Celebrating 20 years of ordinary people doing extraordinary things – the Courage to Come Back Awards highlights people in five categories who have overcome adversity or illness and who inspire and give to others.
In this fifth instalment, we highlight the winner of the mental health category: Suzanne Venuta.
Suzanne Venuta’s childhood was filled with physical, psychological and emotional abuse.
She felt like a bystander not a participant in life, but in the past 15 years that has changed.
Her journey now takes her into classrooms and medical facilities. She wants to have a conversation about mental illness and for people to shed their fear of those who have a mental illness.
Venuta endured sexual, physical and psychological abuse that started when she was just two years old and lasted until she finally left home at 18.
“As a kid there’s nowhere to go. There’s no escape, especially when the people that are abusing you are your caregivers because those are the people you rely on for survival.”
It was worse as a teenager, finally realizing this wasn’t normal, but being unable to change her situation.
Venuta started to dissociate — fracturing her mind, separating herrself from the horrors she was being dealt daily.
“When I talk to youth in schools I tell them I’ve been to Hades and back so many times I should have Air Miles,” she said.
Venuta’s sense of humour is one of the attributes that has helped her deal with her mental illness, which wasn’t correctly diagnosed until she was 44 years old.
“I remember of May 2003, we did the screening…here are the results and I thought, thank Christ I’m not crazy.'”
“I live with depression, I live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and the big one is I live with dissociative identity disorder.”
Suzanne talks openly about her journey, speaking to students and other groups in the hopes of helping others understand mental illness.
“Dissociation was my drug of choice,” she said.
And she’s not stopping at classrooms. Suzanne has her sights firmly focused on doing a TED talk.
“My message isn’t about poor little Suzy look what happened to her, how did she have to go through all of this? That’s not the story. The story’s about strength. The story’s about resiliency.
“My philosophy is we can change mental health and stigma and we can create understanding one conversation at a time.”
Suzanne’s friend Sherrylyn Dittrick says she’s “the the poster woman for hope.”
“She’s been very open with kids here in the valley. They’re just amazed. She is the voice of hope.”