Kate Purcell: Who Do You Think You Are?
Beyond Stigma was a storytelling evening in honour of R U OK? Day that featured stories about mental health. This evening would not have been possible without the funding and support of Ruah Community Services.
On the evening of 13 September 2018, three brave storytellers shared their personal stories that explored mental illness. Beyond Stigma was intended to provide our storytellers the chance to articulate difficult – and often taboo – topics to an open-minded audience.
The following recording features Kate Purcell. Kate’s story, ‘Who do you think you are?’ is about the terrifying experience of self-loathing and disconnection. Kate’s story is a difficult journey, but an important reflection on how incredibly hard times can lead to something special.
Please be advised that this story references Anorexia Nervosa, psychosis, and suicide which some people may find distressing.
Click the link below to listen to Kate’s story. A transcript of her story is also available below.
Transcript: Kate Purcell - Who Do You Think You Are?
The story begins when I was a young girl. I was quite shy and vulnerable. My twin brother on the other hand was the complete opposite to me. He was a funny, confident, really loud, out-there personality. And because I wasn’t like him I felt like I wasn’t worthwhile and wasn’t worthy of being listened to. I really felt that I had no voice because when I tried to speak up it felt like everything fell against deaf ears. Because of this particular dynamic with myself and my twin brother, I grew up thinking that I was less than. I remember being at family get-togethers and my brother was really funny. He would say something really funny and I would try to be funny and would then end up feeling really red in the face. And my inner voice would say, “who do you think you are? You can’t do that.” Because I was so innately sensitive and fragile I got hurt really easily, so when I was teased in years 7 and 8 this really pierced right through my heart. I remember being in Year 7—and I was a little bit overweight at the time, a little bit chubby—one of the girls in my class would call me chubs and she would tease me relentlessly. I remember I just felt like I wanted the earth to swallow me whole. I remember in Year 8 there were boys in my class who sat behind me and they would flick my bra strap and say things like, “boys don’t wear bras” and that’s because they found out I had a twin brother, so again that was really painful and pierced right through my heart. I didn’t know how to process that pain. Despite having a really loving family, I didn’t know how to process that pain and I didn’t know how to seek out the love that I so desperately needed and wanted.
That’s when I stopped eating. I stopped eating because I really needed something that I could control in a world of things that I couldn’t control. Things unravelled slowly in the first year, but then by Year 9, or beginning of Year 10, I spent my days in Children’s Hospital being force-fed by a tube. That was a really difficult time and my parents were really concerned and that’s why they took me to hospital. That’s where I was given the label of Anorexia Nervosa. I had nine admissions over the course of about two years. By that stage things had gotten to a really bad point where I ran away from hospital. I pulled my feeding tube out on the side of the road and proceeded to a nearby restaurant where I asked to use the phone. I called my family and begged them to take me home. Unfortunately, and heartbreakingly, they had to take me back to hospital where I got a new tube. That was kind of the last straw for my family. That’s when they decided to do something really different and so they decided to take me to Hollywood Clinic. There was a bit of a turning point. I was there for about seven months. There was around-the-clock therapy and meal support. The girls there were a lot more supportive and they really wanted to get better. Those seven months were difficult but then I started to feed myself. And as I fed myself I fed my heart and my soul, and I slowly began to heal.
This wasn’t the end of my journey though, this was only the very beginning. I guess the next stages of my journey was very much about making up for lost time. Because I had missed out on two and a half years of my life, essentially. I just wanted to experience as much as I could. Drugs and alcohol became an inevitable sidekick, and even though I was having fun at first, things turned ugly quite quickly. I experienced bouts of depression, panic attacks and really bad social phobias. I felt a disconnection from myself and the rest of the world. It was really quite a scary experience. I guess the disconnection from myself and the world lead to problems with relationships. It lead to problems with my self-esteem. I remember thinking at the time that if anyone could see into my brain they would think I am completely crazy—and this is how I felt most of the time. I kind of felt like my brain was a ball of messy strings and trying to unravel that was futile. I tried to do different things and take different medications, but nothing really helped. This is when I almost gave up at one point. I took an overdose of drugs and alcohol and luckily that didn’t go the way I wanted things to go at the time. So, I tried to forge a life for myself at that stage: I attended uni, I had a job, I had boyfriends, friends, all those sorts of things. But it was hard, it was really, really hard. Things kind of improved marginally as my physical health improved and as I came off certain anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. I actually got into meditation and became quite spiritual which was actually at the time a really positive thing for me and things became a lot clearer. Things got a lot better. I met a wonderful guy and had a great trip over east with friends. And then all of a sudden, life handed me more lemons in the form of really crippling psychosis.
So where do I start with the psychosis? I guess I believed, at the time—and this sounds really strange—but, I believed at the time that I had been shunned by God—and it was all very spiritual, religious things—I thought I was shunned by God and that I was literally in hell. It sounds really out-there, but that was my experience and it was very real and very terrifying from one moment to the next. I kind of felt like my spirit was gone. I felt spiritually dead. It was a really weird experience but equally real and terrifying. That lasted for about a year—I was in that state for about a year. I’m actually really surprised and amazed that I survived such a harrowing experience—it was tough. The reason it lasted a year was because I didn’t tell anyone what was going on. I pretty much didn’t say anything to anyone. My family and everyone in my life, including my psychiatrist at the time, they all thought that I was just depressed and withdrawn. Yeah, so that’s how things unravelled over the course of twelve months. I pretty much just withdrew from life completely. After a year of being in this state and pretty much having no life at all. Things sort of changed and I have no idea why, but I had a manic episode—I had an awakening type of experience where I was reconnected with spirit and everything was totally amazing. So I had a very typical manic episode for about three months. That’s where I was really energetic and confident. I had all these different qualities that I never experienced before, but it was interesting because my parents at the time thought, “wow, this is amazing, what’s happened?” But then, quickly they realised that something wasn’t quite right. After about three months of being in this state, things became quite a bit yucky. Things sort of turned into what a mental health professional would call a mixed episode. So it turned into feelings of being really elated and then being really depressed—and then being really irritable and angry. So just the whole spectrum of emotions. At that time, I was really obsessed with the spiritual realm: things like psychics, angel cards and all those types of things—really typical for someone in a manic episode—and it was slightly psychotic. It was a nightmare to be honest. I remember—which is really hard for me to talk about actually, but, I remember sitting with my twin brother at that time and he was sort of crying his eyes out, really scared with what was happening to me. I remember trying to console him and it was really difficult at the time because I was equally afraid. I didn’t know what was going on with me. I didn’t think that there was something mentally wrong with me. I was still oblivious to that, I had no insight at all. My parents thought that I had borderline personality disorder because things were so unstable. My identity was unstable, my life was unstable, so that’s what they thought.
After they told me this, I proceeded to run away. On Christmas Day of 2010, I ran away to stay at a motel in the city. This was almost the low point, but not quite. Things got even worse after this point. I became completely catatonic for several days. I didn’t leave my bed or room. My parents almost got to the point where they were going to get me admitted to Alma Street involuntarily. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and being that I had changed a little bit I moved in with my aunty and uncle. I was with them for about a month and things got even worse. So, what was a mixed episode turned into full-on schizophrenic symptoms. Which included things like really awful tactile hallucinations where I was feeling things on my skin, like really bad energy on my skin. Feeling like I needed to shower constantly to get rid of the feeling on my skin. It was really terrifying. Other things like—and this sounds really weird as well—almost like something was trying to control me and my movements. I felt at time like I couldn’t move. I would get stuck in certain positions and couldn’t do anything I wanted to do. I guess then, something clicked inside of me and something started to tell me, “Okay, there’s something that’s not quite right here mentally.” Which sounds really weird, that it wouldn’t have been a really obvious thing. But it wasn’t obvious to me and it took me a long time to realise this. So yeah, I guess at that point I decided to ask my dad to call my old psychiatrist. I obviously had to get him to do that because I was still really, really unwell. I got my mum to take me up to Perth Clinic and I had an appointment with my doctor. After a week of staying at Perth Clinic and having nurses observations and appointments with my doctor, he basically diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder—which is like Schizophrenia with a mood disorder. And then he started my medication. It was an antipsychotic medication, and I remember when I first took it, it was something clicked or connected inside me. I remember crying tears of relief because all of the sudden I could feel emotions again and I knew who I was. Which was a really astounding experience because for so long I was so disconnected and so off with the fairies—and that’s the way I put it, I was totally off with the fairies. So, that was the beginning of my recovery journey, which is a story within itself.
It took me about six months to find the right medication and the right doses and things like that. And then I was actually hit with a bout of chronic fatigue. I got a virus and came down with chronic fatigue and was in that way for about six months, so that put me out of action for a while. Then as soon as I got better from that, things started to move quite quickly. I still had my trusty side-kick, self-loathing, in tow. You know, I had no confidence, no feelings of self-esteem. It has shaken me—all that I had been through—it had shaken me. But my mental state was really improving and that was what kept me going. That was what I was really grateful for at the time. And with this, gratitude brought me more blessings. I began to do things I thought I never would, which included making new friends, getting a job in retail, meeting my ex-fiancé; all these sorts of things I never thought I could do—which are really simple run-of-the-mill kinds of things, but I had stopped believing that I could do all these sorts of things. After I achieved that, I thought, “why stop there?” So that’s when I got a job in mental health. My first job wasn’t at Ruah, but I started work at CANS and had several jobs in mental health since then—Ruah being one of the main places I’ve worked at. I started to meet other people with varied experiences in mental illness and I started to talk about my experiences. I started to really own those experiences. I guess all of the sudden, I wasn’t ashamed anymore. It was like, “okay, there are other people out there that have experienced similar things to me.” I guess soon enough I was helping other people to feel empowered too and that was a real joy and a gift that I never saw coming. The next stage of my journey, which is still unfolding, is when I—because I was with my ex-fiancé for several years and I ended up leaving him to go on my own path, and that was a really scary thing to do and that was a really big leap of faith. But I needed to find my way and find my own place within the world without him—because he has always been a big part of my recovery journey. I needed to navigate that by myself, and I’m glad I did that—and I have done that despite it being really difficult. Now things are at a point where we might actually get back together—which is really exciting—but it’s on a different level now. It’s two people coming together out of love and not out of dependence or necessity. I don’t exactly know what the future holds but I know that I am really ready for whatever the future holds. I am whole and I am happy now, and I’ve really found my saving grace in a place which was really unexpected—which was overcoming one of the most stigmatised diseases in the world. I found a way to love myself and accept myself. I found my voice. I guess it’s now really clear to me, coming back to my brother and the issues I had with him. Whilst we are really different, I know that we have our own strengths and our own talents. The fact that we are different doesn’t really matter. I don’t compare myself to him now and I don’t use a yard stick to compare myself to him. So yeah, I guess the lesson took some time to learn, but now I know who I am.
About Kate Purcell: Kate has been working in the field of mental health for 5 years and is currently a peer community worker for RUAH Community Services in the Early Psychosis Youth Service program. She is passionate about public speaking and writing which is mostly in relation to her mental health journey, and other mental health related topics. She is particularly passionate when it comes to reducing stigma around mental health issues.
Listen to Angel Lee’s Beyond Stigma story here.
This event would not be possible without the kind support of Ruah Community Services. Ruah is a community organisation that provides services in housing and homelessness, mental health and domestic violence.
If you’re worried about someone and feel urgent professional support is needed, contact your local doctor or find out more here.
Copyright © 2018 Kate Purcell
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.