Content warning: criminal justice, self harm, suicide attempts
I often joke that I have made a career of oversharing! I am a person with what you might call a difficult past who has overcome that to become something of a ridiculous overachiever. I don’t often do such reflective personal posts but I figured I was due for one. Yesterday, 5 February 2021, was a signifiant and auspicious date in the Yennski calendar. It makes 21 years of me no longer being a prisoner – a pretty big milestone in anyone’s book. I don’t think many people realise how desperate and defeated I used to be. I think a lot of people’s only understanding of the criminal justice system is what they know from movies and TV. It was not like that. I was in prison on a number of occasions. The first was due to my partner at the time being a horrible criminal and me not really figuring this out until I was so caught up with him that I was afraid he would kill me if I left him. I went along with his schemes in order mostly to survive and ended up in jail as a result. I was there for six months and it was then that I received my autism diagnosis. The experience of prison was traumatic – it was like being at school only the bullies could kill you. I was afraid for my life and tried as hard as I could to fit in. After being released that time I self medicated with drugs in order to cope psychologically. This led to me having a psychotic episode and getting. A subsequent diagnosis of schizophrenia which I still have now, 26 years later. I got unwell again in 1996 and received some very poor care resulting in my returning to prison. I became institutionalised and kept going back. I was the most broken person imaginable. Self harm and suicide attempts were my constant preoccupation and I was violent at times as well. People expected me to die. I expected – and wanted – my death. It is a piece of luck that I changed my world.
I ended up in isolation in the prison for six weeks – the six weeks prior to my final release. I hated being alone in a tiny space so when I was finally released I no longer saw the institution as an option. I finally didn’t want to go back. It was a very negative experience which led to a very positive one. I was released to the care fo a mental health residential program on 5 February 2021, some 21 years ago. It changed my life.
My attitudes changed but it was difficult. I remember writing lists of things I didn’t like about prison and things I did like about not being in prison but it was still pretty tenuous. Thankfully the program I was staying at had a full complement of lovely staff members who cared and the whole outlook of the program was strengths-based. After six months at the program I moved out to a boarding house with several women who were homeless. This was a difficult time as the house was not very nice and the women there were quite troubled. Thankfully I got a spot in another mental health program and could stay there for up to three years.
Accommodation was a big issue for me as I was poor so had very little say in where I lived. The new house was in a very nice suburb and this actually helped me on my journey from there to here. I saw all these women walking their babies in the park during the day. They were clearly the partners of people who worked at such high level jobs that they didn’t both need to work. The cafes in this suburb were lovely and I wondered if maybe I could have a good job one day and live somewhere as nice as this. I worked out that I wanted to be ‘ordinary’. By that I meant I wanted a professional job, an education, a mortgage and a suit. I didn’t tell anyone my intentions as I figured they would laugh at me. I had only been out of prison a few moths. Who did I think I was thinking these outlandish plans!
The job situation was tricky as a dishwashing job in a restaurant in 2001 resulted in such high stress that I became psychotic. OK, I thought. I can’t work now but I will work one day! I proved I was up to that challenge by incrementally building my confidence for work by getting a volunteer job, a small business and then a role working for a charity – what I would now call ‘controlled challenges’.
In 2005 something happened which changed my life forever. I wrote a book, my autobiography Finding a Different Kind of Normal. It was published and my confidence grew exponentially. Three months after the book came out I applied for – and got – a public service graduate job. I even gave the department a copy of my book so they could read my story and understand how I had dramatically changed since my difficult days in the 1990s. I moved to Canberra in 2007 and my world changed.
There were factors at play that helped me to change my life. One of them is the support of my parents. They stood by me every single day and undoubtedly went through some horrific and stressful times but they stayed with me. I appreciate this more than I can say. Another protective factor is my attitude and approach to life. I am a confident optimist. If I wasn’t I would have struggled to do any of the things I do. Another factor is my level of resilience. I learn strength from difficult circumstances. And I guess the final thing is that I have faith in myself. If I take a particular route I don’t doubt that I can take it to a good place.
I am extremely unlikely. Most people with my history, well most of them sadly are dead. And those who have overcome the kind of life I had are often content to just muddle through. I have nothing against muddling through but for me ambition and accomplishment sort of come naturally. It’s like in the distant past I sought out the extremely negative and in the last 21 years I have sought out the extremely positive. Whatever the reason I love my preposterous, unusual and highly unlikely life. I am so grateful it is hard to express. My life now – with all its challenges – is infinitely better than the troubling and destructive times I had in the past. Happy 21st to the new me.
If you want to read more about Yennski in the 1990s and early 2000s, here is a link to my autobiography: https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Different-Normal-Jeanette-Purkis/dp/1843104164