Max Christoffersen: A search for sanctuary and survival

Waihi Beach was the right place to meet, talk and heal.
PETER MEECHAM/STUFF

Waihi Beach was the right place to meet, talk and heal.

OPINION: We agreed to meet at Waihi Beach.

It was a kind of halfway house.

It was a 40-minute drive from my place and much the same for her.

She was my former student. Ten years had got between our shared classes as daily life intervened in our journey, but we would meet up once again, to tell tales and to share new perspectives.

I was keen to meet again to hear her life's story. It was now a story of marriage and children, of the vicissitudes of life and of mental illness.

We chose the halfway point as it was as far as she could drive safely without being overcome with anxiety. I hoped she would be OK for the 40 minutes it would take her to drive from home to the sanctuary I know today as Waihi Beach.

I consider Waihi a healing place, the coastal beach retreat where time becomes elastic and seemingly stretches out, so an afternoon there can feel like days of normal time.

It was the right place for us to meet, to talk, to heal.

The never forgotten young student star of my teaching life, the kind of student teachers remember with fondness and wonder where they have gone to, was going to be waiting for me at Waihi Beach.

And I couldn't wait to be there.

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We were no longer teacher and student, we were now adults with life's trials and tribulations to share.

I hoped my life story of the 10 years between might go some way to encourage her, that in some way by sharing my struggles, the tale might make for a real life case study she could identify with and apply in her own life.

The lesson plan had an easy point to make: No one has it easy. There are always struggles for everyone.

At the beach this one time, I was still attempting to hold a class even if there was no whiteboard or lecture notes. No essay notes would be handed out.

My recent life story would have to suffice as lesson of the day.

In class my student was shy and reserved. Outside of class she lit up her fellow students with laughter. She inspired me to try to be better than I was, to try to reach her by being the best I could be while teaching.

Her time in my classroom was the highlight of my teaching life. There was an academic challenge to bring the best out of her and, in so doing, have her recognise her own strengths, believe in her own worth.

It was time to see where my teaching beginnings had gone.

The 40-minute drive went fast. There was just enough time to settle my nerves and get a cup of tea before she arrived.

We met with a sense of "I know you, but the years have changed you. You're the same but different."

I was now older, the grey flecks beginning to show through and she was now a mum, older, wiser and different from the young woman who had showed so much promise as a 16-year-old in my class.

After the initial nerves had settled, we got down to the story behind our reunion. It was an easy talk. The words came quickly and easily and we soon found our old rhythm and settled into what would be a day of rediscovery.

She had much to share. Her hand trembled as she revealed the path her life had taken – attempts to hang herself nearly ending it twice.

It was devastating to hear the resignation in her voice that detailed the attempts.

Today her life is full of the medications needed to relieve her mood swings and depression. The names of the drugs rattled off her tongue with ease. She knew each of them and their purpose.

Hers was now a tale of survival, of facing the reality of being part of New Zealand's mental health system.

She was articulate about the problems she had seen and experienced in Hamilton's Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre, ranging from overcrowding to keeping patients in for the shortest amount of time because of the lack of funding and resources. Respite care was always a quick-fix option as patients were shifted around to make room.

Her concerns extended to GPs who, in her words, "… aren't equipped to handle something so fragile as mental illness. So many people are only given meds and six sessions of counselling. Some are helped by the crisis team and others have to jump through hoops to get into the mental health system at all."

She raised concern for the welfare of other patients through a lack of early accurate diagnosis of problems. She worried about new facilities moving patients further away from where they needed to be.

While needing her own support and care, her main concern was for others. Ten years and a battle with depression had not changed her character.

She was still the same person who had inspired me in a classroom 10 years earlier.

I watched her drive away and wondered if the mental health system would be capable of caring for my former student – today, my friend.

I wondered if they would show her more than just medicine and pill bottle labels with anonymous instructions. I wondered if they would care for her as I had. I wondered if there was a place for empathy and love and something more meaningful than mere clinical care in our mental health system.

I wondered if she would recover given the perilous state of mental health services in the country, driven into the ground by a government seemingly prepared to designate those with mental illness as mere collateral damage.

I wondered why Hamilton's elected MPs are so silent on the issue of Hamilton's mental health services and what funding and resource solutions they can offer the Henry Rongomau Bennett Centre if re-elected.

I will return to Waihi Beach knowing it is a sanctuary.

I live in hope she too will return in time, once again able to enjoy the smell of the salt sea air, the bright sun and green hills, and be happier and healthy, having survived New Zealand's mental healthcare system through the love and care of others.

 - Stuff

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