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The (unconventional) good Greek girl

Public servant and now author Maria Katsonis delves into what it means to be a good Greek girl going through depression and why she is all the stronger for it

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Maria standing outside her parents' old milk bar.

16 March 2015

Upon meeting Maria, it's hard to imagine that she is the protagonist of The Good Greek Girl.

From the get-go she is full of life, with an infectious laugh - a far cry from the acutely depressed and suicidal character described in the memoir.

"I know it happened, but I'm a different person. I can't believe it was me who experienced that," she says.

"I cannot believe I'm standing here with a book, if I think about the person who was admitted to the Melbourne clinic on September 2nd, 2008 seared into my brain. The day I thought I had lost my life."

Seven years ago, Maria Katsonis was overcome by a fog of depression that would make it difficult for her to complete simple tasks such as getting out of bed and remembering to feed herself.

Hard to imagine that just three years before she had been accepted into Harvard University with a bright future ahead of her, and now was being admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Having grown up in a traditional Greek household, her father appointed himself as the head of the household - the usual feature of a patriarchal family, originating from a village off the beaten track in central Greece.

With her mother falling ill, she battled with her responsibility to honour Greek ideals, whilst coming to terms with the unconventional aspects of her life, namely identifying as a gay woman, which would see her butt heads with those closest to her.

"I know it's dramatically opposed [to my sexuality], but I think it [Greek honour] was instilled in me from a very young age. It wasn't as if I sat there and said 'no, I'm going to reject all of these kind of Greek parts of me because I've now come to the counter-cultural aspects of what it means to be a good Greek'. I couldn't cut that part off," she tells Neos Kosmos.

"I am a good Greek girl, just an unconventional one."

Setting out to write her story about mental illness, the trajectory to Harvard University and her experiences in the psych ward, she soon realised with the help of her writing mentor that the story of Maria Katsonis could not be truthfully told without the family story.

"I realised I couldn't tell that story, the high achiever who ends up mentally ill, without filling in the family story and the story of me. That was the hardest part - the Greek story."

The 52-year-old's story comes to the fore when a violent incident occurs between her and her father. Seated at the kitchen table while coming out to her father, it sees him launching over the table and punching her in the face, damaging their relationship up until the end of his life.

"I don't condone his behaviour, but it took me a long time to understand his point of view," she says.

"Traditional story: comes to Australia, gives up everything for his children - the sacrifices - there's a certain expectation about what his children will do professionally, culturally and socially. This is the most extreme thing that I could do to him," she says of her homosexuality.

Seeking the unattainable approval and acceptance of her father would see Maria wind up in a long and trying episode of personal turmoil, planning her own death at her lowest point.

But a meaningful afternoon spent with her two young nephews would see her seek professional help, leading to a leave from her work and home life in an attempt to restore her mental well-being.

Now on the other side, she looks back on the situation and reflects on how hard it would have been for her mother, and many other women living in a similar situation.

"When the violence happened with my father, my mother was there. She watched. And I suspect for my mother, she was absolutely torn, torn between the duty to her husband and to me," she says.

"And in the end she had to choose what was expected of her as a woman, which was to her husband."

Though she has been through a difficult few years, the writer is optimistic.

Having come to terms with events from her past, she no longer dwells on what her life could have been if she had been born into a more understanding household.

Rather, she now endeavours to give voice to her own story and that of so many other Greek Australian women who have traditionally been kept in the shadows.

"The best part for me was the discovery of becoming a writer. It was this opening up of a new part of myself that was able to give not just voice, not just catharsis, but to engage the reader who's going to be reading my book," she tells.

Her recovery and the realisation of how far she has come has filled her with what she describes as a 'fearlessness'.

"What have I got to lose? I have my health, I'm still here."

This fearlessness has come in handy while faced with many challenges, particularly since returning to work as a senior public servant for the department of premier in cabinet.

Committed to being honest and open about her experiences, in the hope that it will assist others in coming to terms with their challenges, disclosing her condition of mental illness and her experiences as a psych ward patient have not always been looked upon favourably.

"People have questioned me against doing that [speaking out], saying 'you'll never work again'. And I said 'so be it'. I think stigma is still a pretty significant issue in the workplace. I liken it to a form of xenophobia - it's the fear of the unknown."

However the support from her surviving family, namely her father's younger sister Theia Machi, and friends has proved a source of great strength for the writer.

Along with returning to her work commitments, and writing her memoir over the past four years, Maria has become a vocal mental health advocate, currently an ambassador for Beyond Blue.

According to figures provided by the organisation, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, with an estimated 45 per cent of Australians experiencing a mental health condition in their lifetime.

This means that in any one year, close to one million Australia adults will suffer from depression, while two million will suffer from anxiety.

Having already experienced people reaching out to her with their own personal stories regarding mental health, the writer is prepared come April 1, when her memoir will be officially launched, for more people to come forward, particularly those from the Greek Australian community.

"I do expect people to reach out and I'm happy to do so as well. It is possible I think to reconcile your culture with this part of you as well," she says.

Recognising through her own experience the pivotal role that parents hold in the mental state of their children, Maria advises that parents look to foster the
bond that exists between them and their child, and to show acceptance.

She hopes to try and inspire Greek Australians to move away from the stigma involved and avoid keeping the condition a family secret by educating yourself and seeking the help of a professional.

"Fortunately, and particularly for Greeks with mental illness, there are a range of supports available. There's also bilingual information available from Beyond Blue," Maria advises.

Although there came a point in her life where she felt she could sustain her mental state without anti-depressants, this was a short-lived dream.

"Making a decision to stay on them isn't an easy decision. Yes they restored my mood, but my body doesn't necessarily metabolise them the same way, even though it's the exact same dosage as yesterday."

"There's a bluntness. Now I accept the bluntness because I don't know the other. The way I describe it is wearing glasses. I don't have perfect eyesight, even with glasses, but I don't know anything different."

However, this did not stunt her ability to enjoy the moment of landing a publishing contract.

"I can tell you, I danced down that street! I remember calling Theia Machi and saying 'Theia they're going to publish my book!' and she said, 'Good on you
Maria! Now I have to think about who's going to play me in the movie!'," she recalls with a hearty laugh.

With a desire to continue on her new-found path of writing and with two book ideas in mind already, this is not the last time we will see Maria's name on the cover.

"I think there are a couple of things I held back about me that need to find a different vehicle and it wasn't this book."

Sitting across from Maria, discussing the various aspects of her book and aspects of living life as an unconventional good Greek girl, it's hard to believe she experienced such a roller-coaster ride, from Melbourne to Harvard, through the death of both her parents and admittance to the psych ward.

"As I say, I've led an eventful life."

The Good Greek Girl, published by Jane Curry Publishing, will be released on Wednesday 1 April, 2015 ($32.95).

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