My first marriage ended after my wife, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, left me. I was a 36-year-old single father of four children, one of whom has Rett Syndrome. Life wasn’t easy and love was certainly the last thing on my mind.
When I discovered a woman at work was interested in me I was filled with giddy excitement. Her name was Sharron Albone, she was 35, and she was beautiful.
Our relationship moved quickly and soon not only I but also my children were absolutely besotted with Sharron. They even called her ‘Mum’. We became engaged and were looking forward to spending the rest of our lives with each other.
In February of 2001, about a year or so after our engagement, Sharron began experiencing regular headaches, fevers and energy loss. Having suffered asthma and bronchial complications most of her life, Sharron’s immediate thought was that she was suffering another bout of the flu. However the symptoms refused to abate and the blood tests ordered by her doctor failed to identify anything specific, so she was simply told to hang in there.
Four months later and Sharron’s mood and general wellbeing were suffering, however as the medical tests showed no signs of anything sinister or specific. We just put it down to life: a busy family, a demanding job, both our impending divorce proceedings and concern about her fathers ailing health.
Sharron booked tickets to Neil Finn's Melbourne concert and for weeks the anticipation of the concert buoyed her spirits. She was finally going to see her school-girl crush live on stage.
All through our dinner before the gig it was like talking to a teenager, she was beside herself. When we arrived for the show her frame of mind changed and she became irritable, suggesting we leave midway through the performance.
I encouraged her to stay a little longer, but at her insistence we left. Sharron’s mood had become increasingly dark and sinister but the conversation during the journey home was what terrified me most. Out of the blue she said "Neil’s son said everything was going to be all right". Thinking I must have misunderstood, I asked her to repeat what she said but received the same answer.
Processing the night’s events in my mind to isolate when this conversation could have happened, the truth became blatantly clear. Fear gripped me and my stomach churned with an overwhelming desire to vomit. Sharron was hallucinating.
The enormity of this realisation sank in as I remember my ex-wife’s disturbing behaviour many times before her bouts of psychosis. Sharron’s state of mind was deteriorating rapidly and the woman I loved so much was losing her ability to think rationally. Staring into Sharron’s eyes and realising the woman I adored wasn’t looking back filled me despair.
The next morning it was obvious her predicament was still acute. Eyes glazed, she darted speedily from room to room in an unnatural robotic motion, rather like watching a video on fast-forward. Sharron’s condition continued to worsen. Patrolling the house like a wounded tiger her demeanour grew more aggressive and her conversation incoherent.
Her dialogue was morose, continually speaking about the prospect of facilitating her own death.
I took Sharron to the doctor who instantly admitted us to St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne where she was diagnosed as suffering a psychotic episode.
The doctor told me to take her home and observe her during the night. I begged them to let her stay and they finally relented and admitted her. The next day she was heavily sedated to such an extent her speech was slurred and saliva was constantly dribbling down her chin. She couldn’t stand on her own and her wrist and ankle joints showed signs of stiffness and rigidity, all effects of the medication.
Over the next few weeks and months Sharron’s mental state and physical condition completely deteriorated and it was sheer torture to watch. Endless medical tests and teams of specialist doctors assessed her and many different forms of treatment were trialled on her ailing body.
Sharron died on 20 October 2001 from complications after an initial attack of a rare neurological condition, encephalitis lethargica.
Sharron’s legacy of life, love and laughter continues to burn brightly within my heart.
Almost half of all Australian adults (45%) are affected by mental illness at some time in their life. The Australia’s Health 2000 report notes that disorders of the brain (the field of neurology) and mind (the field of psychiatry) impose the greatest burden on Australian health of any disease group, contributing over 22% of the aggregate losses, well ahead of cancer (11.3%) or heart disease (9.9%).
My goal now is to raise awareness and funds for brain and mind disorders to the same level of community consciousness as cancer and heart disease, to improve treatment plans for sufferers and bring hope to their carers and families.
Doug’s book, Eyes of Silence, is a diary of Sharron’s treatment and a tribute to his love for her.
This article first appeared on Daily Life.