On board the Border Mail’s headspace campaign from the start, ASHLEY ARGOON shares her experience of watching a loved one battle a mental illness and why her cousin’s journey still inspires and humbles her.
RED lips. Inflamed and dry.
She kept pursing them together.
It was a subconscious thing, as was licking the corners of her mouth every few seconds as another tear fell down her face.
“I can’t beat it,” she whispered.
“I can’t beat it,” more forcefully, shaking her head, over and over.
The way she said the word “it” is what scared me.
She put emphasis on the word, as if what she referred to was a physical thing, an entity that existed independently.
“It” was anorexia.
Sitting beside Brodie on her hospital bed, I watched helplessly as she fought this internal battle.
I wanted to reach inside her and rip out this thing that she hated, this thing that had taken hold of her life.
I had watched as she lost weight.
It started slowly.
Then all of a sudden it was Brodie’s second admission to The Royal Children’s Hospital after feeling pains down her arm on yet another daily walk.
She was only 17.
I don’t believe you can understand mental illness until you experience it or see it slowly take over someone.
I began to understand when I hugged my cousin and started to feel ribs jut out of her back.
Others said they understood.
But it was so obvious they had no idea.
Some believed she could control this thing that held her hostage.
One of Brodie’s “friends” told others not to visit her in hospital.
This girl said Brodie was looking for attention, that if people visited they’d be giving her what she wanted.
But she wanted none of this illness.
All that attitude did was make a scared and lonely girl even more isolated.
One afternoon, when Brodie was released from hospital, I went to see her.
Her parents’ house was just a few hundred metres up the street from mine.
I asked her what she’d eaten that day.
“A mushroom and three cherry tomatoes,” she replied, avoiding my eyes.
Her mother, my aunty, described her anorexia as an addiction.
I can’t think of a better description.
On their annual Easter holiday at Yarrawonga Holiday Park, Brodie’s parents forgot the measuring cups.
Furious, Brodie trudged up the street to the supermarket to buy cups so she could weigh out exactly half a cup of cereal and milk.
She hated what she was doing to her body but she couldn’t stop.
At her lightest, she weighed 37kg standing at about 170cm tall.
I never considered she wouldn’t make it. A world without Brodie was a world I’d never known.
We were born six days apart and she’d always been there.
When I was six, she pushed me on the tyre swing in her backyard.
When I was 11, she hugged me on a school trip overseas because I missed home.
When I was 17 and broke up with my boyfriend, she was there for me too — even though her illness had well and truly taken hold of her.
Still, I hung up the phone from him and immediately walked up the hill to her house.
And when I came home from that first horrible day of school seeing my ex, there was a card from her in the letter box.
She had drawn coloured fishes all over it.
“There’s plenty more fish in the sea,” she wrote, with a big smiley face.
Brodie has always been there.
And two weeks ago, I was there for her.
I tried to hold back tears as I watched her walk up the aisle, hand in hand with her dad.
I stood behind her, listening to the reasons why this man she was going to marry made her so happy.
Seven years ago, when Brodie lay in that hospital bed, lips red and eyes tired, I really don’t think she thought much about her future.
Back then, her smile and trademark Brodie dimples were a rare sight.
In the depth of that illness, I don’t think she could have imagined a beautiful life ahead of her.
And I think that’s true for many people who suffer with a mental illness.
They can barely imagine tomorrow.
But tomorrow could be the best day of your life.
Some of my tears two Saturdays ago were seeing Brodie’s bright smile; I’ve never see her dimples deeper than when she is with her Shane.
But mostly, they were for the fact that Brodie got to experience a tomorrow — and a future.
I know not everyone gets their happy ending.
Though perhaps, by sharing my beautiful cousin’s story, others may see the dark days can get lighter.
I know when I’m struggling, it’s the thought of Brodie’s strength that gets me through.
I’ve watched a person pick themselves up and charge back in to life with more enthusiasm than I’ve seen from most people.
The sad girl in the hospital bed pursing her lips, she’s gone.
We said goodbye to her years ago.
The girl smiling and laughing in every single one of hundreds of wedding photos, she’s the future.
And I couldn’t be prouder.