I was born in Melbourne, then we moved around a lot. We lived in Tasmania for a while when I was a child, then moved back to regional Victoria. I think I’ve been to about nine or 10 schools in total. I went to four in the space of one year. To this day, I don’t really know why we moved so much.

Home wasn’t really a place where you sat and talked about things at the dinner table, so there’s a lot I don’t know. We didn’t have people over, and we didn’t go to other people’s places. One thing I do remember is often feeling scared as a child. My main memories are of always feeling frightened.

It was arranged that I left school at 15, and I went to work in the public service. That same year, I was assaulted. And then I left work. My life’s been up and down basically from then. It’s been a constant cycle: I work, I become unwell; I work, I become unwell. That’s been my life for a very long period of time. I’ve been hospitalised. I had shock treatment in the early days. At the moment, I’ve had to reduce my study load at Sydney Uni. I’m often not able to work in mainstream employment. I’m either unwell, well, or very well. At the moment, I’m well, which means I can do The Big Issue and study one subject.

Even now I’m much older, I’m still impacted by PTSD. I’ve had two really, really good psychiatrists that have helped me a lot. One would challenge me all the time around my thinking, and I think that challenging the way I think about myself and the world has really helped me a lot with people. I had a pretty grim view of a lot of things, but I’m better now at realising the really good times in life.

I’ve always had an interest in disadvantage, particularly with people who are disadvantaged from an earlier age. In 2011, I did an undergraduate unit in Seeking Justice (Genocide and Apartheid Studies), and I went to Rwanda and South Africa with Monash Uni. I was the oldest person on the trip by a mile! I never did these things younger, so I’m doing them all later in life. It really opened my eyes to other parts of the world and the disadvantage. People are very resilient. If you can understand that a little bit, it can help support them.

In 2018, I completed a Graduate Certificate in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and now I’m doing a Master of Social Justice (Peace and Conflict Studies). I’m not a natural. I’m exceptionally lucky to be able to do the things that I’m able to do at the moment: I found The Big Issue and what works for me. Selling The Big Issue is just the most fantastic thing to help social isolation, mental health, and be part of a community. And the income’s great: I think, I can buy those blueberries.
I really want people to understand what it means to me that they come by to talk, and buy The Big Issue. Even though everybody has their own struggles, I’m so grateful they take the time.

Denise sells The Big Issue at corner Martin Place and Macquarie Sts, Sydney

Interview by Sinéad Stubbins
Photo by Michael Quelch

Published in ed#701