AFTER 32 years as a Catholic primary school teacher, Heather Stabler’s world began to fall apart when she lost her battle to function in the classroom with Multiple Sclerosis. After leaving her beloved career, she eventually lost her house and car and at 61 lives in an aged care facility at Coorparoo. “I would have lost much more – any sense of self worth and possibly my sanity – but for the role of faith in my life,” she said. Heather’s Catholic faith, and inspiration from the life of her favourite saint, Therese of Lisieux, were major supports in “this time of darkness and loss”. “I love Saint Therese, the way she makes Christianity do-able,” she said. “Her ‘little way’ is a lovely image and inspiration for someone like me who’s disabled.” Six months ago another major positive influence entered Heather’s life – A Nouwen Network, an ecumenical Church-based grassroots mental health support group. So when the network recently called for a National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Awareness, Recovery and Understanding, Heather gave her enthusiastic support. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” she said. “The network is named after the priest Henri Nouwen and the idea of a national prayer day fits in very well.” To learn more about the group and more of Heather’s fight against MS, we met at a Greenslopes Mall coffee shop where she catches up with network members each month. “Just ask for a ‘Heather Skinnychino’,” she said, giving her order for an interview drink, indicating her strong connection to the mall and what she calls “my turf”. “I grew up not far from here in Camp Hill,” she said. “I was only 24, in my fourth year of primary teaching at Loreto in Sydney’s Normanhurst when I had my first attack of MS. “Not too long after that I came back to Brisbane to my old parish and taught at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School at Coorparoo. “I taught there for about 17 years and after that at Mount Gravatt for about 13 years.” Heather was about 50 when MS, “that unpredictable disease came to stay”. She started having to use a walking frame. About that time, a friend visited her and said: “Sooner or later someone will have to make a call on your ability to go on teaching … better to make the call yourself.” “It was so painful,” she said. “I loved teaching so much and had devoted my life to it. “I had as a sheer gift from God this ability to have rapport with children. “Now it was going to be taken away from me.” At 55, Heather decided it was time to make her call. “The principal, Rick Sheehan, had trusted me enough to leave me in charge of making the decision,” she said. “I had been a very good teacher but finally knew, while in some ways I was still good enough, I was well below my peak.” Her job was the first loss and others were soon to follow. “I was single so had no family living with me to share my day-to-day concerns,” she said. “The Little King’s Movement (for the Handicapped) at Stones Corner got me over one hump. “Then I lost my car and had to rely on taxis, but that soon got too expensive. “After a couple of serious falls, I eventually had to start considering letting go of my house. “I finished up in a nursing home. “It was as though all these losses left me emotionally concussed. “So I was incapable of making wise decisions at that point.” Former colleagues were another issue. “They were at the top of their game, talking about retirement, about travelling overseas on fabulous trips,” she said. “I was in a totally different place.” Heather started to hear about A Nouwen Network at the start of this year. “I heard about the network from a friend in the Uniting Church and then an Anglican friend mentioned it independently of the other person,” she said. “I semi-ignored it at first, then about six months ago started to attend meetings. “Suddenly I was no longer feeling like the poor country cousin around former colleagues. “I’d found myself with God’s anawim (little ones). “It was lovely to be with people who understood loss. “And that’s something none of us should forget – we’re only a whisker away from falling into mental distress and worse when life goes wrong. “This can happen with the loss of a child, contracting Parkinson’s disease, getting hit by a drunk driver as one of our group was … the list goes on. “These days unemployment is a big concern as is youth suicide for many families.” Heather described A Nouwen Network as a “Godsend”. “I find it’s revitalised me,” she said. “It’s given me a sense I still have something to contribute to the community. “Suddenly my handicap has become an actual strength as I’ve become someone who understands loss.” Heather said she was a “very private person”, but her belief in the work of A Nouwen Network had led her to talk so openly about her health challenges and the support received. She’s also keen to promote the network’s recent call for a National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Awareness, Recovery and Understanding. Network facilitator Jane Cosgrove said the aim was to have coordinated prayer events on a Sunday as close as possible to October 10, the date on which World Mental Health Day was celebrated annually. “We’re hoping something similar can happen in Australia to what happened overseas,” she said. “A few churches in the United States and the United Kingdom started prayer days and the idea caught on. “World Mental Health Day would be a suitable focus for such a prayer day to constellate around here in Australia. “We’re getting support for the idea from a number of Churches around Brisbane.” A Nouwen Network has groups which meet as needed in various suburbs around Brisbane with plans to move further afield. Members usually meet in coffee shops for support. The 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing estimated around 7.3 million or 45 per cent of Australians aged 16–85 will experience a common mental health-related condition such as depression, anxiety or a substance use disorder in their lifetime. The second National Survey of Psychosis conducted in March 2010 suggested almost 64,000 people have a psychotic illness and were in contact with public specialised mental health services each year. For further information about A Nouwen Network or to support the call for the national day of prayer contact Jane Cosgrove on 0402 991 987. And, as Heather would say: “Amen to that.”
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