Erin is 36 years old and works at the Mental Health Foundation.
Erin first experienced New Zealand’s mental health system when she was 15. Her parents had just separated and she had noticeably lost a lot of weight. Her school counsellor asked her mum to take her to a GP, who prescribed her Prozac for depression and disordered eating and referred her to a psychologist.
“Because I've always leaned towards the depressive sort of side, they always treated it as depression,” she says.
At 18, Erin started to experience suicidal ideation. By the time she was 22, her thoughts of suicide were constant. She was still seeing a psychologist and taking Prozac, but nothing much was changing.
She moved to Sydney after a romantic relationship ended one year later.
“After a short time in Sydney, the mania started and within a couple of months I was sort of out there, drinking heavily, staying up for like 10 days at a time, some really risky behaviour.”
“When I was manic I was so productive! I was getting my work done, and I was going out and having this fantastic social life, meeting new people and doing heaps of things. I’d go home and I would clean, and I would reorganise my wardrobe like four times in one night. I was really having fun!
“The mania would always end with a really horrible depression and a couple of times I had to come back to New Zealand. It was just considered burnout because I was working in media and I was working big hours. I’d take six weeks off and then I'd go back, and a similar thing would happen again.”
Erin vividly recalls going to a psychologist in her mid-twenties, who floated the idea that she might have bipolar disorder. Erin “freaked out.”
“To me, the idea of bipolar was like crazy, crazy, like super crazy. I didn't know much about it, so I just thought, ‘oh my god, I'm really, really crazy,' and got really mad and was just like 'that's not true.'
“Depression is easy-enough to swallow; lots of people get depressed. But people who live with bipolar, or schizophrenia, or that kind of diagnosis are seen as ‘scary’. That stigma prevented me from wanting to accept that diagnosis.”
Erin continued to take Prozac, which unfortunately increased her mania.
A year or two after returning to Australia, Erin experienced a sexual assault and began to feel “incredibly suicidal.” She returned to New Zealand and sought help through community mental health services.
The psychiatrist she saw didn’t spend much time with her, taking only half an hour with her to both confirm she had bipolar disorder and put her on medication which turned her into a “complete zombie.”
“My mum was just so worried because I'd gone from really depressed and suicidal to this zombie. I was losing days of my life.”
A private psychiatrist finally took the time to listen to her full history with mental distress, which helped Erin to accept her bipolar diagnosis. She spent the next few months trialling new medications, trying to find something that would help her to feel better. After nine months, she thought she was well enough to return to Sydney, but looking back, she thinks it was “probably too soon”.
For the next two and a half years in Australia, Erin’s mental health went up and down. She spent some time under the Australian Mental Health Act and, a few years later, spent some time in a private hospital. Later, her parents became unwell and she came back home to support them in New Zealand.
A year and a half after she returned home, she called the crisis team after becoming “quite depressed.”
“I can understand the metaphor of the black dog because I literally couldn’t see any light. It was weird, it was like my whole world was just black. I couldn’t even see the next day.
“Someone would ask, ‘oh, so what are you going to do tomorrow?’ and I couldn’t even imagine the concept of tomorrow. It really was that dark.”
The next few years were difficult. Erin contracted lithium toxicity from a change in medication, and her physical and mental health declined. She spent time in respite care but found it “really unsafe.”
Eventually, things started to get better. Erin vividly remembers the moment when she “started seeing a bit of a change.”
“I was walking down Mt Eden and I was just like, 'I haven't thought about killing myself for a really long time. Oh my gosh! How did I live?!”
Erin almost can’t believe she experienced acute distress for so long.
“It’s pretty amazing to me, the whole thing that I can even feel so well now! I'd been in such a dark space for such a long time – from 15 to 28. It’s pretty amazing.”
Erin now knows what she needs to do to stay well. She regularly meets with her psychiatrists and attends peer support groups, takes her medication, and practises yoga.
The 17th of November is a date that means a lot to Erin, because it’s the day she feels she started on her true journey toward recovery after finally accepting her diagnosis. She commemorates the date every year.
“It took over 10 years – from age 15 to 28 – for me to get to this point.”
“It all became a little bit clearer and I realised that we can do something with this, we can make it better and support me in living a fuller life.”