I am feeling for Buddy Franklin and Jesinta Campbell.
Not because I’m a Sydney Swans devotee or a longstanding fan of AFL. But, because I had a run in with mental illness in my 20s and I cannot comprehend how hard that would have been to endure in the spotlight. It was brutal enough, out of the spotlight.
I had a nervous breakdown at 25. It lasted about four months, during which I was completely debilitated by an array of physical and psychological symptoms, and it culminated in a three-week stay in a psychiatric facility.
I started the experience as a solicitor in a Sydney law firm, and I finished it as an unemployed permanent resident on my parents’ couch in Northern NSW. I saw about 35 medical professionals in the interim and underwent a litany of tests in search of an explanation.
It was dark and desperate. I oscillated between melancholy and madness, I was engulfed by a sadness I still can’t comprehend. I was terrified of the present and the future: I couldn’t see either how my health would ever be restored to a state I could enjoy again.
As dramatic as it seems now, back then I couldn’t fathom if or how I would participate in life again. As I said, I had the luxury of complete anonymity during this ghastly chapter. But even with the blessing of being an entirely private citizen, it was hard.
I found love and support even from close friends hard to handle. I’m not usually prone to rage, but well-meaning text messages set me off. Thoughtful, generous and kind messages jarred. I hated my phone ringing.
These things reminded me of my state. That I had no “answer”. That no doctor or test had yet found a solution, or even a label, for what I was experiencing. I wanted to not exist for that time. I didn’t want anyone to even know me: each attempt at contact tore down my attempt at fantasy. I did exist. I had previously had a life beyond my parents’ couch. Each message reminded me of that.
I remember crying uncontrollably as I tried to explain this to a psychologist. At that point I could no longer decipher, even naively, between my physical and mental state. I felt broken. Beyond repair.
During this ordeal, my parents and my then-boyfriend offered me unwavering support and unconditional love. The experience was clearly exacting a toll on them, which I hated viscerally, but despite this, in a million ways every day they supported me.
As the weeks ticked by without any relief in sight, I started to increase calls to my boyfriend to leave me, to jump ship. I couldn’t see my future improving and I couldn’t see why his future should be marred by mine. As unbearable as it was to consider letting him go, it was agonising to think about inflicting my broken self on him. We were young and, save for me, his future looked to be as brimming with potential as mine looked empty.
To his credit and my great fortune, he ignored my suggestion. Daily. He resisted any urge to move on, despite occasionally succumbing to my emotional pleas and asking if it was what I really, really wanted. I didn’t really want that. But I really didn’t want life to carry on the way it was.
Fortunately, life didn’t carry on the way it was forever. It became increasingly clear that whatever the cause of my physical symptoms was, most notably an ugly flare up of Crohn’s disease, my mental health was quickly becoming the main event.
A three-week stint as an inpatient in a rehabilitation facility proved the turning point. Relief arrived. Medication, therapy and a softly, softly approach to rejoining real life meant that, not quickly but surely enough, I could see some light at the end of the tunnel. Neither the present nor the future seemed cause for grave concern.
I was ready to give life a shot and I had the kindest, most supportive man to enjoy it with. The man who was my boyfriend, who is now my husband, didn’t make me better or fix what was wrong with me. As anyone who has encountered mental health issues will attest: no one else can ‘fix’ them. That was ultimately up to me.
But his friendship and his love through that time did sustain me more than anything else. The setting during those four months was many, many postcodes from romantic. It was gritty. It was awful and heartbreaking and hard. So hard. But afterwards, we had the benefit of realising that having got through that, we’d be well placed to keep tackling life together.
I am grateful that during that time, he didn’t look at my illness as a permanent flaw. That he didn’t use those four months to assess my future suitability, or the ‘viability’ of having children with me. I am grateful that he didn’t consider any of the ugly suggestions that a newspaper columnist made to Jesinta Campbell over the weekend on account of her boyfriend Buddy Franklin suffering from mental illness.
Our marriage is no perfect fairy tale – no one’s is — but nor is ours a partnership without scaffolding. There are rewards for surviving difficult times – in whatever form those difficulties manifest – with a person you love. That is the reward Buddy Franklin and Jessinta Campbell may reap.