Getting past the dark times…and into the flow

skiing in japan

Glenn Jarvis tells how squaring up to our challenges today can lead to big recovery benefits tomorrow. 

I have been working in mental health for sixteen years, firstly for NSW Health as a consumer advocate for five years and then for Flourish Australia (and its predecessors) for eleven years as a mental health worker. Most of this has been part time with some assistance from the DSP. Things are now going reasonably well, I’m in a long term relationship and am enjoying life. Nineteen years ago, however, things were not so good. That was when I had my first experience of mental health issues. 

I would like to share some strategies with you that helped me on my recovery journey over those years. They may not help everyone, but they worked for me. 

After I had my first episode in 1999, I spent the next two years in and out of hospital mental health units. I had been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I was in my late twenties when this happened and had been working in London when I became unwell. I returned to Australia eventually and wound up unemployed and virtually friendless in my town of birth, Queanbeyan. During this time, because I was so unwell in public, it trashed my reputation and burned friendships. 

Luckily my family stuck by me although I had to move out and ended up in supported accommodation where my ‘best friends’ were alcohol and tobacco. At this time I met a lot of people through various avenues who were or had been in my position and they were pretty dark times.

During these bleak, lonely times one thing I used to enjoy was to spend $10 a day having a beer or two at a local club. I was gradually accepted by some of the locals for turning up, listening to their problems, and not cadging drinks or smokes off them. Besides, some of them were pretty generous individuals, rough diamonds etc.

I had managed to get myself a part time job with the health service so I could afford my $10 a day and I was developing a new purpose in trying to help other people in my position but things were not much fun and I was still very isolated socially.

One of the things that helped me overcome the isolation of my condition was sport. Sport also provided physical health benefits and fun.

“[I] found the squash so absorbing when I was on the court it was like a mini holiday from my problems.” 

I was at the club and noticed a guy wearing a tracksuit who mentioned a squash club. I had played a bit of mostly social squash before. Pretty soon this guy, being persuasive, a good Samaritan and having had some dark times himself, had me in his team in the Australian Capital Territory Squash Comp. 

Of course I was very unfit but we were in a lower division and gradually I started to win a few after copping some absolute floggings. They were good nights though, because I got out of my flat, was not drinking and found the squash so absorbing when I was on the court it was like a mini holiday from my problems. I ended up playing over three hundred games of comp squash. 

It was always the same routine. At first I didn’t want to go and play. Then when I got on the court and started, I would relax and enjoy the squash! I also enjoyed the company of my team mates and eventually opponents as I got to know more and more people in the competition.

My knee and hip started playing up so I have retired from Squash now, but I’ve got my name on the honour board and have many good friends from squash that I meet and socialise with regularly.  Won a few pennants along the way as well which was nice.

Apart from squash and my job, something major I did to improve my quality of life was to quit smoking . My smoking had recommenced when I was hospitalised in the UK after all the horrible things that go with that. I smoked for a few years in my early twenties before my illness but quit and pumped the money into commencing sailing on the harbour in Sydney. That had been a joyous time in my life, flying around Sydney Harbour crewing on various yachts. Thus I knew I could quit but it was really hard the first time and I was even more dependent for some reason. Mental health issues and smoking: we all know the story so I won’t elaborate, but I knew as well that I could improve my quality of life significantly again if I could quit. 

This time my strategy was that I had been saving for a camper van for about four years after being inspired by a friend who used his to go camping and fishing down the coast and up in the mountains. Somehow I convinced myself I could afford the van but I would not be able to afford to go anywhere unless I quit smoking. So I quit again which was an all consuming struggle for about four months, gradually getting easier but always difficult . But people I knew had quit and I myself had done it in the past so I bit the bullet and did it.

“For every person who wants to discriminate against you because of your illness there are others who empathise and are ready to help.”

Six months later I bought the van and spent many happy evenings camped by the ocean, a month travelling around Tasmania and generally having lots of fun. When I say happy, the ghosts of my past issues are always there but you could feel a lot lighter of spirit on the road or camped somewhere after a day in the surf or fishing off the rocks.

So just to recap, I always found using the funds from smoking to do something more inspiring as a way that motivated me to stop. That said, both times I quit smoking were two of the toughest times I’ve had and I believe people who say it is harder to quit than heroin. It’s bloody hard but I used to smoke twenty to twenty five a day and at a dollar a cigarette now I’ve saved myself a fortune since December the 8th 2005 when I quit. I reckon at twenty a day, 365 days a year that’s over $7,000 thousand dollars a year. My last overseas trip only cost me $2700 so do the maths and figure out what you would prefer to do.

The third thing I would like to cover is overcoming adversity. We all do it. Nearly twenty years down the track the thing that has helped me most is to just keep turning up, focus on what you enjoy, set long term goals no matter how small and save for them. For every person who wants to discriminate against you because of your illness there are others who empathise and are ready to help. Having a job has always been of benefit to me and I’ve been lucky to find one and keep one for the last sixteen years.

(Clockwise from top left) Glenn Jarvis zip lining in Tasmania, with his catch, on the rocks, and with his boat and on the rocks. 

Flourish Australia 

Level 1, suite 5, 7-9 Morisset Street

QUEANBEYAN NSW 2620

1300 779 270

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