The QUO - Why I Care: Mental health recovery and redemption
Human suffering, an environment of negativity and the problematisation of mental illness have led many to believe that creating meaningful change is beyond them. Natalie explores her lived experience of an eating disorder and her life-long journey towards redemption.
Why I Care: Mental health recovery and redemption

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Why I Care: Mental health recovery and redemption

21 July 2017
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My high school teacher once said to my English class, “What stories do you have to tell at this stage of your life? You haven’t experienced enough!”. When I heard this, I remember thinking back to the year before, having spent most of my time in and out of hospital. “I do have stories to tell”, I thought to myself. But would anyone care to read them? 

Fast forward to today. Until now, I have remained silent for over a decade about the eating disorder that afflicted me for eight years. I have never spoken to friends or extended family about how dangerously close I came to losing my life. Or to what extent my journey changed who I am. Without mincing words, I had to fight for my life. I had to fight that powerful, dark thread of self-destruction and dig deep and find my light.  

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Source: "Lonely Tree Hampstead Heath," by Dyn Photo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sometimes I wonder why I am so reluctant to talk about my past. Perhaps it is pride, or fear of vulnerability. I will never forget the looks of compassion in my teacher’s eyes, when I was forced to defer my studies despite being passionate about my education. I will always remember the judgment in the eyes of parents and nurses when I was in an inpatient hospital ward surrounded by kids with terminal illnesses. Sometimes, their disdain was even verbalised.

I am impassioned to tell my story today, because I believe it speaks in direct opposition to the cultural milieu affecting our world. We live in a world where immense human suffering and an environment of negativity and cynicism have led people to believe that they cannot create meaningful change. That situations and individual people cannot change. That sick people cannot contribute, people who have done wrong cannot be rehabilitated and that we are helpless in creating systematic reform regarding the environment, the health system, education, or whatever it is we might find ourselves most passionate about.

After multiple stints in hospital and extensive therapy, I moved into a precarious period of recovery. Physically I was much healthier, but psychologically I was treading water. So still rebuilding a healthy mindset, I discovered (among other things) Viktor Frankl’s seminal book, Man’s Search For Meaning, about his experience of survival during the Holocaust. I took every word to heart. The message was to find hope in the inexplicable suffering; of the freedom to choose one’s own thoughts and feelings regardless of circumstance.

I have always been a strong willed person, but one’s own will, in a philosophical sense, does not shield us from inevitable weariness. Or the eventual void. In fact, a strong will alone can lead a person or a society down a dark path without cause. A key personal breakthrough, then, was to truly understand the importance of purpose in life amidst struggle, loss and chaos. To ponder what life is asking of us every day. In Frankl’s words, “it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

Recovery then, is like spinning on the wheel of life, feeling the full revolution of what it means to be human. From gut wrenching shame and the severe depths of hopelessness, to a beautiful sense of grace and compassion. In a sense, you walk into the pit of fire only half alive, and walk out fully human. 

Being deeply and vulnerably human, I started seeing calls to action everywhere. When I saw the look of defeat and anguish on the face of a homeless man on the street, reduced to begging, I saw myself. When I watched the journey of Myruan Sukumaran of The Bali 9, finding redemption through art and community, I saw myself. I felt his mentor, Ben Quity’s, anguish at the loss of a life who was well set on the (lifelong) journey of redemption. Someone who could have continued to help others, moving them through the very human wheel of life. 

Over the years I have volunteered with organisations such as headspace and Reachout Australia, whether it be to push for mental health education in schools, or to encourage multicultural youth to seek help. I have seen the amazing work of street outreach teams, and the difference they have made to individual young people on the streets. I have acted as a shield, standing at a mere 5’3", for a transgender woman who was lost and alone, and was being heckled and violently threatened on the streets of Sydney.

As Victor Frankl says, life is about what each day is asking of us. We have the choice to answer with our courage to care and our actions. Regardless of how big or complex the situation is, life still asks things of each individual, and each individual alone. How will you answer these calls to action? 

If you, or anyone else you know requires support and assistance for eating disorders, please contact The Butterfly Foundation's National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673). This is a free and confidential service which provides information, counselling and treatment referral for eating disorders, disordered eating, body image and related issues. 

If you are a young person with a lived experience of mental illness, or passionate about mental health issues, you can find volunteer opportunities at the following organisations:

Natalie Sookee

About Natalie Sookee

Natalie has spent most of her working life, seeking better outcomes for young people. With an academic background in psychology and social science, she seeks to explore the social context in which outcomes for young people play out, and how innovative strategies can facilitate change. Such a...

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21st July 2017

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