Dr Louise Byrne, keynote speaker at the Queensland Mental Health Week Achievement Awards, gave a moving account of her personal experience with mental illness and journey to recovery.
Those who missed it can read her speech here.
Thank you. To begin, I’d like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, to their Elders, past, present and future and to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
I would also like to acknowledge those with a lived experience in attendance. And those who have gone before me, we stand on the shoulders of giants.
When I was a little girl I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to make pop up books for my little brother, but didn’t have the technology so I would make story books, illustrate them and create a little cut out character who sat in a pocket at the front of the book and could be walked through all the pages.
As I got a bit older, I started writing plays and songs. I had stories to tell.
But while I was still very young some very bad things happened to me. I did not know how to process them and was ashamed, so I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. I just started to act out. My parents justifiably thought I had some type of mental health problem and we were unlucky.
I was given a diagnosis that felt like a death sentence. Certainly, I was told it was the death of my dreams for any sort of ‘normal’ life.
There are some wonderful mental health professionals in the industry, but the psychiatrist that was available to us, in the 1990s, in a regional area, was later well known for exploiting vulnerable people. Things predictably got worse.
My small town and school were very aware of my diagnosis and I was vilified and ostracised. We didn’t have facilities for adolescents, so I would be put in the dementia ward of a local hospital. I had been traumatised by both the initial events that led me to professional help, and even more deeply traumatised by the ‘help’ I received.
I was very young, confused and frightened. My relationship with my family deteriorated and I was in and out of home. I was heavily medicated and couldn’t see any reason why I shouldn’t take recreational drugs as well. At least they were fun!
At 16 I moved to Brisbane and this time I was lucky, I fell in to the punk scene. There was plenty of hard drinking and late nights but also lots of friendship and mentoring. It became my new family and with a renewed sense of acceptance, I began to heal.
By the time I was 20 I had gone back to school, completed year 12 and been accepted in a post grad diploma in media production which then led to a Masters. I had a wonderful boyfriend and in my mid 20s we bought a house together. By that time I was working at UQ.
It was a great job, focused on bridging the gap between the University and the predominantly blue collar community at Ipswich. I worked with kids like I had been, ‘at risk’ kids and was learning about research.
Life was so good I quit smoking and not long after, quit drinking. And as happens for many traumatised folk, all the doors I had sealed shut in my mind came flying open at once and would not shut again.
This time, I was again unlucky with professional help. The medication I was given made me rapidly and dramatically worse. Soon I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where I spent the better part of 3 months.
By the time I left, I had lost everything. My job, my boyfriend, my home and had to get driven back to Rockhampton by my Mum. ‘Crashing’ as an adult was very different to when I had been a girl. I did not have the resilience of youth. I had already lost everything and started from scratch once, how could I do it again? Hope was not forthcoming.
I spent a long time sitting in the back room at my Mum’s house. It was years before I could drive. More before I could work. Many more before I felt joy and a desire to live.
Today you see the product of over a decade of single-minded, painstaking progress. This version of me transcends even the wildest dreams I had back then.
Back then, I was a nobody. I had no voice and no-one spoke for me. At the time I couldn’t see how many threads were woven around me. How many candles had been lit, believing and hoping for me until I could find my own hope, my own belief.
With hindsight we all have 20/20 vision. I see the love, shared frustration, dedication and support that was obscured during my worst times.
I see my Mum fighting, flailing, refusing to ever give up, year after year.
I see my younger sister with her mobile phone switched on during her final exams in case of an emergency call about me.
I see the nurse who gave me permission to feel my pain and sat in silent witness as I wept under my hospital bed.
I see the psychiatrist who had the courage to let me work through a mental health crisis in my own way instead of involuntarily admitting me.
I see my colleagues in the early years of lived experience work, when I still saw myself as something broken, other, tainted. I remember how hard they worked to help me see - they valued me. No matter how many times I pushed friendship away, believing myself to be not worthy of it, they came back and back and back.
I see my more recent colleagues who welcomed me with open arms and quietly confessed their own personal experience or that of their loved ones. How they expressed gratitude for my role and told me how it had helped them. And how I finally felt like I belonged.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. And I believe it takes a community to support someone towards a life that is self-defined, a life of hope and meaning, beyond the limitations of an illness identity.
Today I stand for those who currently feel they do not have a voice, that no-one is speaking for them. Today, YOU stand those who presently feel voiceless.
In this room today are people of deep passion and commitment. People who have sacrificed other areas of their lives to be part of something greater than themselves. People who have chosen to serve. Truly, everyone in this room is a winner.
What people ‘do’ in their lives and in their jobs always creates ripples but sometimes in history circumstances converge to create opportunities for momentous change and lasting impact. Presently in Australia, government policy, funding priorities, service directions, increased lived experience input, co-production and the growing prevalence of the Recovery approach create an opportunity for real reform.
What we do this year, this week, today Matters. What we do makes a difference and in this time of rapid change, our actions have the potential to echo through the decades to come, to truly create radical reform. The reform not only of our mental health system but of public attitudes towards mental health. We here are part of a movement. We have the power, the determination and the dedication to change our world for the better. And I believe collectively, we will and as the finalists today demonstrate, in many areas already have.
We are part of the juggernaut of shifting social consciousness that insists people with significant mental health challenges be viewed and treated with value and respect. That acknowledges each one of us has unique skills, a contribution to make. That insists on support, acceptance and empathy instead of judgement and discrimination.
Without a community of supporters, that persisted against the odds and believed in me. I would likely still be in and out of hospital, not living independently. I would certainly never have become ‘Dr’ Byrne. I would never have found my voice.
It is people like you, who will make sure that people like me, are Never voiceless and ultimately find a way to make Their unique contribution.