Mum: “I just feel sorry for [her husband]. You know how outdoorsy he always was, and now she won’t even let him leave the house! It’s no fun to be suddenly living with a crazy lady.”
Me: *rolling eyes* “She’s not crazy. She has anxiety and depression. That doesn’t make her insane. I had anxiety and depression for two years: I wasn’t insane!”
Mum: *snorts* “That’s what you say.”
… Yup. That’s my mother. A veritable beacon of empathy.
The conversation was about her step-sister. Her step-sister has long been a powerful, good force in the local Methodist church. She volunteered in a charity shop three days a week. She organized food drives and took in foreign exchange students who wanted to learn about Kiwi farming. There would be no one on earth who could say anything bad about her. She’s just one of those amazingly nice people.
But six years ago, my [step] aunt and her husband went on a trip to England to visit their daughter and her newborn son – the first grandchild. While they were away, my [step] grandmother took ill and had to be moved to a nursing home. Within a few short months she had died. My aunt had been caring for her mother twice a week – doing her shopping, cleaning her house, managing her bills and generally keeping her company. We’re not sure whether it was the guilt from having been away when her mother got sick, or the fact that her own children lived overseas, or just that circumstances fell upon her in a peculiar way, but after returning to New Zealand she came down with what was obviously a crippling case of depression.
For a long time she stopped leaving the house, and she got panic attacks when her husband tried to go outside too. Other people in the church started doing their shopping for them, but she struggled to even make it down the hall to see them when they stopped in. She was always such a lovely, warm, no-nonsense sort of woman. We had never seen the likes of it before – not in her anyway.
But, unlike my mother, I felt very able to relate to my aunt’s sudden decline. I felt sorry for my uncle too – very sorry for him – but I didn’t for a moment think my aunt was insane. It’s an illness, but it’s not insanity.
The whole ordeal reminded me of something though: as a family, we place a disturbing amount of weight on the insistence that one should never burden other people with your problems (even other family members). Suck it up. Stiff upper lip and all that. For God’s sake, never, EVER cry – not in any way that anyone else will know it anyway… These are rules that never have to be expressed in such blunt terms, they simply seep out in conversations like the one I had with my mother. If you let other people see your fear and pain, then you are inflicting a terrible trial on them. You are a bad person, and all your previous good deeds count for little. God hates a drama queen.
It’s precisely that fact that made my mother’s comment such a tragi-comedy to me. She really, honestly thinks she suffered when I had depression. She thinks I was a crazy lady who inflicted my problems onto her.
She has no idea…
Like most people with depression, I hid the worst of it from others. My mother and I spoke once every couple of weeks, and I tried to make light of things and not let on what I was going through. I didn’t tell her I had depression – not until very late in the piece. I just stopped doing stuff, and pretended that it was my choice. She didn’t have to clean up my house after a bad night, or patch me up when I was bleeding, or pull me out from behind the toilet when I’d cried so much I started vomiting all over the floor. If I could have, I probably would have committed suicide in such a way as to quietly bury myself as well, so as not to make a fuss. I really didn’t want to burden other people with my troubles. I was embarrassed and felt that I was failing. Problems should be kept to yourself. I didn’t tell her what was happening, because I knew she’d just treat me like I was attention-seeking… and that knowledge just made the whole experience so much worse.
It was easy to feel like I was a horrible person. You start out feeling like the biggest shit in the world and quickly realize that telling people how you feel makes you an even bigger shit. You don’t want to hurt them or worry them, and you certainly don’t want to become a millstone around their necks. I was isolated. There was no soft place to fall and no one to champion me when I needed it. Support can’t be over-emphasized here.
But I’m not writing this out of self-pity. Self-pity is something that I try to have no time for anymore. It’s bad for me. It’s always better to laugh at myself. Ten years on, I’m amazed at how much I smile these days.
Sadly, depression is really common in New Zealand. I’ve heard estimates as high as one in three Kiwis will get depression at some point. One person in six will get severe depression. In part, it’s to do with exactly that cultural pressure that I’ve just talked about. Don’t inflict your problems on other people. Shut up. Don’t whine. Get hard. Don’t be so selfish… It became enough of an issue here that the government funds a very good public awareness program, fronted by prominent ex-All Black, John Kirwan (who also had crippling depression). One of the most obvious pieces of advice, which fits nicely into a 30-sec TV commercial: you can’t tell people to just “harden up”. That only makes it worse.
Thanks in part to careful work like this, the suicide rate in New Zealand has been in general decline since 1998. However, New Zealand officially still has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD. We have a long way to go.
I’m fairly open about the fact that I used to have depression. Probably more open than most. It’s not going to be something I put on a résumé, but I’m not really ashamed of it anymore either. I’ve had depression three times, truth be told. The first time was when my family moved away from my one and only friend, and I went into a school where I got very badly bullied. That lasted from age 12-16, and got to the point where there were a few suicide attempts… quiet, private ones. I recovered after dropping out of high school, and had a fairly happy five-year block. But then there was another decline after I came back from America in 1999 and decided to shelve my first novel. That lasted about a year (I was 21), but petered out into what was still a fairly depressive state. When I was 27, I fell in love. Then I got raped by the guy I loved. That turned an already depressive brain into a fucking depressive brain. It was understandable, given the circumstances. That last bout went on for two years, and reverted into thoughts of self-harm.
I understand that depression is obviously just something my brain does when things go badly wrong. It may be genetic, or it may be a symptom of my upbringing. There’s some research to suggest that depression is more common in people whose mothers were stressed while still carrying them in utero. The year that my mother was pregnant with me, my father nearly died of cancer (he was told it was likely to be terminal, but luckily it wasn’t). With a two year old and a new baby on the way, it’s understandable that my mother would have been quite stressed through that time.
But there is something very different about the way that I have emerged from that last bout of depression. I am not fool enough to say that I’ve kicked it (because I suspect that it becomes like alcoholism – just a tendency which is a part of you and you have to work around for the rest of your life), yet I recognize that I am better armed against it than I ever had been in the past. I’ve changed the way that I see the world, and the way that I see myself. I’ve changed the very way that I think. It’s not a change that everyone around me appreciated or enjoyed (and I actually lost quite a few friends who wanted me to be somebody else). However, in the fairly rough few years AFTER my depression (money troubles, health troubles, laid off from work) I was down but never out. I’ve felt bad, but not THAT bad… and that came as a very pleasant surprise to me.
There are still plenty of things to laugh about… and my life in general is the biggest one.
My mother often spoke to me about how selfish her step-sister was being. I did my best to convince her that what she saw was not an act of selfishness but a sad deepening of my aunt’s already selfless personality. Depression and guilt walk hand in hand. She was not trying to hurt anybody, and I’d venture a guess that she would have felt like shit if she knew that she was hurting people. She wasn’t seeking attention: she was just trying to disappear… and other people weren’t letting her.
In the past, I’ve written a few bits and pieces about depression, and the steps that I’d taken to fight it. I began by pointing out that my advice was probably quite redundant, because when we’re in the midst of depression we’re pretty bad at responding to advice (no matter how sensible it might be). There are plenty of physical things that you can and should do when faced with depression: eat properly and exercise regularly (even though you don’t want to); you need your Vitamin D so you should get at least 20 mins outside in the sun every day (ditto: even though you don’t want to); take Omega 3 supplements, or eat oily fish regularly; try St Johns Wort (if it doesn’t affect your medication); practice things like yoga or meditation… None of these things will cure depression in themselves, but they help to keep your brain fit and healthy. And depression is all in your brain.
Lots and lots of people find relief through medical anti-depressants… I refused to take them. I’m not going to say that that was a smart choice, yet I believe it was the right choice for me at the time. I recognized that this was a pattern in my life. I wanted to heal my brain permanently, and stop it from ever doing this to me again. I didn’t want to just treat the symptoms of depression and wait the illness out… But I would never advise anyone to do what I did. It’s very dangerous.
If you’re at the stage where you’re considering harming yourself (or others) then I believe that medical assistance is important. Anti-depressants don’t “make” you happy. Depression simply shuts down the dopamine and serotonin receptors in your brain, meaning that your brain is unable to feel happy, no matter how many happy hormones it’s pumping out. Anti-depressants reopen those receptors, and that can be the first thing that enables you to see that life isn’t so bad after all… but anti-depressants do not fix your broken marriage or bring back your dead child or make you produce more dopamine. If you’re truly unhappy and unfulfilled, you will remain that way (anti-depressants or not). Anti-depressants are an assistance through the symptoms of the illness – not a cure.
But all that’s the easy, straightforward bit.
I’m a firm believer that meds can give you back a more realistic viewpoint, but you’ve got to get yourself healthy in order to hold back depression long-term. Why make things harder for your brain? If you broke a leg, you wouldn’t spend the rest of your life lying around – you’d support the leg with a cast while it needed it, and then you’d go into physical therapy to build back the muscle and help get it strong again. You’d learn to avoid the particular activity that broke your leg in the first place. Why treat your brain any differently?
A few years back, happier and healthier and sitting in a hair salon waiting for my foils, I read this article in a local NZ magazine. It’s about a leading psychologist and expert on depression, Dorothy Rowe, and her belief that depression grows out of our sense of guilt and the inability to control our world. So much of what she said made sense to me, and I’ve since recommended this article to a few people.
In the article, she talks about the over-diagnosis of depression, as well as the importance of talk-therapy and willingly changing your perception of reality. That last part is the hardest thing to do, regardless of whether you have depression or not. It’s like suddenly having to change your religion. Plenty of people stay on anti-depressants (and stay depressed) because they are unwilling or unable to change themselves. The journey of a thousand miles begins with that little choice. I began effecting my change through a course of really good counseling… but it took a long time to work through, and even longer to really properly take on board. Most of us have people around us who do their best to prevent any change – who take us on guilt-trips for no good reason, or make us feel like we’re selfish or bad if we try to help ourselves. When you’re depressed, it’s hard to learn how to give up those people, and it’s a choice that you have to come to yourself, in your own time… If I could have seen my future self, ten years ago, I would have hated the me that I am now. I would have called her self-involved.
But that’s okay.
And it’s strange that that’s okay, because I had been such an expert on beating myself up. I was actually afraid of becoming the person I am today. I spent years working long and hard in an effort not to value myself. I saw it as a lifestyle choice, and something to be proud of. I thought it made me a better woman, and a more complete artist. I was so good at suffering. I was a freakin’ expert at diminishing myself.
Less than the weed, that grows beside thy door,
Less than the speed, of hours, spent far from thee,
Less than the need thou hast in life of me.
Even less am I.
– Laurence Hope, ‘Less than the Dust’ (1901)
I was stupid… and wrong. It took me a long time to reach this point, but looking back, I wouldn’t give up the life I have now for anything I thought I wanted then. What I have now is better.
I am better.