Judy Bai­ley

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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - Contents -

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.

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