SANDY Jeffs was professionally told she would go so deep into a madness from which she would never recover. Schizophrenia in the mid-1970s was a death sentence.
Ms Jeffs said if she had told nurses at infamous mental asylum Larundel back then that she would go on to become an accomplished poet, author of nine books and be awarded an Order of Australia Medal, they would have branded it one of her delusions.
It was in her poetry, documenting her "madness", Ms Jeffs found a was to survive, recover and find a way to live with her voices.
Poetry sparked hope.
"(In diagnosis) the hopelessness of it was so profound: you lose your hope; you lose your identity; and you buy into the pessimism," Ms Jeffs said. "I was a student, I was on the dole, I was sick and had an invalid pension - these were testing times. But I didn't become irretrievably mad.
"...When I used to write those poems, I would hold them in my hand and looking at them was the only thing that told me I was alive."
I would hold (my poetry) in my hand and looking at them was the only thing that told me I was alive.Sandy Jeffs
Ms Jeffs had seven admissions to Larundel between 1978 and 1991. She said everything changed almost overnight when her friend Susan came to her wanting to publish a collection of those poems. Poems from the Madhouse took Ms Jeffs from viewing herself as someone with schizophrenia to Sandy Jeffs, poet. Purpose, hope and meaning were back in her life.
Growing up in Ballarat, Ms Jeffs loved school. She went from Dana Street primary to Ballarat High School where she loved pursuing sports and developed a love for writing poetry.
Ms Jeffs went on to study a Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University in 1975 and during this time was unravelling without knowing it. Unhealthy mind patterns started to emerge. What were whispers at the beginning were in the end, voices railing at her.
This was when Ms Jeffs became an inmate at Larundel.
Time on the inside is the inspiration for Ms Jeffs' latest book, Out of the Madhouse: from asylums to caring community?, which she has co-authored with SANE co-foudner Margaret Leggatt. Together they have compiled the oral history of 80 former Larundel inmates and staff to explore how much was lost and how much was gained in deinstitutionalisation.
They want to know whether the 'care in the community' model and move to acute psychiatric wards in general hospitals has been for the better. For starters, Ms Jeffs said there was an assumption carers had the time, space and money to look after someone experiencing mental illness. So much, Ms Jeff said, depended on how well the person was and how willing a carer was to effectively be like a gaoler.
"I describe myself a relic from Larundel. My whole life was taken over by this big hospital and in a way you could not be unchanged by the experience," Ms Jeffs said.
"Larundel was a big institution and people became institutionalised by having everything done for them and some people became lost in the back wards for years.
"But there were elements that were healing and good. Larundel was an asylum for people; there were gum trees and rose bushes and lovely gardens for people to take time to heal. Rehab and group therapy was all on one site. We weren't chucked out to non-government agencies to pick up the pieces once the clinical side of your stay was done."
There were elements that were healing and good. Larundel was an asylum for people; there were lovely gardens for people to take time to heal.Sandy Jeffs
Ms Jeffs said psychiatric hospitals like Larundel, which closed in 1999, were demonised as places where terrible things happened. While Ms Jeffs did not argue such places were all lovely, she said the present day was no so crash hot either.
As an advocate for her 'mad comrades', Ms Jeffs said enormous pressure for beds in acute wards for mental illness too often created a pattern of contain, medicate and discharge. On the flip side, people living with mental illness had gained more peer workers and greater co-production and design in programs.
While poetry may have helped Ms Jeffs find her hope, her friends have kept her from descending into madness.
Ms Jeffs has developed a network she calls Team Sandy, reminding her always she is more than a person with schizophrenia. There are her friends, her psychiatrist, her pets, her poetry, her hockey and her orchestras.
Ms Jeffs said connection and identity were important for everyone, but even more so for someone with mental illness.
The only aspect of her life that really troubled Ms Jeffs now, she quipped, was her beloved Melbourne Football Club.
Ms Jeffs' OAM presentation has been put on hold, due to coronavirus, but she said it was a lovely surprise: "my life didn't go on the skids completely".
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