Sarah* is a 31-year-old Maltese woman who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. From nearly half of her life she's dealt with her inner struggles, and she has passed through Malta's mental health system. Lovin Malta spoke to Sarah at the Richmond Foundation, who played a key part in helping her cope with her past and move on.
It all started in 2003. I had gone through a trauma around puberty, at around the age of 12, and I had never spoken to anyone about it. Eventually, the trauma became too much to bear. I told people about it when I was 17-years-old.
I was relieved after I spoke about it, I was happy.
It wasn’t difficult to deal with the trauma after I spoke about it - it was more how my family took it. I started having problems with my family, arguing very aggressively, fighting all the time for no reason.
I was walking on eggshells with my family, in their house.
When I started telling people about my problems, my father looked at me and he said, 'you have to continue school, you have to.' So I started taking medication to continue going to school, and I've been using ever since.
I remember the medication completely sucking the memory out of my head, and it made me put on loads of weight. I was a ballerina, a swimmer, I was a stikka.
On the surface everything looked perfect, I looked as though I had everything. But I wasn't happy.
And what really hurt was that my family found it hard to accept what I was going through. Instead of helping me getting better, and accepting it, whatever it is, and accepting the trauma, I was just cut into pieces.
I didn't know where I stood then, whether I was sick or…. it was terrible.
My family were supportive, and they didn't know any other way and what they did was what they thought was best to do at the time.
When it came to finding a job, it wasn't easy. I couldn’t work anywhere - the last job I had was as a telephone operator - and my relationships were hopeless.
I could be employed and I was employed, I was very employable, and people would employ me - but I just wouldn't stick it.
The turning point came when I was admitted to Mount Carmel.
For my family especially, it was a turning point: ‘she’s been admitted to Mount Carmel, this is a cry for help.'
It happened the Saturday before Easter Sunday. We had an argument and they admitted me into Mount Carmel.
Everything changed then, and they started the process of accepting what I was going through.
I spent three years at Mount Carmel, on and off. I was 23.
The thing about Mount Carmel is, there was no motivation to do anything in there. The nurses are very strict with you, and you just eat and wash and eat and sleep, until you are woken up by shouting at 7am the next morning. Everyone was shouting in there; I don't like shouting.
Because I had no skills I wasn’t ready to work. My health was everywhere, as well as my feelings and emotions - in short, it was a total catastrophe.
It took me three years in there basically. My psychiatrist never let me go, my parents didn’t help the situation either, they didn’t want to discharge me, telling me ‘you need to stay there until you work’.
I was coming and going from Mount Carmel - but that was a turning point for me, when reality hit and reality sunk in.
I said to myself, 'you know Sarah, you’re either going to pull up your socks and accept it and deal with it or let this ruin you and you'll become a negative person and you will let it change you for the worse', so I decided to put my mind to it and keep strong.
Living for the weekend
My family never spoke about independence to me.
If I lost a job, they'd say ‘OK, you're leaving your job? Just come back home.'
But I knew there were two things that I needed to get: a job and a flat.
The Richmond Foundation offered me a flat with two other roommates in Fgura which at that time I did not want to go to... I was seeing it as rejection from my family, even though they would come to see me at Mount Carmel regularly.
I developed a lot of suicidal thoughts at that time, and the anger that was building up inside of me caused a lot of these thoughts. From the age of 17 to 19, I had very bad suicidal thoughts.
My family were very supportive, it was after age 19 that I became more clear as to what my family thought of my condition.
The suicidal thoughts are gone now, they are just a bad memory, and I am so much stronger for it.
But it got mad at times.
Everything I saw I would interpret towards suicide. I couldn’t hold a knife for two years, walking by the beach or by the promenade thinking I would jump... everything would lead to suicide. But that passed as well.
In 2012, the Richmond Foundation found me a flat in an area closer to where my family lived, so I decided I need to stick it this time. It was a much better environment, I was closer to home.
And I was paying rent for three years and I was not living in it, living instead at my parent's home or Mount Carmel.
I'd have arguments with my family every Sunday: 'I don’t want to go back I don’t want to go I don’t want to go' I'd tell them, and they’d tell me 'it’s time to go back to Mt Carmel' and I’d say 'no no, and then Monday they’d tell me 'If you don't go to the flat we are going to take you back there."
Monday to Friday in Mount Carmel, and weekends back home. I called it 'living for the weekend'. I’d go home, and Sunday would always come too fast.
I was discharged on 31st July, 2013 - but I just couldn't stay in the flat. I couldn't accept it. And I said to myself 'but why'?'
The excuse at that time was 'I will commit suicide if I go to the flat'; that's what I would tell my parents. They wouldn't take it, they didn't believe me. So I would go to the flat, spend a night or a day there, and then just go back home again.
At home I’d just sleep all day, no motivation... it was quite bad, I was like a ċassa, like a belha. There was no hope, I was finished, 'if this thing doesn't pass I don't know how I will go on….' but no-one was believing me, I had to do everything myself.
The psychiatrist told me 'listen, if you are not living in the flat we’ll need to bring in your family' and it made me feel like I was in the wrong the entire time; all my life I believed that I was doing something wrong.
Another turning point came March 12th, 2015. I remember, the day before I had a session with my psychiatrist, and he looked at me and said 'this can’t go on eh'.
And that night I went home and said 'tomorrow I will be a different person' and I went to sleep and woke up and looked in the mirror and said: 'this is it now, you can't keep on holding grudges against your family and rebelling' and I let go, I just let go, and I said 'that's it now, I have all the courage I need, they’ve put the courage in me', and I was being so strong on myself, and I said 'you have to do this now'.
And I was ready. It's been nearly three years now, and I've been paying rent and saving and living in the flat and making it my own and enjoying it. I've got more courage and more confidence, everything.
I can’t thank Richmond Foundation enough, God bless their souls. They were the ones who told me 'I’m so happy for you' when I improved, they’d call me every weekend saying ‘Hey are you alright, are you at the flat or at home?’ and if I said ‘no, I'm with mummy and daddy’ they’d say ‘we’re gonna take the flat from you, there’s a waiting list if you don't stay in it!’ and I’d say ‘I know!'
And even when it comes to a job, work is finally falling into place now.
People are very judgemental when it comes to mental illness in Malta, it's still a taboo. That's why the events organised by Richmond Foundation are so great. People look different around a BBQ than locked in an institution - it's nice to see people in a different light, and it's nice to feel attracted to people again.
Malta is changing in its view of mental health, I saw the Xarabank episode last week and I saw the mother of the Mount Carmel patient who committed suicide, and she spoke so calmly and said 'don't shout at your kids, listen to your kids'... she's such a strong woman.
It's never too late to find help, you just need to reach out and open up - and organisations like the Richmond Foundation are here for you.
The interview has been edited for conciseness.
*Names have been changed