Angel Lee: I Am Brave, I Am Strong, I Can Do This
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 Angel Lee. Angel’s story, “I am brave, I am strong, I can do this” is about resilience in the face of terror, intrusive memories, and finding your people (or fur people). Angel is the founder of the Guardian Angels, an animal lover, and she’s a kick-ass storyteller.
Please be advised that this story references abuse, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and suicide which some people may find distressing.
Click the link below to listen to Angel’s story. A transcript of her story is also available below.
Transcript: Angel Lee - I Am Brave, I Am Strong, I Can Do This
When I was 23 I was discharged from psychiatric hospital and the next day my life was nearly taken away from me. So, I was discharged and was working on my suicidal thoughts and therapy and memories. And as you do, that week I had a follow-up appointment and I couldn’t get in that week. So, I went in later and had my follow-up appointment with my doctor—all good, nothing much had changed and I was feeling a lot better in my mind. Everything was all okay. I finished the appointment and then I went to hang out with a friend. We were hanging out and she was about to take me to the train station. I was putting my bags in her car and leant over. At that moment, her parked car was hit by a car. The review mirror hit my head at 50 kilometres. I dropped. My friend thought I was dead. I came to. Instead of taking me to the train station, she then took me home. About ten minutes before I had actually gotten home, I started to experience really intense headaches. So she took me to the hospital—had all the tests done, all the scans. There was no bleeding in my brain or anything, just a really bad concussion. So, they shoved me up with drugs and took me home. That was really hard because I had just worked on my suicidal thoughts, I had just gotten everything better in my brain. I’d worked on some stuff that was coming up and it was really hard to deal with—I’ll get into that later. It really pissed me off, it was really annoying, and really irritated me. I’d just got my life back. I’d just mentally got my head back on track. And then it was all taken away from me, like, I was sitting in bed for about three months. I lost my job over this concussion. Even the microwave or the door opening—it was really painful.
So, I made the choice that I wouldn’t let myself get suicidal again. I have a choice and I chose life. I wasn’t going to let somebody else take me away. To get into why I was in hospital and why I had suicidal thoughts: when I was sixteen I had a boyfriend—like everyone does at that age—he came over and met the family. We had dinner and everything was good. Halfway through dinner he started acting a bit weird. It was a bit strange—his vibe was weird and a bit closed off. He wasn’t the normal guy I knew. So, he asked if we could go back to his folk’s place and we did. In the car he goes, “Why did you let your dad do that?” and I was like, “Let my dad do what?” He was like, “Let your dad touch you sexually on the arse” and I didn’t remember it—it didn’t really make sense to me.
I ended up gradually moving into my boyfriend’s family house and over time—I was already depressed as a teenager and was put on anti-depressants at a young age—I was going through a lot of anxiety and depression—and what I now know are flashbacks and night terrors—throughout the night and day. So, I’m kicking and throwing and feeling like I’m getting hurt in my sleep, and then during the days I was having flashbacks—I was experiencing a memory. If I was having a flashback right now I wouldn’t be able to see you guys, I would only be able to see the memory—and I would be in it. Like, it’s re-living it. It’s really throws me off. Back when I was unwell, it would take me a good couple of weeks to get back on top of life after I had a flashback—depending on how bad they were. So, I was having flashbacks and night terrors. I ended up not leaving the house for a while thinking that my biological father was going to come to the house and hurt me more.
My boyfriend was seeing a counsellor and he was describing all of this stuff happening to me to his counsellor. He suggested that I should see someone in Leederville who specialises in CPTSD—Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We made an appointment and met up with her and I told her what was going on with myself, my head, my health and what life was like for me. She diagnosed me straight away with Complex PTSD resulting from abuse—mentally and physically—as a young child. I would go into hospital quite frequently with my doctor and would do really intense therapy. The therapy would range from working on thoughts to working on some really tough memories. So, we would take the memory from the emotional side of the brain to the logical side of the brain. So now, I can think about being hurt, being raped, or something bad happening and it’s not going to put me in a panic now. I can talk about it and—well I’m nervous, but—I’m not in a ball crying with all these memories, feelings and all that taking over me. So, me and my doctor did EMDR, which is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, for years—probably 5 years—so from about 17 to 23 was the last time I saw her. So, we would keep going in and doing that all the time. PTSD doesn’t give you all your memories at once, like she was saying that you don’t know all of your life. Everything’s blocked off from you. I didn’t realise that I was in an abusive family network or anything that was happening was wrong. You don’t know until you’ve gone to a friend’s house in high school, or your hanging out at your boyfriend’s house and it’s just one hundred per cent different. Like, things are completely different behind closed doors.
So, I was doing therapy—basically it just felt like my life was therapy. But, on one hospital stay—you know, there’s only so many nurses to each patient, but—one time I was experiencing a flashback and I couldn’t get any nurses to help me. I was coming in and out, like in waves, and it wasn’t stopping. It felt like it was going for ages. I actually called one of my friends that I had met in hospital—who I actually just saw last weekend—but she got me to say over, and over again, in my head:
I am brave. I am strong. I can do this.
I am brave. I am strong. I can do this.
I am brave. I am strong. I can do this.
And I just kept saying that over, and over again. And that has become my little mantra now—like I was saying it all day today, because it’s my first time public speaking. But, whenever I’m having an anxiety attack or I can feel a flashback coming on, or a panic attack—I re-tell myself that I am brave, I am strong, I can do this. So, through therapy I now know that my biological father sexually assaulted me from young ages until I got my period. I also learned that my mum had Munchausen by proxy—I didn’t know what it meant when I found out. Munchausen’s is when you make yourself sick for attention and support, but Munchausen by proxy is when you make someone else sick.
So, in my younger years—I think under ten—my mum had quite a lot of car accidents and the neighbours, the church, a lot of the community had supported her while she was getting better—she had a couple of surgeries on her back and all that. Then that kind of settled down and stopped. And then I got really sick. I was in hospital quite a lot. I was in PMH (Princess Margaret Hospital) and I was always sick. I always thought I was a sick kid until I started getting all these flashbacks and I was doing a lot of therapy with my doctor on this too. She would shove pills down my throat. I remember having so many flashbacks of trying to push her off me with all the pills. That really hurt, because your mum is meant to protect you.
So, me and my boyfriend broke up. It was for the best in the long run, as we both had our own mental health issues and I hadn’t helped his recovery at all. So, that kind of made me homeless. I didn’t have anywhere to go and I didn’t have any family support to help me. They kind of pushed me away when I told them what happened. So, my doctor put me into hospital and—you can only stay in hospital for mental health reasons—and after a while I had to find somewhere to go. I found shelters and women’s refuges, but it meant I had to give up my kids. My kids are my fur family. So, I had a kelpie and two cats—I now have three. But, these guys were my life line. They made me do adult stuff. They made me human. At five in the afternoon there was an alarm on my phone that means I have to feed my kids their dinner—which meant I have to feed me. Bella waking up in the morning and scratching at the door meant she needed to wee which meant I needed to get out of bed and do something. Depression keeps you in bed. But I wasn’t going to give up on my kids. They were the only people—things—in my life at the time. I’d lost my boyfriend, my family had gone, and it was just me and my kids.
I started to call people on my phone list. It wasn’t a very big list back then—maybe ten people plus all the numbers you get when you buy your phone. So, the last one to call was my lecturer. She actually let me stay on her couch, which was amazing because that meant I didn’t have to give up what I had. She helped me make a resume. She helped me get a job. She was my grooming lecturer so she helped me get a job in the grooming field. She also helped me find a room for rent on a train line—because I wasn’t driving back then—which was close to her, which was good. So I kept continuing to groom. I was still seeing my doctor weekly and going to hospital every now and then. I started to volunteer at animal rescue and was just living on with life.
I was given a social worker by Ruah. That was amazing, that really helped because it was just another thing to count on and call on. It was also someone else in my life that wasn’t just my pets, or TAFE, or work. The social worker I had got pregnant and then I was given a peer support worker, which was even better because—the social worker was cool, but she hadn’t lived what I was going through. Having my peer support worker, Kate, was great because we’d go out on coffee dates and she would help me with my routine and would ask me how I was—but there was actually meaning behind it and she actually cared. So that was a major part of my recovery too. Getting out of the house too. I remember times when I felt like my biological father was going to come back for me, and having Kate and other supports was really good. I was starting to improve my self-love and working through things, my self-care. When my depression was bad I wouldn’t shower or look after myself. So, these things started to improve—including my self-worth. My biological parents told me that I was a waste of space, I was an accident and all of these things which really made me feel worthless. So, my self-worth has grown so much in the last couple of years.
Me and my doctor thought it was a really good time and good idea to report my abuse. I went to the police. I went with my doctor and a really good nurse that I’d known from the hospital to the Armadale Police Station. The detective sat with me and we went through incidents, places, times, a lot of different stuff. It felt like it took the whole day—it was dark by the time we got out of the police station. He brought my biological father in and they went over stuff. A little while later, he called me up and picked me up where I was grooming and took me into the police station and made me a coffee. He then said that unless I told someone or unless I saved some evidence or another person comes forward, then they can’t charge him. I remember getting driven back home and crying, being so upset and angry. I was really pissed off that I had done it. But now, going through and sharing my story I’m really glad I did it because it was a big part of the healing process.
It made me realise that people do believe me and I know I’m not lying. It was great to have that feeling that someone understood. My detective did believe me and I could see it in his eyes and the way he was around me. I remember when I left home, my aunty and my grandma both called me and said, “How dare you do this to the family, how dare you accuse him of this!” “He was there for me when I”, this is my grandma, “he was there for me when my partner committed suicide. He would never do that to you!” I was talking back to her and then I just couldn’t talk anymore. The detective believed me, and that meant a lot to me. That was a really big part of my healing process.
I started to grow my support network and got a lot more friends—like Kate did. ‘Friend family’ means everything to me. The biological people can stay where they are—I have a better word for them, but it’s not appropriate. So yeah, I kept growing my support network and meeting people who are like-minded, or with the same experiences. People who actually had goals and wanted to go somewhere, more people in the animal industry. And that meant a lot. Even people in animal rescue industry—they have hearts and they care. They weren’t like most of the people I met in the first stages of my life.
I was 20 when I met the social worker, and when I was 24 I was hanging out with friends and helping them with the support that helped me—so, routine, positive thinking, changing that negative thought and flipping it over—everything my social workers and doctors taught me—even the stuff my lecturer has taught me about basic life stuff. I felt like I was saying the same things over and over again. So, I created Guardian Angels about two and a half years ago. And that is basically a page where I share my inspiration, share positive things, share what works for me and my depression or my anxiety, or what I do during flashbacks. Everybody needs a little bit of positivity and it’s been going well. I shared a thing yesterday because I’ve been struggling with some wisdom teeth pain, “I’m doing my PTSD coping strategies for physical pain and it’s working.” Someone actually messaged me and was like, “wow, thank you because my Panadol isn’t working and what you said is actually working.” It’s just nice knowing that I’m actually helping someone.
I learned in sharing this story that I am resilient and I’ve never given up—there have been times when I had planned suicide attempts and have attempted suicide—but I am resilient. I’ve always had hope—and hope means to me Holding Only Positive Expectations.
I am brave.
I am strong.
I can do this.
Listen to Kate Purcell’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 Angel Lee
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.