My journey towards becoming a peer worker: Part One

by Glenda Paton, Peer Worker

glenda.jpgABOVE LEFT: Glenda with husband Dave and their twins Laura (far left) and Josh. ABOVE RIGHT: Glenda graduating her Bachelor’s in Primary Teaching with a proud Dave PHOTO BY GLENDA PATON

I reach down to gently press the pause button on the treadmill that is life. I am guilty of jumping from one task to another, one phase of life to the next, without always taking the time to reflect on what I have been through, what I am going through, and where I am headed. How have I come to be a peer support worker, helping people who are struggling with their mental health and in other areas of their lives? While it can be emotionally exhausting, this is a deeply fulfilling role where finishing the day comes with a sense of having made a difference in someone else’s life. 

For me, it started in the middle of my high school years. I missed quite a bit of Year Nine and the majority of Year Twelve. After several stressful events occurring within a short space of time – the suicide of a boy who lived down the street, being bullied, and a loving but occasionally chaotic family life – I experienced a “manic” episode of bipolar disorder. I had difficulty getting to sleep, my thoughts raced faster than a V8 car, and my speech was going a mile a minute. I sometimes did unusual things, and some of these memories are clearly embedded in my mind. For instance, I remember my sister trying to suppress a chuckle as I bounded up to the family dinner table decked out in about five coats and six hats. Instead of sleeping I drew and wrote in my journal at all hours of the night, occasionally hallucinating from lack of sleep. My family were worried, and often stood guard at my door. One night I suddenly opened my bedroom door to find them darting away. I also remember the embarrassment on returning to school when I had to retrieve stuffed animals from my locker that I had brought with me in the midst of my heightened mental state. 

Somehow I managed to stay out of hospital and completed Year 10 and 11 without further incident. I was on track to do well in the HSC, studying English Extension, Ancient History, Society and Culture, Legal Studies and Photography, among other subjects. Unfortunately, I became very unwell and was admitted to Campbelltown Hospital on Australia Day, 2001, at the age of seventeen. I remember that day clearly: I’d gone to the movies with my parents to see Chicken Run (by the makers of Wallace & Gromit) and we’d gone swimming afterwards. My parents were concerned that I wasn’t acting like myself, and took me to hospital. I was admitted while still in my swimmers. My parents stayed for a while with me, but I was left alone in a small room for quite some time after they went home. Towards the end of the day a nurse came in and said, “Oh, are you still here?” and proceeded to find me a bed. 

Admitted

Waratah House was an adult mental health ward. There were no adolescent wards back then, even in the busy metropolitan area of Campbelltown. We weren’t allowed to have any glass, and our shoelaces were removed from our shoes. It was a half hour drive from where I lived, and this is where I was diagnosed with the harsh, unwieldy term “schizoaffective disorder”, which meant I had symptoms of bipolar disorder mixed with schizophrenia. As the youngest person on the ward I occasionally found this environment confronting, but my mother had previously been admitted for an episode of bipolar disorder, so I was familiar with the environment from visiting her. 

There was a small outdoor area with a high brick wall, a little grass and not much else. I remember going out to the courtyard and wishing that I was on a bushwalk or amongst actual nature. I became frustrated when people smoked at the nice, shady tables, and I had to sit at the far end of the courtyard in the sun to get away from the smoke. To this day I detest that the main activities offered in many mental health wards is watching television or going for smoke breaks. 

My most vivid memories from living in  Waratah House were the group outings to Macarthur Square shopping centre. Picture a large group of adults shuffling along with no shoelaces in their shoes: we must have looked quite a sight. I also remember being moved from room to room. For instance, one night somebody desperately needed a bed, and as there weren’t any available I ended up being put in the “quiet room”, which had padded walls and a padded floor. Even though the door was propped open and a real mattress was placed in the room, I will never forget that night. 

I would watch the TV and write my own language of squiggles and squares that was only comprehensible to me, highlighting things that stood out from what was being shown on television. When I am unwell, television is not helpful – I think that people on the screen can hear my thoughts, and I become preoccupied with what’s going on in the world. I also experienced delusions at times, like thinking that celebrity horse trainer Gai Waterhouse had visited another patient. 

Eventually, I was moved to the other side of Waratah House where there was more freedom. There was a piano, a room where you could listen to music, and art sessions. I frequently played the piano to pass the time, and it was relaxing to do art. I became friends with one lady who was always happy and laughing, and I was very surprised to find out later on that she was suffering from depression. Even Robin Williams, an actor famous for comedy, battled with depression, so I suppose people have a way of masking the pain that they are feeling inside, acting happy when inside their heart is breaking. 

Over to Redbank House

I’ll always remember my two high school friends who visited me. I’m not sure whether my other friends were banned from visiting by their apprehensive parents or whether the thought of going into an adult mental health ward was too much for them, but I’ll always treasure the visits I received. My family was  very supportive this whole time, and visited me as often as they could.

After several months I was transferred to a school for children experiencing mental health issues called Redbank School in Westmead Hospital. This environment was more relaxing and there was even a pool we could use, but after being around adults for so long I found the children to be quite immature and wished I could talk with adults like in Waratah House. I also started putting on weight after starting a medication called Clozapine, and I felt embarrassed and self-conscious when they put me on a special diet. All the other patients had the same meals apart from myself and a girl who had anorexia (she had to have milkshakes and foods to try and put on weight). 

I would walk around Westmead Hospital, seeing the helicopters come and go, and visiting the Captain Starlight room. I have clear memories of walking through the Casuarina trees surrounding the brain injury unit, and this became significant years later when I met the man who would become my husband, Dave. Dave had been in a terrible car accident, and it tuned out that he had spent a lot of time in the same brain injury rehabilitation ward I used to  walk past. The accident happened between his HSC trial exams and the actual HSC exams, but Dave was credited for the HSC based on his trial marks. He was paralysed down his right side and spent years in rehabilitation just learning to walk and talk again. 

That was one reason we became so close: we both had a $#@! year in 2001. 

I wouldn’t meet Dave until years later. To this day we aren’t sure if our stays actually overlapped, but we find it funny to think about the idea of a mental health patient and a brain injury patient meeting and getting married. One day I’ll request my discharge summaries to find out for sure, as I’m still a little curious… 

Picking up where I left off

After being discharged from hospital in October 2001, I returned to school just as my friends were preparing to sit their final exams. However, I had to complete my HSC with students who were in the year below me. It was especially frustrating when I realised that Legal Studies and Ancient History were on the timetable during the same period, so I decided to complete my HSC over two years in order to do all the subjects I wanted to do and ease back into studying. In retrospect, this only prolonged the agony of Year 12, as I basically did it over three years (with the first year being in hospital). I could have gone to TAFE, but the closest TAFE was a half hour train trip away. I managed to get the HSC, and even made a handful of friends along the way. While my UAI was disappointing, it was high enough to get into my preferred course:  Primary Teaching. I needed to move to Bathurst to study, as I couldn’t get into Campbelltown or Wollongong universities.

Moving to Bathurst was massive, as I didn’t know anyone there. A man at the local Baptist Church rented out an old house and the flats behind it, and all up there were seventeen university students living there. It was only about $260 a month for my room, and I stayed there for most of my degree. And while the house was old and cold (and it’s since been demolished) it was cheap and I was able to make friends with the other student residents.

I studied Primary Teaching at Charles Sturt Uni and began working as a research officer (a transcriptionist), which is basically typing out recordings for the various research projects being undertaken at the Uni. I still do this work today, and I quite enjoy it. Uni is where I met my husband Dave, and we got married just before I completed my final teaching internship. Dave went on to finish a Bachelor of Business Studies at Uni. 

I spent 2009 working casual in primary teaching around the Central West region, and during this time I fell pregnant. While I enjoyed some days of teaching, it was a highly stressful job and it was nice to have some downtime before having kids. I began reducing my Clozapine as it isn’t wise to be on that medication when you’re pregnant due to potential birth deformities. What we didn’t plan for was our discovery that we were about to be parents of twins…

To be continued next issue…

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