Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cornelia Rau and the irony of freedom

Australia's most famous detainee, Cornelia Rau, is in trouble again. Now she is detained in Jordan, of all places.
I feel profoundly sorry for her - and cross with her.
She was given $2.6 million compensation for being wrongfully detained as an illegal immigrant in a hideous Australian detention centre after she was picked up wandering in Queensland and concealing her identity as an Australian citizen. She is, in fact, a joint German and Australian citizen but she has psychological problems. They would seem to have been exacerbated by a traumatic experience which she explained to me when I did a huge "Cornelia Rau - her own story" feature on her a few years ago. The magazine section in which that was published was not included on the website but Cornelia refers to it on her own website.

The problem with Cornelia is that, so long as she is taking her medication, she feels as if she does not need medication.

This is an issue with many people with psychotic disorders.

On medication, Cornelia is one of the most delightful people you could meet. It is truly impossible to dislike her. I took to her immediately - and subsequently spent time with her both on the quest of getting to the bottom of her story and, just for the pleasure of it, walking the beach with her or talking on the phone when she needed someone to talk to.

It was clear to me from the outset that Cornelia needed the medication she so resented having to have. She said it clouded her world, made her feel hazed.
But she claimed to have no recollection of the psychotic episodes that led to her incarceration. These were all blanks - the only memory being a sense of shock and injustice at police intervention. Over and over again, I plied her for clues about those pivotal incidents. It was always the same nothingness. Just Cornelia's indignation at the situation in which she found herself - under the Guardianship Board's supervision with a psychiatriast she had to see fortnightly and medication to which she was compelled to submit.

Cornelia, or Conny, as she prefers to be called, confuses physical health with mental health. She is a fitness freak, swimming in the sea every day whatever the weather, jogging miles on the beach... She had a lovely apartment within walking distance of the beach.

The calm of her disposition was clearly medication-related, and it made for a really pleasant companion, albeit one preoccupied with being free of all medication.

Conny was absolutely confident of her ability to get back into the working world but she had enrolled in several courses over the time I knew her and had not seemed to go through to the end with any of them. One was a sort of justice course, another a language course. She was obsessed with being able to get out of the country, go back to Germany, get back into air hostessing...

Clearly intelligent, charming, interesting, warm - she felt caged by the limitations placed upon her. She had friends, but was also rather lonely. Her family have stuck by her throughout. I met her parents briefly and the family relationship I saw in those minutes seemed very strong and loving. Perchance Conny could not accept what a worry she is to her family any more than she can accept that her stability is dependent on the drugs she so loathes.

Anyway, the Government compensated her for her wrongful detention and she is now a wealthy woman. I worried that she would become an instant target for exploitation but she said that the money was not available to her in bulk but that she could draw upon it.

At that stage, she was being "managed" all of a sudden by a colourful woman lawyer who told me she thought Conny had "celebrity" value she could make more of. This arrangement did not last very long. The "manager" had disappeared from the scene the last time I heard from Conny. She was on her own again and still trying to get her passport back.

Clearly, she did not pause to tell me when she got it back. She must have been at that airport within minutes. And out of Guardianship jurisdiction - away from anyone who could force her to take the medication she despised.

Catch 22, poor Conny. She gained that freedom which has so obsessed her. The gift the freedom has given her is more detention.

If only she would accept the meds. Dear girl. If only.


Mark Parnell MLC said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Samela. I've been thinking about this lately as well. I've met Conny several times. As luck would have it, we are debating the new Mental Health Bill in Parliament next week. I get a lot of people contacting me and complaining about how they see the balance between freedom and coercion being struck too far towards coercion. Conny's case shows that freedom has its price.
Mark Parnell MLC (Greens)

tsardoz said...

Thanks Samela. I used to be good friends with Cornelia before all that STUFF happened, before she was a hostess.

I have been trying to work out how to help her, but do not realistically think I can. Any ideas? I am living in Doha, Qatar, now, not far from Jordan.

Samela said...

Thanks for those thoughts, Mark.

Tsardoz - You are certainly well placed to reach out, but I am not sure how. Ring the Australian Embassy in Jordan, perhaps? I am sure the poor, dear girl needs a friend.

Anonymous said...

Hi Samela & Tsardoz.

I recently saw Connie whilst she was in the Middle East. I too am an "old friend" of Connies.

Unfortunately because she can't accept that she has a mental illness and has had many bad experiences; I saw her behaviour as quite manipulative and bitter. Now "old friends" are seen mostly as an opportunity for a free bed or to con them for money. She told me an extremely stressful story that was later proven as fiction- she made it up just to get money from me. She makes up crises so friends can bail her out, although she has more than adequate funds, and is just resisting the control of the guardian. Can you imagine this situation? Here was a lady acting dangerously in a muslim country, who I was worried about getting into trouble anyway, whilst she was making up additional stories about her run-ins with police? Really it drives you a little crazy!

Connie seems unable to take any responsibility for the very significant stress she causes when she is travelling whilst unmedicated and obviously mentally ill - to friends, family, the Australian government, her guardians, overseas embassies and overseas police etc.

My family counselled me that I should spend time helping somebody who could accept the help and benefit from it, rather than a person who cannot accept their situation. I asked her to contact me again only if she is back on medication, otherwise unfortunately I cant help her.

We should all feel sorry for Connie. She was a lovely fun loving girl, who unfortunately could not handle some very stressful situatons that came her way, and she become mentally unstable. She cannot understand why she cannot have a job, a boyfriend or a happy life like everyone else and without some medication support.
But ultimately it is her decision whether to take medication and live a normal life with more freedom, or to keep running away (or running from crisis to crisis)and being miserably unhappy. This is her right and there is nothing we can do to help whilst she feels this way.

I suggest that all "old friends" can do it to tell her that she is making her life much more difficult than it needs to be, for herself and others. Tell her that she has a different and more stable choice, if she can ever see it. Maybe if enough friends tell her this, she'll start to listen?

I pray that one day she will find peace. I am just telling you this story, so you can be wiser when/if you see her again.

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Murfomurf said...

I feel very sorry for Cornelia Rau and her now-abandoned friends, although I do not know any of you. She just seems to be one of those people who can't get over the hill of stark reality with her psychotic tendencies- so far all that the medical community can do is guarantee a reasonable life for most on the latest medications- not paradise. It's as though the medication doesn't quite work well enough for her to say to herself "Well, I feel a bit woozy, but it's better than annoying the hell out of everyone else". However I do know two people who have gone through some rather bizarre-seeming therapy in Adelaide who seem to be free of their schizophrenia for at least a year, no medication, and both holding down responsible jobs and making friends. I can't quite believe it- but there they are!