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'Flying with Paper Wings' on World Schizophrenia Awareness Day

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'Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness' is a powerful story about living with mental illness, writes Jim Kable. Today is World Schizophrenia Awareness Day.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape and mental health issues

THE EXCEPTIONAL memoir 'Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness'  by Sandy Jeffs has been reissued with a new preface and afterword — the original edition having been published in 2009.

Australian television presenter and former radio host Andrew Denton wrote the original foreword (which is contained in this 2024 edition). Among those whom the author acknowledges is outstanding journalist and early advocate Anne Deveson.

Now a peer ambassador of SANE Australia, Sandy Jeffs OAM grew up in a dysfunctional family household in the Ballarat region west of Melbourne.

Aged 23, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She and her interior voices (loud and overwhelming and softer and quieter) have lived together ever since. Sandy has been variously medicated, hospitalised and cared for by friends, during which time she has become an award-winning published poet and a noted speaker on mental health issues.

Over the past decade alone, deaths of mentally disturbed young people holding knives who have been shot and killed by inexperienced police officers have kept tragic matters of mental health in our news cycle.

Sandy Jeffs is brave in the telling of her life. Writing about her schizophrenic episodes — what her voices were goading her about and prompting her to do; of the institutions into which she was placed because of them, and of the unnamed doctors who variously treated her. She lays no blame but points out how the area of mental health and its treatment has changed over the past 50 years.

It is a compelling story.

Early in my reading, I reflected on my upbringing and how it was also dysfunctional — an alcoholic WWII PTSD-affected step-father; a fundamentalist Protestant element and other associated, untoward events. 

Confusion was a part of my adolescence back in the Cold War times of the 1960s, which included moving away from home – similar to the escape described by Sandy – to continue my university studies. Growing up. Finding my way. 

It was interesting to note Sandy's family connections via an aunt by marriage whose sister’s son was George Pell. Australia is a small world is all I can say.

Sandy was sexually assaulted – raped – by a 24-year-old when she was only 13, at a distant country dance beyond Ballarat to which he had driven her and a school friend. Frightened, she explains, when he insisted on sex. Those voices which later came to her mind make accusations which – it seems to me – originate in this terrible and confusing assault. 

She writes:

Recent research by a team led by [pshychologist] J. Read looked at the relationship of childhood trauma to psychosis and schizophrenia. [It] found that "reference to evil or the Devil was more common among those who had been sexually abused".

 

In the same review article it states that "in people with psychosis, there is a marked excess of victimising experiences, many of which will have occurred in childhood. This is suggestive of a social contribution to aetiology".

 

Drugs only deal the chemical side of me, and while they have kept me relatively sane, they have done little to help me resolve the internal contradictions and emotional trauma that fuel the content of my madness.

I was intrigued to discover her love of the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band because I have clear memories in 1968 – about the time of my religious disaffiliation – of sitting in the university library music room on many afternoons toe-tapping my way to that very album. I did not understand the lyrics one iota, really, but found some kind of focus suggesting a secular and dogma-free life.

Many years later Sandy finds that the music she listens to, via her MPV player, helps her to drown out those voices in her head.

In her chapter titled 'Recovery', Sandy comes to understand that she is not "a schizophrenic”, but rather she is someone 'who lives with schizophrenia and all its moods'

She thinks:

'... beyond the label of the illness to all the other things that make me myself, that constitute my identity, like my relationships, poetry, humour and potentialities.' 

Indeed, Sandy has long been a sportswoman (field hockey and tennis). She plays musical instruments, writes poetry and speaks at events about her life and about living with schizophrenia.

In her 2024 afterword, Sandy pays tribute to all of those who have cared for her and those who have shared similar mental issues and makes a moving reassessment of how she views her parents and the issues with which they must have been beset. 

This is not a book I would say I enjoyed as much as I was deeply moved.

Sandy Jeffs is truly a voice of profound maturity.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you would like to speak to someone about mental health issues, please call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

'Flying with Paper Wings: Reflections on Living with Madness' by Sandy Jeffs is available at Booktopia from $39.95 (RRP).

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

Jim Kable is a retired teacher who has taught in rural and metropolitan NSW, in Europe, and later, long-term in Japan. He is also a member of the steering committee of political party The New Liberals.

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