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Stories of isolation: Five women share their experiences

Our second collaborative piece this month comes from five Riverina-based women; Laurelle Lewis, Sarah Lander, Beverley Preston, Karan Fairweather, and Angela Quodling. Women from vastly different backgrounds and contexts living in rural and regional Australia who have lived periods of their life feeling isolated. Arguably THE defining factor in the city-country divide in this country, vast geographical distances are often the reason people can't access support, services and community. However, stigma, lack of awareness and community divide can be some of the biggest influences on women in particular experiencing isolation. These women recount some of the critical moments of emotional and social distance between them and their communities.

If you’ve lived in a rural community most of your life or have found yourself in regional/rural and remote communities, you find a couple of things to be true. There are a few main places to be on the weekend; a sporting field, a church or the pub.

As crowds of happy parents cheer their children on or people raise their hands in celebration of religion, or liquid “spirit”, there are those that feel they have nowhere to go to find community.

Maybe they don’t have kids or can’t drive. Maybe they’re isolated due to disability or mental/physical health. Maybe they’ve experienced cultural or racial prejudice, or discrimination based on their sexuality or gender. Maybe they don’t feel comfortable in drinking/betting establishments due to past or current issues. Maybe it’s due to domestic violence or family breakdowns, employment or financial issues. The list of reasons is endless, but the end result is the same: isolation can be a harrowing and lonely experience.

Everyone is deserving of connection.

After the past two years of the impacts of COVID, most of us have a new appreciation of what it feels like to be isolated and alone. Imagine if you felt like there was no end in sight. That even after COVID and lockdowns the isolation you felt would continue indefinitely. This is the reality of many in regional/rural and remote areas especially for those living with chronic conditions.

Living in a rural area means that people don’t always get the services they need, for both mental and physical health. Services that are available, are often full to capacity which leads to a long waitlist and resulting decline in support for people with mental health issues. Pre-COVID, Telehealth was virtually unheard of, but despite the rise in awareness of the need for this type of support, there is still a months-long waitlist for mental health services.

Not only is there a lack of funded services, but also a lack of support groups and social activities especially for adults.

There are many great services out there for NDIS participants, but what about those that don’t fit the criteria? It is left to the individual to organise their own social life? As adults that would seem fair, but what about when you don’t know where to look, how to ask, or lack the skills you need to help yourself?

There are many different reasons for isolation, here different women share their reasons for feeling isolated at some point in their lives.

Laurelle, 38.

As a sole carer for her three children with special needs, Laurelle found that many days were spent at home unable to participate in activities, see friends or get to appointments, simply because she didn’t have the support prior to her children being accepted into the NDIS.

‘When you have children with ADHD, and Autism, going out can be exhausting. Going out, sensory overload can lead to a meltdown when we get home or even while out in the supermarket. And then I have to deal with the looks from others. On your own that’s a lot to deal with; three kids all having meltdowns. So a lot of the time it’s easier to stay home.

I tried to access phone psychology appointments to help me through my divorce, and it was so hard trying to co-ordinate the phone services and get referrals from doctors pre-Covid that I only got about half of the sessions I would have liked. I suffered a lot of heart palpitations and had to see a cardiologist in those early days. Somehow, we muddled through. I was lucky to have a lot of family support, but I was shocked how hard it was to get mental health support given everything I’d been through. I honestly could have had a breakdown if I had not had my family to support me. Now things are easier, with support from the NDIS, and we are all doing really well, but I had to fight hard for that support, and it nearly broke me. That doesn’t seem right. Those early days were incredibly lonely and isolating.’

Beverley, 80

Beverley spent several months in hospital in 2019, and knows firsthand how frustrating isolation can be. After being released from one of many hospital visits, she chose not to have her team of support workers visit for weekly check-ups, opting instead for phone consultations.

‘Due to poor health and COVID concerns, I felt as though I had no other choice but to isolate. Even though they weren’t actually there in the room with me, they would ring me every day and tell me what to do. I felt them cheering me on and it really changed my frame of mind and made me more determined in my recovery.’

Karan, 47

A number of things lead to Karan feeling isolated over time. Living abroad from all family, experiencing both partners working shift work and the pressures that come with raising a family for example. Her relationship eventually broke down and ended in divorce, which meant she had a number of changes to address as a solo mother moving away from known support of friends and acquaintances, not to mention going through the grief process of the breakdown. Changes in employment and finances and children moving out of home also impacted Karan. Working as a healthcare provider, she had the opportunity to hear the stories of so many others in the community, each with their own unique story affected by isolation.

‘For me, because of my own journey and sitting alongside of others, I found that offering kindness and an ear to listen, even if it’s just a phone call to connect, have been ways I have been able to turn my journey from sadness to strength, apathy to appreciation.’

Angela, 47

Angela and her daughter experience chronic health issues. This has led to feelings of isolation, financial stress and a loss of independence. Angela had four hand surgeries done over a period of five years, unfortunately, these surgeries did not go as expected. She was left with severe Neuropathy Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, scar tissue and nerves that cannot be repaired. She was unable to return to her job in the medical field, and now needs to attend appointments out of town for ongoing care. Knowing there is minimal support in rural regions, Angela feels helpless and forgotten, which has taken a toll on her mental health and support system. This has left her feeling anxious.

‘There are a large number of people suffering and trying to battle through and keep a brave face as we do not get the help we desperately need. I feel if we could lower stigma, educate people to stop and listen to someone who is struggling, and show some kindness and support it could make a big difference. It only takes one person at a time. This inspired me to start a support group, called Don’t Be Shy. We were meeting up for coffees before COVID and it really helped people to feel less alone. I would love to start it back up again to show rural women that they have choices and power. Let’s choose kindness.’

While each of these stories is different, the end result is the same, feelings of isolation and lack of control and/or support. What can be done to support those in need in rural communities? So many feel the isolation, the lack of support, and not knowing where to turn. Government initiatives and funding play a crucial role in supporting the vulnerable, but maybe it also needs to come from the community level. Small gestures, or random acts of kindness shouldn’t just be reserved for Are you O.K? day. Creating safe places for the isolated to connect, and gain information is a necessary first step.

As a community, maybe we can all be a little kinder when the mum in the supermarket has a screaming kid. Instead of giving judgmental looks, how about we ask if we can do anything? When an elderly person we know expresses that they are lonely, we could offer to drop by for a cuppa. Or we can just lend a friendly ear and a smile, you never know who might need it.


About the authors

Laurelle Lewis

Laurelle is a mum of three who writes picture books with her children, poetry and whatever else takes her fancy. She enjoys 80’s music, caffeine, and chocolate. But not necessarily in that order.

Karan Fairweather

Karan enjoys the company of her kids, good friends and the infectious laughter of a good joke. Karan can be found gardening in the rain, as the daylight fades.

Angela Quodling

Angela is a 47-year-old, proud single Mum to a kind, strong eight-year-old daughter who has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age four. Since then, her daughter has received multiple other health diagnosis. Angela has worked in different industries in the medical field since she was eighteen.

Sarah Lander

Sarah is 37 and has lived with chronic pain, fibromyalgia skin conditions and various mental health diagnoses since she was a teenager. Recently she lost her license due to a health scare and really felt the lack of accessible transport living on a very limited income. Trying to organise transport for specialists was a bit of a nightmare. Especially when her appointment was cancelled due to a lack of specialists and had to be rescheduled. Helping women in rural communities gain access to the right services is something she is very passionate about.

Beverley Preston

Beverley is a proud mother, grandmother and great grandmother. Family has always meant the world to her, and she has always been there to help others in times of need.

Beverley enjoys sitting in her garden, admiring nature and getting out in the great outdoors. She listens to music each day, and appreciates the simple things in life. Beverley has volunteered at the Tourist Centre and radio as well as many other various organisations throughout her life, and enjoys the sense of fulfilment giving back to the community gives her.

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