Next Wednesday, please make sure to tune in to #IHMayDay17 on Twitter. This year, the theme of Indigenous Health May Day is Representation: politics, policy and education.
For Indigenous woman Tess Ryan, who will be one of the guest tweeters at #IHMayDay17, the concept of representation is multi-faceted. In a powerful prose and photo essay below, Tess shares her journey through representation as an Indigenous woman with health issues.
Tess Ryan writes:
First and foremost, I represent me. My origins are unique to some, my travels far different than others. Aboriginal, Irish, Chinese. Female. Mother. Urban. PhD candidate – I am all these things. I am more than these things and some not included are difficult to talk about.
But if I am to truly represent myself, show integrity, and work to create some change in the world then I must discuss all of the atoms that make up me. So to the list I add what I’d rather leave out – Sick. Abused. Traumatised. And Strong.
But first, the beginnings.
My country is Biripi in Taree, New South Wales, but I grew up in Brisbane. The disconnection felt from my mother’s family having to leave Taree will last forever and even returning there I feel a melancholy that has no end.
Maybe that is why I love to photograph nature and its changing tides and winds that run through it. It is a language, a song, a feeling and a knowing. It heals me in ways nothing else could before, and it took me many years to really understand it.
For Aboriginal people who have not had the opportunity of being born on country, this feeling of disconnection is one we are forever trying to mend. When I go for a walk into anyone’s country, I feel a peace from that feeling.
I believe that from a very young age, the lack of self-belief was genetically embedded in me. I came from a family of four children, me being the last, and I have always worn my heart all over my body instead of inside.
My mother had a sadness that at times built to frustration, anger and panic and I never understood it. Was it handed down from the past, was it genetics, was it specific events she had witnessed? I could never be sure, but it informed me in a way that has been deeply coded and encrypted, the start of things to come.
I was the victim of a number of traumatic events in my life, and after many years of crisis including domestically violent situations, I was diagnosed with a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which manifests itself in anxiety, panic and depressive events.
‘Sometimes it is hard to keep your head above the water’
‘Anxiety is a constantly running spiral’
PTSD feels like a gnawing, crawling creature that eats you from the inside out. It made me pick at my skin relentlessly and rock back and forth in times of triggered high stress.
Coupled with this was a diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes when I as in my twenties, and consequent complications which included issues with my kidneys, eyes, circulation and nervous system. I had regular ICU admissions in hospital, and with each visit my condition was getting worse.
At one stage my family were discussing who would take care of my child should I not make it. Years of ill-health, disconnection from culture and being, created a weariness in me, and I attempted suicide.
No sharp edges
No sharp edges here, everything smooth.
No protrusions for which to hang and dangle
We are woken and fed, then therapy
Some talk, others smoke
I spiral think tumble into catastrophes of thought and anxious waiting
We line up for tea, we line up for medicine
When too much medicine is what got me here
And I try to arrange my mind to something sensible.
Sing me to sleep so I can rest in ways I never have before
Allow me to stay in this place where I don’t make decisions
For a while at least, I can live
With no sharp edges, everything smooth.
The mental health services for myself and for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the mainstream system does not usually entail any cultural psychotherapy. Aside from Indigenous Liaison officers in major hospitals, where services are strapped and everything is time sensitive, I can go in and out of hospital without having any cultural connection other than from student nurses asking me questions. My last visit I had a Sudanese nurse ask me “But what IS your culture here, as I never see it?”
There was no consideration that healing could come of culture and that, for many of us, hospitals are places where our elders die. The assumptions placed on some of us from the medical profession are horrendous, and the racial stereotyping can keep us away, further making our illnesses worse.
When I got to this point, I could not think of what possibly could help me climb it. I was a sick black woman, on a part disability payment, a single parent and considered by many as having no chance of survival, let alone success. I was fulfilling many of the statistics seen amongst Indigenous Australia, and I didn’t know how to change it.
As a last ditch effort, I decided to try my hand at University as a mature aged student. I was lucky to have grown up in an era where education for us was possible, as my mother didn’t have the same opportunity. For me, education was my saviour – it was my job to work and claw myself out of this giant gaping hole that seemed bottomless.
As time went on, it seemed I was pretty good at this and I found myself further invested in my culture and in my academic life. It was an extremely hard road and still is, one I continue to travel as I near the end of my PhD on Aboriginal women and leadership.
But I know I am privileged, as I have had opportunities beyond many others and have run at them with great nervous energy. Perhaps I felt a sense of urgency in that I was short of time… I am sure that with the passing of my Aboriginal Uncles I was sure I would not last very long.
Because that is what we are told to think – as Aboriginal people the representation we are expected to embody is one of ill health, poor education and substandard housing. That deficit mantra is regularly being challenged, however; it is just that some people choose not to hear it.
We are the people, and we stand up. We have the knowledge and the power. We make tough decisions for ourselves and others every day. We have all the skills, techniques and talents to deal with what’s happening in our lives.
We show strength when others think there is none. We stand tall. Our ability to push for change has long been established. We fight for tangible outcomes for our communities.
The roads we travel may not make sense to everyone, but these tracks make sense to us.
We see wellness in land, sky, trees and water. It gives us peace, strength and power.
When I am in the world, the world is in me. I feel restored, connected. I sing to land because its song gives me the life I live.
Indigenous people are still here, after generations of dispossession and trauma. We are strong in our multifaceted representations of ourselves, and that representation will allow us to continue to shape what we want for our futures.
Reflecting on my story, it brings home to me why Indigenous Health May Day is so important. For me, IHMayDay is about acknowledging my past, present and future as an Aboriginal woman.
My health issues will remain intermittent but knowing what I have learnt of myself and my culture drives me forward. It pushes me to stay strong and healthy, to write and work in any way that I can to assist Indigenous people in seeing the power they have to keep going.
For all Indigenous people working in the health sector, I want to say thank you.
Working in areas where you are helping our mob has helped me and pushes me to do more than I ever thought I could. Many of you have saved me from falling back down the rabbit hole that is deteriorating chronic health.
The health academics I have learnt from have encouraged me in my research and the gift of education and Indigenous knowledge has brought me into an amazing life that I am determined to pay forward to others.
My wish for IHMayDay is that we can continue our conversations regarding Indigenous health so that greater awareness is given to issues affecting us all.
Our families and communities are asking for us to represent them in the hope of changing the disparities we see in the health system, and acknowledge the ongoing work that is put in from every professional working for Indigenous health.
Let’s keep going in our work to change what we see happening for Indigenous people. Let’s keep representing ourselves as strong, determined, not ‘a gap’ or deficit. Let’s keep working for a stronger future for all Indigenous Australians.
• Follow on Twitter: @TessRyan1
#IHMayDay is an annual Twitter event, led by James Cook University academic Dr Lynore Geia, that takes a strengths-based approach and privileges the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to discuss health matters.
#IHMayDay17 will be co-hosted by the University of Canberra, in conjunction with Croakey.
At the University of Canberra, #IHMayDay17 is supported by Professor Radoll, the University of Canberra Collaborative Indigenous Research Initiative (UC CIRI), the Faculty of Arts and Design, and the Faculty of Health.
As in previous years, a program of guest tweeters will run from 7am until 10pm AEST. Discussions will be moderated by Dr Geia, Professor Peter Radoll, Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leadership and Strategy at the University of Canberra, and Croakey Contributing Editor, Ms Summer May Finlay.
More information is here.
Stay tuned – the program will be published early next week.