After experiencing depressive symptoms at age 14, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. By age 16, I was taking and trialling antidepressants to find the right combination of medications, which came with side-effects, such as insomnia, nausea and extreme migraines to no avail.
Being diagnosed with a chronic mental illness so young, I felt as though my life and future had been stolen from me and that there was no hope of having a life worth living. For a few months a year I would experience extreme low moods and chronic fatigue, which meant I was unable to get out of bed and attend school, resulting in only a 42 per cent yearly attendance rate. In addition, I suffered from an eating disorder, low self-esteem and panic attacks from social anxiety. These periods of my life made me feel that I was unable to achieve what others could.
But then I’d bounce back and enjoy a pocket of wellness for a short time. In this time, I would go out and get a part-time job, eat well, socialise with my friends and catch up on the time I had been missing along with schoolwork. In hindsight, I was a really good kid that wanted to be involved with life and do well in school, but it was so hard with a mental illness.
Surprisingly, I managed to graduate high school at the same time as my peers and in 2018, I received a spot at university to study nursing. I spent the first six months of student life in an elevated state. I was exceptionally confident and social, I began playing contact sports for the first time in my life, I was running on five hours of sleep, and I even received a Dean’s Award for Academic Excellence which boosted my confidence.
Yet, there was also the flip side of my behaviours. I was drinking and partying excessively, but I just put it down to age-appropriate activities.
After running on a ‘high’ for half a year, I once again fell into a really deep depression. Consequently, I dropped out of university, moved back to my family home and visited my psychiatrist who had been treating me since my early teens. When I shared with her what my life had looked like those past six months, she immediately planted the seed how from a behavioural standpoint I had symptoms related to bipolar disorder – formerly known as manic depression, which causes extreme mood shifts ranging from mania to depression.
At first, I wasn’t ready to hear it. But, months later and after struggling for so long, the only thing that mattered was getting better, so I accepted this new diagnosis.
The principal focus of our treatment plan became an increase in our talk therapy sessions along with other holistic interventions such as physical exercise. As well, she changed my medication from antidepressants to antipsychotics. Because our talk sessions were very open and honest, I gained awareness and insight into why my brain was working the way it was. This alleviated the guilt I carried surrounding my symptoms and manic behaviours. Importantly, I realised that I wasn’t a bad person, a burden or a failure. I was just exceptionally unwell with an unmanaged mental illness.
Gradually, this allowed me to acknowledge and confront my thoughts around suicidal ideation. My psychotherapist accordingly suggested that if I ever got to a point where I felt unsafe, to consider admitting myself to a dedicated mental health facility. I began making arrangements just in case. By mid-2020, unable to trust myself any more not to self-harm, I voluntarily admitted myself for more specialised professional support. I was able to sign myself out during the day to be with my very supportive family and close friends.
During my first admission I took part in group therapies exploring Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I tried walking groups, yoga and art therapy, and attended my own specialised treatments with my psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Together they all proved very helpful. Armed with additional coping mechanisms and medication that seemed to be working, after six weeks my team deemed it was safe for me to leave. As a young person I also wanted to go out and start living again.
Unfortunately, as it turned out I wasn’t ready to cope with the demands of the real world and a month later, I voluntarily readmitted myself. Under my psychiatrist, we tried a new combination of medications including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a medical procedure that involves passing a mild electric current through the brain, causing a short seizure. I was at a point where I was so desperate to be well after a decade of trialling many different treatment styles. I did about 20 rounds of ECT under general anaesthetic, which proved pretty tough on my body, but worth it, as it did begin to alleviate some of my symptoms, like crushing and debilitating depression, chronic fatigue and suicidal ideation.
It was also during my second admission, when fed up with constantly feeling that I was taking one step forward and two steps back, I signed myself out for the day and began the 30km walk home. I began at 8am and I continued non-stop until 5pm. When my family dropped me back to the hospital later that night, I was so proud of what I had achieved. Knowing that a day before I couldn’t even get myself out of bed, that walk was for me a great achievement. It was the start of my love affair with long-distance walking.
A month later I was once again discharged, but within six weeks, I returned a third time for further treatment. I repeated ECT treatments including finally receiving a medication combination that worked. That was my last hospital admission to date and even though I’ve experienced depressive moods they’ve been managed with the combination of treatment styles I acquired during this period.
With the love and support of my family, I survived this challenging decade and found hiking to be my greatest cathartic outlet. I found great solace when out bushwalking, climbing mountains and crossing rivers. When hiking, I’m not a chronic mental health sufferer – I’m just Bailey.
In turn, because as a young person I spent a lot of time thinking I was incompetent and unable to achieve things, even believing that I would never be able to have a job or a family, I’ve gained a sense of satisfaction from hiking, because no matter what mood I’m in, I can always hike.
I decided to walk the east coast of Australia – a trek of more than 5,000km – to show that there is a life worth living with this mental illness. To prepare, in 2021 I did a four-week trial walk beginning in Coolangatta, Queensland and ending in Coffs Harbour, NSW. Even though I got so much wrong – my navigation was terrible and there were cyclones and storms – the fact that I completed it made me even more determined to complete my promise.
Consequently, on 18 May 2022, I began my walk, beginning from the most southern point of mainland Australia at Wilsons Promontory. I’m aiming to reach the most northern tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, in 12 months. The goal is to raise $100,000 for the Black Dog Institute, which people can donate to under my page, Wandering Minds Walk.
I’ve currently walked 4,500km, and I’ve raised just over $50,000. I walk six to eight hours a day carrying a 20kg backpack. To manage my illness on the road I have all my prescriptions on my phone and I carry with me a month’s worth of medication at a time.
I also speak to a psychologist fortnightly via telehealth to unpack any traumas or stressful events that happen on the road and I’ve accessed a psychiatric hospital as I passed through Newcastle, NSW to receive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) – a non-invasive treatment technique that uses a magnetic field to influence brain activity, as a way to manage an acute low I was experiencing whilst I was hiking through northern NSW.
At times it’s been exceptionally difficult to manage my disorder in this sort of extreme circumstances. Yet, my passion and dedication to contribute to a mentally healthier world for generations to come outweigh any hardship I’m faced with on this journey.
Because I feel I’m contributing to the mental health movement in Australia, this long-distance walk has given purpose and meaning to my own mental health experience. It’s also been fantastic to recognise how strong and resilient I can be and if this walk is all I achieve in life, for me that’s enough.
In the future I will never look at a situation and say: ‘That is impossible’, as I’ve already achieved the impossible through this walk. Before I used to feel that I was not able to do things and I would quit before I even started, but now I’m confident that I can achieve anything I put my mind to.