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'I had to become brave': how Annette Baker shone light on the darkness

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I met Annette Baker this year when we were both attending a memoir writing course. Both vulnerable about speaking such intimate details out loud to strangers, we shakily shared our stories.

Annette's daughter, Mary, had battled anorexia as a 12-year-old and suffered poor treatment in the hospital system. I had also suffered anorexia as a 12-year-old and suffered poor treatment in the hospital system.

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I, somehow, made it out. Mary didn't.

Mary Baker loved riding horses and writing poetry and was once a fearless, adventurous little girl who "dived right into water" as soon as she could walk and who, on family holidays, would leap from the "highest heights" in gorges with her two big brothers. 

But, after a diagnosis with a tooth abscess as a 12-year-old and root canal surgery, she just stopped eating.

"It was like a switch went off in her brain," Annette recalls.

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Mary spent two months in the eating disorder unit of a Melbourne hospital, where there was, Annette feels, a misguided focus on the food instead of the mental disorder. 

"They would say 'just give her a Coke, just give her a milkshake,' " says Annette, still palpably angry about the treatment her only daughter received. "I would say that was when her death certificate was written."

Mary returned home to the family home in Albury, a different little girl. 

Three difficult years ensued, with Annette, her husband Stuart or her brother Jack delivering Mary's meals to school, sometimes four times a day and sitting with her as she ate "dutifully".

"We were helpless and we didn't receive any help," Annette says. "We didn't know the extent of how serious the issue was. We didn't know what the f--- to do." 

It was March 2011 that Mary, just 15, took her life.

Tragically, the Baker family had already endured the devastation of losing Stuart's parents in a light plane accident. However, the community response following Mary's death was something else entirely.

More than 1000 people attended her funeral service held at Albury's civic square, but many friends and family were at a loss about how to help or what to say.

"It was like having leprosy," Annette says. "I had Mary's paediatrician diagonally run across the road from me the first time I went to town ... I thought, 'You coward.'

"We have a great support network, but it's funny how everyone struggled. There was just silence."

She began searching book stores for literature about suicide. She found books about everything else.

"There was nothing about surviving suicide."

Annette kept wondering what she could do and, as the winter solstice of 2011 came and went, she suggested to Stuart that she create an event to stop the silence around suicide and to start a conversation.

The following year, Annette with the help of others in the community, held the first Winter Solstice event in Albury for "music, words, food and warmth to offer a little bit of healing and a little bit of hope".

"This event is about understanding and helping others to understand that you're not alone when dealing with the silence and the stigma around suicide of a family member or friend," Annette wrote on the Facebook page about the event.

"By getting the community involved whether they have been affected by suicide or not we aim to educate them that this is something that needs to be talked about."

Annette chose the date specifically. "The winter solstice is about shining light on the darkest and longest night," she explains. 

That first year, the community rallied and people turned out to warm themselves around fire pits in the freezing cold to bring some light to the subject of suicide and support one another.

The children in Mary's school year came to sing, Indigenous musician Archie Roach performed, 2010 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry was the keynote speaker, and friends and family donated and cooked food in the CareVan caravan for the event. 

Four years later and The Winter Solstice has taken on a life of its own.

"Albury just expects it now," says Annette, who has found her own voice through the events. "I've had to become brave."

This year, the University of Sydney's Professor Ian Hickie spoke to the crowd who had turned out in the rain.

"Communities like this lead the world," Professor Hickie said, in the downpour.

"It's not so easy to come together in adversity. 

"It isn't mental illness alone that kills, it's the mental illness plus the isolation, plus the despair, plus the loss of hope. It is that situation that people with mental illness, sadly, expect that the community will not be there ... it's the not forgetting and the coming together that is critical for survival ... we don't just care when it's easy, we care when it's hard."

This year, journalist Stan Grant also spoke.

"In our worst moments, we find ourselves in each other," he said.

And we do.

"I feel really, really 'Oh my God, it's amazing,' " says Annette, who is a finalist for the 2016 Australian Mental Health Prize, being held at the University of NSW on December 7.

The event has provided purpose and "a wonderful distraction" for Annette, who thinks of Mary "all day, every day".

"She's not here any more, but we are quite spiritual, not in a religious way, and we've got a bower bird in our back yard and we always think, 'That's Mare'. She's in our lives." 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Butterfly Foundation: 1800 33 4673

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