Fifty X 50: Sherry Punak-Murphy

sherry-punak-murphy_by_ian_mccausland-4_ian_mccauslandI don’t know what it’s like to be 50 because I still feel 30, and so the whole idea of turning 50 just scares the crap out of me because that’s– when did that happen? You know what I mean?

Growing up, I had a really rough childhood. Alcoholic father. My mother committed suicide when I was a teenager. I had one of those paths where you could have gone this way or you could have gone this way, and somewhere along the line I had a teacher that said, “You know, you’re really smart. You should take more of my classes” – it was geography – “and you should go to university,” and it had never crossed my mind, why would I go to university? I don’t even know what that is. But I listened to him. I took all these geography courses in high school and got a scholarship and went to university.  I felt at home at university. There were smart people that were involved, that cared about the community, and it felt like family, and so I went through university and then did a whole bunch of stuff. Then met my husband and we got married and I helped him and his ex-wife raise four step children.

In my mid-30s, I ended up suffering a really bad mental breakdown and ended up hospitalized twice. I was not the best mental patient on the planet [chuckles]. I was really miserable and suicidal.  In the hospital they were treating me like I was this sick, depressed, manic type of person. But I’m like, “But I’m here. I’m a human being and I used to do this and I used to do that, and now I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t function, I couldn’t bathe, I couldn’t leave the house.” I found it very frustrating in the hospital because that’s how they treated everybody. Well, that one’s schizophrenic, this one’s manic, this one’s depressed. And they kind of put you in these little groups, and then that’s what you were. And here, you take your pills and this will make you better. I felt that the system failed a lot of people that were in there but I wasn’t going to let them fail me so I said, “The hell with it. I’m going to fix myself.”

And there was this book, and I can’t even remember what the book was called, but it had to do with how you speak to yourself in your head, like the comments. And it said to pick a movie star or somebody to change the voice inside your head so it wasn’t this constant crap that you get. And Jeff Bridges’ birthday happens to be the same day as mine and so I just picked his name out of the hat. His birthday is the same day as mine. I knew some of his movies. And that’s what I did. I started watching his movies and listening to him, trying to change that voice inside my head so that it would be his, much more gentle and much more kind, considerate fellow. He grew up in that world of celebrity so he could’ve easily have been a jerk, but it doesn’t sound like he is. The fact that he’s still married to the same woman for 30 years, something like that. And you never hear anything bad about him as a celebrity. So I call him my muse. My husband used to get jealous and I said, “No, it’s not a sexual thing. It’s more of an aspiring to be like.” But Matthew McConaughey, that’s another story. Or Benedict Cumberbatch. [laughter]sherry-punak-murphy_by_ian_mccausland-3_ian_mccausland

The first time I was hospitalized, I didn’t tell a soul. Like my husband knew and two or three close friends, and of course, my boss. But the second time, I didn’t care who knew. I was like, “You know what? There’s something wrong with me. Something’s not right up here, and there’s nothing that I can do.” No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do anything about it. It was the medication and the therapy that helped. Now, I’m very open about it. I talk about it, and I find that people will come up to me and go, “Were you in the hospital?” I’m like, “Yeah.” “Well, how did that end up? Where’d you see a shrink. How did that happen?” And then I’m able to tell them. Like they still whisper about it, but they know they can come to me and I can show them the ropes and how to get through that system because it’s a horrible system. It’s horrible when you’re down there trying to maneuver through the system. It’s easier when you’re outside looking in.

I’ve gotten better, obviously. I’m back to working full-time. I was off for a year from work, which was awful because I couldn’t leave my house or any of that sort of stuff. It really took a toll on my marriage. But I made it back to work. No one thought I would be able to do it but I was determined.

And if I didn’t work I didn’t know what I would be. I mean, that’s how you define yourself is by what you do. But I ended up making it back. We did a gradual return to work process, which was wonderful, and now I’m fine. I have an excellent doctor who I see about every two weeks, every month, and the Jeff Bridges voice is slowly changing into my doctor’s voice because he’s very positive. And I find that if I take my medication, I’m compliant with that and go to my doctor, I’m mentally even-steven as opposed to way up there or way down there.

I don’t want anyone to go through the pain that I went through.  When I think back to the suicide attempt it just amazes me that I was that sick that I was going to do that, when life is just so wonderful. Why would I want to end it?

I did a lot of self introspection and all that sort of stuff when I was in my 30s. I went back to the Catholic church, tried that out, tried Buddhism, tried all those sort of things, trying to figure out where spiritually I belong and actually found out that a lot of my mental health issues was because of the Catholic church and the teachings that I had learned when I was younger that I didn’t have the capacity to know what they were talking about. And then when I was older, it was like, “Huh. That probably shouldn’t have been taught to such a young person without the further explanation.” That was really, really healthy for me to be able to put that on a hook. But I’m the person who I am today because I went through all that stuff and went through all those hardships growing up.

The most gratifying experience of my 50 years was actually the birth of my son. We had fertility issues, so having him and getting pregnant was amazing. And then being pregnant was amazing. I loved being pregnant. I wasn’t sick or any of that sort of stuff. I actually really liked the attention that I got from other people being pregnant, and I liked not being alone. I always had this person with me that I talked to constantly, and now he talks constantly to me [chuckles]. It is a deep bond. Our birthdays are two days apart. His is on the second and then mine’s on the fourth, so he was my birthday present, basically.

I helped raise four stepchildren, so I decided, “Hey, I can do this mothering thing.” So I changed my mind about not having kids and then ended up having Aiden at 40. It’s been the most wonderful ten years of my life. I’m much calmer, busier of course, but I like that. He keeps me young. he’s a smart kid and he’s always questioning things. He keeps me on my toes.

He’s an interesting kid, and I wish he could stay little forever because I know teenage years are coming up and moms aren’t so important, and I’m just going to have to find something else to make me feel important after he’s– because right now I’m the centre of this universe, as most kids’ moms are.

Aiden’s friends in school, all of his bestest buddies that he’s got, he’s got this tight little group of about five of them, all of their parents are older, like my age. So I don’t know whether it’s because we interact more with our children or what it is, but yeah, all of his friends are really great, very smart, and their parents are very involved in the school stuff.

sherry-punak-murphy_by_ian_mccausland-5_ian_mccauslandI’m a biologist in Shilo on the military base. I started as a summer student in Shilo and then I was a casual, and then a term, Now I’ve been working there for 25 years, I’m the old timer, which is kind of cool. I’m the one that people come to for advice, and that used to be me. I would go to the old timers and say, “Tell me everything. What was the base like back then? What was the training area like? What kind of wildlife is out there?” All that sort of stuff. I think that was one thing I did right was question these people and asked them what they wanted. And now I’m spouting off some of the stuff that they’ve said. One of the things that one of my mentors, Boyd, would say to me, he goes, “You know, Sherry?” He goes, “In the government, it always goes around in a big circle.” He goes, “There’s cutbacks then there’s hiring and then there’s cutbacks and hiring.” He says, “You’ll be the last one to shut the lights out on your way out. Don’t sweat it.” So I never have. So when the cuts came with the Harper  government  I was like, “Well, if he cuts my job, I get two years. I can get retrained. I’ll find something to do.” And I think that’s because when we got out of university there were no jobs, so we just never assumed that we would get anything. So I was extremely lucky that I got into the federal government and I stuck to my guns and stayed until they couldn’t work without me, like I knew too much. They had spent too much money to train me that they had to keep me around.

I’ll continue working because I love my job. I want to take better care of myself physically during my 50s than I’ve ever done before because I never had to before. And now I see that I want to live to 100. I want to be able to see and meet my grandchildren.

sherry-punak-murphy_by_ian_mccausland-2_ian_mccauslandMy biggest regret in life is not finishing my master’s degree. I went and did my master’s, all but dissertation. I did all the research. But I just didn’t have the confidence to write the thesis. I tried for three or four years to write it. There was just a wall, a block. Then finally about ten years ago, I think, my husband and I took all my research data and just burned it because it was just in a bucket and it was just holding me down. One of the things I’d like to do is be one of those mature students. When I’m 60, 65, go to school and get my master’s. When I did mine, there was an 80-year-old fellow that was in our class. He was such a joy to be around because he didn’t give a shit. The rest of us were like always in a panic, right? We had a exam coming up or we had to mark papers or whatever, and he’s like so calm, “Hmm. I’m here to learn, I’m going to write my paper.” Because he didn’t worry, he was just there to learn. And I think that when I was in my 20’s I wasn’t there to learn, it was get it done. Eventually, I would really like to teach. I love to be in front of a classroom. The times that I’ve done it, I’ve really enjoyed it

I think I would  tell somebody in their 20s to follow their dream. You know, my dream when I was a little girl was always to be a scientist. My teachers all through my report cards would say I was the science bug and I loved insects. And then when I went to university, I took an entomology class and I sucked at it. I got a C in the course, but I loved it so much that I figured that I could do it as an amateur. I didn’t have to do it as a professional. So that’s what I do now. And I love photography too, so I take pictures of insects and that’s what I put on my Facebook. I put a little picture of an insect and then I write a little description about it because everybody thinks all insects are the same. They’re all just bugs, right? Well, they’re not all just bugs. I kind of feel like I can educate people that way and still nurture that little girl that loved insects when she was little and the one that was in university that loved them but sucked at the course [laughter]. I had the most enthusiasm in class but that was about it.

I do find that I am much more comfortable in who I am. I’m able to say, “Yeah, I have a mental illness.” It doesn’t stop me from doing things. I don’t let it define me, but it’s a part of me. I carry it around with me. That’s why I’ve got the semicolon on my hand to always remind me that I didn’t give up. A semicolon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. I could have ended my life, but somehow I chose to go on.