Biopolar disorder and nervous breakdowns are hard to survive in the best of circumstances. Mary Jo Fisher went through hers while in the Australian Senate. She made the news for quoting The hokey Pokey in parliament, but what was not reported was that she was in the midst of a severe depressive episode.
Mary Jo Fisher laughs when looking at her famous parliamentary performance. "I remember this. I was having a great time. I never dreamt it would get one scintilla of anyone's attention. That's not why I did it. I was just doing my work in the Australian Parliament."
Her husband John Crosby agrees. "I thought it was brilliant. That's typical Mary Jo, that's exactly what she would have done. People will see that as part of her problem but it's not. That's just her personality."
However, Mary Jo had been unstable before. "That was after a really long period, and preceded a subsequent period of deep dark melancholy. You go in to this place that's so dark you can't imagine you can ever get out of it."
Mary Jo Fisher became a Liberal Senator for South Australia on 12 June 2007. She had previously served as an advisor to Peter Reith and Tony Abbott.
"I never really thought I'd be a politician. I did want to help people and politics is the best way to do that. I wanted to do things for country people, for rural communities."
John; "I think it's fair to say that the Senate improved her, at the start. But as the pressure started to build over time it made it hard for her to function in a way that public figures are required to function. She was consistently missing early morning meetings; she was consistently not being ready to go to Canberra.”
Mary Jo; "There are plenty of colourful characters in parliament but there are also lots of conservative personalities, and I think they would have found my behaviour rather bizarre. I would interject at inappropriate times; I would laugh when I thought something was hilarious and wonder why nobody else is laughing." "You look back and you realise that the behaviour was probably pretty bizarre but it has been developing for a long time so I didn't notice the difference."
"John had been saying for a long time, 'You've got issues, you need to change your behaviour.'" He wrote a letter and sent it to their Canberra apartment.
"I don't think I'd ever gotten a letter from John, ever. And this was one of his best; it was a bastard of a letter. It was very hard to read. Essentially he was saying that he wanted back the girl he married, and that if she didn't get her back she would make some mistakes."
It was the catalyst for her to seek professional help. But her job made that difficult. "How do I get help without it becoming public that I'm suffering from a mental illness? Because if I am, how can I then do my job?"
She ended up using a pseudonym to see a psychiatrist, and was first diagnosed with chronic depression in 2009, and later bipolar disorder. In December 2010 she was caught shoplifting 92.83 worth of groceries from an Adelaide supermarket. It was several months before the news became public. She had little or no memory of the events.
Mary Jo; "You have to face up. You’re accountable to the public. There's no hiding from it. I had to be accountable but I didn't feel like I was in control of what happened."
In November 2011 Mary Jo was cleared of shoplifting after the Magistrate found, due to her mental state, she had not intended to steal the groceries. She was found guilty of assaulting a security guard at the supermarket, but the charge was dismissed and no conviction was recorded. Mary Jo continued working as a Senator.
On 16 June 2012, Mary Jo was caught shoplifting a second time, with 73.62 worth of groceries. She was placed on a two year, $800 good behaviour bond.
"All I can say is that was a day I should never have gone out and I had a sense of foreboding. As soon as that happened, I thought I have to resign. The most difficult, horrible decision I've made in my life but I didn't anguish over it. It was a no-brainer. I had to go."
John: "It's clearly devastating she's always been a public person, she's always been somebody that liked the public profile. To walk away from that is a really big step for anybody. And it was a really big step for her."
Mary Jo; "I was totally lost. Because the pinnacle of helping people, I'd destroyed that ability by my own hand. That's pretty soul-destroying. It sounds corny, but that's been my raison d'etre for as long as I can remember."
“A couple of weeks after I'd resigned I got a call from my now-CEO saying 'I’ve got a job for you to do and I want you to do it. And I'll never forget saying, 'I thought I was the nutjob. Are you for real?' and he said, 'forget about that. That just makes you accessible to me at a price I can now afford. That gave me the first step back to be able to help people again.”
Mary Jo is now the Workplace Relations Advisor for Printing Industries Australia. Beyond Blue has also brought her on as an ambassador. She regularly runs seminars on mental health in the workplace. It's been over two years since she has had an episode.
"Everything was already out there. So why hide? This is now my opportunity to help people."
"I don't mind being remembered as 'that nutjob from the Senate'. Politicians are humans. They’re human beings too. But I also want 'that nutjob from the Senate who used that to help other people."