Real Life

My Story: How Wakefield screenwriter Kristen Dunphy found a glimmer of hope after checking herself into a psychiatric ward

''Some small part of me must see a future and therefore want to exist.''
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When screenwriter Kristen Dunphy checked herself into a psychiatric ward, her world was unbearably dark, but with pen and paper in hand, she found the glimmer of hope that carried her home.

My friend bought me a pair of sparkly silver shoes because she said I shouldn’t walk the red carpet in anything less. I remember them glistening as I stepped along that scarlet runner, between frenzied camera crews jostling for space and an iPhone-clicking crowd.

They weren’t there to see me. I was one of the unknown faces in the slipstream of our major cast; part of the show’s creative team nominated for a number of Australian film and television awards.

We won a bunch of gongs that night. I have photos of myself in a flowing, electric-blue dress, drop earrings, my arms around the waists of my smiling colleagues. I look happy. But photos don’t tell the full story. The full story here was that I’d come from a psychiatric hospital – I’d had to get special leave in order to attend the event.

“Depression is a word people use when they’re feeling down. This was like being in the locked jaws of a rabid dog.”

(Credit: (Toby Burrows))

Although I successfully navigated the evening, the stress of holding it together hit me in the early hours of the morning. My husband and I returned to Sydney the following day and I went straight back to shuffling down a hospital corridor in my PJs and slippers.

I’ve come to think of it now as a virus of the soul; this hideous, painful darkness that invaded and terrorised me. I’d been diagnosed with depression, but depression fell ridiculously short of describing it.

Depression is a word people use when they’re feeling down. This was like being in the locked jaws of a rabid dog. The pain I was in was no less intense than physical pain. It was the kind of pain where you’d expect to be on an operating table, surrounded by beeping alarms. And yet all I had were the tablets a nurse handed me each day in a tiny paper cup.

Wakefield showrunner Kristen on set with co-showrunner and writer Sam Meikle.

(Credit: (Lisa Tomasetti))

Much of my time in hospital is now a blur. I’d agreed to go because I couldn’t function. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. Music had always been a salve for me in difficult times, but now I couldn’t listen to a single note.

I was so immobilised that trying to carry on became more frightening than the prospect of admitting myself to a psych ward. My friends and family didn’t know how to help, and the heartache I was causing them simply compounded my distress.

Mornings were the worst. Upon waking, a rush of terror would surge through me, triggered by the thought of enduring another day. I would curl into a foetal position, unable to summon the strength or the courage to move.

The routine of the hospital was designed to reduce long periods spent in this foetal position. We had to attend daily workshops, which I found both exhausting and distressing: Mindfulness and Meditation; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Anxiety Management. I loathed them all.

The irony of seeking refuge in one of these places is that the people in there with you often make you feel worse. Everyone seemed batshit crazy to me. The irony was, I ended up being there longer than any of them.

I don’t remember seeing another person cry the whole time I was there. And yet I couldn’t stop; I was a tap that could not turn off. The nurses and the other patients grew so accustomed to my anguish, they no longer noticed.

The writer in Kristen saw a future.

(Credit: (Mark Rogers))

Humans are programmed to problem-solve, to look for reasons why things have gone wrong. I’d been very stressed at work. We were struggling with the usual ups and downs of raising children. None of this justified the state I was in. I had two healthy children, a supportive partner and a successful career. I couldn’t fathom how or why I had fallen into this hole, much less forgive myself. My mind had become my enemy and I could not see a way out.

There’s a difference between wanting to die and wanting not to exist. I didn’t want to die – but the loop of catastrophic thoughts that tormented me day and night was so intolerable that I no longer wanted to exist.

Psychiatry is a very inexact science. There is very rarely a quick fix. The time it takes to diagnose and find an effective treatment can be excruciating. It requires patience, strength and fortitude, but the very nature of mental illness means that these qualities are often absent.

After many failed treatment attempts, an experienced, older psychiatrist suggested that panic disorder was the central cause of my problem and depression was a secondary response. He put me on an old antidepressant seldom used since the 1970s – one he believed to be more effective in treating anxiety. It wasn’t an easy drug to get onto, and it came with significant dietary restrictions, but my options were running out.

Kristen says swallowing the shame of her own mental ill-health allowed her to create TV series Wakefield which is set in a fictional psych ward.

(Credit: (Lisa Tomasetti))

Months later, I remember sitting on the floor in my room against the closed door, a small glass observation window above me. A young girl in the corridor was trying to convince a nurse to give her something that might relieve the agony she was in.

Whatever it was the girl wanted, the nurse wasn’t giving it to her. She tried begging, and now she was screaming. “I can’t stand this! If I was a dog, you’d shoot me! Shoot me! Go on – do it!” she cried.

I was struck by how closely this girl on the other side of the door was articulating my own distress. I recall getting up off the floor, finding a pen and paper, and writing down everything she was saying.

As I was doing that, I became aware of myself – there on the floor, my back against the wall, trying to get it all down – and I had the thought, “If I don’t want to live, if there is no hope, then why am I writing this down?” It occurred to me, in that moment, that somewhere, some small part of me must intend to use what I was writing. Some small part of me must see a future and therefore want to exist.

This was the screenwriter in me. The writer who had habitually filed experiences, character traits and odd turns of phrase into a vast filing cabinet for future use. The part that sensed that someday she might want to use the experience to create something new.

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It took a long time to feel any change, but very gradually things began to shift. A nurse explained that staff could often see improvements before the patients themselves began to feel them. She said she could see very slight changes in my posture, in my walk and in my overall appearance that indicated things might be changing. I remember my psychiatrist remarking one day that I was wearing earrings and telling me he saw it as a positive sign.

I remember when a particular song – Halo by Beyoncé – managed to penetrate the darkness. I felt a stirring inside and I wanted to hear it again. The more I listened to this song, the more it lifted me into light and resuscitated my soul. Hope is a beautiful thing. I did get well enough to leave hospital and, eventually, I recovered.

Twelve years on, recalling the experience, it almost feels like I was a different person. But I wasn’t. I am very much that person. I still take medication. I’m still vulnerable, and the right circumstances can still give me a scary taste of the nightmare I hope never to return to. The difference now is that I’m less ashamed of that vulnerability.

Swallowing the shame of my own mental ill-health allowed me to create a TV series called Wakefield set in a fictional psych ward. It gave me the confidence to not only write the series, but to fulfil my ambition to be its showrunner; to shepherd what I created through production and post-production, from beginning to end.

“I’m now out and proud as a person who has suffered from mental illness and happily wear one of the ‘Batsht Crazy’ T-shirts I had made for the cast and crew of Wakefield*.”

(Credit: (Mark Rogers))

I’m now out and proud as a person who has suffered from mental illness and happily wear one of the ‘Batsht Crazy’ T-shirts I had made for the cast and crew of Wakefield*.

We spend a lot of time trying to hide emotion; trying to hide the fact we are human. I want people to understand it’s okay not to be okay; and the more open we are about our own mental health problems, the more comfortable people will feel about seeking help when they need it.

This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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