“The advice I would give my younger self is – keep your options open, keep going and don’t give up. Accept everything that happens to you and then leave those things in the past.”
Helena Sonar is a peer support worker in Auckland. Her job involves helping people find their own path to recovery from mental distress, and now she’s sharing her personal story in the hope it will help others.
“My uncle and mum both experienced mental illness, but it was never talked about in my family. I sort of learned as I went and supported my mum when she needed it,” says Helena. “I didn’t think it was fair how mental illness affected my mum’s health and I felt really overwhelmed about it.”
While studying at university and supporting her mum, Helena suffered a bad head injury and began to experience her own mental distress. At the time, she didn’t realise what was happening.
“Luckily, I had ongoing support from ACC and a university disability allowance that helped me with my study and extra exam time.”
Eventually, Helena got professional help, but it was a very hard road.
“I was ashamed and not in the right mindset for a while, so it kept me from reaching out,” she explains.
For Helena, a huge part of her recovery was learning about herself, her experience and her diagnosis.
“I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis, and for a while I kept asking ‘why me?’ - until I learned more and spoke with people who had experienced similar things.”
Helena’s mum doesn’t have the same outlook. “She doesn’t want to talk about her experience or learn more about it – she is quite closed up. For her, it was something that happened in the past and she just wants to forget about it.”
During her recovery, Helena felt well enough to go back to university and finish her degree – a Bachelor of Business in Information Technology. “It was difficult to return to University. I felt out of my comfort zone, but it meant a lot to finish my degree because I’d worked so hard for it.”
Today Helena is happy with where she is in her life. She has her husband, her family, a job that she loves, and her first child, a little boy born in January 2017.
Every day she continues to grow and learn about herself and her mental wellbeing. “I’m still on the road to recovery. I believe I’ve come a long way through change, support and acceptance.”
She’s embraced ‘hope’ as a key concept, after her experience. “Hope to me means having a positive mindset to mental health and life – and looking at my wellbeing as a whole, not just a part.
“Remembering to be assertive in my day-to-day schedule is helpful – and something I have also embraced. Most of the time I want to speak up - I don’t want to hold back - so I would rather ask for assistance than bottle things up.
“Now I have hope, I am able to share that hope with others.”
Helena is a 2010 NZ Mental Health Media Grant Fellow.