Vanessa Elizabeth Yemm
My little sister passed away in July 2012 after a 29 year battle with mental health issues. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder as a young woman and experienced multiple suicide attempts over the years. She developed problem drinking behaviours at age 26 and died age 40 from alcohol related liver failure. She was largely criticised and ostracised by the wider community for “failing” to make the necessary changes to fit in, and to care for herself.
Yet she had many wonderful qualities frequently overlooked by those not able to see beyond her illness. I was fortunate enough to be able to care for her in the last months of her life. This is the eulogy that was read out on my behalf at her funeral.
My little sister was born at the Southport Hospital on Friday 30 July 1971. She was the last addition to our family – our parents Carrol & Gordon, me (Simone), Christian (who died as a baby), Kristin and then Vanessa. She arrived with shiny jet black hair and a touch of jaundice, and mum always said she looked like a beautiful Japanese doll.
Some of you know her as Ness, others remember her as Vee, to Jamie she is mum, but to me she is always Vanessa – the tiny newborn I cuddled at the hospital when dad sneaked me in. Later she was the little girl I dressed up –curling her hair in rags, dressing up in a clown suit and painted face.
As kids, I was stubborn and difficult, my brother was hyperactive and adventurous, but Vanessa was sweet and adorable and would do anything for anyone. She followed her big brother everywhere. When he wasn’t feeling brave he’d always get her to do things. “Go on Nessie – crawl under the house!” She always did it. Kris loved stirring her and calling her names like loch ness monster or brat. He’d get her to put her fingers in the power socket, or he’d pull the ladder out from under her on the bunk beds. They were so close in age and so alike, they were like twins. I was jealous of their closeness and I was quite a few years older.
They would look at my pale, freckly skin and red curly hair and tell me I was adopted. For years I wondered if it was true!
Vanessa loved to sit on Dad’s knee as he bounced her up and down, singing “Horsey Horsey don’t you stop.” Dad loved to fish and we would visit all sorts of rocky outcrops and blowholes in search of the perfect parrot fish. Mum always worried it was too dangerous but he held her hand and took her anyway.
Vanessa adored Mum – the ultimate housewife, keeping everything neat and tidy, shined to perfection, and in its place. After making beds each morning, Vanessa would trot along behind, sucking her two fingers, pulling the pillows off and throwing them on the floor. She spent her entire life searching for love and attention from mum. Her first day of kindergarten she clung to mum, kicking and screaming, begging not to go. The teacher ended up with a kick in the face.
We moved to Brisbane in 1972 and behind our house there was a bush track. Grandma would take the two toddlers along the track to see the ducks the geese and the dog. I’m sure it was from Grandma she developed a lifelong love of animals.
Somewhere around age 12, when we lived in Ballina NSW, she lost her way. The adorable, obedient little girl morphed into an uncontrollable wildling.
Nobody knows why, but inner demons would follow her for a lifetime.
Vanessa’s childhood friend Michelle remembers her ready, warm smile. As a teen in Ballina, she preferred skimpy clothing and Michelle’s mum used to call her ‘fried eggs’ when she arrived in a shirt that didn’t quite cover everything. The two girls spent their days at Shaws Bay swimming and skinny dipping. On rainy days they’d run to the bottom of the hill, sit in big puddles with swimming caps on and wait for cars to pass and splash them with mud and water. When Michelle fell pregnant, Vanessa declared if she ever had a son he’d be called Hot Dog, a daughter would be called Ice. Let’s all be grateful for a moment of maturity a year or so later when she settled on the name Jamie for a boy or a girl.
In 1987 she fell pregnant. She told the story many times of finding out she was pregnant, sitting alone on a park bench with an apple and a drink and thinking, “I’m going to raise this baby and to hell with everyone else. It’s meant to be.” In a letter to mum she wrote, “I am a mother to be. I know you think I’m too young to look after a baby but I’m going to try my hardest to care and love my child as much as I can and be a good mum.”
April Fool’s Day 1988 beautiful Jamie was born. He is an absolute blessing and became her guardian angel. I know she loved him to bits and despite the ups and downs, she did the best she knew how.
She always said I love you, and despite many tough times, provided a roof over their heads and made a home. She had a great knack for managing to get people to do things with her – even when they were reluctant.
She loved dancing, studied drama, and tried to establish herself in the world of modelling. In her early 20’s she was a stunning young woman but by now her inner demons were coming to the fore and she was heading towards her first breakdown.
In 1993 she met Duncan on the Gold Coast – he became the love of her life. She spent years travelling the east coast with him on his yacht– soaking up the sun and showing off her fabulous figure. She became the life of the party and she loved to party. I’m sure everyone here remembers her humour – something she maintained until her dying day.
Around 25, Vanessa was introduced to whiskey which led to a slow decline in her health and behaviour over the next 15 years. Despite the depression, the anxiety and all the fights, she always just wanted to feel loved and cared for. She had an eternal passion for laughter, for joking, for being hospitable and for being a friend.
Everyone talks of her big heart, her compassion and her ability to sit and listen, to offer encouragement and compliments to those in need.
Her niece Abbi loved dancing with Ness to Saxobeat and Moves Like Jagger. And nephew Ethan loved sharing her precious chup-a-chups. Sister-in-law Rachael loved staying up late, talking, watching tv and laughing. One visit they went parasailing on the spit, something Rachael could never have done solo. Vanessa always had great spirit and courage.
Her friend Jazz tells the story of a disco ball light she gave Ness. They visited the police station for Jazz to make a statement. The officers were fascinated with her disco ball, still in its box. They asked if they could turn it on then turned out all the lights at the police station and everyone enjoyed the disco lit station for a few minutes.
Over the years Ness lived in the Nautilus Apartments she met so many of the residents. Her door was always open. She loved them. She fought with them. She drank with them. She comforted them. She welcomed them in. She yelled at them. In the end, everything was always forgiven.
Rachael remembers her humour and the way she could take a serious situation and make a joke out of it. She was a great support person and always inspired confidence, saying “You’re doing such a good job”. They loved to do silly things. One day Ness helped Rachelle deliver some papers. One house had a box out the front and Rachelle jokingly said, “Go on Ness! Have a look in it!” Ness grabbed the whole box and put it in the car. “You told me to do it and I always do what I’m told!” Ironically, there were 12 bottles of wine in it! She kept them! They played yahtzee or watched Prisoner and bagged out all the actors because they’re so ugly! She was a good friend.
At the start of June, the first time I came to visit after she was so ill, we got to know each other again.
It was a privilege and an honour for me to spend time with my sister in the last weeks of her life. I remember her one day watching a music video of Party Rock Anthem. She felt a bit more energetic than usual, got out of her chair, cigarette in hand, in her pj’s slippers and purple woolly jacket and pink beanie and starting shuffling. She was so happy she could still shake it! She had a beautiful smile on her face.
Many people judged Vanessa over the years. They saw a drunk. A weak person. Someone who fought and swore like a trooper. Someone afraid of doctors and authorities. What they failed to see was the fighter – someone trying to fight inner demons that are now finally at rest. I remember my sister.