Annaliese is a 39-year-old performer with lived experience of mental distress. Here she shares some of her experiences, and how she manages them.
“I guess if my career was based on my mental distress, let’s just say I’d be the CEO.”
Annaliese is able to see the lighter side of her experiences of mental distress, because while her experiences may have taken a lot from her, they’ve given to her as well. “I think that my experiences of mental distress have taken a lot from me,” Annaliese says. “It's taken relationships and reputation, my career, physical health, a sustainable income, secure housing in a sense of secure housing for the future. It's taken connection and sense of self-worth. It's taken hope and productivity, and academic achievement as well.”
On the other hand, Annaliese says, “I think it's given me a deeper understanding of discrimination as I experience multiple forms of discrimination, including ableism. And I think that I've developed more empathy and my dark twisted sense of humour is definitely a result of some mental distress. And it's given me an opportunity for self-development through therapy. It's really given me an opportunity to connect with other people who experience distress. It's also given me an ability to think outside of the box and come from a place that tends to be an alternative perspective. And I guess my experiences with mental distress have also meant that I have entered different creative fields of performance and art too.”
Annaliese is able to see both sides of her experiences of distress through years of becoming the expert in her own mental health (she is the CEO, after all).
She describes a particularly tough time for her mental health as beginning from a period of physical illness and disability that meant she had to spend a lot of time inside in dark and silence. This isolation led to her experiencing intense feelings of loneliness and disconnection. “The longer those feelings and that experience lasted, the harder it was to break,” Annaliese says. “I felt not only lonely because I was alone, but lonely because I didn't think that anyone could understand or would understand what I was feeling, and I lost all sense of motivation and had no sense of purpose.”
This isolation and lack of motivation meant Annaliese didn’t see the point in eating, drinking, showering, or engaging with the outside world. All of these things felt really overwhelming, and not that worth it. They felt like things she could go without, which, she says, “gives you an insight into the state of mind I was in.”
Talking to anybody felt way too daunting. Annaliese was scared of a lot during this time, especially scared of people’s judgement, or their lack of understanding, which would confirm her feelings of loneliness. She was also scared she would be forced into recovery too quickly, when even the smallest of tasks felt so overwhelming. Eventually, she began chatting online anonymously with a free counsellor. This helped her feel validated and a bit stronger, and the counsellor eventually encouraged her to reach out to a friend. “I started by texting a friend, and I was inviting that friend into my experiences of distress at that moment and they were open to that,” Annaliese says.
Her friend gently encouraged and supported her to have some water, get out of bed, and move to the loungeroom, where there was sunlight and some plants. “Even just changing rooms really changed how I felt and where I was emotionally,” Annaliese recalls. Slowly and incrementally, she reached out to more people, who were also supportive and gently encouraging of small things like showering or having a piece of toast. For Annaliese, “it didn’t matter what it was, as long as those small achievements were celebrated and supported. That really, really helped.”
Now that Annaliese knows what she’s withstood, and what she can survive, she’s more able to cope with feelings as they come up, and is able to sit with them. When the feelings don’t feel survivable, she reaches out to others for connection.
“Other times when I've felt distressed, I try to harness that into energy to do something caring or positive for myself or the world around me,” Annaliese says. “Like create an artwork or write a story, or make other people laugh, or make myself laugh.”
As well as creative projects, and reaching out to others, Annaliese also swears by the “salt cure, which is either crying, or exercising and sweating, or going to the ocean.” She has formal supports, like support workers and counsellors, and informal supports, like her chosen and biological families, her partner, and her chihuahua Peanut. She also connects online with people who have experienced similar distress and can share their lived experience.
But a big part of Annaliese’s strength comes from how she talks to herself, and how she treats herself. “Being a queer woman with a disability, there are plenty of negative attitudes that I've internalised, and I have to check and make sure that the way I'm talking to myself inside my own head is caring and nurturing,” Annaliese says. “When I'm in good mental health, I can do that after a long time of practicing. But when I'm distressed and my capacity is a bit lower, sometimes I have to trick myself into being kind and nurturing to myself.”
“I used to be one of my biggest detractors and my biggest enemy. And I'm slowly shifting that and I'm just becoming a cheerleader for myself. So I'm just there cheering myself on, saying, ‘Yay, you bloody smashed it at Woolies. Good on you. Keep going.”
If you need more information about supporting friends or loved ones, find out more here: acon.org.au/withyou
ACON provides confidential counselling to people in our communities seeking support in relation to their mental health and wellbeing. Contact ACON on (02) 9206 2000 or 1800 063 060 or visit the ACON Mental Health page.