Just a heads up. This episode features a personal story of mental health and contains themes of suicide. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue support service.
The big thing for me is, I don't feel lonely anymore. Still live alone. But all I have to do is take a walk down the road here and I'll bump into somebody and have a chat with them for five or 10 minutes and, and the sense of isolation, and a sense of loneliness have just dissipated.
Welcome to Not Alone, incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about loneliness, and how we can bloom wherever we're planted. That was Sandy, you heard earlier, Sandy is a self described optimist. She's practical, free spirited. And she's the type of person who always tries to make the best out of a bad situation. Ever since Sandy can remember, she had a strong idea of what she wanted to be when she grew up. But the twists and turns of life had. Well, other ideas.
I remember when I was young. And people asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? The first thing I always said was, I wanted to be a mother. And so it became so much of my identity, I was just going to be a mother at some point in my life. But I had two broken engagements. And the third engagement proceeded to a marriage. And then it took us three and a half years to because well, in fact, three and a half years with no conception. So we signed up to start IVF. And the months we were due to start IVF was the month I fell pregnant naturally, which was great. And so it was like the culmination of this lifelong dream and, not so much a dream but a sense of who I am and and who I wanted to be in the world. I had a pretty good pregnancy and a pretty good childbirth really, but then it all seemed to go, it just seemed to unravel really quickly.
That dream quickly turned into something else. Sandy really struggled with her feelings around being a new mum.
When Jessie was two weeks old, he needed surgery. And it wasn't life threatening surgery, but it was still quite horrible feeling like you're handing your child your little two week old baby over to a complete stranger and saying you've got his life in your hands. After that surgery, Jesse didn't feed well. He didn't sleep well. In my mind, to this day, it just feels like one endless period of time where I couldn't sleep, didn't eat properly, it felt like one long nightmare. Eventually, it became apparent that it wasn't really safe to have me at home looking after Jessie. And so thanks to my sister finding a mother baby unit that I could be admitted to that specialises in helping women with postnatal depression. I was admitted to this unit and we were told the average stay was two weeks or four weeks. And I remember thinking, oh two weeks, I'm just tired. You know, I'll rest up for two weeks and then I'll be out of here. But I was in fact there for four months. Because I think primarily because I was in denial. Even though I had been diagnosed with postnatal depression in my head, I thought no, I'm just tired. I felt, well I felt terribly guilty because I'd wanted this child my whole life. And now I had this perfect, healthy, laughing delightful child and I saw him more of a chore, than something to be loved and nurtured. Some of the signs and symptoms that I experienced of depression are very clouded thinking, just exhausted to the core of my bones. And again, I thought, well, that's because my baby's not in a sleep routine. And so how can I be getting the sleep I need? I had trouble making decisions, I would start one thing, and then stop that and do something else. And I remember being at home with Jessie and thinking, okay, the four walls are just closing in on me and I need to get out.
These weren't the first struggles Sandy experienced, losing her brother to suicide at a young age shook her. It left her asking questions about if she could have done more to help.
My family had migrated to Australia and my brother had stayed in the States because he had recently gotten married, we got a call one day, my parents got a call from the sheriff saying that he'd been found dead in his home. And I remember naively thinking as a 20 year old, 'well it wouldn't have been suicide because he knew how much we loved him'. And of course, it was suicide. I really struggled with that. And I learned that when someone is in that state of mind, they're not thinking about anything else. They're not thinking about other people. They're thinking about ending the pain that they're experiencing. I remember when I was first receiving some training from Beyond Blue, I was told we don't use the C word. We don't say commit suicide because people commit crimes, people commit burglary, and suicide is not a crime. And this little tear rolls down my face. And the lady I was speaking with knew about my brother. And she said, Are you okay? And I said, you have just lifted 10 kilograms from my shoulders that I didn't know I had been carrying for 40 years. Because even though I didn't think my brother had committed a crime, or a sin, I felt society judged him as that.
This was a lot of weight to carry for all those years. And when her marriage ended, Sandy's feelings of depression and isolation got worse.
In 2018, my longtime marriage ended because of some issues, we weren't able to resolve together. And I found myself living alone in a little rented place. And you're trying to get adjusted to the concept of being single and living alone again, after a 30 year marriage. And for me, the impact was that sense of isolation just increased, living in a small unit on my own. And the walls, despite my best efforts really closed in on me. And I ended up being hospitalised in 2020, with major depression and self harming, and I was really sick. And I do remember saying to my doctor, how did I end up here? Like, I know about mental illness. I know how to keep myself mentally healthy. And bless his heart he said to me, "Sandy, you could be the world's best bone surgeon, but that's not going to prevent you from breaking a bone." So that was reaffirming.
More change would bring more upheaval in Sandy's life. But her optimistic outlook, and a cheeky suggestion from her son paved the way for a positive transformation.
So there came a point in time where I thought, I'm tired of renting, I really want to actually buy a place. And my son very bravely said to me one day, "would you think about a retirement village?" and I remember saying to him, "you're very brave mentioning of a retirement village to me," I'm not retired and I'm not that old. And then he cheekily said to me, will technically you are old enough to go into a retirement village. I refuse to call it a village, though. I call it a villa or a resort. And I remember speaking with my counsellor, not long before I decided to move here, and saying 'there's a part of me that feels like maybe I'm just going to die'. And it's been the exact opposite. I've met a man in his 80s who works out in the gym here at the village three days a week. And he likes working up a bit of a sweat. And I've met 103 year old lady here who still does 10 Sit ups every day, and doesn't even use a walker. People here are just living their best life. It's all about mindset. And I very much believe in blooming where you're planted. When I first moved in here to the retirement village, I remember thinking, Oh, well, I'll do all that community stuff later, you know, 10 years from now. I was here less than a week. And I was at happy hour with 17 other residents, this just this lovely sense of companionship and camaraderie and connection of some sort. It definitely makes a difference. Although I've only lived here five months now, I feel like I've really made some friends. So it's completely shifted my thinking about what age should you enter retirement village, because some of the things that I want to do to keep myself well are so readily available here. And one is that connection to feel that sense of belonging in some small community.
Sandy's perception of retirement villages had done a 180. This wasn't a place to go when you have nowhere else to turn. This is a place where someone can thrive. More importantly, this was a place where Sandy found that she could be her authentic self. In her previous career, Sandy provided guidance to people on mental health in the workplace. This was something that the village's lifestyle and wellbeing coach picked up on immediately. She came up to Sandy and she asked her to run some sessions to help the residents learn about their mental health.
So I've run a couple of sessions, and we've called them conversations of care. And the first session was really about helping people realise the prevalence of mental illness in our country. I said to people, if someone's talking and talking about the fact that they've felt lonely, or they've struggled or they felt sad, you don't have to fix it. You just need to listen. And I could almost hear a sigh of relief. So giving them some tips on how to be supportive of each other was the next session that we ran, and how we can listen without trying to fix someone's problem. And help people realise that we all can have a courageous voice. And we could all use that courageous voice when we need support with something when we're feeling low when we're feeling lonely, that we can reach out to someone and just chat. When I was 20, I lost my brother to suicide. And that honestly took me years and years to come to terms with. And in the work I do now when I'm talking about mental health, it feels like full circle for me.
Sandy experienced depression, loneliness and significant change throughout her life and came out the other side wanting to tell her story. Why? Because she wanted to help others going through the same thing. Sandy loves her new life at the retirement village. She is surrounded by people she now calls friends. People who are always up for a chat or a game of Scrabble, or to just sit and listen while she plays the piano. Sandi isn't lonely anymore. She really has bloomed where she was planted.
We want to say a huge thank you to Sandy for sharing her story with us. We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, please contact the Beyond Blue support service on 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes. This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.
Thanks for listening.