She’s your neighbour, your niece, your friend. She’s a girl who hides the truths about her mental health and keeps her feelings inside. She’s the girl who finds herself in hospital at the age of 24 because depression and self harming ruled her life. Suzana Harris used to be that girl. She shares what life looked like at the bottom of the cliff, and how friends, hope, and Inspiring Stories helped her to get back on top again.
When I was 12 I started self harming. The bullying at my school was pretty heavy and really tough on me. I was quite sensitive and began to really hate school. After one especially bad day, I recall sitting in the bathtub shaving my legs. I hurt myself… it stung but the feeling seemed bitter sweet, it suddenly put everything in perspective. That’s how my path of self destruction started.
Soon hurting myself became a regular routine. I managed to hide it from everyone, by cutting where people couldn’t see. I’d wear long sleeves and scarfs, even on hot days. But it was just an external symptom of the pain I felt inside. People started to really notice when I was about 18 and I started to do it on my arms
Recently I’ve learnt that if you hurt yourself – your body thinks you're in danger. Suddenly you can think clearly... self harm works in the same way. But if you do it habitually, you need to self harm more and more to get that feeling. You build up a tolerance, so you cut worse, you cut deeper. Once I cut so deep I severed two tendons and I needed a skin graft taken off my leg to cover it.
There was a mix of reasons why I felt so out of control. My anxiety seemed to be pretty high and in turn that caused depression. I was also diagnosed with complex PTSD because I experienced some trauma when I was younger. All of that just created a massive implosion that I didn’t know how to deal with.
When I was 21 I had my first admission into a therapy programme to try and get help. The environment was extremely controlled though, and when I was released, I got to three months and crashed harder than ever before. Before then I was self harming once a month, but I started to do it every few days. I became a regular face at the ED, It was horrible.
I had also been taking overdoses at this time, drinking and partying too. I’d take whatever I could get my hands on, painkillers and all sorts. When I’d OD, I thought that if I die then sweet as. I also thought that maybe this will be the time when I would get the help I needed.
I felt so low and depressed. Just breathing felt hard to do on some days. My friends were travelling around a lot, going to gigs, and here I was, going into rehab with no degree or job. Then one day I pushed it too far. I took an overdose and ended up in the Wellington psychiatric hospital.
Growing up, I never learnt how to express my feelings. I was taught to bottle them up and be ‘happy little Suzie’. I thought that being sensitive was a negative trait and anger is only ever destructive. But If you are denied the ability to feel those emotions, then you take it out on your body. A big part of my recovery has been learning how to feel.
During all this I kept my parents on the outside because I didn’t want to upset them. Then I made some amazing friends who treated me with a lot of grace and love. Slowly I felt braver to be more authentic and honest. They were the ones who told me it wasn’t good and normal behaviour and that it was serious. They helped me really look at what was going on. Without them I wouldn’t be here today.
Some people around me chose to ignore what was happening. It’s easy for people to say “oh she’s just seeking attention.” But if somebody needs attention, what’s wrong with that? Think of it as attention needing. If there is a person self harming - you don’t ignore it. Their cries will only become louder and louder. Let them know that you’re there to talk, that they can get your attention without self harming. And please, don’t ever say “just get over it” as it’s extremely invalidating.
Our mental health system in New Zealand is really stretched. Only the top 3% of mental health consumers get the support they need. Some people aren’t considered severe enough to get assistance because they can still work a 30 hour week. What bad scenario needs to happen in order for them to get support? It’s real ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ stuff. I was referred to the Crisis Assessment Team at 18 but it was only when I was 23 that they intervened. Suicide rates are getting higher and higher. There’s a lack of understanding surrounding why people do it. We should realise we all have mental health. Everyone struggles but others struggle more. It’d be awesome if they taught this stuff in schools.
I have lots of visible scars now. I like when people ask about them, and I can tell people that I’m better now. I’m not ashamed of the scars, some people will pretend they didn’t notice them, or not want to offend me. Quite often I’ll bring it up so it’s not the elephant in the room. Most people think that I’ve been in a car crash or I’ve been burnt.
In 2015 I learnt about Inspiring Stories’ Festival for the Future. The festival sounded amazing but due to all of the volunteer work that I do, I just couldn’t afford to go. They found out about all the community based stuff I am involved in and offered me an attendance scholarship! It was so exciting. At the festival I was a guest speaker and I took part in talks and workshops. I was surrounded by all these awesome people who have ideas and are just going for it.
My experiences through Inspiring Stories have led me on to do loads of interviews about what I have been through, allowing me to be an advocate for mental health. The idea of being able to make a difference is what truly motivates me and these opportunities and connections I made are facilitating that.
Now I work with youth, trying to step in before people start a lifetime down the same track I did. We need more awareness out there with young people, showing them how to have healthy relationships, with themselves and with others.
I keep pretty busy by volunteering for Kites Trust – which runs a peer support service called Buddies. We share the hope of recovery with ‘peers’ who are currently experiencing mental health difficulties in Te Whare o Matairangi, the mental health recovery unit in Wellington Hospital. Other days I work for Zeal which have a number of New Zealand wide creative art youth venues. At Zeal Wellington I do after school hang outs and also I do street youth work on Friday nights alongside the Wellington City Council. Just recently I have become an employee at PeerZone which keeps me fairly absorbed – it’s an organisation run by Mary O’Hagan and Sara McCook Weir that develop peer led programs and consultancy in mental health. All this work gives me an incredible sense of hope and satisfaction.
I wish I could go back in time and tell myself “you're lovable exactly as you are. You don’t have to change to fit the mould. Be more honest Suzie, and please ask for help”.
To others who are struggling, my advice is to take one day at a time. Stay in the present. Hang onto hope. Get good people around you and keep fighting. Be there for people and let people know you’re there for them. It’s ok to be vulnerable and most of all, reach out for help. We are here for you.
If you or someone you know is at risk, please contact the services below.
Youthline – 0800 376 633
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
www.commonground.org.nz – for parents, family and friends worried about a young person
We can do more for our young people, and Suzana's story tells us that we need to. Click the button below to learn more about Inspiring Stories, who uplift and empower our young people to make positive change, and how your 1% can support them.