Theresa grew up in a small town, moved to Melbourne, spent eight years in Malaysia, returned to Melbourne and has now circled back to the country town of Mansfield. As a natural health practitioner, or ‘emotional health coach’, she taps into this personal experience to help others going through change. She understands that transitions involve a grieving process and has seen how important it is to be adaptable and to step outside your comfort zone when assimilating to a new environment.
Tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Warragul, which was much the same size as Mansfield is now. In the cold winters, hot water only came after lighting the wood stove. We spent stinking hot summers at the local pool bathing in water turned brown because of drought.
I was bullied. It wasn’t called that then, but it had the same effect. I felt shy and different. Later I understood – I was a first generation Australian with post-war migrant parents, so I was different. Sometimes I used unusual words and once, when I was 12 and in grade 6, a teacher hit me on the head with a packet of Marlboro Red and taunted, “Is that how the Dutch do it, is it?”
This could be a part of the reason I chose a career helping people be well and to ‘fit in’. It certainly contributed to my anxiety when making the final push to live in Mansfield permanently.
When did you first come to Mansfield?
We’ve owned our Mansfield property for 10 years, but we only moved in full-time five years ago.
We’ve been visiting the region for over 25 years. My husband, Damien Ryan, has been coming here all his life with his family. His father was one of the pioneers of the Victorian ski fields walking in and carrying supplies on horseback, often digging himself in during blizzards. He was a part of a group of men who were granted permission of occupancy at Mt. Hotham in 1945 by the Department of Crown Lands and Survey to build one of the first private lodges, The Alpine Club of Victoria. Later they built one on Mt Buller. As a kid, Damien would ski down a slope and spend the rest of the day walking back out as there were limited tows and lifts.
What is your professional background?
I trained as a registered nurse at St Vincent’s, Melbourne. As a student nurse I was told off for sitting on patient’s beds. I enjoyed talking to them about their worries and what was going to happen in surgery. I used simple language to explain complex medical language.
In my staff year, I was second-in-charge of the medical ward in Alice Springs Hospital. It was an amazing time. In nursing school they told us we wouldn’t need to know about trachoma, a rare eye condition. Yet on my first day in Alice, I saw just that in the aboriginal community. It was some of the toughest, saddest nursing at the time, with a large petrol-sniffing epidemic. Kids as young as 10 and as old as 27 had lead encephalopathy, which means their brains were so inflamed they couldn’t walk, talk, or perform normal bodily functions without full support. There was so much aggression and incoherence. We used paraldehyde drawn up in leaking glass syringes to calm them. Just remembering this brings back the smell of that hideous drug. I nursed many famous artists and family members of the original Afghan cameleers.
On return to Melbourne, I moved into aged care, where over 10 years, I realized that many conditions people suffered could have been prevented or lessened with different knowledge, so I studied naturopathy, homeopathy and Kinergetics kinesiology. I set up my own practice in Glen Eira. From early on, clients sought the emotional support I offered alongside homoeopathy. The trauma unit at the Alfred hospital contacted me, intrigued how the homoeopathic remedy I’d prescribed for a bilateral leg amputee had not only relieved his pain, but also his phantom pain.
After a couple of years, Damien was offered a position in Malaysia, so I closed the business and moved with him.
When setting up practice in Malaysia, I wanted to skill my clients to manage self-care. As an extension of kinesiology, I learnt emotional freedom techniques known as meridian tapping or tapping. This tool facilitated a more client-focused talk therapy, which allowed me to use more intuitive skills. It worked well on the phone or with Skype, so even when clients relocated, they still had my service of care. That’s how I created and maintained the international presence I hold today.
How did you enjoy your transition overseas?
For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to work. I was told quite clearly, I was a dependant spouse! That didn’t go over very well. My upbringing taught me that it’s not okay to be idle. I went over with a pile of books and initially had a great time travelling, lunching and meeting new people, but I still wanted to work. I’ve always enjoyed helping people, especially other healers.
To work formally as a naturopath, I’d have had to register a business, which was not only expensive, but Damien’s contract was only for three years. By this time, my work in natural medicine and energy healing had morphed into what we call today Energy Psychology. In Malaysia, anything remotely spiritual or energetic in nature, even meditation in a group, could be seen as sedition, so I kept some notable clients and stayed under the radar.
How did being an expatriate in Malaysia prepare you for moving to Mansfield?
Although I had Malaysian clients, many were expats dealing with relocation stress, traumatic situations in host countries, absent husbands and unsettled children. Moving is a challenge. Generally speaking, no one likes change, especially for people who perceive they don’t have a choice about moving. It’s hard to be present in the moment if you’re mourning what you’ve left behind. Much of my focus was on helping clients move through grief so they could bring all their energy to their current location. When they achieved this, they felt normal again.
Moving to Mansfield was similar to expat relocation. I had to grieve my loss before I could embrace the present. The biggest difference was that as an expat, most other expats are looking for friends. Moving into an existing community, most people already have friends, so it takes a little longer.
What advice can you give to facilitate a successful relocation?
My sister gave me the best advice when I moved to Malaysia – say yes to every invitation and then reciprocate. You have to step out of your comfort zone and get involved. I’m quite a shy person, so it wasn’t easy for me to do, but it worked. I joined organisations and committees and I went out socially even for a short time. I spoke to strangers!
How did you make the decision to come to Mansfield full-time?
Damien and I were both working part-time from home and were moving between Melbourne and Mansfield. I was hesitant to move permanently. As described above, I had a lot of angst from growing up in a small, insular town. I didn’t want to go back to that.
It was also a difficult time because my mother was unwell. After seven months in care, she passed away.
As women, we often do what’s right for our partner’s job or what our partner wants, so it was important to me that I wasn’t just following my husband. One day, Damien was in Mansfield and I couldn’t get hold of him. I wondered what I would do if he was lying dead in the back paddock – would I still want to move to Mansfield? It turned out that Damien was fine, and my answer was yes. So we moved.
Were your fears about returning to a small town founded?
Not at all. Mansfield has a wonderful, diverse community. The people are well-travelled, well-educated, kind and generous. They come from all walks of life.
When the previous owners of our property were leaving, they invited us to their going away party, so we met everyone in our court. Canavan’s real estate, Gerard in particular, provided wonderful support. The Produce Store’s Bracket ‘n’ Jam has become a favourite. Early on, Damien became a committee member of the Golf Club and I had met Mel Grant, then President of the Arts Council, who ended up being an anchor point for me. I now try to do the same for other newcomers.
Where to from here?
There is a thriving natural medicine community in Mansfield. I’d love to bring them together so we can support each other and continue to grow.
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Facebook: Theresa Commadeur