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How a volunteer saved my family

Australian Women's Weekly logo Australian Women's Weekly 9/12/2015
© Provided by Australian Women's Weekly

A misdiagnosed mental illness made life very difficult for Robyn and her children, especially her eldest child Taaryn.

But help came for both mum and daughter from a very unexpected source, one they still credit for their survival and happiness years later.

Here, they tell their incredible story:

TAARYN

During my childhood my mum was in and out of hospital regularly, and she tried to take her own life a few times. I was only six or seven years old so I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I knew that mum wasn’t well, and my then step-dad told us that mum had taken too much medicine.

My step-father was dodgy. I didn’t really like him. He was a drug addict and was violent towards mum, mostly behind closed doors, but occasionally has was violent towards me. When mum was in hospital sometimes my two brothers and I would stay with him, or with my maternal grandmother. Mum had another baby, and went to hospital for a long time and we were put into foster care when I was about 10.

I didn’t want to go home from foster care because I was scared mum would go away again and in foster care I felt stable and safe. At home I just felt scared a lot. Scared of how mum would act, scared of her going away.

My mum got better but she felt guilty for everything we’d been through and she wanted to find some mentors for my brothers and I because our dad wasn’t around. That was when she applied for the Big Brother Big Sister program.

Meeting my Big Sister, Mel, was just like meeting a friend. The first time we hung out we stayed out so long people got worried about us but we didn’t even realise how much time had passed. I felt an instant connection with her even though she was 27 years old.

Once a week we’d spend time together. Sometimes we’d go out, and other times we’d go to her house and cook. I was really interested in vegetarian food, but mum wouldn’t let me be vegetarian so we explored food together and really built a strong friendship over a couple of years.

When the program ended Mel and I stayed in contact for a while, and we still chat on Facebook six years later. Now my mum is better. She was finally correctly diagnosed with a mental illness and she is an amazing woman. My family is close and loving, but if I see someone who I believe would benefit from Big Brother, Big Sister I always suggest they get in touch immediately.

I know it changed my life for the better.

The Big Brother, Big Sister program isn’t about counselling or talking about problems necessarily, it’s just about having someone to look up to and aspire to be like because maybe the other grown-ups in your life - although they have your best interests at heart- but don’t really know how to bring those intentions forward.

My Big Sister was such an important role model in my life and having our visits to look forward to became a crucial part of my life. It was amazing to see how people outside of my family lived, and to learn that I don’t need to do what my family does.

ROBYN

I was diagnosed with a depressive illness at 19 and I spent the next 14 years in and out of hospital having electro-convulsive therapy and various treatments. I married at 20, and I had three babies in four years and when my marriage broke down I was in pieces. My self-esteem was shattered and I fell into another relationship with a very violent man.

Around this time my eldest son, Liam, was diagnosed with autism and then I fell pregnant and I felt incredibly trapped. Five weeks after my baby was born I snapped and had a psychotic episode and tried to end my life. I was in an induced coma for five days, and I had to relearn to walk and talk and I got an intervention order from my partner. I was once again alone and precariously balanced, but now with four kids under eight years old.

My eldest child, Taaryn, took on too much. She tried to look after the other kids because that’s her nature but she should have been having fun, just being a kid.

I was finally correctly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and with the right medication my life turned a corner. I met and in time married a lovely man who I am still with today, and he and his four children came into our lives.

My third child, Caleb, was also diagnosed on the autism spectrum and our family case worker suggested I enrol my three eldest kids in the Big Brother, Big Sister program to give them some time out and find a mentor that they can look up to and rely on.

I noticed a change in my kids almost immediately. They had something to look forward to.

They knew they could rely on their “Bigs” and I knew they couldn’t rely on me. I felt a terrible amount of guilt and shame but I was doing the best I could at the time.

All of them really came out of themselves. My two autistic sons learned better communication skills and they grew immensely from these different experiences they were having that we didn’t have as a family. They were visiting fire stations, and eating yum cha. A whole new world was opened up to them.

Caleb really became part of his “Bigs” family. The biggest thing I realised from observing these relationships was that my kids didn’t want lavish gifts, they wanted time. They wanted someone just to give them their time.

I was worried my kids would grow up and make the wrong choices for themselves because our lives had known mental illness, violence and chaos for many years. I feel that the Big Brother, Big Sister mentor program they were in for two years really changed the course of their lives.

There are many volunteers who wish to be a part of the Big Brother, Big Sister program but there is not enough money to pair them all together. I know first-hand that the program is a worthy cause and these connections are priceless. I would encourage anyone to donate if they can to help more kids find mentors that will change their lives.

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