Port’s notable for a diversity of community groups dedicated to social interaction, networking, education, sport and more, their leaders regularly featured in Out To Lunch. This month, Susie dines with an identity typical of the prime movers of such groups …
Sam Openshaw’s eyes are the most striking feature of this tall, slim, immaculately dressed woman. Photos don’t do justice to the gamin-haired blonde, retired now but busy as ever she was in her working life. Her round translucent pale green eyes are deep pools of … hmm, I’m not sure. But as we sit down to lunch, I aim to find out. It’s a sunny day at The Mullet. As we devour superb oysters, kingfish sashimi, blue eye cod and prime rump, with chilled sparkling pinot, observers might think she’s a visiting charity queen from Sydney’s east or a big-time CEO. In fact, Openshaw is preoccupied with more important endeavours.
She heads up Port’s Mental Health Support Group, originally dedicated to supporting carers of those with mind disorders, now expanded to include sufferers themselves. A worthy cause, all the more notable for the fact she runs it single-handedly, no government assistance. She is its leader, secretary, its lone fund raiser, soldiering on solo for many years, building the group, arranging meetings, seeking venues for functions, liaising with social workers, welcoming new members, following up individual cases, advertising the group’s services, organising fashion parades or “girls’ evenings”, raising money for ever-pressing expenses.
Why she began the group turns out unsurprising: her youngest, adult, son suffers chronic schizophrenia and another close family member has a similar disorder. But the fact she’s continued the group and entrenched it here is quite amazing when one learns the extent of the personal demands her two family members’ illnesses make on her and the overwhelming soul-destroying grief she bears. This is, I find, a classic case of that rare virtue: goodness of heart arising through harsh adversity.
No one knows better the loneliness of carers of those with mental disorders than Openshaw: the constant fight for medical, psychological and social-services’ help for loved ones, the inevitable financial load the illness brings and concomitant worries, the fight against this most stubborn of disorders, hopelessness, despair, the seemingly endless battle for a return to good health – and the misunderstandings. A patient with a life-threatening liver chemical imbalance sits up in hospital and thanks his family for its care and concern; those with a brain chemical imbalance often are oblivious to, if not angrily rejecting of, the help they get.
While mental ill-health has lost some of its stigma, the brutal truth is that most of us still harbour sentiments of suspicion, derision and other ugly responses, or at best awkwardness, towards the afflicted. To the world at large, a genetic imbalance of brain chemicals dopamine or serotonin is suspect; a physical defect such as brain aneurysm or tumour is quite “acceptable”. The difference of course lies in the former’s symptoms: its manifestations of socially unacceptable behaviour. Socially unacceptable drunks or bank robbers have a better profile – glamorised on TV, while the deserving are demonised or ridiculed. Prominent sufferers such as former WA Labor premier, Rhodes scholar and Tony Blair mate Geoff Gallop, former Liberal minister Andrew Robb and entertainer Matt Newton demonstrate the illness is no respecter of the exalted, and modern medications now help many on the road to recovery, but the brutal truth is many of us still don’t really understand or accept the condition, and fewer care. The federal government has cut mental health services and the disability pension and denied PBS drug treatments, preferring pink batts schemes. While Port has numerous charitable and government services helping those with mental ill-health, there’s no single go-to source or index of information. (Why not?)
Unexpectedly, my lunch with Openshaw turns out a cheery lightweight affair with little from her to quote because she’s brought me the text of her “story”, for me to read, to save an in-depth interview. When I do so, I understand why she’s probably reluctant to recount the tale in person: it brings me to tears. It’s a chilling account: growing up modestly in a big Housing Commission family in Sydney’s west, a sister deaf from her mum’s german measles, another an epileptic, of climbing successfully up into life to marry and happily bear two sons … and then divorce, acrimony, solo parenting, two jobs, financial hardship, the devastation of discovering one adolescent boy’s emerging mental health issues, and an anguishing saga over near three ensuing decades.
Telltale words such as “hostile relationship, school/work problems, deterioration, efforts to rationalise behaviour, surly, morose, borrow money, imaginative episodes (like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind), verbal attacks, psychiatrists, counsellors, medication, psychotic, committal, how was I going to cope, tears streaming down my face, his attempts at suicide, poisoning, mental torture, police, paddy wagon, ambulance, runaway, robot, ECT, tribunals, long-term rehabilitation, time off work, financial burdens, disappointment, hopes, fears, his unfulfilled life” reveal a mother’s struggle and her aching, breaking heart. It’s never self-pitying; it explains why Openshaw has become “the carers’ carer”, a shoulder to cry on, but not where she found the courage and strength to go on, except from her stalwart second husband, Alan. She thanks a handful who’ve helped her, a few generous souls and some organisations who also deserve recognition.
It’s only after I’ve read of her journey – one never to be completed – that I discover why she soldiers on. She ventures a humble wish list: premises for the group to meet “perhaps a nice bright airy cottage”, a centre of comfort and room for counsellors to visit, transport for participants, computers, internet use sponsorship, TV, sofa, microwave … even a kettle and tea/coffee supplies. I wonder can anyone more help the helper? If we, selfish in our own comforts, cannot offer time and caring, at least we can give. Her website is www.supportmentalhealth.org/about-us and she’s at facebook.com/hastingsmentalhealthsupportgroup.
Sam confides that nowadays she does her crying in the shower. That way, the tears are hidden, and they wash away. Every single day.
Out To Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri
at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.