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.
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 stuff.co.nz/ 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’’.