This story is part of a series written by mental health carers in which they share how they became participants, influencers and leaders in the NSW mental health sector, in hopes of encouraging other carers to do the same. See the full series, and learn more about the project.
My name is Leisa Doherty, I am 50 years old, a mother, a wife, a carer and a friend.
It is now that I remember the hard times and, also the really wonderful times that I have had in those 50 years. It is this life and all that goes with it, which has shaped me into the person I am today. But most importantly, I know that it is with hindsight that I have truly been able to find my pathway in my life.
If I started at the beginning of my carer journey, I would say that I became a carer for my husband about 14 years ago. The truth is, that was when I first became aware of the fact that I was a carer. But with hindsight, I was a carer well before that time.
I was raised by my grandparents and my grandfather was a WW2 Veteran. He was a wonderful man but a very troubled soul. He had all the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was never treated for his illness. As a child I learnt to be a good girl and care for my grandparents, do the right thing, make sure they were looked after, and not make my grandfather angry. Did this take a huge toll on me? Absolutely. This upbringing shaped me into how I react or respond in situations to this very day. But it also gave me an understanding of mental illness and the impact on families, even though I didn’t realise it then. Let me just clarify, he was a good man and I loved him for the person he was, not the illness that swept over him at times. I certainly never blamed him for the impact that it had on our family, but others did hold him accountable.
The next part of my carer journey came when my husband, a former NSW Police Officer, became unwell, very unwell. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2003. At that time I owned a business, had a blended family of five children to take care of, and was still caring for my grandmother (sadly, my grandfather had passed). I was the glue that kept it all together but something had to give and that was my business. In order to keep us all safe and relatively well, I sold my business and became a stay-at-home mum and carer, still at this stage not knowing nor identifying myself as a “carer”.
This was an extremely confusing and lonely time for me; I didn’t understand what was happening to my husband, and it made no sense to me. This strong loving man who was our rock was slowly slipping away from me, and the person that replaced him, I didn’t recognise. We were given a diagnosis and my husband’s treating psychiatrist at the time told me to go away and research PTSD. I remember very clearly he said that I would need to understand this illness because my husband would never get better. I begged to differ and my need for knowledge about “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with co-morbid depression” became my focus. I knew somewhere, deep down, that if I could gain the knowledge, then we could fight it and bring our lives back to some sort of normalcy.
I researched and applied to do study, completing a Diploma in Counselling and a certificate in Mental Health First Aid, and any other courses that I could do to gain an understanding. I talked to anyone who would listen to me and quite likely annoyed my husband’s treating team because of my demand for answers. It was at this time that I realised that I was a carer. I fought this label long and hard because all I wanted to be was a mum and a wife. I felt to be a carer for my husband made me less of a wife, but over time I began to realise it was so far from the truth. Being a carer meant I was his support, his second set of eyes, his mobile health history. My knowledge about my husband and his illness was acknowledged and utilised by his GP, psychologist and psychiatrist. We attended his appointments together as a team. I was recognised as his support person that could and would be there for him 24 hours a day. I saw what they didn’t and I also knew when something was happening before it happened. This acknowledgment from my husband’s treating doctors and my role in his recovery have been what has enabled him to now be living a good life and managing most of the time in a well and healthy space.
When we started to see results and gain an understanding, I realised that I couldn’t be the only one going through this and I set up a support network for NSW Police and their families in Wollongong where we live. I didn’t want other families going through what we had, being lonely and not knowing who to turn to. I knocked on any door that I felt needed to know about us. I built relationships with psychiatrists, psychologists and organisations that I identified could assist us. At this time, I also volunteered for the Police Post Trauma Support Group as the Spouse Support Person and assisted Mental Health Carers NSW with some volunteer work. All the time I was building my own resilience and unique form of support. By being able to share my story, I knew that I had the capability of giving hope to someone else.
In my volunteer role with Mental Health Carers NSW, I gained insight into the issues that other carers in our community face, for example, the need for a greater understanding that carers can be the pivotal point of assistance to medical staff, psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs. I know that, because my lived experience tells me so. My husband would not have achieved the positive outcome he has in his life if it wasn’t for his treating practitioners welcoming me as part of his recovery journey. He would always say, “we are a team, we do this together”. I am very grateful that I wasn’t shut out and my insight into my husband’s illness was utilised within his treatment plans. Was it easy? No. Was it worth it? Yes, a hundred times yes.
As a result of my lived experience ,the connections I have made and the experience I vegained, I have been involved in many things, such as being a Well Ways MI Recovery - Building a Better Future facilitator for families, and a Black Dog Institute Wellness Program facilitator. I learnt that I love to be able to share my experience and give hope to others.
Another connection that I made was with the California Peer Support Network. I began sharing information with them and it was through this connection that I was invited along with my husband to be a keynote speaker at the Californian Peer Support Conference in 2014 in California USA.
In 2016 I was invited by NSW Police Legacy to sit on a reference group for the newly formed BackUp for Life Program, which assists former officers and their families in gaining the much-needed support that they may require upon transition out of the NSW Police Force. When transitioning out, many officers unfortunately do so with psychological issues and this greatly impacts on these officers and their families. My role was to bring a greater understanding to the reference group of these issues from a family perspective.
It was through this experience with NSW Police Legacy and their acceptance of not only my formal qualifications, but also my lived experience, that I was given the opportunity to become employed part time as the Project Assistant for the Backup for Life program.
I thought things couldn’t get any better in my journey, but in 2017, I was successful in gaining full time employment as the Network Co-ordinator for NSW Police Legacy.
NSW Police Legacy has not only accepted my lived experience, but acknowledged my skills and given me opportunities that I could not have imagined. If I look back 10 years ago, I really didn’t know or understand where our lives were headed. One of the things I would like to acknowledge is that I still have caring responsibilities - nothing has changed there - but NSW Police Legacy acknowledges this and has made available flexible working arrangements if I need them. I can work from home if I am unable to get to work because of my caring role. The organisation values my contribution and has given me the confidence that I can have a career, be a carer and be recognised for the strengths and skill set that I have accumulated over my time as a carer.
My carer pathway has been a very insightful one. I have gained many friendships that I would never have encountered. I have built working relationships with people that I never thought I would have the opportunity to work with. It is a very special privilege to be able to share my lived experience and assist others to continue their journey in a positive meaningful way. I have been very blessed.