Mary O'Hagan

Mary O'Hagan


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Mary O'Hagan: I grew up as a little girl in the 1960s, and in those days there was a lot of pressure on little girls to play with tea sets and dolls and wear dresses and things like that, and I found that I wasn't really oriented towards those things. In fact, I was much more interested in wearing shorts and playing with guns - I loved guns! - and running around outdoors and doing very active things. So that set up a real tension in my childhood, and I suppose that one of the best encapsulations of that tension is a photograph I have of me in my very lacy first-communion dress with my veil on, with me holding a homemade rifle over my shoulder. My parents obviously found that very funny and decided to take a photo.

So yes, I had this tension as a child, and then I thought maybe if you're a tomboy when you're a girl does that mean you're a lesbian when you grow up? And this used to worry me a bit.

And I remember my mother gave me a sex education book when I was about 13, and in it - and this was based on Freudian notions - it said that as a child and an adolescent you can have homosexual feelings and that's okay, but if you have them when you're grown up that you're really pretty stuffed - you know, that's pathological. So, I was brought up kind of with this belief, although my parents knew some gay people and lesbians. But I suppose I had the kind of belief that if you grew up a lesbian you were going to have a pretty unhappy life and there was something a little bit sick about your head.

Gareth: When was the first time you heard about lesbianism?

Mary: Oh, I can't remember when I first heard about it, but I do remember these women coming to Sunday lunch when I was about 12. They were colleagues of my father's, and my parents never called them lesbians but one of them was incredibly butch and very funny and quite crude and everything, and the other one was a pretty sort of little thing, and it didn't dawn on me until later that they were lesbians. I remember my parents not joking about them, but obviously they had an attitude about them, even before I realized that they were lesbians, that they were actually a bit different. Yeah. So they're the first lesbians I think I ever met.

I can't remember the first gay man I ever met. It probably didn't have such an impression on me.

Gareth: So, reading that book from your mother, was that the first time you'd actually seen something in print about what you were feeling?

Mary: I guess it was, and of course it wasn't very validating.

And of course, during my teenage years I went out with boys, and I don't think it really came to the crunch until I got a bit older, probably about 17 or 18, although from an intellectual point of view I was worried about it. But I was quite happy to go out with boys.

Gareth: Can you recall in the '60s what the wider community felt about homosexuality?

Mary: Oh, it was pretty grim, I think. And in a way, if I look at the way I felt about it, and that would have been a reflection of the community, it wasn't very positive. I remember people at school going on about lezzies and she's a lezzy and all that sort of thing when I was 11 or 12. I think they still do that today, but I don't think they do it so much. They've got a very interesting twist on the word "gay" today for instance.

Gareth: What were some of the words that were used back then as derogatory terms?

Mary: Oh, there was a lot of 'lezzy.' I think 'queer' was derogatory; 'poofter.' A lot of these are reclaimed words now.

Gareth: So, it all started coming to a head when you were around 17 or 18?

Mary: Yeah, and I got very worried about my sexual orientation. The thing that worried me most about it was that I thought if I was a lesbian I wouldn't be able to have children. That was the big thing, more than the stigma of it, I think at that stage. And I knew, at a distance, a lesbian couple when I was about 18 and they seemed quite nice people. So, I think gradually as I got a little bit older during those years from the late teens to my early to mid 20s, I gradually got to meet people who were lesbians and who were gay, and they were just like what you'd expect any group of people to be; there were some that you really liked and some that you didn't like so much.

But also, at that same time, there was a huge amount of political activity going on, especially in universities, I think. This was kind of in the late '70s, early '80s, and it was the days of The Women's Room and the lesbian separatist split with the other lesbians and with the feminists, and so there was a lot of activity going on. So, I think in a way there was a lot of visibility about it and I gradually got more comfortable with the idea and more comfortable with lesbians. Yeah. And I think that helped me quite a lot.

And at the same time, when you think about all the political activity that was going on and the Homosexual Law Reform, of course, I think the whole social attitudes... there was maybe a bit of a tipping point around that era when attitudes changed very fast over a very short time in the late '70s, early '80s.

Gareth: Can you recall how your family reacted to those quite rapid changes?

Mary: Well, I don't think it mattered to them until I came out to them. My family were quite liberal and they were very tolerant people and quite forward-thinking, my parents, so these weren't big issues for them. I mean, when I came out to my mother she told me I was going through a phase, which was her way of dealing with it, but actually my parents were quite okay about it. I'm sure that my father, in particular, would probably have preferred me to be heterosexual, but there was no change in the relationship because of it.

Gareth: Did you grow up in a large town or a city?

Mary: I initially grew up in a small town called Winton, in Southland, and it only had a couple thousand people in it. And when I was 11 we went to the large city of Invercargill, which had about 50,000 in those days.

But of course, Southland is a conservative part of the world, but I guess I never joined in with the conservatism of Southlanders and I don't think my family did, really, either.

Gareth: Where do you think that liberalism came from within your family?

Mary: Probably a combination of education, eccentricity and imagination [laughs]. I think it was probably a combination of those three things, because you can be educated.... Education gives you a larger view on the world, but you can still be very educated and very conservative, so I think there was a bit of eccentricity there on my mother's side of the family anyway.

Gareth: So, when did your mental health issues start occurring?

Mary: When I was 18; badly when I was 18. I got a bit down at high school, but really it became a crisis point at 18.

Gareth: Was that tied in any way with feelings about your sexual orientation?

Mary: Well, I think in a way, as it always is, it was very much tied in with the struggles I was having at the time. And so commonly with young people it's things like: who am I and what's my place in the world? And of course, quite a major chunk of that at that age is your sexual orientation; so yeah, I think it was all part of the mix.

Gareth: Can you tell me a wee bit about your mental health issues?

Mary: Well, I had probably about eight or nine years of experiencing very severe mood swings where I would get so depressed that I was sort of almost catatonic - I couldn't move and I couldn't speak and I could barely get up. I could still go to the toilet and do things like that, but I really couldn't do much else.

And then I'd get to the other extreme where I was up all the time partying, moving around, constantly on the move, I couldn't sit down, very elated. And that would, after a while, turn into paranoia and I'd get psychotic. I got into kind of another reality with these conditions when they got severe, as well. Now, sometimes I'd go for months and I'd be fine, and then it would all sort of erupt again, but it really disrupted my life over about a nine-year period.

Gareth: So, when they first started happening, did you know what was happening?

Mary: No! No. Well, did I know what was happening? Yes and no. I mean, you obviously know something's terribly wrong when you start getting all terribly something different, when you start getting high or depressed.

And of course there's a big controversy about what you name it. I had no idea that I had a condition that the so-called experts would call depression or manic depression or bipolar. I might have had other names for it, but of course the names that are given to these things are basically their kind of judgments about them.

I just preferred to call them mood swings, but in fact that's not even a particularly accurate name because they were a whole body kind of experience because it wasn't just moods, it was about your cognitive functioning, about your physical functioning, not just about your emotions. A lot of it was about being sped up or slowed down in terms of cognitive functioning and physical functioning, too.

And it was an intensely spiritual experience, as well. Any experience you go through that involves a huge shift in the way you are in the world is going to be quite a profound experience for you. I suppose for people who haven't been through these major sort of huge mood swings or psychoses or whatever, a drug experience might do the same thing, but you're kind of transported into this other reality and you see the world from a different perspective, and that's hugely challenging and a bit difficult to accommodate or incorporate into the whole story of your life.

But it's quite profound. Being in the depths of despair or at the height of elation, they're quite profound human experiences. They both tap into the whole question of our existence. I mean, despair is really about: this existence isn't worth it. So, they're existential crises in a way, and I probably prefer to use that language than spiritual language.

But of course, the people who are on the other side of the treating table were not interested in the content of the experience, they just wanted to know that you were having it and give you some pills, and then they wanted to know that you weren't having it any more. So they kind of had: This experience is on the rubbish heap. We've got to eliminate it and get rid of it. It was sort of like a surgical approach to it rather than an integrative approach, and I found that very limiting and very annoying. And it's something that still goes on, of course.

Gareth: So, can we take you back to the late '70s and just perhaps talk about what your experience of mental health services in New Zealand were like, and also from the perspective of your sexuality, as well.

Mary: Well, the late '70s and early '80s was what I call a "pills and pillow service," although I probably had a bit more access to psychotherapy then than people would now in the public system. But really, basically it was pills and pillows, so there were no sorts of community services. You always went up to the hospital for your appointment; there was no what they used to call outpatient facilities, so that was a major difference.

And of course, since then the big hospitals have closed down and most of the services are based in community settings, and not so many people are put into hospital.

But the other thing was, of course, it was in 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association ditched its diagnosis of homosexuality in its Diagnostic Manual. And the Diagnostic Manual is a total farce. What happened was that they got rid of this diagnosis by vote, and of course they bring diagnoses in a lot and take them out sort of by vote and it's a very political process and there's nothing terribly scientific about it at all.

And I know that before that time, in New Zealand, in the hospitals they had aversion therapy for gay people. They'd show them homoerotic images and then sort of give them a bit of a flick or something to hurt them, or something like that.

Gareth: When you say "flick," what...?

Mary: Well, I think they experienced some pain of some sort. I don't think it was absolutely a drastic, tortuous pain, but the whole idea of aversion therapy is that you associate unpleasantness with the thing that you desire that you don't want to desire or other people don't want you to desire. So there was a bit of that going on in mental hospitals.

The West has always had a pretty dim view about homosexuality, but I think Freud sort of elaborated on this and had this view that homosexual tendencies, while they're kind of normal in childhood, which was quite a radical view and I don't think it's even that true, but people who grew up and remained homosexual, I think his view was that they had some sort of psychopathology.

Anyway, I guess in a way I knew instinctively that if I talked about my feelings about being a lesbian to mental health professionals that would give them another reason to pathologize me. And in a way, because of the way they practiced, I was reasonably defensive with them. Because they had a totally deficits view of what was going on, you didn't want to show them too much of yourself because you didn't want them to add to your deficits all the time. And I knew that there were these lingering beliefs about homosexuality, so that was the last thing I would've talked to them about.

Gareth: Having the sexuality in the back of your mind, did that ever prevent you from going and seeking help?

Mary: No, because I just decided I wouldn't talk to them about that stuff, so it was quite easy just to.... No one ever asked me, actually, which is quite an interesting thing. I don't think anyone ever asked me about that, which is, in a way, quite significant because it probably shows that those professionals weren't that at ease with it themselves.

Gareth: So, back in the late '70s what were the treatment options available to you?

Mary: Well actually, there has been roughly the same menu of drug treatments for 50 years. I mean, they change their spots a bit, but they're roughly the same: the anti-anxiety drugs, the antidepressant drugs, the mood stabilizers, and the anti-psychotics are the main groups of drugs and they're not much better now than they were back then. Some of the new ones have less side effects, some have worse side effects. So, there were the drugs, and they tried me on just about everything.

And then they had a little bit more psychotherapy going on in those days. Since the '80s, biological psychiatry has really had a resurgence in mental-health services, but the therapy was just terrible. I mean, I went to a couple of group therapy things and, in fact, in some ways it was worse than being told you had an imbalance in your brain chemistry, being told that you were psychologically inadequate. Well, I'd rather have an imbalance, I think, than being told that I was an inadequate person.

And of course, that was very much a deficits-based psychotherapy we had. It was all about what was wrong with us and it was terrible, it was shocking, it was awful, and I just didn't participate much, really. I dropped out. I was a huge psychotherapy dropout.

Gareth: So, were these treatments voluntary or did you have to do it compulsorily?

Mary: Well, I was threatened with compulsory treatment on a few occasions, and I seemed to have the wherewithal to comply with things, so no, not that I know of. I don't think I was ever under an order, which I feel quite grateful for because I've got a very dim view about the way compulsory treatment is used. So, they were kind of voluntary, but there's the subtle coercion that goes on as well in mental-health services, but I think I was a strong enough person to not do something if I didn't want to. Yeah. But when they threatened me with that I was pretty far gone. I was pretty out of it when they threatened me with that. I knew that my number was up. I knew I needed some sort of shelter of some sort, so that wasn't a big problem.

Although, today if the same thing happened to me and they tried to put me on anti-psychotics, I'd be pretty upset about it.

Gareth: How did your family respond?

Mary: To my mental health problems? Well, they were very worried because I had quite a major suicide attempt when I was 21. My parents were pretty over-anxious and it was probably more helpful for me not to see too much of them during that time, although I'd always had a good relationship with them and I did after it was all ended. It was a bit tricky during those times.

I had a brother who was very supportive and I had some very supportive friends, as well, which was hugely important.

Gareth: So, did the drugs work in the end?

Mary: Well, only one of them seemed to do anything, and that was an antidepressant. I've really come to the view that the drugs aren't a long-term solution. But it seems to me that I did start taking an antidepressant at one stage, and they were reluctant to put me on them because of my manias, that did seem to sort of stabilize things, so that was quite useful. But it's very hard to know if there weren't other things going on at the same time that were also having an impact.

Gareth: Did you have any experience of mental health institutions?

Mary: Oh yeah. Yeah, I was in hospital a lot. I was mainly in a ward that was attached to a general hospital, but I was also in Sunnyside, and Sunnyside was a particularly horrible place. They're not nice places and the really depressing thing is that the kind of acute ward setting has gotten worse over the last 20 years, not better. But they're not very therapeutic places for people to be who are distressed. I could have benefitted much more from going to a respite house or some other more homely place where things were more ordinary.

Gareth: What were things that you recall weren't so good?

Mary: I think in a place like Sunnyside, in particular, the level of coercion that was going on, the seclusion, we didn't even have a place to sit, the nurses wouldn't talk to you, everyone was drugged out of their heads.

I remember the first time I went in there and there were just people lined up on the corridors, just sitting in the corridors up against the wall kind of half asleep, and the nurses all sort of tucked away in the nurses' station not really wanting to respond to anyone's request for help. And that's an incredibly common feature all over the world in these places, is that the nurses don't seem to talk to the patients much.

Gareth: So was it more about containment?

Mary: Well, yeah. I think definitely today it's containment.

And of course, the other thing about these places is that you're feeling very distressed yourself and there's all these other distressed people around you who might be behaving in ways that you're not able to cope with, so that's another issue.

Gareth: Can you recall any lesbians in the institutions, or talk about sexuality?

Mary: Yeah. Yeah, I had a good friend who was a lesbian and she's one of the people that probably helped make me feel more comfortable with it. She was quite comfortable with it; she was very open about it. Actually, she ended up getting married. I ran into her a few years ago and she was married, and I thought, God!

So, over the years I've talked to people who were in those old institutions and who were lesbians and who were not treated very well. And in fact, there's quite a lot of research that's come out, from Britain in particular, about the experience of gay and lesbian people inside mental health services: a lot of fear of being judged. Now, this is going back to the '90s so it would be interesting to know if it's different now, but a lot of fear of being judged.

But when people do disclose, not a high percentage of people were very happy with the response they got. I think there's probably still quite a lot that could be done in services, for gay and lesbian people, because people tend to go into mental health services at a young age, and that's an age when, obviously, people are forming their sexual identity. And in this country there's been very little attention paid to gay and lesbian issues in mental health.

Gareth: So, did you ever talk about it when you were in the hospital?

Mary: I can't remember if I had conversations with her about it, but I do remember feeling very at ease with her, and she was one of the people that helped me feel much more comfortable about it.

Gareth : I asked earlier on about whether your mental health issues were related to sexuality. Do you think that's a common theme that runs through gay and lesbian, transgender people?

Mary: Oh yes. Well, the statistics suggest that if you're gay or lesbian you do have a higher chance of developing mental health problems and substance abuse problems. It's particularly high for people who identify as bisexual, apparently, and I think transgender people have a really difficult time with mental health issues. And this is one reason I think why there probably needs to be a bit more attention put on this group of people by mental health services.

Gareth: Why do you think there is a higher rate of mental health issues in the queer community? Is it because of internal factors or is it because of external things that are happening to people?

Mary: People generally, as a species, crave social acceptance and belonging and being visible and being appreciated and liked and all those things, and I think if we form an identity that threatens those things, if we have an identity that threatens those things, that can prey on our mental health. I think it's probably as simple as that. And it also can lead us into more substance abuse and other kinds of coping behaviors that we tend to use when things are stressful or we don't feel part of it, or whatever.

There's nothing inherent about being lesbian or gay that would create mental health problems, no, so I think it's about how or where people see themselves in relation to society.

Gareth: One of the labels you use to identify yourself is "mad," and I'm just wondering if you could talk to me about owning labels and whether mad is just the only label that you own or if there are others.


Mary: No, no, no. Mad is not the only label. I suppose it's my work-life label, yeah. [laughs] Well, I mean I'm queer, I suppose, too, so mad and queer. How else would I label myself? Mad and queer are reclaimed words, and they're kind of used with the same motivation.

Gareth: Can you talk to me about reclaiming those words?

Mary: Yeah, I think it's interesting that a lot of movements have done this. Using words that have been used in a disparaging way against us, with a new sort of positive, shiny identity is a really interesting twist on things, and I quite enjoy it. Not everyone does. There are lots of people I know who have been through the system who hate the word mad, and get a bit upset when I start using it, but I suppose it shows a kind of sense of humor or irony that I quite enjoy, too, and a boldness about who you are and what you stand for.

Gareth: In the mid '80s New Zealand was going through the Homosexual Law Reform. What impact did that have on you?

Mary: Well, it had an indirect impact. I remember going to meetings about it and getting sort of interested in it and everything. It was just before I came out, actually. Because it was just to do with men and sodomy, it didn't really... [laughs] Although it was significant, it wasn't.... The big joke was that Queen Victoria didn't approve a law against lesbians because she didn't believe they existed.

But I think it was part of a whole accelerated change of attitudes that was going on at that time towards people who were lesbian or gay, and I think that the fact that the government was able to pass this legislation at that time was a reflection of the change, the very quick change that was happening in people's attitudes. So I think I was caught up in that change in my attitude towards myself.

Gareth: Were you still in hospital at that time?

Mary: No. The last time I was in hospital was 1984, though I very clearly remember going to meetings in 1985 about the Homosexual Law Reform. It was quite a big thing.

Gareth: So, what helped with the wellness?

Mary: Well, as I said, I was put on a drug that I thought was quite helpful.

And then at the beginning of 1985 my brother was drowned, and I think it was almost like a circuit breaker. I don't know quite how else to explain it, but it kind of jolted me into another way of being, I think, and particularly in terms of a lot of the self pity I carried about how my life had gone thus far. I realized, of course, that my brother, whose life had gone a lot more smoothly than mine, had had it cut very short at the age of 28, and that I was now the lucky one, I guess. And that sort of jolted me into kind of a new attitude to life, and I think that really helped me a lot, as well. It's quite paradoxical because I was very grief stricken, but I found the experience of grief to be very different from the type of depression that I had experienced previously. I think these things are always a bit of a mystery, actually. I don't know if you can ever really understand how healing happens, but they seem to be two sort of conspicuous reasons.

Gareth: Looking back to your experiences with the mental health services in the late '70s and '80s, how do you think they compare nowadays to how queer people, gays and lesbians, transgender, are treated by mental health services?

Mary: My assumption is, just from what I know and what I've heard, that people have a greater chance of being well treated if you come out in mental health services now than you would have 30 or 40 years ago. That doesn't mean to say that you always will be, but I think your chances are better.

One of the really interesting things about all of this is the kind of anticipated discrimination, which can actually be worse because it's a sign of your own internalized stuff, and it can actually be worse than the reception that you actually get when you do come out. And I think there's probably a high degree of anticipated discrimination going on with young people who are struggling with their sexuality and then they hit a kind of mental health service that might be controlling and whatever. But yeah, I think on the whole your chances of getting a good deal and a good reaction are better.

Gareth: Just thinking of young people, there's been quite a bit of talk in the media recently about bullying in schools, and particularly queer kids coming through school. Do you have any thoughts about bullying in schools?

Mary: Well, I think bullying at any age is pretty bad.

My kids are going through school. Now, they go to very liberal, inner-city schools and being queer just isn't an issue for them. It's quite interesting. And I know other teenagers for whom [it's like] yeah? So? It's not even an issue.

Coming from central Wellington, among these kids I don't see any bullying that's around whether they're sort of a bit camp or butch or whatever, and I think they have a great sort of accommodation for diversity, these kids; much more than we did. But then I don't know what it's like if you go to school in Pahiatua or something like that; it might be quite different, and some of these very conservative schools. Yeah, I think there is some bullying going on still, isn't there? But my sample is very restricted.

Gareth: One of the things that interested me was being in an institution. Did you find your sense of hope diminished?

Mary: Oh yeah. Oh, it was terrible! The longest stint I had was three months, so usually I was in for weeks, sometimes just for days, and I think maybe it wasn't so much the institution, although that was pretty awful, but it was the outlook they gave you. I was told at the age of 21 that I had a serious mental health problem, that I would have episodes of mood swings for the rest of my life, that I'd really have to lower my horizons for my career, and also that actually I should think twice about having children. So, for a young person to be told that you probably wouldn't have access to the two things that most or a lot of young people want, and that's ways of contributing to the world through parenting and work, I mean, there's no better way to stuff up someone's sense of hope and purpose in life, and that kind of derailed me for a little while.

But then after a while I seemed to be struggling so long with these issues that I started to think, well maybe they're right about this stuff and maybe I'll never be able to work and maybe even if I want to have children I won't be able to because I'm single, and everything like that. So yeah, they do a great job at stripping people's hope away. It's absolutely extraordinary.

And again, I think this stuff still goes on a bit today. But this is a very common story; people say this again and again that they were given these really pessimistic prognoses. And of course, the belief was that once you had these conditions they'd affect you for the rest of your life, and the evidence suggests that actually there's no real pattern. You can't predict any pattern to these things. Everyone's got their own pattern and if you put the right elements in place in your life then you've got a pretty good chance at having a good life.

Gareth: So, can you talk a wee bit about how all these strands have come together in the work that you do now?

Mary: Well, the work I do is grounded in that kind of lived experience, but it's more than that. It's grounded on the principles and the beliefs of the movement of people with lived experience, and I guess it's very much like other movements that say: look, we've been oppressed and we want our self-determination, we want to be able to live the lives that we want, and not to be pushed around by society and attitudes and by the control system that is the mental health system. So there's a myriad of ways of expressing those beliefs, I guess, but really the foundation of my work is the belief that people who have diagnoses of mental health problems are full human beings and have the right to self-determination.

And that doesn't go down too well with some people [laughs], because the mental health system is really, at its core, a system that controls and contains people. I mean, say a lot of the funding was stripped away - all the good services would go and all the crappy social-control services would remain because they're the core of it, really.

Gareth: But you must have seen a change over the last 10 or 15 years in terms of how mental health is dealt with in the wider society.

Mary: Yeah, I think there's been quite a big shift in social attitudes towards mental health problems, particularly in what they call the kind of high-prevalence problems like depression and anxiety. Once you get down to the label of schizophrenia it's not so marked. But one of the really good things is that people are starting to talk more about the positive side of things, about well-being and so on. And I think, obviously, people with major mental health problems can benefit as much from that positive psychology or that well-being stuff as anyone else, in fact maybe more, so I think that's been good.

When I think about when I first started being an advocate in the late '80s, there were some pretty awful community attitudes around then that I don't see quite so much now.

Gareth: How did they express themselves?

Mary: Well, it was usually about houses of mad people going and living next door, and that still goes on. There are still communities that protest about this, but it was pretty vitriolic back in the '80s. And of course, the so-called community was worried about it because the government was announcing that the hospitals were closing, so there was a backlash against that.

And now I think it's just accepted that people aren't going to be locked up forever and that they do live in communities and that it's okay, really, although you can never be too complacent about the return to institutionalization. I think there's always a vague threat that it could happen, and that's because I think there's still a level of discrimination out there, but I think it's gotten a lot better.

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