JULES BADGER SAT ON THE EDGE of her bed and looked at the three bottles of pills on her nightstand. The Salvation Army captain just wanted the ‘noise in her head’ to stop. There seemed no other way out.
“I just thought my family would be better off without me.”
Jules had reached the ragged edge of a mental health precipice. Death seemed the only rational escape.
Downstairs, her husband was unaware of what was unfolding. Until Jules called out for help. “She said she wanted to take ALL her pills,” Mat recalls. “I had no idea what to do: I buried my head in my hands and quietly swore.”
Jules lay in a corner in a fetal position and sobbed …
Two Salvation Army officers – seasoned, experienced and dedicated – had fallen into a huge hole. Jules was suicidal and depressed, and within a very short time, the Badger family seemed destined for implosion. Together, Jules and Mat confronted their crisis. They reached out to friends and professionals for help.
It was not going to be easy.
So much was at stake: Jules’ life, their marriage, family and church – all on the line. Somehow, stumbling painfully through the mental health dramas, the Badgers fought their way back to some kind of sanity … a reset, if you like.
Now out the other side, Jules and Mat have carefully compiled the story of a journey that lasted several years. A story of the beliefs that held them together, the friends that came alongside, the health professionals who advised them.
It’s a book called ‘When The Light Goes Out’.
Author and journalist Rob Harley – himself a survivor of mental illness and depression – sat down with the Badgers and explored their tale of brokenness, courage and recovery …
It was 2012. Jules and Mat Badger were frantically busy, running a thriving church community in East Auckland.
“Outwardly, everything was going well,” says Jules. “But somehow, slowly, my mind was beginning to unravel. In the midst of the busyness – great church, awesome kids, lovely marriage – I was spinning out.”
“In hindsight,” says Jules, “the signs had been there for years, but I had shut out the inner promptings and did what I always did – got on with life.”
“It was all catching up with me: unresolved grief from the early death of my dad; and years of running hard to study, to perfect myself, and to be best wife, mother, and leader I could be.”
Mat admits to having had some fears about Jules, but he never appreciated the depths of his wife’s slow spiral into depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I had no idea Jules was in so much trouble.”
So, there it was. A woman on the brink. Contemplating self-inflicted death. The years of conscientious study, the careful raising of their kids, the successful and innovative community they were involved with – all now seemingly irrelevant to the crisis at hand.
On the night in question, the couple didn’t really have a clue what to do.
Where to go for help?
They did reach out – to a crisis team – then to close friends who came alongside, surrounding Jules and Mat with aroha and concern. Not many words were spoken: just love and hugs.
“I was actually expecting rejection,” Jules recalls. “Mat and I were leaders, for crying out loud! And here we were, the needy ones, panicking and in serious trouble.”
Classically, the friends did not reject, and they didn’t judge. They stayed. And then came respite care, professional help, good meds and sheer grit.
Was it straightforward?
By no means.
There was recovery, relapse, new risks and unforeseen family pain.
But the story of ‘When The Light Goes Out’ – despite its many twists and turns – does end well, and it’s destined to become a powerful guide for others who travel through the same kind of valley.
Jules: “I think among the root causes of my troubles was the death of my wonderful dad when I was a teenager. For some reason, I didn’t grieve properly: I bottled it up and got on with life and my vocation.
“In those years as a student, I was binge drinking, smoking marijuana and having fun. But at the same time, I was also a high achiever because – for all sorts of reasons – I think I was trying to make my dad proud.”
Jules admits to being a perfectionist. And, to cope with life’s pressures, she did what was expected of her – maintained an appearance of cool, buried herself in tasks, showed up with a happy face.
Mat and Jules got married. And, for good measure, added intense studies to their frantically busy work-life.
Two much-loved children arrived in quick succession.
Appointed to run the Salvation Army Church in Howick, East Auckland, they were enmeshed in a job which carried high expectations.
Mat: “It came with additional complications and challenges, being part of a global quasi-military organisation.” And Jules admits that she forged ahead, loving being an officer and being responsible.
“But I realise now, so much of it was driven by the need to appear capable. I did a pretty good job of acting the part of a well-together leader.”
Jules says, in hindsight, she’d been unravelling mentally for a number of years, and had reached the point where she had stopped sleeping.
“So one night, I sat by my bed with hundreds of pills.
“When you’re severely depressed your brain is so broken, you just want peace. I couldn’t stop my racing thoughts. I couldn’t fathom how I could carry on – I just wanted to take my head off, escape all the crushing thoughts.”
Mat says: “On that particular evening, I was playing catch-up real fast. I thought to myself, ‘You say you love her, but you don’t know this person anymore!’ My lovely wife was someone who was always driving herself – but not anymore.
“It was almost like, ‘I now have wife number two. She’s supposedly the same woman – but she’s not the same!’”
Jules would later write:
“I wondered how numb you actually had to be before you could set your own fingers on fire and not even feel it.”
FIRST STEPS TO RECOVERY
And so – a monumental crisis! What to do next?
Close friends came and they simply listened. They helped talk Jules down from the precipice. It had been a close call.
Jules: “What actually stopped me was my children. I knew what it was like to lose a parent to cancer – let alone to suicide – and it had been agonising. I was so sure that me staying around was not going to be helpful, but I also knew there was part of me that couldn’t put my children through that.
“I knew, ‘I can’t go on like this – I desperately need help, or I’ll just be sitting on the bed with the pills again tomorrow night.’”
Jules’ psychiatrist and Mat agreed that Jules needed to come under the care of professionals. She entered respite care at a facility called Tapu Ake. She was in the company of people whose professions surprised her – a teacher, a chef. But she lied about her own life, not wanting to admit she was a church leader.
To her fellow patients, she became Jules, the dental assistant.
At this time, Mat remembers going and spending time at a beach. “I’d had a couple of days during her recovery where I’d visit her, and she was very distant. I just had the sense that I had failed horrendously as a husband!
“I had people who depended on me, including my family. We had this congregation that was growing and thriving. But, on the inside, my wife was dying.”
Into the battle stepped people like the Badgers’ friend, Vianne.
Jules writes: “Vianne’s faith in God, at a time when I was in tatters, was powerful. Her faith had survived her own journey with depression. She was adamant I would too.”
Vianne sat quietly with Jules, day after day, and all Jules did was weep.
“She talked me through mindfulness exercises – helping me to understand that I could live in the moment; that I didn’t have to spend my life stressed out.
“Vianne was a friend when I needed one – when I thought I had been forsaken. Never once did she make me feel small or ashamed. She treated me with dignity, respect, care and love.”
THE ROAD BACK
Respite care was tough for the officer-leader who was so used to helping others. Other clients at Tupu Ake included a sex worker with an intellectual disability and a complex series of issues that spun Jules out in group sessions.
“The woman had no filter, and the stories she told were vile and disturbing. I felt torn because I didn’t know how to help her.
“By the weekend, I was desperately homesick. I wanted to go home, but they wouldn’t let me go, and Mat wouldn’t agree to me going home yet. I had to stay with the crazy people at some kind of ‘Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ that had become my life.”
But eventually, step by painful step, Jules did recover sufficiently to be allowed to return home.
She was referred to a psychologist, and three months of intense one-to-one sessions helped provide tools to support Jules’ recovery. Both Jules and Mat were highly apprehensive.
Among their concerns were: How would people in their church regard Jules?
In the event, says Mat, the aroha continued.
“People were very supportive: so many of them are lifelong friends. However, when you’re the one sitting in that senior seat, all the responsibility falls on your shoulders. You don’t want to be spewing your personal problems all over everyone.”
Jules: “That’s part of the reason that we really wanted to write the book … to tell about fighting the ‘pull to perfectionism’.
“I think my life had become completely about appearance. And I suppose the beautiful surprise for me in all of this was that people saw me as a human being. I found that incredibly difficult – and yet, down the track, incredibly liberating.”
The new learnings for the Badgers were now coming at a great pace.
Jules recalls: “I had completely over-identified with the role of being an officer. The downstream result of that was: I couldn’t possibly have depression; God had left me because I must have done something wrong.
“I could now see clearly that ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements had really taken over my life.”
It was time for Jules to confront the complex web of thoughts that had led to her illness and depression. She made lists, and skilled people helped her walk through them and start to think fundamentally different things about her life.
The stress, says Jules, would have been even greater had their children not been the age they were. “I have no idea how long my recovery would have taken if Gabbie and Jack had been pre-schoolers. Having the space until 3.30 in the afternoon before I needed to focus on them again, gave me the capacity in some measure to be a half-decent mother when they got home.”
But, towards the end of Jules’ recovery, there were still some heart-wrenching surprises …
When it came to writing the book, their son Jack, who had been relatively quiet during the tough years, writes as a 17-year-old, recalling the 11-year-old he was at the time of Jules’ breakdown: “I didn’t know what to do – I thought maybe I should just mind my own business.”
Jack went on: “In some way I thought Mum’s sickness might’ve been my fault, which, now that I’m older, I know was dumb.”
Jules: “That was really hard. We found out later that our children – especially Jack – had started a tough journey of their own. And there were things going on for them that we didn’t actually know about. It broke my heart.”
Following Jules’ second relapse, about five years after her first breakdown, she caught up with what their daughter Gabbie had been going through.
“There was a time when I was called into a meeting at the kids’ school, having already attended several with Jack the month before.” The school told Jules that Gabbie’s behaviour in the classroom was unravelling, and her teacher declared her to be unteachable.
At some point during this period, Gabbie started hurting herself.
Jules vividly recalls the pivotal conversation with a friend: “Jules,” said the woman, “you, need to take a look at Gabbie’s arms. She’s self-harming.
This was becoming a multi-generational disaster!
Jules: “We didn’t understand at the time, but what we’d modelled to our child was that we had to be ‘doing’ all the time – so she just copied us. The pressure on her to be perfect was so crushing. I thought: ‘I’ve passed my ‘crazy’ onto my child!’
“I’m just so grateful that, at the age she was, she was able to get the kind of help I didn’t get. Gabbie went through the ‘A Girl Called Hope’ programme, and it changed her life.”
MUCH TO LEARN
Meanwhile, in ways they can barely yet understand, Jules and Mat went unrelentingly on with the journey of recovery. It was three steps forward, two steps back at times – a relapse of sorts, stumbles, but then finally, a safe harbour.
The first 20 years of the 21st century were a hazy blur, but they had lived to tell an amazing tale of faith, perseverance, and love.
Jules writes about the important influence of one man on her journey. Dr Richard Black is a counsellor and Director of Mind Health. He was a long-time friend of the Badgers, and he was to become a key figure in her recovery.
Jules writes: “He identified and explored what he called five ‘saboteurs’ hurting the emotional wellbeing of most leaders. I so wish I had read his writings many years earlier, when I was setting myself up for failure. But it felt good knowing that not only were there other leaders who’d struggled like me, but there was also someone noticing and trying to help.”
Richard was impressed enough with Mat and Jules’ progress to highly affirm them for writing about their journey. He also penned the foreword to ‘When the Light Goes Out’, where he writes:
“This book acts as an important warning to those in leadership to pay attention to the often-overlooked areas of their own mental health.”
As our interview proceeded, I suggested to Jules that maybe her resilience and ultimate recovery owed something to her upbringing.
“Yes, I believe I had courage in my veins, which I think I inherited from my great-grandmother! My ancestors came from Ireland, so the genes were strong, weren’t they!”
I asked Mat: “Jules writes of you that she was married to the ‘best of men’. To read that now must be healing, given all the hurting days?”
Mat: “I struggle with that because I know I’m not the best of men. But in one sense, I take it as a loving compliment! I think every family unit goes through stuff – that’s what happens in life. Fortunately, our people stepped in and picked up the load for us.”
Jules added, “We thank God that Mat had the distraction of a football team at the time. But even in that space we had a couple of tragedies – like a guy who dropped dead on the pitch. I discovered my real humanness through this whole experience. And I don’t know how I would’ve survived without my faith.”
SO, WHAT NOW?
There are multiple survival stories in this saga. A marriage survived … a family stayed together … the kids rebuilt something approaching normal lives. They all talk often of how much they have grown as a family – and of the tremendous hope they now all feel about the future.
Grandchildren arrived, and Jules and Mat found new meaningful roles within the Salvation Army – Jules in communication, Mat in youth work, and just recently a new position in Wellington.
Life, they say, is very good!
Colleagues rallied around, not just to support the Badgers in the years of trouble, but also to help them write the book, which is flying off the shelves,
Time for reflection.
Having been to hell and back, the Badgers have advice on how to win the battle over mental illness and depression.
Mat remarks: “I think if you are someone who is contemplating self-harm and you are isolated, you need to reach out for help. There are helplines you can call. If you’re by yourself, you have to dig deep and decide to make that call now.
“You have to ask for assistance: There are other people who can come alongside you – people who’ve been in that dark place. Maybe you already have a support network: go to one of those people you trust.
“And please, consider what it will mean for your family if you’re no longer around – because you will be missed. You mightn’t think it in this moment, but actually, you will leave a huge hole, and you will leave a continuing legacy of brokenness.”
I reminded Mat of some good current trends in mental health. For example, it has become more appropriate now to no longer say ‘committed suicide’, but rather to say ‘died of suicide’ – it’s not a crime.
I asked, “How do you advise people who have been into that hellish place of losing somebody … how do they recover and go on?”
Mat: “I’m not experienced in that area by any means, but one thing I will say: we know that some people die of, say, a heart attack, and I’ve come to realise that when people are severely depressed, sometimes the logical decision seems to be to take their own life.
“It’s not a choice that you make as a ‘well’ person, but when you’re desperate it can seem like a logical solution. So we say someone died of cancer – we can equally say someone ‘died of depression.’
“This condition can be fatal if untreated. I think the most important thing for people to know is the person who died was in an incredibly dark place.”
Jules: “I truly believed that I was so desperate for peace in my head; it was like a mental pain.
“I wanted to rest in peace – that seemed at the time like such a beautiful invitation. So I have compassion for people who take their own life, having been on the edge myself. Please, call someone and tell them how bad it is in your head.
“I had to say to Mat ‘I want to take all my pills …’ And when I saw how shocked he was, I knew he got it, and I knew I was going to get help. That was a huge turning point.”
None of this is easy, and there’s no simple formula.
“People find themselves in horrendous situations – I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like for me if Mat hadn’t been downstairs that night. The most important thing is actually reaching out …”
This has been a story which ended well. Not easy in any sense, but a testimony to hope.
Jules and Mat Badger: two of the bravest people I have ever met.
Nga mihi and kia kaha.