Above: Ben S surfing
BEN: It’s surprising how so many people think that your date of diagnosis is when your disability started, and before this you were completely well. For me, this was far from the truth.
I was shy throughout my school years, and like most kids, I struggled. I enjoyed learning in the class, and it was this that helped me through the formative years. I was surrounded by people, but I felt alone. I was never bullied, just ignored. In year 11, I rarely went to school and spent many days surfing. Needless to say, my grades were poor. It was around this time that I began thinking about suicide, as I struggled to fit in and get the grades necessary to pass the HSC. I bounced back from this in year 12, and actually passed the HSC in 1985.
In 1986 I took a gap year and surfed my way up and down the East Coast of Australia. Towards the end of that year, I developed appendicitis followed by an episode of psychosis. My Dad flew down to Melbourne and collected me from hospital. I was released from hospital without assessment or prescribed treatment for mental illness at that time. Dad took it upon himself to look after me while I went through the manic phase of this episode.
Ben S just taking it all in
While I was being taken care of by my family the psychosis started to become more evident and I saw a psychiatrist. I was given a diagnosis of manic depression. I recovered from this without medication and went to Uni to study radiography. For the three years of study I did not use medication for my condition.
I was a bit erratic at times, and friends used to joke about my awful driving skills.
Back when I was still a student, no one knew anything about mental illness and still less people talked about it. There were few books available on the topic, and there was no internet to search for information or answers. When I came out of my shell in the 2nd year of my studies, I did not talk about my Mental Illness while at University, because I was afraid of the stigma involved in disclosure. I was worried about stigma from both an external and an internal perspective. I feared being excluded from the course. I was too scared to tell anyone, because I feared being seen as some sort of ‘nutcase.’
Just after I finished university, I had an episode of depression that required me to start taking medication. Since then, I have been taking various combinations of prescription medications.
In 1990, I started work in a Sydney hospital working in radiology and I continued to take the medications. Which I continue to do. Everything was new, the work was hectic and I struggled with certain aspects of the job. Even though I never felt on top of my job, I really loved the high stress and adrenaline rushes which were the nature of the work. I believe in hindsight, that I was an adrenaline junkie. My workmates were great, and it was because of them, I stayed on in the position until finishing up in 1992.
In 1992 I had a really significant psychotic episode at work which led to a hospital admission and eventually led to the ending of my employment at the hospital. I remember during this time, feeling like an exhibit at the Zoo, as the hospital staff seemed to be always buzzing around me with some excuse or other for being there.
When my job ended, I moved to Byron Bay and lived with my parents for a while. I tried a whole bunch of different medications in an effort to control my symptoms. Two years later in 1994, I had a debilitating, psychotic episode that required a lengthy stay in the mental health unit at the local hospital. I lost touch with who I was, my humanity was shattered, and it took me a long time to get well again. From there I bounced back and took a Radiography job in Armidale in the same year.
Armidale hospital was more laid-back than Sydney; the work was easier, it was less stressful and the nursing staff were friendlier. I took up bush walking, and spent many days exploring the wilderness around Armidale. I went on many 5 day walks often alone. I started to feel a sense of wellbeing return as I was able to channel all the energy I was experiencing from feeling high, into nature-based activities.
After 4 years of doing maternity locums, I got ill again and no matter what I tried, I could not shake the feelings of depression and when the locum employment finished, I decided not to return to radiography.
In 1999 I began studying at the local University, this time studying human bioscience. When well, I studied and wrote my assignments, when unwell I would hibernate and wait for better times. I did this for a number of years and gained my qualification in 2008 whilst at the same time, completing a number of community services courses at TAFE. Also, during this time, I attended the local living skills centre which functioned as a mental health therapy and resource centre. The centre gave me somewhere to go when I felt unwell as well as time out from my studies. While at the centre, I learned about running group sessions, and in 2008 I started work as a volunteer, using these skills, at a new mental health service that came to Armidale called Mallam.
Ben S facilitating a group
Mallam is a psychosocial recovery oriented Centre run by Flourish Australia. Several mental health programs are run from there and I volunteered my time to run educational groups which I did for three years.
In 2004 I had an episode that landed me back in hospital for two weeks. I found myself in a scary hospital environment which I shared with some very ill people who were unable to communicate properly. I did not feel safe there. I was glad when I was discharged, and I spent a week at home recuperating before bouncing back and getting into my studies.
I was one of the first people to attend the centre which Pat Schultz was setting up mostly on her own. I had known Pat for a number of years and when she asked me to run some groups on mental health I jumped at the opportunity. I had a collection of books at home on running groups so I prepared a number of talks based on these. There were about 55 talks in all, covering many topics relevant to mental health including managing stress, managing anger, understanding mental health and assertiveness skills. One night, I got so involved in the preparation of a talk that I let dinner burn on the stove. Over the next three years, a steady routine developed and once a week I ran a group at Mallam on mental health. I ran about 150 groups.
In 2012 a job became available at the local mental health Unit. The job focusses on providing education to inpatients during their stay. I applied because I believed I had the right mixture of qualifications and lived experience to do the work. I got the job. I’ve worked in this job for over six years now and the program continues to evolve.
Since then I split my time between my job and attending the Mallam activity program. My moods are still variable, but I feel the opportunity for social and community participation at Mallam helps my moods, my focus, and helps keep me on track. I’ve made friends and continue to work on developing friendships at Mallam and at my local Church. I have attended St Marks since 2000 and it is my first and only Church.
My life is full, and I’m always trying to cram more into it. I feel I am progressing well on my recovery journey, and have recently enrolled in a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work.
Copyright © Ben S
Thanks to Isaac Fogarty for his assistance
Flourish Australia Mallam House, 94 Rusden Street ARMIDALE NSW 2350
1300 779 270