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Sophie's story: A place of her own

30 June 2017 Stories of hope

Sophies story 810x540It’s a sad irony. Although she hates them, hospital wards have been home to Sophie for a lot of her adult life. Now, Sophie is taking a fresh approach with her mental illness—she’s got a place of her own. Sophie is afraid any doctor she sees will harm her. Hospital corridors. The vials and syringes on the trolleys reinforce her nightmares. But her history of violent behaviour has often meant that police have taken her to those places she fears the most.

Her suspicion of doctors has meant that her condition remains undiagnosed, though it’s likely she has paranoid schizophrenia. Sophie refuses any medication that might give her respite but this refusal means she is not eligible for housing support when she is released from psychiatric wards.

After yet another stay in a psychiatric ward, hospital staff referred Sophie to Wesley Mission’s Edward Eagar Lodge in Sydney. Justin Bennett is one of a team of case workers who got to know Sophie and to recommend more long-term accommodation for the frequently homeless woman. “More often than not homeless people are very stressed about where they’re going next or who they’re going to be living with. There’s a sense of impending doom, a sense that something is going to happen just around the corner. They witness so much violence which reminds them of the violence they grew up around. They feel it’s just their universe,” Justin said.

The line between these very real fears of the street and her imagined fears often blurs, making Sophie’s condition worse. How could she even start to bring her life into order? “It’s terrible when you’re constantly in fight or flight mode. Your body eventually packs it in and can’t maintain that pace,” Justin said. Sophie liked the idea of moving into a place of her own, but support from Justin and his team was vital. For example, people with severe schizophrenia often find it very difficult to live close to other people. This can be a major obstacle to maintaining long-term accommodation. Sophie is no exception.

She had been evicted from other places for chanting loudly late at night and began to do this in the new accommodation found for her. Justin spoke to Sophie about how her chanting was disturbing her neighbours and Sophie responded positively and stopped. Sophie has now been in her unit for eight months. This is an amazing achievement for someone with paranoid schizophrenia. Justin visits her every week and they talk about what’s been happening in her life. He says, “I don’t think she actually has any hallucinations. She has more delusional thoughts that come out periodically. We just let them come out and then just keep her on track with another topic”.

Sophie is fascinated by computers so Justin helped her buy a laptop. She quickly became proficient in using the internet and email. Justin showed her how to burn CDs and now she relaxes to the strains of her beloved classical music. It’s a long way from the insecurity of the street. Justin emphasises the value of stable accommodation for homeless people with a mental illness. “It’s the opportunity to sit back without having to live pay cheque to pay cheque and be in a perpetual state of anxiety. They’re not feeling constantly feeling threatened.” This has definitely been Sophie’s experience over the past few months and is shaping her future. “I think the trajectory she’s on is fairly good. She’s enjoying her life.”

Having stable accommodation, counselling, education goals and hobbies are what’s known as secondary prevention measures against mental illness. They are steps that help Sophie regain a sense of peace, give her some respite from her condition and possibly prevent it from getting worse. Other people find talking to a family member or counsellor and exercise help them recover from mental illness or prevent their condition from getting worse.

There’s another thing that’s making Sophie feel better about the world—stable relationships with other people. Justin talks about how Sophie’s only interaction with people over the years has been her brief time with psychiatric staff in hospitals. “I don’t think that in the past 10–15 years she’s had any of the continuity of support or involvement she’s had with us. She never had a real relationship, moving from one hospital or boarding house to another. This new stability is where a lot of healing will take place.”

Sophie is now planning to do a computer course at a local college. For the first time in a long time, she will mix with other people on the basis of feeling calm and secure instead of cautious and afraid.