Marks of the woman Sarah has be­come

Doc­tors said Sarah Kil­loh would likely be dead be­fore she turned 40, due to self-harm or sui­cide. To­day, in her mid-40s, she ‘‘just loves life’’. Katie Kenny re­ports.

The Press - - News -

Last week Sarah Kil­loh was elected chair­woman of her lo­cal com­mu­nity group — some­thing she never thought pos­si­ble.

The Christchurch woman has been di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar, schizoaf­fec­tive, bor­der­line per­son­al­ity and post-trau­matic stress (PTSD) dis­or­ders, schizophre­nia, de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, and com­plexPTSD.

She’s been forced to re­ceive treat­ment, in­clud­ing elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­apy (ECT) — where an elec­tric shock is used to dis­rupt the brain chem­istry — un­der the Men­tal Health Act. She’s also vol­un­tar­ily un­der­gone ECT.

‘‘I’ve been on just about every psych med imag­in­able — pills and in­jec­tions,’’ Kil­loh said. ’’I’ve been in and out of res­i­den­tial care over and over again.

‘‘I self-harmed and have had thou­sands, if not hun­dreds of thou­sands, of tax­payer dol­lars spent on skin graft­ing and ten­don re­pairs. I’ve had a num­ber of sui­cide at­tempts.’’

Kil­loch said her dis­tress, self­harm­ing and sui­cide at­tempts were so se­vere she was told she would be on the in­valid’s ben­e­fit un­til 65. Men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als told Kil­loh’s mother she wouldn’t make it to her 40s.

She’s now in her mid-40s and July marked three years since she self-harmed. ’’That’s huge,’’ she said.

But the thing that brought Kil­loh the most pride was com­ing off the ben­e­fit two years ago.

Just over two years ago she walked into her lo­cal Work and In­come of­fice to ask for money to at­tend a polytech­nic course.

Kil­loh signed the form that said the course would lead to full-time work. She said she had no in­ten­tion of that hap­pen­ing.

But the course led to work ex­pe­ri­ence, then an­other course, then part-time work and even­tu­ally, a full-time job.

‘‘It’s the big­gest thing I’ve ever done in my life — the most lifechang­ing,’’ she said.

It’s huge be­cause, in the past, Kil­loh’s at­tempts to work have been scup­pered by dis­crim­i­na­tion.

About 20 years ago a par­ent of one of the spe­cial needs chil­dren she worked with asked about the plaster cast on Kil­loh’s arm. She told the mother she self-harmed, which led to the loss of her job at the school and other jobs.

‘‘The fam­ily whose child I’d been work­ing with in the preschool and babysit­ting at home, sud­denly didn’t need a babysit­ter any­more.’’

A cou­ple of years ago a sim­i­lar thing hap­pened at the ken­nel where she worked dur­ing the week­ends.

Kil­loh has ‘‘mas­sive scars’’ on her arms from self-harm­ing. Her scars of­ten be­come the topic of con­ver­sa­tion. ’’That’s how ev­ery­one recog­nises me, I think.’’

Kil­loh said she felt com­fort­able enough with her bosses to tell them the story be­hind her scars. Then one day when she was on sick leave, the own­ers called to say not to come back.

‘‘I wanted to go to me­di­a­tion be­cause I wanted to tell them I was no risk to the an­i­mals. I wanted them to un­der­stand that if they went away for the week­end it would help me not hurt my­self be­cause I was be­ing re­lied on for some­thing. But they didn’t want to meet, so we just ended it.’’

Kil­loh said gain­ing steady work was a key driver of her re­cov­ery. She now works part-time at a vet clinic but she’s try­ing to in­crease her hours so she can buy a house next year. ’’It’s just an­other step in nor­mal­ity.’’

Hav­ing a job gave Kil­loh a sense of pride and the abil­ity to make choices. ’’I can say, I earned this money and I’m go­ing to buy fish and chips for tea, or what­ever it is.’’

Work also meant she didn’t have to be afraid of at­tend­ing so­cial sit­u­a­tions for fear of some­one ask­ing ‘‘What do you do?’’

Kil­loh said it was im­por­tant sto­ries like hers were told so em­ploy­ers could come to un­der­stand men­tal health clients shouldn’t be avoided. ’’Ev­ery­one can do some­thing.’’

Kil­loh no longer cov­ers her scars. ’’I am no longer em­bar­rassed or ashamed of th­ese, they tell a story of the woman I have be­come.’’

The change had to come from within, but sup­port peo­ple and agen­cies also played a big role in Kil­loh’s re­cov­ery.

‘‘Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the job they do. It’s pretty tough. And it must be re­ally de­mor­al­is­ing and hard work at times but it’s a valu­able job.’’

The an­i­mal-lover now rents a house in Phillip­stown, Christchurch, where she lives with her cats and tur­tle.

She catches up with friends and they go to cafes or on bike rides. They chat and joke.

Kil­loh is also part of her com­mu­nity pa­trol and now she’s the head of Christchurch South Fruit and Veg­etable Col­lec­tive, which dis­trib­utes fruit and veges to 400 fam­i­lies a week.

‘‘I just love life, it’s great,’’ she said.

* Re­porters Katie Kenny and Laura Wal­ters spent six months trav­el­ling the coun­try, in­ter­view­ing those whose lives have in­ter­twined with men­tal health ser­vices, and in­ves­ti­gat­ing what needs to change. The re­sult was Through the Maze: Our men­tal health jour­ney, a project funded by the Frozen Funds Char­i­ta­ble Trust, through the Men­tal Health Foun­da­tion. Ex­plore their full re­port at through-the-maze


Sarah Kil­loh was once a self-harmer who doc­tors be­lieved would suc­cumb to sui­cide. She now works at a vet clinic, vol­un­teers at lo­cal com­mu­nity groups and ‘‘loves life’’.

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