Cancer: My Experience, My Journey – Foster Mental Well-Being

hiker woman getting help

Depressed young women in the tunnelMental well-being when it is out of kilter can affect whole families in a negatively reinforcing cycle, which without the assistance of others in their communities, who have developed their trust and an understanding of their lives, can often escalate into tragedy.  The magnitude of the problem in Australia, is highlighted on the Department of Health website.

Social inclusion goes a long way to fostering mental well-being; we all need a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and to experience a sense of solidarity in community. In our age social media also has a role to play.

My reason for writing this has been motivated by the shockingly brutal murder in Melbourne of a vulnerable young homeless woman aged only 25, who was savagely beaten to death recently. At her age in life she should have been enjoying building her future, instead she was living rough on the streets, seemingly without hope and with mental health issues.

The Police inspector in charge was “angry” about the “vulnerable” woman’s death. “This was a young woman who obviously had some significant challenges in life, and we as a community should be protecting these people, and we didn’t — we failed on this occasion” he said*.

hiker woman getting helpGiving a helping hand to people who do not have the strength of mind to bring themselves through hard times, should be at the forefront of all the missions we undertake.

This is especially relevant when dealing with trauma and tragedy, whether on a small or giant scale as so many life-affecting events during our lifetime, require us to have healthy minds to be able to cope in the first place, and then to make plans for moving forward in the long term.

Carolyn with Aurora, the care dog at Epworth, Richmond, Melbourne

Carolyn with Aurora, the care dog at Epworth, Richmond, Melbourne

Following a discussion with a friend recently over brunch, it had me thinking about what room there was in my own cancer treatment regime over the past year, for my receiving pertinent advice or any practical help regarding my own mental health.

Having to admit at no time during my discussions with any of the people involved, has the subject of mental health come up at all, it had me thinking that on reflection, it seemed incredulous really. After all, I just discovered I had cancer one day and within days was in hospital being operated on, then having six months of chemotherapy as a follow up, all new and quite challenging experiences.

Since then I have also experienced stress surrounding starting a regime of immunotherapy with ongoing delays for a test I must have before it can start.

While my ability to cope in a crisis is well known within my family, there is a point like everyone else, when reality hits home at some later date, always producing some sort of outcome. Lucky for me I have some wonderful people in my life I trust who check up on me and are available for me to talk to on a regular basis.

I heart youMy facebook friends and followers have also been very encouraging.

In society we are finally beginning to understand just how the powerful purposeful patterns of connectivity we can choose might prove to be a tool for creating evidence-based policies and practice to help advance the health and well-being of us all individually, as well as in community.

Mental health in my experience and on my journey in life, is vitally crucial, particularly for those experiencing homelessness. They often feel at the complete end of despair, for it is at the core of an ability to secure their identity first before planning a future. And, I know this from first-hand experience.

Juxapositon of both old and new buildings - St Martins House, a beautful and ornate former hospital and memorial for veterans stands against contemporary buildings in Brisbane, Australia and next to St John's Cathedral

Juxapositon of both old and new buildings – St Martins House, a beautful and ornate former hospital and memorial for veterans stands against contemporary buildings in Brisbane, Australia and next to St John’s Cathedral

One of the most intense and meaningful journeys of my life was coming face to face with people with mental health issues on a daily basis, many of whom were homeless or living in very poor circumstances. This happened to me when I lived in the precinct of St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane, January 1, 2000 – July 1, 2005.

It was not surprising it happened in that place, the church having been a beacon of hope for millions of people who have craved its sanctuary since the Middle Ages in both Europe and England, and by extension, the western world at large.

Group of people on peak mountain climbing helping team work , travel trekking success business conceptWhile living in the precinct at St John’s I gained a very real understanding of how important it was for so many people to sit and talk through the issues they were facing often, and over a lengthy period of time.

There were so many who needed a helping hand, and for each their experience was different and required diverse solutions, which was really beyond the experience of many who worked there. However, as there was on investigation, so little help for people who found themselves in dire circumstances in Brisbane at that time, we all did our best to lend a hand as much as possible.

They often knocked on my door after hours, because it was my light they could see from the street.

St.MartinsLiving in an apartment high above the Cathedral offices in The Turret, my-first hand experience began on January 1, 2000, on the night of the day I moved in at 2am when a young man in distress required help. It was a sobering encounter and I sought advice the next morning on how to handle such enquiries in the future.

After a few encounters and following protocols put in place by the Dean with the help of the girls in his office, I was ready to offer a sandwich, a drink, three x lots of 40 cents and a card sponsored by the Zonta Clubs. This listed phone numbers they could phone for assistance at a box just opposite the Cathedral.

Now there are virtually no phone boxes anywhere fifteen years later, I do wonder how they would get along today. Must say how very hard it was for me at the time to just send them back into the night.

Angel-Web-St-JohnsFollowing the brunch with my friend, my memory went back to one lovely young woman, in her mid-twenties I guessed. She would come and sit with me each Saturday when I was working as a volunteer guide in the Cathedral. She just turned up suddenly one day and sat down next to me at my desk and smiled.

She sat there quietly not asking for anything, just being there seemed important. After a while making her a cup of tea and biscuits when I made mine was well received, although she never said a word, just conveyed her gratitude through her eyes.

The books I had with me she also enjoyed looking through. When anyone arrived for me to give them a guided tour, she would grab hold of the back of my jacket or dress, as if for security, until I took her hand and allowed her to walk around with me.

After that first day, she became a regular Saturday event, and for a few months, we came as a packaged pair and visitors seemed to accept it well.

Offering no explanation at all, I concentrated on engaging their attention to talk about the architecture and the function of a Cathedral, and she seemed to enjoy that too.

Hymn BookAfter a few weeks of talking to her often on a Saturday without a response, when I went along to Evensong on a Sunday night she suddenly began turning up to sit next to me there too, taking and holding the hymn book for me while I sang.

She just watched my face and listened to my voice. She never said a word. My conversations were always one sided and I surmised eventually, it was my voice hopefully, which was helping her to heal her heart.

My experience to that point allowed me to know the approach really had to come from her if she was going to begin to be better.

However, it was worrying to me how long this particular experience was lasting.

Depressed young women in the tunnelHer clothing was not well cared for and her personal hygiene definitely needed attention; at least to my mind. Also, she was clearly in deep trauma of some sort and talking to her at length did not help the communication process, although I instinctively knew somehow what we were doing was helping, although it was clearly not enough.

St John's CathedralOne of the Cathedral priests who had observed her with me on a number of occasions began to chat to me about her, until it came to a point a few weeks later when we had to discuss together what should happen next.

He did not feel the situation as it was, could go on and had been making enquiries. He said she needed professional help and I was to trust he would organize it. As I knew he was a good man, it helped me to come to terms with what would happen next.

Following discussion with authorities, he went to the local police station where he found only by having her ‘committed’ would he be able to get her the sort of fund free assistance she needed.

At that time, this was still an option, although I understand it wouldn’t happen now. She clearly had no money or anyone to help her personally.  Certainly, we had no idea where she was when she was not at the cathedral sitting with me and she couldn’t, or she wouldn’t tell us. What a terrible thing to have to do.

Heartbroken at the time, of what would happen to such a vulnerable young woman in the ‘system’, there really was no option but to ‘get on with it’. She needed a hand up and I wasn’t the person to give it to her for the long term.

After they came and walked her away the next Saturday, the priest and I were left dangling in limbo about it all. He must have agonised over having done the right thing. Praying for her daily was the only pathway to hope for us both.

For nearly a year after she left, I constantly wondered where she was. Then, one night just on dusk as I sat waiting for Evensong to begin, she suddenly turned up and sat down quietly in the pew next to me.

Daughter with mother hugging at sunsetAt first, I was flabbergasted, she looked so different. Her hair was clean and had been cut very short, as it is in an institution. Her face shone like that of an angel, radiant with light. Her eyes were shimmering brightly as she took my hand and said softly, but clearly in a lovely lilting well-modulated voice…

“Hello Carolyn, here I am – I just wanted to let you know I am doing well…they have helped me to be better, to secure a part time job. Now I am earning some money and also have a place to stay…I am starting my life all over again” she said positively and smiled.

Just as abruptly, she gave me a hug and kissed me on both cheeks, looked intently at me for a few seconds before fading quickly and quietly into the night light before the service started.

Helping HandsNever did I find out her back story or her name, or why she ended up in such a place, or state or, why out of all the people in the congregation to help her she had chosen me.

I surmised from that final encounter though, she had come from a family who had educated her well.

Her plight and her outcome reinforced just how important employing professional medical health aid is for those people suffering difficulties.

It is also just as important for people throughout the community to just be there for them, without passing judgment on how or why as an individual they have found themselves in such a terrible situation in the first place.

Heart-on-Hands-LoveWhat we all need to do is acknowledge sometimes it doesn’t matter who we are, there are times when we cannot help ourselves, especially when shock and trauma are involved and we need a helping hand up. It is important to seek professional help.

On the world stage, there are so many people who have had this experience, even young men in highborn places. It is good to see the young Windsor’s, Prince Edward and Prince Harry with the support of their very special ladies, bringing attention to and supporting mental health issues for their generation. They deserve to build a very large following.

Closer to home, if you donate to the projects of StreetSmart Australia, you will be helping to raise funds to assist those who are working at the ‘coal face’ of those experiencing homelessness, where mental health remains a very big challenge for everyone.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.