Sandy Jeffs had just graduated university when her whole world fell apart.
After what she described as an unravelling during her Bachelor of Arts degree, Jeffs hit crisis point when she started hearing voices at 23.
“Back in those days, schizophrenia and recovery weren’t even in the same sentence, it was an absolute death sentence,” Jeffs said.
“I remember being told by a doctor that every psychotic episode I had I’d go deeper and deeper into madness.”
When Jeffs was hospitalised in the Parkville Psychiatric Unit, the Ballarat-born poet and mental health advocate’s life came to a halt.
She was in and out of hospital between 1976 and 1984.
“I remember watching all my friends around me getting on with their lives. As thrilled as I was for their successes, it really highlighted to me my failure, I just felt like a drain on everybody’s time.”
But when she was too unwell to speak, Jeffs found her voice in poetry and started documenting her madness.
“For me the poetry was a lifeline because when I held that poem in my hand on that bit of paper it was actually evidence that I was still alive,” Jeffs said. “It was testimony to my existence that I needed at the time.”
Her friend convinced her to publish her first book, Poems from the Madhouse.
“With that, almost overnight, came a real transformation of my life,” Jeffs said.
“I had entered my forties with no future, no identity, no hope and no purpose but, with the publication of a book, people saw me as a poet. I now had another label for myself, it wasn’t schizophrenic… that for me opened up doors that were never opened before.”
She has now published seven volumes of poetry and an autobiography, while her poem Here I Sit inspired a stage show called MAD.
Jeffs was inducted onto the inaugural Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001 for her achievements.
She describes herself as living proof a diagnosis does not have to be your destiny.
While Jeffs still struggles with her sanity and the voices hound and harass her, she has found quality of life in pursuing her passions.
Aside from her poetry, Jeffs is part of a hockey team and plays the violin and viola in two community orchestras. These activities give her a sense of purpose, camaraderie and connection, while her medication, friends, doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists help her manage her mental health.
“It’s important that I keep in the world,” she said. “I have these things in place to help me stay well.”
As a SANE Australia ambassador, Jeffs speaks to schools, universities and community groups about living with mental illness with the aim to break the stigma.
“I’m not a monster. I’m just someone whose a very ordinary human being suffering this extraordinary illness,” she said.
“I want to raise compassion, respect and understanding for the mentally ill.
“I just want people to understand that what we have to live with is almost intolerable. People who get out of bed every day and deal with their mental illnesses are my heroes and heroines.”
Jeffs would like to see governments put more money into affordable accommodation and support for people living with schizophrenia to ensure their safety.
“If they’re on the streets or living in boarding houses or special accommodation, then your mental health is going to suffer,” she said.
“I despair at how many homeless people have mental illness living in awful accommodation. Give people a place to call home.”
Jeffs is one of 10 women featured in the Her Place Women’s Museum Australia exhibition, which launches at Ballarat’s Eureka Centre on November 14.