She found her way from the depths of mental illness to being a voice of hope and encouragement for other Kiwis needing psychiatric care. Judy Bailey tells the remarkable story of Debra Lampshire.
meets Attitude Award winner Debra Lampshire
It is the moment the audience at the glittering ceremony has been waiting for – the announcement of the Supreme Award winner. The Attitude Awards celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities. It’s a glamorous black-tie event, hosted by Simon Dallow, and this is the most prestigious award of the 2016 night…
And the winner is “Debra Lampshire”.
It’s a popular win, there’s wild applause as Debra bounds up on stage, tears in her eyes. “I never thought I’d hear that word ‘winner’ associated with me,” she tells the gathering. It is a poignant moment. The crowd leaps to its feet and gives this extraordinary woman the standing ovation she so richly deserves. She has won the award for making a difference in mental health.
Debra hears voices. (She jokes that on the awards night she thought Simon Dallow’s might have been one of them!)
She spent 18 years incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. She has been to hell and back. Debra was instrumental in her own recovery and now works at the Auckland District Health Board helping others to help themselves. She is also a professional teaching fellow at Auckland University’s School of Nursing.
“I’m the goose in mental health. I’m the common garden variety service user,” she tells me, looking, in her characteristic way, deep into my eyes.
Traditionally, mental health has concentrated on mental illness, not on mental wellness. Debra’s expertise is in wellness. “The system works best when clinicians and people like me come together. Remarkable outcomes are possible. We are a group of people that need to be cared about, not cared for.”
There is something about Debra Lampshire that is totally compelling. We meet in a café. She’s there waiting for me and rushes up to meet me, enveloping me in an enthusiastic, warm embrace. She is larger than life with her big blue-green eyes and wild red hair – a colourful character, bursting with energy and a zest for life. A riveting speaker and teacher, she is loved and revered by her students and respected by her colleagues.
Her friend and workmate, senior lecturer Kate Prebble, tells me lived experience is really important in the teaching process. Debra’s students, she says, are blown away by what she shares with them and often it’s a real turning point for them in their understanding of mental illness.
Debra teaches what she calls the MODERN approach. It’s an acronym for Manifestations of Distress (which is what hearing voices is) and Explore, Relevance and Normalise or Neutralise.
“We have no choice about hearing voices – they come to us anyway – but what we do have a choice about is how we respond and react to those voices,” Debra says.
She explains that generally the voices feed off, and are an extreme response to, anxiety. Most of us feel anxious to some extent, but we are able to talk ourselves out of these self-generated thoughts. The voices Debra hears are detached from herself, they are completely foreign. “It’s like living with a headmaster,” she tells me. “It’s the voice of authority and it’s telling you all sorts of negative stuff: ‘You’re not good enough, you’re rubbish, not worthy’ – all those things. It’s not humanly possible to take that level of constant abuse and for it not to have some effect.
“Mental health services are traditionally looked on as the custodians of normality, so people are desperate to fit in. The way to get out of the mental health service is to be invisible, don’t draw attention to yourself. When the craziness comes out, the treatment has been to keep it quiet, which really is a form of abuse. When you have no
opportunity to speak, the craziness becomes something that it never was… things get worse,” she explains.
“The level of self-loathing is enormous in the mentally ill. When you’re labelled mentally ill you become a sub-species of humanity. These people are just experiencing extremes of feeling.”
Debra is quick to say that the mental health system intended to look after people, but, she explains ruefully, it ended up taking control of them instead.
“People who have not been exposed to a lot of care in the past have lost the ability to care for themselves. The mentally ill are generally hugely compassionate people because of their sensitivity, but in our society often sensitivity and compassion equate with weakness.
“I spent decades being told what was wrong with me… not what was right. You learn to become a compilation of what others want you to be and you lose your sense of self. My message is that there is a way through it, your life is not defined by anyone else.”
Debra was adopted. She discovered that accidentally, when she was about five, while rummaging through her mother’s wardrobe looking for Christmas presents. The discovery of her adoption papers was a colossal blow to the little girl, who immediately felt “second best, unwanted, a throwaway”. It’s a belief system that’s been with her for life.
“It was a pivotal moment; I’m always retreating to my five-year-old self.”
It was soon after this discovery that she began hearing voices. Initially there was just one voice and it was a maternal, protective one. “I always believed it was my biological mother. It seemed so natural and I embraced it. It was the only thing that was mine, that I didn’t have to share.”
Debra was born in 1957. Her adoptive family were poor. They lived in Otara, which at that time had a great sense of community, and she remembers it fondly. “We were all the same there, we looked out for each other, we all had each other’s backs.”
Things changed when she was bussed out of her familiar neighbourhood to go to intermediate school. “I was bullied,” she says, her eyes still full of the pain of those memories. “They picked us Otara kids off one by one.” The feelings of low self-worth she already had were magnified. “The seeds of what was to come were sown there,” she says sadly.
“I isolated myself, and spent all my time in the library reading. It was my only respite, but it also allowed me to enter a fantasy world. I began to hear more voices, but these were the voices of
bullies constantly telling me negative things about myself.”
The voices grew in their intensity through her teenage years and she began to spin out of control, threatening self-harm. With her situation becoming more desperate, it was decided (on medical advice available at the time) that she should be committed to psychiatric care at Kingseat Hospital.
Debra was institutionalised at 17. She would remain incarcerated for the next 18 years until the psychiatric hospital was closed down. “It was a life sentence. We used to joke, you get 14 for murder,” she laughs wryly. She laughs a lot, her warm eyes twinkling with an innate sense of fun.
“We were completely isolated from the outside world – madness was the only common denominator. Everything was determined by the level of your madness. There were no rewards for being well. I learnt to suppress everything. I led a Tupperware life – life with all the air sucked out of it.”
Eventually, when Kingseat closed, she was released back into the community. “I was hopelessly ill-prepared. The public reviled us. I was an adolescent at 35. I didn’t understand society’s cues.”
Initially she went home to her parents, an arrangement that didn’t work out, so she ended up in a succession of group homes or boarding houses, sinking ever deeper into depression and loneliness. She was at rock bottom, contemplating suicide, when she met the man who would trigger her recovery.
He was a panelbeater, interested in restoring things. He was interested in her, not in her illness, but in her life and what had brought her to that point. Debra began to see that she, too, could restore things. She could restore herself. And so began her renaissance. “He awakened my internal healer,” she laughs.
That very first voice she heard, of her mother, has now become her nana’s voice. “It’s a lovely, confirming, warm voice. She can see that I don’t need protecting, I am learning to protect myself.”
Debra has now labelled the negative voices that plagued her for years her “misguided friends”.
“I have befriended my negative voices and reinterpreted them. I have come to understand that the only power they have is the power I give them.”
Debra feels a huge responsibility to those who never got to leave Kingseat and that drives her to make a difference. Now she is teaching others about the road to recovery.
What does she tell people? “That you’re never alone. Even in the darkest depths, know deep in yourself that this is endurable.
“Grab your recovery with both hands. You can’t be a passive recipient in your own wellness.” Sage advice from one who knows. “You may not have a choice about what’s happened to you, but you do have a choice about your future.”
Her advice to practitioners: “If you don’t believe that I can get well, then I can’t believe it. You are the person who has my back.
“Never underestimate the power of love, never underestimate your ability to impact the lives of others. Always expect the best of everyone, have the highest expectations. No one truly knows what they’re capable of until they’re put in the position to excel.”
The people she was incarcerated with at Kingseat are with her still. She remembers each and every one of them. Her eyes fill with tears of pain as she talks of them. She hears their voices and she holds them in her heart as she pushes on with her search for understanding of the mentally ill.
It will come as no surprise that Debra has become something of a rock star in mental health circles. She’s in demand worldwide as a keynote speaker, travelling as far away as Scandinavia, San Francisco and New York to teach mental health professionals about her MODERN approach. She’s developing a worldwide network of likeminded practitioners.
Yet she rejects the idea that she is a courageous person.
“People (with mental illness) are performing acts of heroism every day. Just getting up, going out into a world where they face vilification, rejection and discrimination, and being prepared to do it each and every day.”
Debra maintains her wellness with a lot of self-reflection and thinking. Reading has remained a lifelong pleasure, her chief respite from the voices she still hears. She belongs to four book clubs!
She has three adult children and one very precious grandson.
The Health Minister, Jonathan Coleman, sent her a card to congratulate her on her Attitude Award win. It was addressed, in his own handwriting, to Debra Lampshire, WINNER, in big capitals. Her eyes fill with tears as she tells me this. There it is, that word “winner”. It means so much. And she is everything it encapsulates.
BELOW: A triumphant winner – Debra at the 2016 Attitude Awards ceremony, with ACC CEO Scott Pickering.