

When Dion rocked up to actually talk to me, he could understand he looked the same. He was sitting in a chair. All the questions that I wanted answers for, he had gone through those when he had his accident and being able to be straight up brutally honest was something that I think I needed and he was straight up and brutally honest. There was no sugar coating. There was no feeling sorry for Erik. There was nothing. It was point blank. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, not in such nice words and you're coming with me. Sure enough that night his van pulls up. Yeah. Takes me to wheelchair basketball and next minute I was at a basketball court and they was either 20 people at that stage. When I first got there. All in chairs from various ages, various medical conditions and it was, yeah, that whole, I guess going from watching black and white TV to colored TV, the world changed,

Bev: 

As his love affair with sport began. He also rekindled his love for Michelle and they went on to have two more children. Summer and Lewis

Speaker 11: 

Basketball was actually, I think a big thing, very successful, very quickly. Made the Queensland team then moved forward, got invited to a number of the Australian roller camps for wheelchair basketball, which is the Australian team. I then gave it 100% and made the Australian team. We then won gold 2009 I think it was at the oceanic championships, which turned out to be one of the last games of wheelchair basketball I ever played.

Erik: 

I was at a camp in Canberra at the AIS and I had the good old chat if thanks a lot, that position within the team is no longer. And at this stage I was focusing on London. I mean it was my life at that stage was wheelchair basketball. There was nothing else apart from wheelchair basketball. So once again the carpet was completely ripped out from underneath my world. I was very lucky to be actually in Canberra because a sports talent ID officer come up to me and offered me hand cycling or rowing. So I'm looking at the odds of I want to get to London, which is going to be the easiest one to do. 40 Ks or one K ? I'll go one K. It's like, I've never rowed a boat before, how hard could it be? It was a instant reality shock when I learnt what was going to be involved. And very quickly, success once again happened, and I think I was rowing for eight months and I was sitting on a podium at my very first world championships, just qualified for London, 2012 Paralympic games, with a bronze medal

Erik: 

I've won the Australian titles and New South Wales state champs, as far as internationally, I've won two Paralympic silver medals, silver in London and silver in Rio. I've won five world titles. I've won parra rower of the world. I've had numerous world records. This year I was 3rd at the world champs, so I have two championship bronze medals. Um, and then various other awards and accolades that come with being an athlete, magpie award, um, various New South Wales athlete of the year. Um, memorable moment. Yeah, it's, there is quite a large list and dust collectors sitting at home.

Bev: 

However, there was a downside to Erik's success.

Erik: 

I was in a tunnel. I was in that bubble that nothing else mattered and I took everything for granted. I didn't realize the why I acted the way our tool just came across to a lot of people. I got into that image where I was a world champ undefeated. I was, I guess in my world I was the Usain Bolt of rowing in the PR one division. I wanted to be the best and I guess it comes back from my childhood where it was a case of I had to be the best at everything no matter what. And no matter what it was a lot of things. It was a case of I neglected everything. Even though Michelle had put all the signs up in front of me to say, we're in a bad space, you are going down a deep hole. I couldn't see it. I didn't want to see it. And I think that's the biggest part. It's not the fact that Michelle didn't tell me. It's the fact that I, I didn't want to see it and I wouldn't accept it because I couldn't deal with that situation if I needed help

Michelle: 

Our whole life focused around rowing. If he didn't win, he'd, yeah, he'd go down Hill, he'd get angry. And because he was on such a high of winning all the time, he didn't know how to accept that losing part of it. Um, my whole life I would wake up, it was rowing. Everything was rowing. Um, we couldn't have a life and it was just unbearable to the point where, the kids, when he turned up home if he'd lost, we'd have to, it would be like walking on eggshells again. And all I could think about was we're going back to that same situation where we were when he first come out of hospital. Because, I didn't want to, I didn't want the kids to be around that, because he started getting a bit angry. Whole lot of things changed and I could see him going downhill and he was getting angry at me and you know, back my whole life I never was around that sort of stuff until I met him and I didn't cope with it the first time. I couldn't cope with it the second time. And I gave him that ultimatum, you know, you either ship up or we ship out. And I went.

Erik: 

I went into the deepest hole that you could think of and deeper. I'd never emotionally felt as bad as I did when I got home. Just the whole factor of my whole life. I never wanted my kids to go through things that I'd gone through and I'd caused my kids to go through a situation that I caused. I couldn't point the finger at anyone. And that's the hardest thing. When you sit in a room, there's no one, and there's no one there. You can't blame anyone. The one person that I can blame was sitting in that room. That was me. How many times she told me I needed to speak to someone. I just kept on refusing, telling her she just didn't know what she's talking about. I guess as I say, living two lives, the image that I thought society wanted, but in reality the life that I was living was a lie because I was far from what I portrayed to everyone.

Erik: 

I got to a point where I couldn't work out what was right, what was wrong. I don't know what made me start calling all the lines. I called lifeline. I called all different lines just to talk to someone. I'd hang up from one and ring a different line so I could hear someone's voice. That carried on for number of days. I can't remember what I said or it was just talking because it made my mind think I wasn't alone. I was on the line to a lady from the lifeline help line and just chatting to her and being honest with her and I think for the first time I'd started to be honest, that I was in a really bad place. I was at rock bottom, I'd lost everything and it was a real reality hit to me that I'd caused this and just I was that down that couldn't work out right from wrong what I wanted, what I didn't want.

Bev: 

While talking with the lifeline counselor, it was agreed that Erik was in danger and should have an ambulance sent to his house.

Erik: 

And next minute there was the knock on the door and I opened the door and they knew my name. I mean, when you're at a door and you open it up and the ambulance drivers ask, are you? I'm like, yeah. They were taking me to the hospital and admitted me into hospital. The lady on the other end of the line had put a call in for the ambulance to come and get me. And I mean that person, most probably, you can't thank her enough. Because I was in that deeper hole. I don't know what sort of decision I would've made.

Bev: 

The efforts of the lifeline counselor meant Erik finally got the help he needed, both in hospital and at the Australian and New South Wales Institute of sport. I think when you're in a hospital ward and they remove your socks, they remove your laces from your shoes. They remove your belt. They even cut the cords out of your hoodie, you know, you're in a bad place mentally and mentally was broken.

Michelle: 

You know, I still loved him. There was my love didn't disappear from him, but I had to be strong and I had to make him realize what he was doing wasn't healthy for the family. And for him to get help was, the only way we could survive. And he did without, without me saying what he had to do. He did it and you know, it was the best thing he could have done. Even to this day.

Erik: 

It's not about us. It's about you. You have to want this yourself. And I think that's the biggest part. That hospital made me, the light click on to me wanting to actually do it. For me to recognize that I needed help. I'd been asked number of times from various people, did I need help? And I always portrayed the image. I'm fine, laugh it off. That was easy. It's very easy to portray an image on social media that everything's fine. Couple of good pictures, couple of smiles and it looks great. Your life is perfect. But yeah, I was. And that was the life I was living.

Bev: 

He's still hungry for success as a rower, but far more precious is success as a husband and father.

Erik: 

I mean, the counseling process you go through is very intense. I think 90% of the sessions I came out, I was in tears. I'm not afraid to admit that now. I wouldn't have admitted it back then. Um, that I came out in tears that I was talking about my childhood and everything that happened to me within the home and then the accident and all that sort of stuff. And it was, it was, uh, a very slow process, but it's something that continues to this day. I mean, the depression, anxiety, that side of things with it all, that's the rest of my life. Once I'd actually realized I needed to talk and talking to someone isn't a weakness. That was where not only did it change me as a person, it changed me as an athlete.

Erik: 

I guess the way now that I mingle with my fellow athletes and stuff is a lot different to back then, and the way I accept defeat with success is different. I think there's different strategies that you learn when you go through the counseling, talking about the process,

Michelle: 

Seek help for yourself, seek help for everybody that's in the family. If you don't seek that help, you don't know where you're going to be. You know, we've got our daughter, she needed the help counseling because, you know, she'd been through the same thing with, she'd seen everything I'd seen also from the age of five months, she was struggling. I was struggling. We both got the help we needed and we're now better people. You know, we can, we can, we can tell people what we went through. Before we wouldn't tell anyone. We would just hide and um, just deal with it in our own little way. Seek help when you know it's starting. Don't leave it to the last point because we did get to that point where I didn't think we're going to go back. Um, I thought the relationship was over. Um, we were all so depressed. I think I left it too long and yeah, if it ever happened again, I'll be seeking help soon as the signs started.

Erik: 

Having a list of your core support is a very good, that was one thing that, um, when I first started the, with the counseling and really I guess opening the doors to the life of Erik Horrie. And a lot of things come out of the closet in that way of the darkness of where I'd been and what I'd gone through. The first ones around were like my coach, my program manager in Swisse, um, and Michelle at the center. The coach went beyond, um, what any coach normally would go through is exactly the same as my program manager because they could see the situation where I was at and I didn't realize that they'd been telling me once again the same thing. But yeah, so I know that I can talk to them now about anything in that way and they then will communicate and push I guess buttons if they think that on a bit depressed or, and I haven't recognized it.

Erik: 

It is making sure that you have those different options of people to talk to. And as an athlete it's, I mean, you have a good race, you have a bad race, and I think if I have a bad race, I think my coach and the program manager, their first phone call they're doing is straight away to the sports site just to touch base with me to see how I processed the whole situation. I guess instead of being angry about a situation, um, or sad, I try to laugh the situation off in that way and realize that I'm only human, but it's actually good losing at the same token, um, it might sound a bit weird, but it's that reality. You're human. Not only is it good for me but it's good for everyone that around that supports me because if you are successful all the time, a lot of people just automatically expect expectation. I think the whole process, especially of me that I've gone through with my sport, there was a lot of expectation that was there and they didn't realize what was happening and I think it was chasing that elusive gold chasing the world titles or chasing the world records. It was a case of, yeah, that was all that mattered.

Michelle: 

If you know the real Erik, um, there's two Erik's. There's the Erik for rowing and EriK at home. And the Erik that we have at home, he just wants to make you stay here. He, he, he is like the best father for the kids, gives them everything they want. You know, he's just, yeah, he gives them what he missed out on.

Erik: 

With being able to switch on and off is actually something that like the AIS, um, is really focused on and like working with lifeline to highlight that to the younger athletes coming into the sports because, um, the studies have shown that, yeah, as we get older, we retire. Athletes break down, the emotions that they had when you were competing in social media as far as all the highlight about your races. When that's gone, it's trying to fill that gap or being able to adjust the mindset to, I guess back to normal life

Michelle: 

if he starts getting angry, which is just normal, you know, you cannot have a relationship where people don't get angry with each other. Um, I have an ongoing joke, it's get you car, go on out you go, get away, you know where the front gate is, you know. Honestly we don't really have dramas anymore. We both we talk, whereas before we wouldn't talk. And if, if we are starting to bug each other we would say, Hey, you know, I don't like you doing that. Now we are open with each other. Whereas before we were too scared to say anything. Um, yeah, we're a very open family and we do a lot of fun things, whereas before we would just sit around and just mope around. Whereas now we're we're doing lots of things as a family and rowing's not number one anymore.

Erik: 

Being a full time athlete and being a father and a partner is extremely hard and it's something that, it's that juggling act of life. And it was one thing that, one of the bigger factors that caused me to, to go to where I was. And now at the end of the day when I hang up my blades from rowing and I stopped sport, whatever sport I'm doing and I walk away, well wheel away. People are going to forget that athlete very quick. The one thing that is going to always be there is my family, so no matter what now my family comes first. My programs as far as training, as far as schedule, when I sit down with them, like my group of core support workers as far as manager and program manager and coach and stuff, my family's put at the top of the list and everything else has worked out from there. No matter what the family comes first because it doesn't matter if I win a gold, silver, bronze or don't even win a medal. They still love me and that, that's the biggest part is I've realized that that it doesn't matter what color medal I have or if I don't have a medal. When I get home and walk through that door. My family still loved me and that was the thing that made the mistake was I thought I had to have gold for my family to love me.

Bev: 

Thank you for listening to holding onto hope. Lifeline Australia is grateful to all our interviewees, who share their stories in the hope of inspiring others. We also acknowledge all of you who provide support to people in crisis and those on their journey to recovery. If you found this podcast helpful or inspiring, please share it, rate it, write a review or subscribe wherever you download your favorite podcasts. If this story has affected you and you require crisis support, please contact lifeline on 13 11 14 you can do this at anytime or visit lifeline.org.au to access web chat every night from 7:00 PM to midnight. If it's inspired you to be a Lifeline volunteer or to donate, please visit lifeline.org.au With thanks to Wahoo Creative for interviews, editing, and production, and the voice of lived experience, which is essential in the development of our work.