By SANE AUSTRALIA
‘My son was so ashamed, he wouldn’t come home. We almost lost him… ‘ explains Dianne Bellette, mother of John.
Five years ago Dianne was at her wits end. Her son, then in his late thirties and back home again, was spending up to 20 hours a day sleeping. He was incontinent and dribbled. He weighed close to 150 kilos.
Since being diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21, John had drifted through life, living for a while in regional Victoria. His illness, and the stigma associated with it, led him to attempt to take his life on several occasions.
‘After years isolated, John came home. Initially, the medication took away that trauma of the psychotic illness, but it was his physical health that concerned me so much. His beautiful sister Andrea said to me, “Mum you’ve got to do something, he’s going to die.” It wasn’t that he was going to die from his mental illness, he was physically so unwell. It took two of us to get him to the family GP because he was so incapable and unmotivated to do anything,’ Dianne explains.
The doctor asked Dianne if she knew what medications John was on. ‘I said “not really.” I know there’s six different ones – He’s on medication for his OCD, he’s got something else for the side effects of that. He’s got something for his psychotic episodes and he’s got something for those side effects… the list was just hideous.’
The GP recommended a neurologist, then a psychologist and over the ensuing months John’s life began to turn around. His medication was reviewed and drastically reduced. John began going to various support groups. He started eating a good diet and exercising.
‘Exercise was crucial. I would take John for walks on the beach. Little me, with this big, obese guy! I’d say “come on John we’ve gotta walk. Come on John.” And then, one day after three months, he said, “Come on Mum, I’m leaving you behind.”’
‘John realised that regular exercise and his better diet, were changing his life. He was starting to lose weight and from that point, he took charge of his recovery. He was able to start making decisions for himself. He still lives with his illness, he still has his moments, but the turnaround is magic.’ Says Diane, smiling.
John began training for a half marathon with his brother-in-law Jason and in 2010, they completed a run in Melbourne together. The family was there when they crossed the finish line. ‘It was such a joy to see John that day. I was so proud of him,’ Dianne says.
‘John says he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have the family and we have travelled this road together. The tragedy is, so many people don’t have this support.’
‘It blew me away recently to hear that only one in four people with a mental illness have any kind of carer support. Only a quarter have the support that they need to learn to manage their illness, to find accommodation, and someone to talk to. If you get ill at 19 or 20, you don’t have the skills for life. We need to support people through what can be a long period of adjustment – learning to live within the boundaries of their illness.’
Dianne is passionate about sharing what she’s learned. She recently co-facilitated a 12-week program for people caring for someone with a mental illness in outer Melbourne.
‘Carers need support. We need to support each other and we need skills to know how to get the person well. A key thing to learn is that it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to be angry; to be disappointed. To allow yourself to go through a range of emotions because no matter how well the person gets, the dreams you had for them, the hopes you had for them, are not going to happen. Because in a way you’re grieving for the person and you have to go through that and learn to love the person that’s here now,’ Dianne says.
‘My son is the most harmless, kind person. But people still turn their back on him when they learn he has a mental illness. They feel uncomfortable around him. John senses this and its hurtful.’
Dianne and John are among several people who tell their stories in a short video SANE Australia is releasing this week. In the video, five Australians living with or caring for someone with a mental illness, ask us to look beyond the stigma, as their share significant milestones.
The last word goes to Dianne – ‘No matter how bad things can be and no matter how lost you feel, don’t ever give up hope. It doesn’t matter how black that tunnel is, if you really look, there is a pinpoint of light and if that’s all you’ve got, hang on to that.‘
John has completed a work traineeship and is currently considering becoming a peer worker to support others living with a mental illness.
For more information about the work of SANE Australia, visit their website here or if you have been affected by mental illness, call their hotline on 1800 18 SANE (7263)