Doing what works – shifting negative to positive

This post is actually a narrative from my life which I wanted to share and hopefully draw some thoughts and learnings from.

You may have seen me write about by ‘dubious’ past and maybe find criminal, drug using self-destructive, negatively-focussed Jeanette a little incongruous with my current self. (Well, I hope you do!). For me, the transition from negative positive came in the space of about eight months around eighteen years ago. On 5 February 2000 I was released form prison and went to live in a residential therapy program for people with borderline personality disorder – a misdiagnosis I had gathered in my travels through the Hell that was my life in my early twenties. The service was called ‘Rainbow’* and was a new thing indeed. I figured out after about two days of living with the other residents  that they were all quite similar to each other and quite different to me but I didn’t tell any of the staff my misgivings about my diagnostic label as the program was rent-free and, unlike my most recent previous ‘home’, there was no violence or threats from the other residents.

‘Rainbow’ had clear rules. It used the dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) skills manual as its basis and the days were structured – a bit like going to school or work. My world was in a state of confusing flux. The other women were friendly though, if rather sensitive. There was a woman who was very timid and had a personal history filled with horrors which had haunted her. She was just lovely and a fan of astronomy. When here was a lunar eclipse I drew a landscape with a red moon and gave it to this gentle person. We kept in touch for some years.

The program was non-judgemental and very supportive. Anyone with borderline personality disorder will attest that mental health services have a habit of being very harsh with people with that diagnosis and there is often discrimination. This was not the case at Rainbow. I didn’t see those attitudes even once during my time there.

The school-like format worked very well for me. It was basically an eight hour day of therapy and skills training form the DBT manual. Most of my time there I lived in the large communal house which always had a support worker in attendance, all day and night. We would have meals together. There were about ten different support workers, all women. I loved the support workers and enjoyed talking to them. We would go on outings together. I saw a world of positives and possibilities.

When I fist got to Rainbow I was living in a community care unit and had my own support worker. We would do anything I wanted – driving to the beach or the lovely forrest with the huge mountain ash trees which stretch so far into the sky you have to lean back to see the tops of them. I was very anxious about my future and had finally worked out I didn’t want a negative and destructive life. But this didn’t mean I necessarily wanted a positive life. I was in bit of a limbo state and would make lists of what I liked about being in the ‘real’ world. Brewed coffee featured quite heavily and one of my first purchases was a coffee grinder and plunger. My link to the future was pretty tenuous but  as months went by I grew in confidence and positivity.

Transitions are hard and I moved from the beautiful house at Rainbow to a dingy boarding house with residents ranging from a rather irritating older lady to one of the women I had been in prison with who was extremely angry and unpredictable. In the past I would have committed a crime to go back to the relative predictability of prison but this time was different. I applied for university courses and I asked my mental health case manager to help me find somewhere nicer to live, which she did. After two months in the awful boarding house I moved to a crumbling mansion which was a psycho-social rehabilitation program. It was still unpleasant but a much lower magnitude of unpleasant than the boarding house. I was offered a place at Monash University studying visual art and my life changed form negative and destructive to a closer approximation of my attitudes now.

I spent the next five years  building my confidence in myself. In 2005 I wrote my autobiography. The evening I launched it alongside my family, friends and my wonderful, generous mentor Donna / Polly, that evening was my point of no return. From then on, negativity was banished from my mental playlist. My motto became ‘let’s do this thing, let’s change the world!’

My thoughts around these events include:

  • I am exactly the same person I was. I like to think I am some miraculously changed person. However it is actually quite liberating to see me now as me then. The kernel of author and advocate me was there all along. I guess that’s how I managed to change my attitudes,
  • Take support and kindness where you can.
  • Being shown on outings with support workers that life could have good things in it like beautiful trees, salty sea air and good coffee had almost as much impact on my direction than my own attitudes. If you have spent a long time being denied access to beautiful things it can impact on your engagement with others and the world. Sensory, intellectual and emotional pleasure can be very strong motivators.
  • Trust is a huge motivator for change. Imagine if we all started form an initial position of trust – within reason – rather than suspicion.
  • A few things intersected to change my outlook. These included being in a place where I was treated as a human not  a number, meeting women who were victims of violence and relating that to my own aggression and thus not wanting do it and not having my aspirations dismissed as well as seeing that there are lovely things in the world as well as dark ones all sort of combined to build my positivity
  • Having goals and aspirations was not something I experienced for many years, For me, the future consisted of Friday (or Sunday if I was feeling optimistic). Having support workers encourage my goals and aspirations was incredibly helpful.
  • I used what I understood at the time to be a misdiagnosis as a support because I could see that the course at Rainbow was good for me. Misdiagnoses are usually very unhelpful but n this case it wasn’t. I suppose the moral of that is simply to do what works best in the circumstances. I had my showdown with the misdiagnosing psychiatrist some time after Rainbow which resulted in me leaving the service he managed and finding an amazing private system psychiatrist who was an expert in Autism and women and bulk-billed. Yup, do what works.

*name changed


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