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Steph Barnett

I recently resigned from my job to look after my mental health. Just a few hours later I found myself sitting next to Sarah from Gizzy Local and somehow, in a brief kōrero, we shared honesty and understanding around mental health.

After I left my job I thought life was going to get better, and then even better. But that’s not always how the story goes. I remember lying in bed, feeling physically incapable of getting up. I wondered how much water I needed, to replace the stuff streaming from my eyes. I felt groggy drunk with shame and inadequacy. The work I’d left was not easy by anyone's standards, but the incredible people around me were sticking it out, with far busier lives and way more on their plate than me, so why couldn’t I?

I slid a prescription across the pharmacy counter and felt like I’d failed. Having spent the last 10 years managing my mental health without medication — through exercise, meditation, creativity and mindset education — here I was. Antidepressants can take up to 4 weeks to work. Yikes. It sounded like a very long time.

Back in bed, popping my first pill, I read through the long list of potential side-effects like it was the menu at a really bad restaurant. Insomnia was the special of the day, with a side of nausea and dizziness. Slamming the door shut to the one place I could escape to, I spent 4 nights owl-eyed in bed while venlafaxine tried to rally the sad and sluggish neurotransmitters in my brain.

Telling my flatmates (puffy eyed and wearing a dressing gown) that ‘I’ll return as a butterfly!’, I drove non-stop to Wellington to cocoon away with whānau and be looked after while adjusting to the medication. I manifested a transformation. It took longer than expected and I kept thinking “next week I’ll find work and get myself back together.” It didn’t feel true even as I said it. My body and mind demanded stillness and patience while wings formed beneath my skin. It was a few weeks before I noticed they were there and longer still for them to unfurl.

Now I’m a full-time artist pumping things out on social media as I take on an art challenge for the last 100 days of my twenties. It all looks very “go-get-it-girl!” and it’s nice to feel and share the excitement. It also feels important to share my humanness and be authentic. The project was born from a vulnerable and challenging place. I’ve bounced back with a resiliency owed to mental health education, financial security, family support and no dependants.

When I think of those among us who live with depression while managing things like poverty, family violence, drug or alcohol abuse and the responsibility of looking after kids or the elderly, I recognise the incredible strength in our community and how many unsung courageous individuals we have here.

One day, I’d like to be as comfortable telling my boss I need a day off for my mental health, as I would telling them that I have a cold. One of the top 5 leading causes of death In Aotearoa is people taking their own lives and yet we are still not in a place where taking “mental health days” is encouraged, normalised or fully accepted. Are we okay with that? Sharing our stories and strategies helps reduce shame and shows how common but complicated mental illness is. Checking in on each other, normalising kōrero about mental illness and encouraging healthy social catch-ups (e.g. a hīkoi up Titirangi instead of a beer) are all ways that we can make a change.

It’s no fun being swallowed up, but when the black dog spits you out, you might just catch the wave of your life.

Words & Moving Images by Stephanie Barnett.

Photograph X Ellen Taylor

Find more of Steph’s work on Instagram @ stephmarybarnett /

Photograph @ellenmarytaylor

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