By Shantelle Thompson, Presented by Kimberly Gillan
After being diagnosed with crippling postnatal depression, 33-year-old Barkindji woman Shantelle Thompson took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu to help her heal. Little did she know that a world title and an Olympics wrestling bid would form a part of the healing process.
I’m the second oldest of 17 kids and have been looking after my younger siblings since I was six years old. I used to wrestle with my brothers a lot, but my parents could never afford organised sport. By virtue of the way I grew up – not being black enough for some, not being white enough for others – I was always in fights defending myself and my younger siblings. I was sexually abused when I was six, there was family violence in the house, and I always looked to protect those around me.
After having my twins, Jaida and Soane, in 2009, I was irritable and having mood swings. By the six-month mark, I started having graphic visions of hurting them. This really scared me, especially seeing as I was an Aboriginal woman and there being high rates of removal of Aboriginal children. I harboured fears that my children were at risk of being taken from me, which compounded my experience.
I’ve since found out that women who have experienced sexual abuse as children have a higher risk of postnatal depression; the trauma of birth, if not handled correctly, can trigger it.
One day, Jaida wouldn’t sleep, and I had a frightening vision where I realised I was capable of hurting my children. I gave her to my partner, George, and jumped in the car without saying anything. I realised I needed help, so I went to the doctor. I thought I was in a safe space, but she talked about doing a welfare check on my children and having me medicated and put in hospital. I became upset, as this was one of my greatest fears. On the way home, I almost drove in front of a truck, but thankfully, something stopped me.
I went home and called one of my closest friends. I also spoke to George, telling them both everything that had been happening. We decided that if I didn’t want to go on medication, I would have to find alternative pathways. I had met George when I did a little bit of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) before my eldest child, Nacinta – aged 10 – was born. So I decided to go and train two or three times a week.
After a session, I’d go home so exhausted that I didn’t have any capacity to think or feel – it was almost like it had pressed the reset button for the next day. George also became the stay-at-home parent while I went back to work, which gave me some more breathing space.
When the twins were about 10 months old, I remember watching them play and bursting into tears – I realised that I had always loved them, but I hadn’t been in love with them until that moment. It was like a layer was removed from my eyes and I realised I must have been getting better. I was a good mum and I was no longer at risk of harming them. I was learning to recognise my triggers and weather the emotions, rather than shying away from them.
In 2011, my coach told me about a jiu-jitsu comp and I thought, ‘why not?’ So I attended and I came away with two gold and two silver medals. I started to realise, ‘maybe I’m okay at this’. In 2012, George and I competed 13 times, travelling from Mildura to Adelaide, to Melbourne and Darwin.
After experiencing great success, I began to wonder if I had what it took to become a world champion. Following this thought, George and I decided to move our family from Mildura to Melbourne so we could train with our head coach, Thiago Stefanutti.
Being away from my family and country is one of the hardest things we have ever done – I stand strong in my culture and carry some sand from my river and a feather from my totem, the crow, with me to keep me grounded and connected.
In 2015, I worked on attending the world jiu-jitsu titles, and I won gold; I was in absolute disbelief. It’s amazing that you work so hard for a dream, but then when you actually accomplish it, you’re still surprised.
In 2014, I took up wrestling to improve my jiu-jitsu and in 2015, I attended a training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport, where I was told I had the potential skills to cross over to wrestling and try out for the Olympics.
One day, Jaida wouldn’t sleep, and I had a frightening vision where I realised I was capable of hurting my children.
So now I’m working towards making the Australian Commonwealth Games team, and hopefully making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
I’ve just completed my graduate certificate in Indigenous Trauma Recovery, and with working, training and parenting kids with strong personalities, it is hard at times. I sometimes wonder how I’m going to put food on the table or afford to get to the next comp, but I remind myself that I’ve just got to believe in myself and keep training.
I definitely still have moments of darkness, but I wouldn’t call that depression – I’d call that life. I use journaling and mindfulness to manage them. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s okay to have some ‘me time’ and that focusing on your health and taking time out to do something for yourself makes you a better parent and person.
My aunty calls me the Barkindji Warrior, because I’m always fighting to help others. I’m taking my role seriously, breaking down stereotypes and challenging the boundaries of what it means to be a mother, an Aboriginal woman, a martial artist, a female in a male-dominated sport, and a woman with muscles.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800respect.org.au.