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My Story: Councillor Mel McDonell on surviving domestic violence, anxiety, depression and meningitis

August 24, 2022


A section of Mel McDonell's social media post.

Warning: This story contains descriptions of domestic violence.

By Peter Holmes


I meet Mel McDonell in Scrumptious on Summer Street on Friday afternoon. The front section of the café is packed, and the back section empty; the latter has been cleaned and is ready for the next day’s service.


McDonell - a single mum, nurse and Orange City councillor - is seated in the crowded front section when I arrive. Given the nature of what we are about to discuss, I ask a young staffer if we might sit in the back area, and they kindly oblige.


McDonell is drinking hot chocolate, and orders a Mars Bar slice.


The reason we are here is a social media post McDonell made in early July. In the post are two headshot photos. The first is of McDonell lying in bed looking haunted, and the second is of her dressed, with hair and makeup done, ready to attend a Zoom meeting and then set off for the Local Government Women’s Conference.

“These are the many faces of anxiety,” McDonell writes in the post. “One day is stuck in bed, unable to breathe, unable to exit the panic cycle created by the feeling that I can’t breathe. The next day, I’m up and at ‘em.”


I write to McDonell after that post, first to express my solidarity as someone who has experienced panic attacks, and second to see if she will consider sharing her story with readers of The Orange News Examiner.


After receiving no response for over a week, I hear back. Yes, McDonell will do an interview, if for no other reason than she wants other people to know that they are not alone.


We begin by talking about her first panic attack, and how she believed it was triggered by bullying and harassment in a previous workplace [not mentioned in this story.]


Melanie McDonell: Sometimes we as a society think we’re a lot better at stopping bullying and harassment, whether it's in the schoolyard, workplace or anywhere else.

While we've made steps, it’s still everywhere, and the thing that triggered my anxiety attack was one individual who obviously didn't like me. It got to the point where I’d spend the weekend before a Monday thinking, ‘Shit, oh my god, what's it going to be like on Monday? What am I walking into?’


Mel McDonell at Scrumptious. Copyright: Orange News Examiner.

I'd never in my life had a panic attack. I've had bouts of depression, but I've never felt that complete and utter panic where your brain is like, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’.


The Orange News Examiner: Where was this first panic attack?

MM: At home. They were mostly at home. Mostly on the weekend, before the Monday.


The ONE: Can you describe them?
MM: I'd tell myself there’s nothing wrong with my breathing, but I couldn’t get enough air, and my body’s telling me I'm not getting enough air, and that just exacerbates the panic even more, because - what's wrong with me?

Some of the longest ones would last about 10 minutes and then you’re exhausted, you’ve used all this energy to get through the panic. I initially thought maybe I'm deficient in something, I might need vitamin supplements.


The ONE: Did you take a blood test?

MM: I did, and all my levels were fine. [But] I knew something was wrong.


I remember a trip where I was driving my son one morning and he was just chatting away in the back … I had an attack. I was crying and panicking, my son’s in the back saying, ‘Mummy what's wrong?’, and he's starting to panic, and I pulled over and I got through the attack, but I thought this is not normal, I need to go to the doctor.


The ONE: How long after the first panic attack was this incident?

MM: Probably about a month.


So there had been a gap of a month?
MM: No, there were lots in between. At least daily, sometimes multiple times a day. Sometimes I’d just get over one and another one would hit.

The ONE: Did they happen at work?

MM: It tended not to happen at work. At home I’m in a safe space, I can fall apart now.


My GP was amazing. Straight up she said, ‘You're having panic attacks, you're having anxiety issues and you're burned out. You need to stop, you need to not worry, take two weeks off work at least … you need to unplug and give your body a chance to reset’.


The GP put me onto a psychologist and she was honestly the best one I've ever dealt with. I [still] see her every now and then.




The ONE: You’d seen other psychologists?

MM: I’d had depression.


The ONE: How old were you when you were diagnosed?
MM: When I first left school. I left high school in 1998 and 1999 was my first year out of home and we were a very close family, and I just wasn’t ready to be away from them.

The ONE: You were in Sydney?

MM: No, Canberra. I had my aunt and her family there. I did have support, but it's not the same. It was compounded by the fact that all I had wanted to do was music.


I didn't study for the HSC because I'd already auditioned, I'd applied and been accepted into the ANU School of Music. I played bassoon. I was doing a double major of performance and composition, as I also write music.


But being away from home and being in this highly competitive environment - it got to the point where [I couldn’t do it, and I asked myself]: ‘Well, if you’re not going to do music, what the hell are you going to do with your life?’


The ONE: It’s tragic, in a way, to have that long-held passion for music knocked out of you in such a short period of time?
MM: Yeah, everything sort of fell apart. I'd seen a psychologist through the uni, and found my way to nursing.

[Later in the interview, McDonell tells me that when she was in Canberra as an 18-year-old she cut herself: “I think I still have a scar,” she says, perusing an arm. “It was never an attempt to end my life, but I needed a physical manifestation of my pain.”]


The ONE: You came back to Orange after Canberra?

MM: I did. I came back for a year, worked at Grace Brothers, because I thought I couldn't go home and sit on the couch. Then there was the pressure from my dad - well, you need to go to uni. Mum and dad had been to uni and [it was expected] you go to school, you go to uni. In their eyes there was no career without a university degree.


The ONE: How did your family handle your diagnosis for depression?

MM: They were very empathetic. Being a close family there was definitely the support and compassion and understanding there. But there was also, ‘Well, yes, things are shit, and you're feeling shit, but life goes on and you need something to work towards, you can't just sit here in your pain’.


The ONE: Were you medicated at this point?
MM: Yeah I’d stopped seeing a psychologist and I was on a very low dose of Zoloft.

The ONE: Was it keeping the anxiety and depression at bay?

MM: Looking back, I don’t think there was any anxiety at that point. Nothing to the extent [of in later years].


The ONE: How did you move from Grace Brothers to nursing?

MM: Lots of little stumbles. I was so lost. When I moved back I didn't touch the bassoon, I didn't do anything musical for six months. The Orange Music Association, as it was known at the time, asked if I would teach bassoon, so I dipped a toe back in the water. I’d never considered any other career.


I’ve got no idea how I came to it, but I decided I would go to Charles Sturt [University] and do a speech pathology or podiatry degree. I did work experience and enjoyed the podiatry more and thought I’ll do that.


I started a podiatry degree down in Albury. This is 2001. I don’t think I knew who I was as a person. Being down in Albury I had a good group of friends and I really started to find my confidence and I got caught up in socialising. I got two years into the podiatry degree and failed anatomy miserably. Three times.


The ONE: You didn’t know where things were?

MM: It was a 75 percent pass mark for the subject. I was never good at rote learning and you had to know what the name of this nerve is, where exactly on this bone does it originate or attach, which muscle does this nerve innervate? You had to know the precise locations of everything from the hips down.



The ONE: As someone with feet, can I say that’s not such a bad thing?

MM: No, well - two years later they dropped it down to an actual 50 percent pass mark. It was considered to be quite an unreasonable level. But because I failed it so many times it was an automatic exemption for 12 months from the course.


The ONE: You’d been out drinking and partying?
MM: No, not so much partying and drinking, just socialisting, hanging out at the river, working at Myer down there. Just trying to work out what life was, and what I wanted, and what I liked and didn’t like, and the sort of people I wanted to be around.

I’d passed all the subjects except anatomy, and the lecturers were like, ‘Nup, if you can’t get 75 percent, you're not going to be a podiatrist’. Again I was [left wondering]: ‘What am I going to do with my life?’


The ONE: Did you get a phone call saying don’t bother turning up to class on Monday?

MM: I got a phone call saying you need to come in and meet the head of the department. I was already feeling like shit, particularly the third time [I failed anatomy]. I had flogged myself trying to remember, I've still got these detailed notes, and I still didn't pass.


I was gutted and I was really embarrassed. My peers, who I’d started with, were already going into third year and I was stuck in first year anatomy. There was shame associated with that, and judgement from the lecturers.



The ONE: How did your family react to you not getting anatomy sorted?

MM: They were disappointed. For me, but also in the results I got. I got the result when we were away on a family holiday. We were all at a cafe in Ulladulla and I remember walking back to the table at the cafe after I got the result and that feeling in the pit of my stomach - how do I tell them I failed?


But they knew from the look on my face. Obviously that put a big cloud over the holiday. My sister, who was with us, had just finished her first six months of nursing at CSU and she said, ‘Look, what about nursing? Give it a crack, I think you'd like it’.

In Albury, nursing was a July to June academic year. I made an appointment with the head of nursing, explained my situation, asked if it was possible for me to transfer [from podiatry] to nursing and she was like ‘Hell yes!’.


I loved it. I was getting distinctions, high distinctions. We joke in the family, third time lucky. It was only when I hit my stride in nursing that I started to feel confident in myself.


I graduated in 2007, I was 26. I've been nursing since.


The ONE: Where did you first work as a nurse?

MM: After I graduated I went straight to working in ICU at a hospital [in Sydney]. I stayed for a couple of years.


I was looking after a patient with meningococcal septicemia and there were isolation rooms and there were extra measures, masks, everything else, extra precautions.


During that shift the infection control team came around and said this patient has been on antibiotics for 72 hours, you don’t need all those precautions anymore.


About a week or so later I started to feel like crap. I ended up testing positive for meningococcal C, which is what the patient had.



The ONE: What were the symptoms?

MM: Really horrendous headaches and photophobia - I couldn’t sit here [in this cafe]. Lights had to be off. Postural headaches - so if I was lying down it felt better than if I was sitting up. Nausea, vomiting. Thankfully I didn't get the septicemia, it manifested as meningitis. It could've been a whole lot worse.


The ONE: So you take a blood test, isolate. You’re in Sydney on your own in a little apartment near the hospital?
MM: Yes. But work said, ‘You didn't get it here’. That started a workers compensation journey. Thankfully I was a member of the union and still am and they were bloody brilliant.

I couldn't have survived without them. They put me in touch with lawyers and that started the ball rolling. And I found a really good GP [in Sydney].”



The ONE: How did you recover?

MM: It was essentially rest and high doses of [painkiller] Endone. I was medicated up to my eyeballs.


The ONE: Why a painkiller?

MM: For the excruciating headaches. On top of that, I was just feeling lethargic. I'd wake up absolutely saturated, but you don't have the energy to change the bed [sheets] so you move to the couch. I was on my own and at the time I don’t think mum and dad really understood how bad it was.


The ONE: So you’re stuck in Sydney, miserable, unwell. What was your employer doing?
MM: They’re wanting to know when I’m coming back to work. They were getting pressure from higher up, people asking, ‘Well, why isn't this person at work?’

The ONE: But they knew you’d likely caught this at work?

MM: They said I didn’t. It’s a notifiable disease and there were no other cases in the area that I was exposed to. It’s not like I was in a cluster in the neighbourhood or the area. I’m lucky that I had savings that could keep me running. I wasn't getting paid. It took five years for that to go through the courts and for me to finally get my makeup pay done, and medical expenses paid for.


But during that you’re being gaslighted and having to explain and justify yourself again and again. Without the union, there is no way.

The added complexity to the meningococcal was that a couple of months prior to getting sick I’d left a DV [domestic violence] relationship before things got too bad. But when I was lying in hospital feeling utterly alone, I went back.


I sent him a message and I said, ‘I really need you’, and he rocks in as … yeah. It was a really bad decision, but I was so sick and felt so alone.


The ONE: You were in hospital in Sydney or Orange?
MM: I was in hospital here in Orange for two nights when they did two lumbar punctures, which was one of the worst experiences of my life.

The ONE: So you’d left Sydney?

MM: My doctor in Sydney had basically said, ‘Go home to your mum and dad in Orange and recuperate’, but the headaches got worse, the nausea got worse, so I presented to ED [emergency department] here in Orange. Ultimately they admitted me and ended up doing two lumbar punctures. But they didn’t do any good.




The ONE: Then you went back to Sydney?

MM: Yep, my dad drove me back to Sydney. I was lying down in the back seat because I couldn't sit upright, the headaches were intense and I was vomiting into bags. Dad kept having to pull over to empty them.


I was admitted to the San [Sydney Adventist Hospital in Wahroonga] for about 10 days. They got the pain under control, got me up and about again. Lots of CT scans, MRIs. And once I was walking around they sent me home [to my unit in Sydney].


All up, it was a year off work, still not getting paid. And after a year of nausea, vomiting, your ability to think critically is shot. Once I was back at home in Sydney after hospital, but not able to go back to work, I felt I had no attention span whatsoever.

I started finding little games and puzzles to try and get my brain working again, then I started back at work [at the hospital] in Sydney doing really reduced duties. I was working in stores and sterilising.


I started off three hours a day, three days a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. I’d work three hours on Monday, go home and sleep Monday night, sleep all day Tuesday, then go to work Wednesday. It would knock the stuffing out of me. I had no stamina.




When I got bored of the puzzles I enrolled in a Graduate Certificate of Health Management and just did one subject at a time. That was my way of forcing my brain to get back into it.


The ONE: How long did it take to go from part-time back to being fit for full-time?

MM: A year.


The ONE: Did you feel as if your coworkers and bosses were supportive?
MM: No. I was a pariah. Absolutely, totally on my own.

The ONE: Even your comrades on the floor?

MM: Yes. The nature of ICU is there were two units and you worked with both. Most people do 12-hour shifts, they’re coming and going all the time, and I was only there for short periods. A lot of my friends from before [I got sick] had left.

 

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As soon as I got my full medical clearance in Sydney, I came back to the Central West. I needed to get out of Sydney. By that time I’d also left the DV relationship for the final time. That had required AVOs.


I tell myself I did it [got back with an abusive partner] because I felt so alone and so sick and was so helpless, and I knew he would relish the idea of being the saviour.


The ONE: And at first it was fine?
MM: Yes. He played the hero role initially when we got back together. He was a nurse as well. Until he didn’t. It builds up. It starts with little verbal and psychological stuff. Little comments.

A nursing friend of mine had a stillborn just prior to me being diagnosed with meningococcal, and I'd seen her, but not when I was sick. He kept saying to me, ‘Don’t you think it's a possibility that because you saw her you’re the reason?’ Now I look back and go, ‘Of course not, you dickhead’, but I was sick.


I think the idea is that you break someone down so much that they are totally reliant on you. He was very good at cutting me off from people in my life. Massive red flag. This is why DV is so insidious, and it’s far more common than people realise. Some people think DV is just physical stuff.


The ONE: Was this person also violent?

MM: Yes, towards the end. He tried to break my arm. I was back to about four days a week [at the Sydney hospital], short days, and he woke up one morning and I’d woken up earlier and was just reading a book.



I knew as soon as he woke up he was in a shit mood and apparently because I was reading and not paying him attention I was in the wrong, and he tried to break my arm. The thought that went through my head was, ‘Holy shit, I'm just getting back to work and this prick is trying to break my arm’.


He was physically strong and he literally had my arm and was trying to snap it. [She puts her hands out, palms down, about eight inches apart, as if holding onto a metal bar and makes a snapping motion.]

My immediate reaction was to get physical. He had my right hand and I dropped my book, swung with my left hand and punched him in the side of the head, and it turned out I perforated his eardrum.


The ONE: Did you call the police?

MM: I didn’t. But we weren’t actually living together, so after he left I rang a cousin who is a locksmith who came and changed the locks, and I sent the person a message and said, ‘We’re done, don't contact me again’, and that’s when the abuse really ratcheted up.


I lived in a secure building, but there are ways around that. The text message abuse was things like threatening to set me on fire. That's when I went to the police and said, ‘I'm really scared. I need help’. They were really good. [A male officer] tried to serve an AVO, but they couldn’t find him because he didn’t have a fixed address. It took a while, it was drawn out. I had to go to court.


The ONE: What happened then?

MM: After I got out of that relationship I did a lot of research into predatory and coercive and controlling behaviour to try and understand what I'd gone through and to make sure there was no way I'd ever go through that again. Having said that, it didn't protect me, but that's another story.

Coming back home [to Orange] was an opportunity for a clean slate. I moved back with mum and dad until I worked out whether I’d rent somewhere or what I’d do. I was 30, it was 2011.


I’d completed three of the four subjects of the post grad course but I just couldn’t continue at that point. That's why I’m so determined to finish this post-grad (McDonell is studying gastroenterology). I keep thinking back, if I’d just finished that fourth subject, I could have that on my resume.



In all of that abusive stuff, anxiety was never an issue, it was depression, low self-esteem. It took me about two years [back in Orange] to get to a point where I no longer swung in my sleep or woke up with a mouth full of pillow, because I was so tense and terrified in my sleep.


The ONE: You’re clenching your teeth on the pillow?

MM: Yeah, biting the pillow.


The ONE: And by swinging, you mean lashing out?
MM: Yeah, yeah. In my sleep. At mum and dad’s I had a bed next to the wall so I would hit the brick wall. It’d wake me up. I think I was so subconsciously traumatised that I didn’t know how else to process it, and your brain is still in that fight or flight mode.

The problem was I had one of those memory foam pillows that leaves dents, and it’s not easy to bite a mouthful of it! I ended up moving from my old room at mum and dad’s, which was a single bed, into the guest room, which was a double bed.


The ONE: So you could swing without injury?

MM: Yes, more swinging room!


The ONE: Were you working?

MM: Yes, it was with a community health provider and I did community aged care packages, for people who had been hit by a car or been in a motorbike accident. I covered all the Central West, had clients in Lithgow, Bathurst, Cowra, Orange.


I was in charge of making sure the care they received was what they needed. I wasn't doing any treatments, but the job required a registered nurse.


I was in the job for two years but ended up leaving - I just missed the clinical side of it and I felt like an admin person. I got a job at Dudley [Private Hospital] and worked there until my marriage breakup and divorce.


The ONE: Sorry, can we back up a moment? You’d married along the way, and had a son, who is now seven?
MM: Yep. I’d gone back onto Zoloft at this point, and we had been on the fertility rollercoaster. I struggled with that - I went on to a low dose and I've been on it ever since.

I stayed on it because I didn't want to get postnatal depression, and then my marriage fell apart, so I stayed on it. So I'm a lifer now.


The ONE: You are being incredibly open about your mental health in this interview.

MM: It’s good to talk about it, because there is still a massive stigma. Particularly in younger people and particularly in men.




The ONE: And in the regions.

MM: Yep. And I find it, too, in older women. Particularly 70-plus.


The ONE: For some of them, depression doesn’t exist?

MM: No [it doesn’t], they just buckle down and try to get on with life, and all it takes sometimes is for you to ask, ‘Are you happy with your life?’, and the floodgates open. I've had that several times in a professional situation. And [after] they've said, 'I'm so sorry, I’ve never said that to anyone’. They feel like they’re being selfish.


After her son was born, McDonell left Dudley as she was now unable to work afternoon and evening shifts.


The ONE: Let’s talk about your Facebook post in July. Two photos side by side. One of you lying in bed looking distraught, and one of you dressed up and ready to attend a conference.
MM: They were taken a day apart. The photo of me in bed was the day I had to drive down to Fairfield for the Local Government Women’s Association Conference. I just couldn't. I was panicky and all I wanted to do was roll over in bed and sleep.

I knew the conference was going to be fantastic. I really wanted to go. I love driving, too, so my brain is telling me to get up, you’ll enjoy the drive, play some music, sing your lungs out and get down to Sydney, but I just physically couldn't get out of bed.


The ONE: Palpitations?

MM: I had heart palpitations, and I couldn't breathe properly. I get into a panic state and then I’m crying, almost hysterical, for want of a better term.


If I get to those points where I can’t bring myself down, the breathing isn't working, the counting’s not working, the thinking of things, the tapping, the flicking the rubber band, all the go-tos, I find if I lie face down on my stomach that that helps regulate the breathing.


Stock image.

I couldn't get my head around it, I hadn't packed, and I couldn't face packing. I rang mum. ‘Can you come here? I'm not OK this morning’. She was like ‘Yep, I’ll be there in five minutes’. Just her being there helped jolt me out of it, so I was able to get ready. It was enough of a distraction for my brain. I got through it. Mum and dad have been wonderful.


Today McDonell uses medication and relies on ‘the techniques - breathing, mindfulness, tapping [my skin], rubber band [around my wrist], mantras - I am, and I will’. She shows me the inside of her wrists. On one is tattooed ‘I Am’ and on the other ‘I Will’.


MM: I had those done at the end of 2020. They mean I am OK, I will be OK, I will get through this.


The ONE: When you ran for council, did you have family members saying ‘Mel, really, you want to add this to your load?’
MM: No I didn’t [laughs]. Mum and dad had known for a while that this was something I’d looked at doing since before my marriage [ended]. They knew it was something I’d wanted to do for a long time.

The ONE: Why did you take a photo of yourself in bed?

MM: I just wanted to document it for myself, really. I had thought about talking more openly about it, but it's also that self-censoring thing - who's going to be interested in that? No-one wants to hear about that.


The ONE: But deep down, you know that people do want to hear about the human experience?

MM: Yeah. Last year I completed a Pathways in Politics program for women at UNSW. I’ve met some incredible women through that, and through other stuff I’ve been doing.


As I’ve made the connections I've come to realise that there are so many more shared experiences out there, and it just takes one person to drop their walls a little bit and say, ‘This is what I've experienced’. It's amazing how many people have said they've been through the same things.


The ONE: What reaction did you get to that Facebook post?
MM: Amazing reaction. It surprised me how many people reached out privately and said ‘Hey, me too’.

The ONE: So where are you at now?

MM: I started a new job in May, an amazing job, I love it. I'm a practice nurse at Anson Medical.


 

If this story has raised any concerns for you, you can call:


Lifeline: 13 11 14 [crisis support and suicide prevention]


Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 [anxiety, depression and suicide prevention]


1800 RESPECT: 1800 737 732 [sexual assault, family and domestic violence counselling line]


Emergency: 000


Orange Police Station: 6363 6399.


 

You can support independent media, and help The Orange News Examiner to keep telling stories like this one, by making a one-off donation or a small monthly pledge at Patreon or PayPal. A big thank you to those who have already chipped in!

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