• The psych ward has left Heidi Everett with some unique ways of making sense of the world around her. (Supplied, Ultimo Press.)Source: Supplied, Ultimo Press.
Everett's new memoir 'My Friend Fox' details her experiences in the mental health system.
Zoe Victoria

1 Sep 2021 - 9:09 AM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2021 - 11:02 AM

Heidi Everett is from UFO country. Born in the borderlands between Wales and England, she explains, "You have a few cars on the street, and you have about twice as many UFOs buzzing through the air."

Everett's childhood roaming that landscape; where "sheep abductions, crop circles and ghosts in the trees" were commonplace, gave her an understanding of the existence of "other life". And it's that connection to the metaphysical world that she draws on in her memoir, My Friend Fox

"I remember thinking, 'I can't go any lower'," she tells SBS Voices. "'I can't reach any deeper point in my existence than where I am right now.'"

The book draws its title from from a bizarre experience that Everett had many years ago while she was mentally unwell with what doctors would diagnose as schizophrenia. Wandering the streets with her dog, Tiggy, Everett found herself at Mornington Beach on the outskirts of Melbourne trying to find some refuge from the psychosis she was experiencing.

"I remember thinking, 'I can't go any lower'," she tells SBS Voices. "'I can't reach any deeper point in my existence than where I am right now.'"

But in that desperate moment, sitting behind the surf club, Everett looked up to see a proud red fox sitting just in front of her.

"I knew this was a moment that was outside the mundane...this fox just appears and pulls me off the edge, away from that precipice."

The powerful encounter with her friend fox had broken the "spell" and pulled her back into the world. "It could have been a mental health worker that popped out of the bushes. It was the same sort of rescue."

The moment is the inspiration behind Everett's memoir where she details her experiences in the mental health system. The book began as a collection of songs, poems, essays and illustrations that she created during numerous stays in a public psychiatric ward. Drawing on that "dossier of content", Everett aims to give new meaning to the various diagnostic labels - schizo-affective, major depression, juvenile autism - assigned to her by doctors and mental health staff throughout her life.

"When you've been through a public psych ward journey it's another layer of trauma and survival.

"The only way you can be admitted to a public psych ward is involuntary," says Everett. "It's quite a violent admission."

The process can take between 12 and 24 hours through the emergency department, an experience which Everett says can be embarrassing and disempowering, and often left her feeling alone.

She writes:

Re-entry to the psych ward is always traumatic. It resembles a spacecraft's re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere - lots of fire and smoke, lots of communication about me but not including me, always the people watching, waiting, observing, and picking up the pieces. And just like NASA the more you do it, the less people are interested. It's a lonely experience going out into space and back home again, and it gets less newsworthy the older I get.

The psych ward has left Everett with some unique ways of making sense of the world around her.

"I don't trust anyone in the psych system who is wearing pointy shoes. Bad things always happen when they walk into the room."

"I don't trust anyone in the psych system who is wearing pointy shoes."

When Everett meets somebody new, she looks to their choice of footwear as a compass.

"If they're all pointy and you've jammed your toes into an arrow that's going to boss people around - sorry."

But if someone is willing to get their shoes dirty, she says, "You're in. You're my friend."

However, finding friends and a community that understand her is no easy feat. It's what led Everett to establish Schizy Inc; the only lived experience led arts organisation in Australia to help provide community for people also experiencing mental illness. 

She was inspired by her own experience of the healing effects of the arts. As a musician, she began to share her experience of the mental health system in the form of song.

"That feeling of when I tell my trauma through a song, and people go, 'Wow! What did you sing there?' It grabbed me and said you need to do this and you need to start opening this up for people in the mental health system to have the same experience."

Since its foundation in 2008, Schizy Inc has hosted the 'One Love International Jam' bringing together bands and performers with lived experience of mental illness. The organisation then developed Mojo Film Festival which showcases short films made by people with schizophrenia and complex trauma. Now, it supports all sorts of artistic expression including dance, comedy and theatre.

"We just get people on stage, on the microphone, behind the camera - in charge of their story.

"The mental health system needs to do that with people as well, with people's stories.

"Go slow and gentle and really respect what we're stepping through."

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available on their website. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people form culturally and  linguistically diverse backgrounds. For 24/7 crisis support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or call 000 in an emergency.

My Friend Fox by Heidi Everett, published by Ultimo Press is available in bookstores and online from September 1, 2021. 

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