*Please note, this chapter of our anonymous contributor’s ‘Year in Review’ series contains discussion of suicide, eating disorders and depression. In order to preserve anonymity, all names mentioned have been changed.*
My family is amazing. A pretty bland introduction, I know, but it needs to be said. I'm fortunate enough to have parents who don't fight, an older sister I adore and a cat.
A lot of people I know aren't as lucky. They live in different households every week, or are surrounded by arguments, or they're abused. Some have really annoying siblings, or are lonely with no siblings at all. That being said, I've suffered a lot of stress due to problematic situations in my family and daily life at home. My sister is a few years older than me, and we were very close as children. Although this isn't the case any more, I have always felt a strong connection to her and care a lot about her wellbeing. She experienced a lot of health problems as a child, and when I woke up one morning and was told she was in the hospital it wasn't a big shock. Dad was the only one home, and he told me that there weren't any more details at the time. I didn't know what the problem was but this was routine, and I assumed it was connected to her blood disease. I figured that she'd be back home in a few days and it'd be brushed off as it had been so many times before.
A month passed. It was strange not having her around, but I was used to her arriving late home from hanging out with friends. I asked my parents about her daily but only received vague responses. Due to school and the visiting hours, I didn't have the opportunity to visit her until a month after she'd been admitted. She was mandated to have complete bed rest; basically, she wasn't allowed to stand up, or even sit up. I was told that her diagnosis was Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, and that her heart rate elevated too much if she raised herself. She had suffered heart problems before, and I assumed that this was connected to her rather messy medical history. I still checked in on how she was going regularly, but I had no idea of how serious the situation actually was.
Jamie remained in the hospital for approximately a month longer after that. I was in full assessment mode and had a lot of school work to concentrate on, and only one more visit occurred. She seemed better, and could sit up on the bed now. As time wore on my mother gave me updates, such as the nurses wheeling Jamie outside in a wheelchair so that she wouldn't have to stand up. Eventually Jamie was able to come home, with the stipulation that she would remain in the house and avoid any strenuous activity. She also had a lot of medicine to avoid a similar situation in the future, or so I assumed. I continued in my daily routine as normal, however now when I came home Jamie would always be waiting.
At the beginning of Term 2, Jamie was hospitalised again. As before, I didn't have any particular details from my parents and relied on Jamie’s friends to give me information. They told me that I would learn it all when my parents thought it was the right time, and that Jamie was okay. I visited her as soon as I could, a few weeks past the date of hospitalisation. This time, Mum took me directly to another, separate building beside the hospital. As we navigated the lifts and corridors, I noticed several signs for the ‘adolescent ward’. Then one sign made me stop as we entered her ward: “Adolescent Mental Health Ward”. This wasn't anything to do with her blood disease, or heart problems. My aunt was diagnosed with depression when I was 10 years old, so I was well used to hospital visits and the stigma surrounding it. Jamie isn’t depressed though, I thought to myself. We’re close sisters. I'd know, surely? She had become a lot less social in the recent years, but my mother had ascribed it to ‘teenage moodiness’. Although I hadn't experienced anything similar as I aged, I assumed it was different for everyone and Jamie must have had it worse than I did. The room we were now in was vastly different to the previous hospital wards I'd entered. Instead of one room, six beds, curtains and a lot of drips, we were in a spacious lobby space with couches and a door opening to a lounge room with a pool table and a balcony with table tennis courts. There were ten private rooms available, as well as a storage room where visitors had to leave all their items including phones. The element that struck me the most however, was the amount of bars. Every window was barred up, the balcony had a mesh fence and there were sharp spikes to prevent people from climbing. The only thing I could compare it to was a prison.
It wasn't a long visit. We said hello, gave Jamie more items from home and got a tour of the kitchen, where she was allowed to cook once a week under supervision. She gave me a long list of the items that were banned, simple things like nail clippers and various items of makeup alongside more obvious items such as knives and scissors. Even in the kitchen, all sharp objects were kept under lock and the door itself was bolted in between meal times and cooking lessons. I still had no idea why I was here. When we left, I asked Mum why Jamie was there but her only response was “a problem with the medication”. Clearly she wasn't comfortable telling me any details, nor was Dad. Instead I asked one of Jamie’s close friends. They were under the impression that I already had the basic information and just required finer details, such as an exact timeline, and how Jamie’s friends had found out. When I mentioned the problem with the medication, they told me that since Jamie’s depression had been unmedicated for so long, it was difficult to find the right type that would subdue it. I knew that each individual case required a lot of trial due to my aunt, but it hadn't occurred to me that Jamie could have the same mental illness, or that that was the type of medication she was taking. The problem that my mother had brushed off was a suicide attempt. The reason Jamie had been on bed rest was due to her anorexia, which had allegedly begun in September of the previous year and had been diagnosed when she collapsed in early February.
I was in shock. Although I've adjusted now, it took a long time for me to come to terms with my sister’s diagnoses. There was a strong sense of guilt as well, as I was the only person awake when Jamie had been preparing for her day. I had noticed that she wasn't preparing any food for the day, however I assumed that she had done so in the ten minutes before I came and got ready. I did ask about her breakfast, since I only saw her drinking coffee, but she said that she had already had it. After a while I gave up asking as the question seemed to annoy her and always provoked the same response. When she was released from hospital she was given an eating plan that we strictly enforced, detailing how much she should eat and how often. The changes to the family routine ensured that I couldn't forget the condition, especially after we started to attend weekly family therapy sessions to further support Jamie.
She still has difficulty with meals, but it's a lot easier now to support her and encourage her to feel healthy in her own body. I am also a lot better equipped to help out, as I can identify how comfortable she is with eating in front of others and how to help her be okay in her body image. I have also researched anorexia, which has helped me to process and feel better able to support. If anyone else has a loved one with a mental illness, I found that researching really helped me to feel more comfortable with providing support. It also helps to increase understanding and reduce any social stigma. Jamie’s depression has continued on for four years now, and I struggled a lot when I first found out. It seemed impossible that someone I knew so well could have this illness, and I felt helpless. Since then, I've been able to support her a lot more by always being there to talk to if she needs it. For her, artistic expression helps to alleviate the depressing thoughts as a coping mechanism. I was able to help her in this just by spending time with her on the weekends, painting and laughing. Again, I researched how depression works, so that I gained a better understanding. This is something I recommend everyone does, regardless of if you know someone with these health problems or not. Reducing the social stigma and improving empathy and knowledge of the topic will make a lot of people more comfortable in sharing their struggles.
It was very difficult for me to come to terms with, I admit that. However, by researching and seeing what my sister needed, I was able to give more support and feel less helpless. Everyone has different experiences with these issues and requires different types of help, so I was lucky to find a way to help her. If you know someone who is going through a tough time, I found that just offering to be someone they could vent to helped them through it, and it'll help you to gain a better understanding. Having a support network is always vital to anyone’s wellbeing, whether they have an illness like depression or are stressed about schoolwork. If you are supporting someone with a mental illness, remember to take time out for yourself as well. You are not their only method of gaining help, and you will be incapable of supporting anyone if you cannot support yourself. Even taking ten minutes out of your busy day to relax, listen to music or meditate will help to increase your own wellbeing. Don't feel guilty about not being there 100% of the time, or not noticing a problem earlier. What matters most is being well yourself, so that if something does affect someone you know, you can be in a position to help them without further hurting yourself. Next article I'll touch on how to handle a low self esteem and feelings of isolation and loneliness. I hope hearing my experience can help you, or give a broader understanding of how this could affect anyone. Thank you for reading, and remember to check in with an organisation such as Kids Helpline or Reachout if you're feeling worried about your own or someone else’s mental health. Find these, and other resources and links on our Get Help Page.