Emily: Inside Mental Health

interview by marie chung

 

Emily has lived with mental illness since she was 9 years old. Despite her health, Emily is one of the strongest individuals I have had the fortune to know. A highly philosophical, intelligent and wise character, she has made particular decisions in life that have shaped her personal growth, from working in the BDSM (Bondage Domination Sado-Masochism) environment, to becoming a mentor for African individuals transitioning from prison.

Emily and I settle down at New York Tomato in Richmond for our regular hit of caffeine. She looks at the camera and the first thing she says is “god, you are not going to be taking photos are you?” Assured that her face will not be publicised because of the nature of her recent work in the sex industry, Emily tightly packs her tobacco in the centre of her rolling paper and we begin a rather intense discussion.          

What label do you think you fall under?

Crazy. And if I could sub-categorize that, bipolar. At one point, I was labelled as being schizophrenic. Turns out, it was psychosis.

How do you think people take that?

I don’t know. That would be up to them, wouldn’t it? My perception of what their perception would be is odd, reserved, amusingly morbid, curious, and for those who know me better, more caring than I may act.

It’s a little frustrating, especially with friends I’ve known since high school, and even friends I met a few years ago. I was a very different person back then – they seem to expect me to be less approachable, a little aloof and obnoxious at times. In high school, I was very secretive of my inner thoughts because I didn’t know how to trust others and didn’t think anyone would understand.

Since high school, how do you feel you’ve changed as a person?

As opposed to acting comfortable with myself, or being comfortable with a persona that I portrayed, I’m now beginning to actually accept the person I present to the world, which I think is as authentic to myself as I can be.

When dad died, I no longer had a living role model. As much as I loved him, his death relieved me of having to live up to his expectations. I was free to choose for myself the qualities I’d like to possess but also keeping in mind that I should tailor these qualities so they might fit in with society. Of course, I still aim to be someone that dad would be proud of but I definitely took paths I probably wouldn’t have touched before he passed away.

I’ve never been able to speak to you about your father because I felt it was a very sensitive issue.

Really? It isn’t particularly, funnily enough. I’m quite happy to talk about dad. The more sensitive topic would in fact be mother. I have a lot of issues concerning her.

Dad was the antidote to my mother in terms of influencing the person I have come to be. He was reserved, wise, rational and collected and never spoke ill of anyone. That’s something his friend told me at the wake. I’m quite proud of having the father I had and glad, because I think I carry some of his traits.

I try not to be as judgemental or at least I give people a chance to prove me wrong. Since my dad died, I felt obliged to stay at home for a few years. I moved out a few years ago. I consider myself incredibly lucky because I met some amazing people through my new home. There was a lot of drinking, with always someone around. It was good for me to have been in that environment, since I’m naturally introverted.

When you were living there, where were you working?

I was working at a BDSM establishment as a receptionist.

How did you find out about the position?

One of my friends worked there as a submissive. I was visiting her one day. The head manager was looking for a receptionist and I was looking for another job. I thought it would be a great idea, seeing I’m a bit of a curious nut.

Did you think about the repercussions of working there?

Definitely. Especially once I decided I wanted to work in forensics. If my possible employers were to discover I had had a brothel managing license, it wouldn’t look very good. So I was never formally employed there.

A lot of people who think about bondage would generally freak out. What’s your perception on the work?

It was interesting to work with just female colleagues and most of them being quite dominant (the majority of girls who worked there were professional dominatrices). Some were a bit more difficult to work with than others but generally, I liked my working environment. The girls really value hierarchy – whether you’re a senior mistress, trainee, submissive, or whatever. It depends very much on how long you’ve been in the industry, or worked at that particular establishment and the only way to earn yourself a higher standing is to stay and wait.

There’s an obvious stigma and negative judgement towards a) those who work in the sex industry, and b) BDSM.

“What I saw there was a service that provided a safe, non-judgmental space to explore desires that some individuals may not be able to receive in their personal life or are ashamed of”.

As for my role, I’d manage clients, take care of the money and other business. Something I found pretty amusing was that the names these Johns would book their sessions under were biblical such as John and Peter.

What are you currently doing for work?

For bread and butter, I have been a french tutor. Presently, I have the luxury of focusing on my studies and allocating otherwise money-making hours into volunteer work.

Where are you doing that exactly?

I am currently involved in the African Visitation and Mentoring Program, via Jesuit Social Services. My role as a mentor is to support individuals from African backgrounds that reside in medium to maximum security prisons in Melbourne. The intention is to establish a rapport with the participant whilst they’re in prison, and when the time of their release comes, help them to transition back into the community and Australian society.

What do you gain from your role?

I anticipate a deliciously rich range of challenges and experiences. It’s also a wonderful place to be at and to finally have the head space to help other individuals in a field that I feel so passionate about. Yes, it was critical for me to take the time I took in order to focus on myself and to be completely off my rocker, brood with great bitterness and intensity, reflect, learn, heal, grow and all the rest. But now a large chunk of that has been addressed and dealt with and I feel compelled to do something with what I’ve learned. The hells that others experience have always attracted me to them but now, I want to do more than just collect their stories.

Do you remember your first encounter of acknowledging you had a mental issue?

I’m not sure. When I first started experiencing suicidal ideation and depression, I didn’t see it as a mental illness because I didn’t really know what it was. I just knew I didn’t fit in with the other kids. I grew up with a Christian family and so my problems were understood in a religious context. I think I was about nine years old, when I first thought of death or suicide. I had just moved from New Zealand to Australia. I found the transition very challenging and that’s when I started to really think about things. How I don’t fit into this world – all that melodramatic stuff. But death of course, featured as a frequent guest star.

And how did it develop over time?

My hallucinations started when I was in early high school. It was visual and auditory in nature. At the time, I thought of them as visions and thought I was speaking to god and the devil. Sounds ridiculous now but that’s how I understood it at the time. It was only after dad died that I sought professional help. After about a year after his death, I had a breakdown. I had become an alcoholic, I wasn’t sleeping and my hallucinations had resurfaced. The drinking and lack of sleep, as well as the suppression of grief for my father, would have exacerbated any pre-existing mental health issues.

 

When I first entered the mental health system, I was placed in a psych hospital and the next few years would consist of me going in and out of the place. Once I started showing some signs of improvement, I joined a group therapy program that the hospital ran. I was never really into self-help literature and programs, so I was stubbornly resistant for the first year or so. After that year, I realised if I’m paying for this goddamn program, I may as well take what I can from it. I ended up learning a great many things, from mastering anxiety appeasing techniques to navigating interpersonal relationships.

What years were you at the clinic?

I’m not too good with chronology. Especially from high school onwards, my memory is rather blurry. I remember events, but not necessarily the order in which they happened.

How does your brother fit into the picture? Do you feel like you’re his role model?

I think he may have looked up to me at some point. And to some degree, he still might. But for the most part, I think he sees me as the crazy, kooky older sister that likes weird things and weird music.

What would be your advice to those experiencing a similar situation to you, in terms of mental health?

“I think one of the most important things I had to learn is that there is no miracle drug. I see many patients waiting for the right pill and that only turns them into professional patients”.

I don’t think enough practitioners notify their patients that they ultimately are the key to their own well-being. As disappointing as it is, the mental health system is a business like any other and their main priority is to keep life long customers. It’s about learning that medication is only there to facilitate a level of stability that enables someone to deal with their problem behaviours, thoughts and emotional distress. I believe that’s where therapy becomes incredibly important – trying to find the root of one’s issues.

Do you think the labels used by psychiatrists or psychologists are limiting and that a diagnosis could limit that persons capacity to progress?

It also limits the types of relationships you can have with different people. I mean, that’s the danger of stereotyping and expectancy. I think I’ve definitely come to learn that you can’t put people into neat boxes, especially since I started a little side project, which involved me joining an online dating site to meet individuals I wouldn’t normally give my time of day to. I’ve been surprised, and sometimes pleasantly surprised by who I end up meeting.

I think it’s important to be aware of mental health issues and to be more open minded to differences, such as sexual orientation and race. I believe it is now 1 in 4 Australians that experience mental health problems in their lifetime and many don’t seek help. They instead engage in destructive behaviour because of the stigma attached to this subject. Discourse is the door to breaking down anything that’s taboo in society, so I’d encourage people to talk and listen.

I have also met a lot of people who turn a blind eye to mental health issues because they don’t understand the nature of it. What do you think could open their minds to mental health?

You can deny it all you want but life is aggressive and humans are flawed. If you care about those around you, there would be a desire to support them. That support can only be given if you allow a non-judgmental space for people to talk about things you generally wouldn’t. I think that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt, is to make active choices.

“Otherwise, it’s your external environment that will dictate what you think, how you think, and how you behave and react. Personally, that’s not how I want to live my life. I want to be the one to navigate my life”.

Throughout our years of friendship, Emily’s loyalty and character has been ever so stable despite her mental instability. Her reality is one we could rarely encounter in our everyday lives. It is one that we should attempt to empathise with before making an immediate judgment of her craziness. Throughout the years, she has remained philosophical, intelligent and wise. These qualities have helped her harness her mental health and shape her as a person.

Emily parked her car at a local train station. When we reached the car, she was highly concerned about having to reverse without hitting another vehicle. I returned home just across the road from her. Peering out the window, I could see that Emily underestimated her ability to exit safely out of that car park. There was no trace of her, no damage done and she would be on her way to take on her next challenge.