Steve Braunias delivers advertising leaflets with Sharon Preston, who is quietly determined to win the war against depression.
The days go by quietly on the Te Atatu peninsula. The tide wanders in, filling Henderson Creek; when it wanders out, water is stripped from the shoreline like a sheet.
Now and then a C130 Hercules makes its slow, shambling flight over the peninsula from the RNZAF base at nearby Whenuapai. There are usually only a few passengers on the 131 and 132 bus services to downtown and Henderson. The land is mostly flat, and tapers off into a number of little cul-de-sacs where the creek and the harbour form a breach. The main drag is busy. It's got two blocks of shops on both sides of the street. Otherwise, nothing much moves, and no one's hardly ever around.
I work from home and for a while the only other person I regularly saw wandering around the neighbourhood was Keith, an old boy with a sad story – he was at sea when his wife called to say she was leaving, that day, her bags were packed, while their daughter was at school. He never went to sea again. It was as though he was shipwrecked; he walked the peninsula every day, like he was circling a desert island. And then I started noticing Sharon Preston.
Sharon delivered the junk mail. She was a small woman with short brown hair, and she wheeled the mail in a converted pram; the leaflets were stacked in a large plastic toybox.
She was shy, nervous, but had a good sense of humour and it was always nice to chat. When I started to worry that I hadn't seen Keith in a while, she reported that he'd had a fall, and he told her he'd been depressed. There was a red bottlebrush tree outside his house. I'd walk past sometimes with my daughter Minka and her friend Abie, and tell them it was the Tree of Secrets, that they could stand in shadow beneath its thin, dangling branches and share their secret thoughts. Abie whispered intensely. Minka made things up. Keith's mind began to wander and he was carted off one day.
The years passed and Sharon kept delivering the junk mail two days a week. She wore headphones and listened to gospel and country music. She said she had panic attacks, and suffered from anxiety and depression. Also, her knees were bad. She started to have bad falls. She wondered whether it was time to quit making her paper round and I was glum at the thought that I wouldn't see her around anymore.
The other day I joined her on her circuit, and we walked eight streets for about three hours, delivering to 190 houses.
Sharon is 61. She lives in a Dayspring Trust house for women with mental health issues. She moved in 10 years ago and gives a lot of credit to CEO Jane Bruce and community support worker Linda Wallwork for helping with her recovery; she's also grateful the trust gave her the spare room downstairs to stow her pram and advertising leaflets.
Sharon was backing out of the front door with her pram when I arrived. Inside, in the hallway, was a little row of books including The Bible, and a copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac. The novel's famous celebration of travelling across the American continent for the sheer joy of it seemed out of place at Dayspring. But Sharon's delivery round, too, was an epic roadtrip.
It was a sticky day, the clouds black and low, a classic late summer's day on the isthmus. A warm breeze ruffled the tops of trees. Sharon wore butterfly ear-rings. We set off, and she said, "I'll miss it if I finish. It's because of all the falls I've had. The last one, there was a piece of rock on the footpath and I didn't see it, and I just kissed the ground. I actually fell right on my face."
She delivered to a house which has been empty for over a year. I have reason to believe that the previous tenants were cooking P.
Sharon said she'd had other falls, had broken her glasses, and was sent flying one time when she got off a double-decker bus after a holiday in Whangarei and woke up on the pavement.
"I can't remember if I landed frontways or on my back. I had a couple of lumps in my head. To this day, I don't know how it happened. I'm guessing I lost my balance."
There was a letterbox shaped like a chimney, and another had a picture of a panda painted on it. "I went for a head scan," Sharon said. "Unbelievably, it came back normal."
She laughed, and then she said, "I'm waiting for another appointment. What is it that called when you have a fall? Concussion. My doctor is sending me to a concussion clinic."
'Thank you!," said a sleepy man, who stood waiting for Sharon's delivery. Obviously she never delivered to a letterbox with a sticker advising NO JUNK MAIL, although some householders have said to ignore it, the sticker was left by a previous tenant, and they were keen to read the latest specials.
We passed a house with tidy rows of sweetcorn in the front garden. "That's one of the things I love about this job," she said. "I love getting to look at gardens. And talking to people. I've made some very good friends. And it helps with my depression, clears the head. If I didn't have this job, I'd be staying at home, and feeling sorry for myself."
Sharon grew up in Raglan, and her family moved to Auckland when she was 8. A boy teased her at school; actually, the little bastard traumatised her. She said, "I'll never forget that kid. I was too scared to walk home because he'd be there. I was guess I was anxious even then. I was shy, and couldn't talk to people very well."
A yapping dog set off two brutes across the road, and they rushed at the glass ranchslider. Sharon talked about her older sister Christene. Chris got a lump on her knee, and was put on crutches. "I'd been on a jungle gym when a boy – a different one! – pushed me off it, and I broke my arm. I always remember Chris saying to me, 'One good thing about it is you'll be out of your plaster before I'm off my crutch.' But that wasn't the case."
Chris died from bone cancer at 16. Sharon said, "I remember praying to God – and this sounds very strange – that He wouldn't let me die until I was 16. I didn't want to go before. When I got to 16, I prayed that I'd live longer.
"After Chris got sick and died, I think mum and dad got overprotective. I've lost a bit of my life because they didn't like me going out. But I was always anxious, and then later I started having panic attacks."
I asked her to describe these blackouts. She said, "It starts when I feel light-headed. Then I go into a trance. You feel like you're not in your body. You feel like you're in space.
"I'll tell you what happened at Christmas one year. It was after Dad died. It was just Mum, my sister, and me. Mum always wanted the tree down immediately after Christmas. I think she was superstitious about it. But there was a big row about it this one year, on Christmas night, and my sister and her boyfriend stomped off. Mum told me I had to do it. I couldn't think how to take it down and got one of my many, many attacks. I had to call the crisis team. I felt really bad. Life was just not worth living."
I said, "How old were you when that happened?"
She said, "In my 30s."
We came to a wasteland between two houses. The grass was long, and a swinging rope was tied to a tree. It was dark in the background; beyond it was the mysteries of Henderson Creek. "I've always wanted to walk down there," Sharon said. "But I might have a fall."
She's on an invalid benefit, so the money from delivering the mail – Sharon always called them "the papers" - definitely helps. It's taking her two years to pay off her glasses, a dentist bill, and a new pair of shoes, at $20 a week.
There's been an occasional, extraordinary source of income – her sheer good luck, which has seen her win two flat screen TV's and a car, from entering competitions in Lucky Break magazine. Selling them allowed her to settle her Farmers card debt, and buy a laptop.
We came to the steep cul-de-sac where she fell over in December. I told her to stay put, and delivered the papers for her. At least two pipes had bust, and underground water had stained the footpath the colour of rust. It turned verges into bogs, and cracked the pavements; there were lumps of loose concrete lying about. Just as I was thinking the council ought to do something about it, a truck pulled up and offloaded a digger.
I said to one of the workmen, "Are you here to fix the pipes?"
"One of them."
"Why not the other one?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"The council said to fix that one. So we fix that one."
I reported the breaking news to Sharon. "Well, it's something," she said. She surveyed the cracked pavement and running water with horror. "The falls have really scared me," she said. "I get really scared going out, especially when it rains."
Once again, the subject returned to her stopping work. She said, "The sensible part of me is saying I should quit, because winter is coming and the ground is getting wet."
The breeze carried the tangy eucalyptus scent of a silver dollar tree. A Plunket nurse knocked on the door of a classic Te Atatu house – red brick, white railings. Sharon started talking about her history of panic attacks.
The very first was when she worked at a chocolate factory. "I went dizzy, and fell to the floor. I remember the nurse took my blood pressure. It was normal. Do you know, even to this day, when they take blood tests and they come back normal, I get very depressed. A part of me still wants to die. Every time I have a blood test, I sit there half in hope that they'll find an incurable disease. Very sad but true."
She worked at the factory for 10 years but the panic attacks became too severe. As well, there was the stress of working alongside a man who groped her through her smock one day - #metoo, on the factory floor - and grabbed her and kissed her. "I felt violated, and angry, and guilty," she said. Why guilty? "He said if I told someone, he'd get the sack. And that made me feel guilty..."
We came to a house with a wild, lush front garden, and bells tied to the front gate. Sharon said she knew the man opposite. "A lovely guy. He's got cancer, but he's very tough and he says he'll pull through." I said that I suspected the house next door was owned by someone with a serious hoarding problem, and that the family on the corner had a dark secret.
"I love Te Atatu," she said. "There was one time I got mugged on the main street. A young woman asked me for change. I got my purse out, and she lunged forward and took it. I was so angry and upset that I had a panic attack right then and there. And so many people came to help me. I was taken inside the chemist, and sat down on a chair. I had $30 in the purse and it was all I had for the weekend. Well, someone gave me $40, and a man gave me $50. Now that just shows you, doesn't it?"
Her sister takes her shopping on Thursdays at Pak N Save on Lincoln Rd (she used to go to the one in Henderson, but the aisles were too narrow and she ended up having panic attacks), and on Sunday nights she sometimes plucks up courage to phone Lindsay Henare's popular Whanau Show on Turanga FM and request a song. She's addicted to Sudoku, and Facebook; it's not uncommon for her to be up till 3am, sometimes later.
The panic attacks, the anxiety and depression – was she coping?
She said, "Yes and no. The depression can be very debilitating. But now when I get depressed, I find I can handle it. Most of the time I'm pretty good. I don't try anything like I used to."
I said, "What does that mean?"
"Suicide attempts," she said.
There was a clump of beautiful irises around the trunk of a pohutakawa tree outside a house. "One of the worst," Sharon said, "was when I jumped off a bridge. It was in Henderson – not the one next to Work and Income, the one before it."
I pictured it: it's quite scenic, with ferns and flax, and Henderson Creek dribbling over rocks. Sharon had inched along the ledge on the river side of the rail. "I was aiming for the water. I can't swim, you see. I was just about to jump when a young lady came, and she talked to me, and tried to stop me. I was crying but she got through to me. She got hold of my hand but next thing you know our hands just got kind of slipped, and I fell.
"I can remember the pain. I landed on my feet, but went backwards and broke my back."
She said it was in 1999. Her father died in 1985, and her mother asked her once, "How come you never tried while he was alive?" Meaning: tried to kill herself. She didn't know. I said, "Well, I'm very glad you survived."
"So am I, now," she said. "Now, most of the time, I love life. Sometimes I still get really depressed. But I know there's a way out. I'm telling my story because I want to be able to tell people that there's a way out. My family have been wonderful to me, and so have the people at Dayspring. If you can just find someone you can trust, and who'll listen to you... It's not easy. But I'm still going on, doing my papers."
Mynahs screeched in front gardens. There was an enormous hibiscus flower, as yellow as the sun, and hard, green lemons on scraggly trees. A worried face peered behind a torn lace curtain. There were plastic flowers tied to a lamp-post where a teenage boy was killed in a stolen car. Keith never came back after the ambulance came. The council came one day and planted kowhai trees all along my street.
We came to a letterbox with a woolen hat stretched over it – my house – and I said to Sharon, "So what are you going to do, do you think? Will let you carry on working, or stop?"
She said, "I don't know. I love doing this job. It gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning."
She's delivered the papers for about 30 years; she must have walked hundreds of kilometres, more likely thousands, a tireless traveller on the road.
"If I hadn't had depression and panic attacks since I was young, well – who knows what I would've done with my life? But I wouldn't have met so many wonderful people, including the ones on my delivery rounds.
"So it's going to be a very hard decision to make. I'll wait and see how I feel when winter comes. I don't think I'll make up my mind till then."
We turned into Sharon's street, towards her house. There were only a few packets of mail left – five papers, bound in rubber bands. The work pays per number of papers. The most she ever made was one Christmas when she earned $110 in a fortnight.
The air was thick with heat; rain was coming. Above the rooftops, you could see the blue hills of the Waitakere ranges, and that great landmark of the west, the 150 metre-tall radio transmitter mast rising out of a horse paddock on Lincoln Rd. We'd been walking for close on three hours and Sharon was still looking fresh. She was actually quite nimble on her feet, a very fit woman who looked nowhere near her 61 years.
I always had the sense there was something heroic about her junk mail delivery round – that it took a supreme effort to leave the house, to go out in public, doing some hard yards in all kinds of weather, working steadily, a determined, resolute figure, small and mobile, winning the war against depression.
The vile little boy who teased her was in the past. The jump off the bridge was in the past. The panic attack over how to dispose of a Christmas tree was in the past. Quietly, with real courage, she'd gone about her business, with her pram and her papers, a constant presence in the Te Atatu landscape of creek and trees.
We walked past the Tree of Secrets. Past the safe house for battered women, the spooky house where the lower branches of trees scratched against the windows, the house with a camelia and a bathtub in the front garden. We came to a block of flats, where a woman stood waiting by her letterbox.
"Hello Sharon," she said.
"You can just about set your clock by Sharon," she said. "She's so reliable."
"Did you get the papers on Sunday?," Sharon asked. "It was raining, and I didn't want them to get wet in the letterbox, so I left them on the doorstep."
"Oh, yes, thank you so much for that," she said. "How are you, Sharon?"
"I'm good. I'm pretty good. Managing the depression."
"Oh I get that, too," said Marie.
"Yes," she said. "You know, we should have a cup of tea sometime."
"I'd like that," said Sharon.
Marie said, "We can support each other."