Sunday, March 3, 2024

Capsule Exclusive: Whakaari/White Island Survivor Kelsey Waghorn Talks Mental Health, Survival and What She’s Proudest Of

Earlier on this year, we talked to Kelsey Waghorn, one of the survivors of the Whakaari tragedy that occurred almost a year ago. It was one of the most-read stories we’ve done on Capsule; there is a tremendous amount of love and interest in Kelsey’s journey. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the day that changed so many lives, we went back to Kelsey to ask her how she’s been since.

Hi Kelsey, how are you today? How is your end-of-year going?
Hello! I am well today, thank you. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag, really. But I have had some great positives which I looked forward to, like my dad’s and a couple of friend’s birthdays, The Rock 2000 countdown (honestly, I hang out for this countdown every year), plus a Blindspott concert and night in Tauranga and Auckland. I’ve also been having some really good outcomes with my neuromuscular therapy, with the range in my right hand, and the flattening of my scars.

You’ve been open on social media recently about the fact that you’re going through a rough time with your mental health – can you tell me a little bit about what’s happening and when you noticed that there was a shift?
It’s been progressively getting less “stable” since April, as the enormity of what has happened started to hit home. We’ve had a lot happen in the last couple of weeks – both of my dogs injured themselves (one worse than the other) so we’ve been dealing with a “cone of shame” for just over two weeks and some very sad faces. I had a cap fall off one of my front teeth, too! We assume it’s from all of my trips to theatre. I’ve also been getting increasing anxiety and stress levels as the 1-year anniversary rushes up… I can’t believe it’s already been a year, though; the first couple of months went slowly while I was in hospital. The saying “when it rains, it pours” certainly seems relevant a lot!

In that same post, you also mentioned about having quiet days and looking after yourself – which I thought was a really important and really lovely thing to see. How have you learned to listen to what your body needs? A lot of people talk about the fact that the body often gives us subtle clues and whispers and it’s only once our body starts yelling that we pay attention to it – but I would imagine after the year your body has had, you’re probably very attuned to listening to it pretty immediately? And/or maybe it yells quite quickly, because it’s still in recovery?
If I’m being totally honest, I’ve been a bit crap at looking after myself lately – pushing myself to do too much in a day, pushing my body and mind too hard, not enough sleep, not enough downtime. I’m trying really hard to rein it in, but I find it really difficult to sit down and do nothing these days – that could be because I couldn’t do anything a few months ago, so I’m trying to make up for it. My body has been yelling at me for a couple of weeks now to slow down, and I’ve ignored it. My family and psychologist have also had to tell me. I need to remind myself that although I am given the same number of daylight hours as everyone else, I am still recovering from major trauma, and no one expects me to be operating at full capacity yet – so why do I expect that from myself? I have a lot of self-talks. Haha.

All photos taken from Kelsey’s instagram

In doing roughly one million interviews with people about mental health post disaster, in terms of Covid-19, I’ve learned a lot about the timeline of mental health and recovery. The hardest bit is the bit we’re all in now – the exhaustion/burnout phase; the adrenaline has worn off, lives are still altered, there is no end in sight. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, etc. You have been living a much more extreme version of this following Whakaari, because the consequences of that disaster are considerably more life-affecting. We are almost a year down the track from the eruption and it’s been almost six months since we first talked. Where are you at now in your mental health journey? Have some things improved? Have some things remained challenging?
Definitely a bit of both. I have learnt a lot more about mental and physical recovery post-trauma, so I know that what I am feeling (or not feeling, in some cases), is totally normal, and part of the process – so that’s a huge positive. My tolerance levels seem to be really low these days, and I get stressed out really easy – I’ve cried more this year than probably my entire life! But sometimes you just have to feel the feels, gather yourself up (don’t wallow too long), and keep going. If you can’t pull yourself out, though, you need to get good at knowing when you need to ask for help.

When we last spoke, you talked about what a tremendous support system you have in your family and friends. You have recently written about how much they have been under the spotlight as well, with news people contacting them constantly for comment. I would imagine this is pretty frustrating, when you consider that none of you asked for any of this to happen?
Yeah.. I’ve been really miffed about this. In those first couple of weeks, while I was in ICU, media were contacting my family trying to get a statement out of them – clearly not the right time to be asking when they literally didn’t know if I was going to pull through for those first 10-days. Even as time has gone by, I’ve had media message me through Instagram and Facebook – I read all my messages (even the ones that go into that “secret” vetting mailbox), and when I haven’t replied, they’ve called or messaged my mum to try and get her to get me to talk to them. She actually had someone show up to their house looking for me recently and that is bang out of order. It is so distressing for all of us. Honestly, I don’t feel safe going out on my own anymore because I feel like I’m being head-hunted.

We’re coming up on a year since Whakaari and I can only imagine how raw everything is feeling as we approach December 9. How are you planning on looking after yourself as we come into this difficult time?
In the week leading up, I will be helping out where I can with a fundraiser for St Johns that Hayden’s brother, Mark, has organised. Then we’re having a small gathering of friends the weekend before – for Crate Day! (Obviously I won’t be drinking) For the week of, I’m dialling down some of my appointments, and we’ve planned a small trip away – just Tom and I, the week after, to go and ground ourselves in some native bush after what I’m sure is going to be an emotional rollercoaster of a week. Other than that, I have my psychologist on speed-dial, and a family and partner who will be wrapping me in love and cotton-wool.

I can imagine it also feels quite surreal having such an emotional and vivid date coming in the same month that everyone – the world, the shops, the radio stations – is preparing for Christmas. That might be quite the mood disconnect at times! Do you have Christmas plans for this year? Do you remember anything from last year’s Christmas?
Last Christmas, I had a dressing change in theatre in the morning, so the rest of the day was a bit of a write off. We had someone from the hospital bring a Christmas tree and decorations into my room for us, and my family had managed to rustle up some presents for me – which I had to get Tom to open for me! Santa also came to visit me, and he and his wonderful elves brought me a HUGE bag of my favourite lollies. Thankfully, there was no Christmas music!

This year, we’re going to have a revolving door of family and friends at my parent’s place, and I think we’re doing ‘Secret Santa’ with Tom’s family. The cows will still need milking in the morning and evening – so we’re just all going to be together at home. That’s what’s most important this year.

Kelsey and her partner Tom

How do you balance being in contact with people who genuinely care so much about your wellbeing on social media with the fact that social media can also make things harder for mental health – what boundaries have you learned to put in place there?
I’ve turned all the alerts off on my phone unless they’re for the contacts in my phone. It means that I need to physically go into the likes of Instagram to get any of those alerts, and I only do that when I’m mentally up to it. I’ve had to unfollow a lot of pages that stress me out (for one reason or another), and I’ve really had to put my mental health first – if it doesn’t benefit or add something positive to my life or recovery, it’s gotta go.  

As we close out 2020 – an incredibly challenging year for you, physically and mentally, and the whole world decided to jump on the band-wagon as well with this bloody virus – what are you most proud of yourself for?
That I’ve kept going. Through the fear, pain, tears; the setbacks, flashbacks, panic attacks; I’ve worn my garments every day – even if they’ve rubbed my joints raw and hurt like hell; even when all I’ve wanted to do is give up, to stop – I haven’t.

Some of the loveliest parts of your social media are the simple joys you share that obviously bring you a lot of joy – your gorgeous dogs, the farmland, being able to take a walk in the sun, sitting on Hayden’s bench (above). What have you learned this year about happiness and where to find it?
As clichéd as it sounds, it really is the simple things, like you mentioned. I didn’t realise how much I took my body for granted until December 9th, so things like making the bed, doing the dishes, walking and showering unassisted bring me so much happiness – because I can do it. Being able to go out and be with family and friends – especially without a wheelchair and a “puncture repair kit”, makes me very happy!

Is there a particular moment or activity that you think about or hold onto, one day post recovery, as a goal to aim for?
I think my biggest one is getting my balance back so I can go back on boats. I used to be really good walking around moving boats – even in swells of 1-2m, and now I would definitely struggle in a wind-generated slop! At the moment, I struggle to walk through the milking shed yard when it’s being hosed down, because the water moving underneath me while I walk throws off my balance. It’s definitely a big goal. That, and swimming. I miss being in the sea.

If you could talk to Kelsey at the beginning of 2020, what advice would you give her?
It’s all going to be okay. You’ll get your arms and hands back, as well as your legs. I know you think you look like Frankenstein’s monster right now, but in just a few months, medical professionals are going to tell you that your grafts are the best they have ever seen – to the point where some won’t even realise that your hands are grafted. You’ll be independent, again, in just a few months, and you’re going to make the most amazing friends. It will all be okay.

Thank you so much Kelsey, good luck for the next month and I hope you feel the aroha from New Zealand being wrapped around you as you continue to go through this *a gentle, socially distanced hug from us all*
Aw.. thank you so much. I really do. My inbox is regularly full of such beautiful messages from people all over the world, and it’s so appreciated. The dog photos, life stories and advice are all getting me through.

Surviving Hugh Hefner: Why Crystal Hefner Isn’t Keeping Quiet Anymore

Sarah Lang was going to read the memoir by Crystal Hefner so you didn't have to, but she actually thinks you should. For more reviews...

The One Thing I Learned About Motherhood From Instagram That Was Actually Helpful

When it comes to looking to Instagram for useful motherhood advice, it can be a minefield. But there was one tip that Emma Clifton...

Accommodation Review: Te Arikinui Pullman Auckland Airport Hotel

Welcome to Capsule Travels, where we bring you stories, reviews and experiences of all the best the world – and New Zealand has to...

How Are You, Today… Brooke Fraser? The Kiwi Singer Talks Motherhood, Turning 40 and The Magic of The Creative Process

In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check...