Hi, my name is Peta Ferguson and I have an acquired brain injury (ABI). My
presentation today will be a combination of PowerPoint and the spoken word. I’m
not silly enough to think you’ll understand every word so you’ll probably need the
screen to get the main points. Of-course you can ask anything, anything at all at
the end of the presentation.
You can get an ABI from any number of ways; eg. a coward’s punch, disease,
anything that negatively affects the brain after birth. The long-term effects differ
widely; from being stuck in a wheelchair unable to talk to appearing totally
‘normal’. I didn’t have a car accident, a fall, was beaten up or have a stroke; no, I
took a deliberate overdose of prescription medication when I was 24. I didn’t
think of possible consequences, I just wanted out. Why? I don’t know. My parents
were both doctors, I lived in a nice house, went to a good school where I did well
and had lots of friends. Later I went to Melbourne Uni where I did Arts/Law.
I must say I am happier now than immediately before the OD but I certainly don’t
recommend trying it. It took thirty years (with a couple of exceptions) of deeply
depressing crap to get to this point, and thirty years is a long time.
Let me tell you how I got to this point:
As I said I had a really easy time at school; I was a house captain, leader of the
school orchestra and I had no problems academically. In year 12 there were
rumblings that all was not right – twice, just for a few weeks at a time, I was
admitted to psychiatric hospital for depression, but it wasn’t too earth-shattering
and I think the general consensus was teenage problems and I’d grow out of it.
I did quite well in my final exams and went straight to uni. The freedom went to
my head and studying was out of the question. I dropped out during my first year,
went straight back the following year and dropped out again. (There were no such
things as fees.)
A0fter I left the second time, I did a series of soul-destroying jobs (for me) –
mainly bar-tending. I then decided I wished to get away and hitch-hiked out of
Melbourne. I remember getting to Adelaide and tossing a coin; heads for WA and
tails for NT. It was tails so I headed up the Stuart Highway to Darwin. Now it is far
too dangerous but back then it was less so and ignorance is bliss. I hitched a lift
with a truckie just out of Alice Springs and about twelve hours further on he
stopped at a place called Daly Waters and said he was turning off the main
highway and traveling inland for about three hours to a cattle station called
McArthur River. I had no burning desire to see Darwin at that stage so I went too.
I was welcomed at the station and immediately employed as a governess for six
kids aged from five to fourteen. I only got the job because I had completed year
12, I wasn’t a great teacher, there were a lot of swimming lessons. I also worked
as a meat worker at night; they had an abattoir on the station. Back then I tied
the best sausages, not any more – fine movement problems. There’s a quick story
I must relate; I’m quite sure it wouldn’t happen now – we’re talking ages ago. I
drove into the local aboriginal town, Borraloola, a couple of hours drive away. I
said to the local cop “I want my license”. He asked me how I got to Borraloola and
when I told him I drove I got my full license for three years for $3. No P’s. After a
few months I grew bored – my father flew up and picked me up.
Back in Melbourne a guy I’d met on the station came down and asked me to move
in with him. He came on a motor bike with a mate, both wearing leathers and
beards. One look at my mother’s horrified face and I said “sure”. (I’d hate to have
me for a daughter.)
I lived with him for three years, again doing what I now view as soul-destroying
jobs, eg. waitressing and bar-tending. Then we split. I had the travel bug again only
this time I drove, as far north into Queensland as I could go before the car carked
I wound up in a place called Cunnamulla, a few hundred kms west of Brisbane.
There were three pubs in town and I worked at all of them. I kept my dog behind
the bar, anyone getting too friendly had the dog to deal with.
I was twenty-four but still that big ogre of depression sometimes made its
presence felt. I tried to gas myself; I’m not sure what happened next, one of the
locals must have contacted my family. My sister drove up, collected me and I was
admitted to a looney-bin in Melbourne.
Even there I was a social butterfly, ingratiating myself with people but certainly
not developing any meaningful connections.
A couple of months down the track I took ‘THE BIG OD’. Events immediately
following are a bit hazy. I think I was in general hospital for about one month – I
wasn’t in a coma, just stupefied and totally non-communicative. I didn’t talk for
four years or walk for five years.
After general hospital I was admitted to Caulfield Rehab. As you can imagine I
wasn’t full of joy, life was over for me. To hammer home the point my boyfriend
at the time visited me with his new girlfriend and brought me a giant pink teddy-
bear because he thought of-course my mind had gone along with my speech and
my ability to walk. (Please be very mindful of this when interacting with someone
who doesn’t speak and is in a wheelchair. Steven Hawking is a good example.)
I was quite resigned to rotting in Caulfield but for some mysterious reason about
one year later I was transferred to M7, the brain trauma unit at Mont Park
Psychiatric Hospital. It has since been pulled down. It was declared unfit for
human habitation ten years before I was admitted so I wasn’t living in luxury.
I spent the next five years in this place so I have clear memories. I shall describe
the layout and my usual daily routine. M7 was one of many separate buildings
sitting on the outskirts of a large treed oval. (The buildings were hideous but the
grounds were magnificent.) M7 was a little brick building, locked to prevent
people going AWOL. There were fifteen male ‘patients’ and three females.
Because there were so few girls our beds were put at one end of the covered-in
veranda and separated from the main space, the lounge-room which had the TV
going 24/7, by a sliding screen. This proved to be a problem; there was a blind guy
who could walk, he used to tap his way along the veranda, push past the sliding
screen, lie down on the first bed he came to (mine) and promptly piss on it. As I
didn’t walk and was transferred to a stationary chair during the day I had to feel
my bed just before I got into it each night.
My daily routine; I was woken at 8, showered, breakfasted and then put in front
of the TV. My day was broken up by regular bouts of physiotherapy, I also had
weekly sessions with a psychologist and a speech therapist for a few years and at
that stage I didn’t even emit a squeak! One inmate whom I absolutely loathed (I
think this was partial motivation for me walking and talking – I wanted to get
away from him) owned the only TV so we had to watch what he wanted to watch.
‘Here’s Humphrey’ was on thirty years ago. That and the cricket; I wasn’t a fan
then but now I’m really keen. I was a captive audience, unable to walk away.
In my fifth year in Mont Park I was walking and talking. A visiting Christian couple
fell in love with me, thought I’d be a great charitable project and offered me a
room in a share house. I repaid that belief by hoarding all my medication for one
year and taking yet another OD. No negative physical consequences this time but
I again was admitted to Mont Park, this time a purely psychiatric ward.
I was sitting in the lobby with a few other patients. A guy was brought in flanked
by two psychiatric nurses. One of the patients said “He can’t be brought in here –
he’s a psych nurse himself”. I couldn’t help myself “He’s got as much right to be
looney as anyone else.”
From then on we were friends and eventually after both exiting hospital we
moved in together.
One year on, his ex-wife and mother to his three sons, handed full custody to us. I
found it ok having an instant family, though the four year old was at that stage
just strange. Several years and bulk appointments later he was diagnosed as
having Aspergers, a form of autism.
We married in 1990 (?) and six years later I had a biological child who is now 19.
In 1999 we decided to call it quits and since the total absence of kids (youngest at
school) I decided to do something for me and commenced studying Cert IV in
Disability. There I heard about the existence of Brain Injury Matters, a group, the
only one of its kind in Australia, possibly the world. It is what is called a ‘self-
advocacy group’, in other words by grouping together we learn and become
empowered, able to speak up for ourselves. I joined BIM in 2004, now I’m the
president. BIM has really helped me find my voice; when I first left the institution I
was so paranoid being heard in public I used to hand shopkeepers typewritten
notes with a list of things I wanted. Now I’m giving presentations.
My existence now is pretty good but as I said at the beginning I had to go through
thirty years of crap to reach this stage and when I say ‘crap’ I mean it.