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IN 1987, Queanbeyan man Steven Tsakalos was fighting a rare, life-threatening infection and was placed in a medically-induced coma for two months.
What doctors didn’t know was that he could feel the pain from every procedure that was done to him and hear everything that was said about him.
“I remember not being able to breathe, struggling in the darkness, I could not speak and I could not tell the doctors they were hurting me,” Steven wrote in a journal.
“All I remember is pain and terrible, terrible fear. I could hear the doctors telling my mother ‘he is going to die’. I felt panic and I could not see because something was covering my eyes, I was crying in silence.”
The coma was the start of Steven’s suffering – in addition to the chronic physical conditions he suffered from, he was also plagued by mental illness, in particular post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was only diagnosed years after he developed an addiction to prescription medication.
Steven died in 2009 and if there’s one thing his mother Christina Tsakalos, of Queanbeyan, hopes her son’s tragic story can lead to, it’s that no other person go through the pain and suffering that he and his family had to endure for more than 20 years.
Christina, alongside author Sandra Russet-Silk, earlier this year launched the book: “Crying in Silence: The Tragic Story of Steven Tsakalos” at the National Library of Australia. Encouraged by doctors to share his incredible story, Steven and Christina kept journals documenting each step in the hope of eventually writing a book.
The published work is drawn from those journal entries and official documents that tracked Steven’s story starting from 1987 and his medical treatment in both NSW and the ACT through to his death.
After the ordeal of 1987, Steven believed he had his life back on track – marrying his long-time girlfriend in 1989, buying a home in Queanbeyan and also back to full-time work in a physically demanding role. However after a workplace accident hindered his working capabilities, the trauma of his experience continued to haunt him.
According to Christina, after his initial illness Steven faced continuous rejection and judgement from many within the health system and the justice system due to the complexities of his health problems.
She says this also eventually led to his rejection from friends and family.
“His vulnerability was so profound he became a target for people who exploited him for their own ends,” writes Russet-Silk in the book.
In 2006, he was accused of aggravated indecent assault which resulted in six months at the Goulburn maximum security jail, despite evidence proving otherwise. Steven always denied committing the offence and his name was eventually cleared after his death, however the damage to his reputation and health had already been done.
Christina says her son went from a sociable 21-year-old who loved life to a man who was in so much agony and pain that he was only a shadow of himself. She says he felt abandoned by the world and towards the end of his life he could barely walk.
She hopes his story will help educate not only the health and the justice systems but also the community as a whole about the complexities of mental illness.
“He may be at peace, but I am certainly not,” says Christina, who now also suffers from PTSD.
“Physical illness, mental illness and drug addiction – one follows the other and the two go hand-in-hand.
“I just hope no other parent has to go through this.”
Christina believes that if her son had received more support and understanding, even from friends and family, things could have gone differently for Steven.
“He had such a label on him,” Christina says. “He wanted to detox, he wanted to go to rehabilitation centres but most of all he wanted to be accepted.
“He often asked me: ‘Why can’t I go have a cup of coffee with someone, like everyone else’…
“I wasn’t able to say goodbye, he went alone.
“At least he isn’t suffering. But it has left me with a lot of suffering, a lot of guilt and pain.
“[Mental illness] not only affects the individual but the whole family. Mental illness is hardest to cope with.”
She said she has found some peace since the book has been published.
“I gave him a promise to try and write this book, right to the end he was carrying his papers around,” she says.
“He named his book ‘Crying in Silence’, but towards the end he said, ‘I think you can just call it Silence now’.”
“Crying in Silence: The Tragic Story of Steven Tsakalos” by Sandra Russet-Silk is available at the National Library of Australia book shop, visit bookshop.nla.gov.au, the University Co-op Bookshop at the University of Canberra and the Riverside Plaza Papershop. It is also available as an ebook on Amazon, iTunes and Kobo.