Just in case the title wasn’t obvious enough, this is not my usual kind of post. No amusing stories or pretty pictures or even toilet humour… well there will be some pictures as I can’t seem to help myself. There are also some swears. Not very many, but enough.
It’s something I’ve felt the need to write about for a while but have kept putting it off to talk about funner subjects such as our travels. And wildlife invasions. And of course poo. This post is about depression and other yucky things and if you’d rather skip reading it I don’t blame you – I’m not even that keen on writing it. This is sharing personal shit and we already know I’m not the best at that. But who gives a stuff if it gets awkward – it doesn’t really matter, because the important thing is that I just say it.
Still here? Neat.
A while ago I finished reading Furiously Happy, by The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson. It took a couple of months because I carefully measured it out in small doses, like medicine. Which it is – her blog too. Her hundreds of thousands of readers (aka Lawsbians) flock to her website to share a supportive, non-judgy and bloody hilarious space where they can laugh their arses off and feel like they’re among friends, even in the face of anxiety, depression, and/or a zombie apocalypse.
The cruelest thing about depression is that it makes you think it’s just you; that it’s not really there, and you’re just being pathetic. Because even though about one in every six people are having similar kinds of feelings as you, everyone believes they’re the only one. Well they’re not. And thanks to Jenny’s courage in starting the conversation, this post is me saying to you, me too.
My first – and longest – bout of depression started at uni… I only realised this years later, in hindsight; at the time I just thought I was a lazy, boring loser. It wasn’t that I just felt sad all the time – though many days were miserable – I remember just feeling… unfeeling. Numbed and apathetic, going through the motions and unable to get motivated about anything. I was a spectator in my own life. I liked people but didn’t feel like one of them. I wanted to have friends and be fun, but somehow do it without interacting with others because I couldn’t remember how to be ‘me’, and trying to act like I was still that person was exhausting. Sometimes seeing people having fun cheered me up, and when I forced myself to be social I’d have a great time and feel better for a while. And sometimes it felt like people were having fun “at” me, and I hated them.
Those were the shittiest days. When I couldn’t believe anything good about myself, or believe that anyone saw anything in me that didn’t suck. Then I’d go to ground and find refuge in writing (throw it away afterwards), books, long beach walks, movies, food; anything that helped me escape from myself. And the whole time I’d berate myself for being such a dickhead about nothing.
Sometimes I’d have a good day, or two, or longer, where I was suddenly okay for some reason; it just seemed to happen randomly. I’d look back on the dark days or weeks I’d just emerged from wondering why didn’t I just snap myself out of it? And thinking, I’m fine now. This is me, how I am now. Why couldn’t I just be ME before? Is this normal? I’m okay now though, thank god that’s over. And try to forget about it. But after a while something would happen, or maybe nothing would happen, and I’d feel myself sliding back into the crap, not wanting to go but unable to stop. I could still remember how it’d felt to be optimistic and interested, and tried to just BE that way, but it wouldn’t just switch back on. And even worse, as my bouts of depression got longer I started to think that this was the new me; that I was changing permanently into this miserable, tired, pessimistic dropkick and there was nothing I could do about it. You are who you are, after all.
I did eventually get through it – one day at a time. I tried to do things that got me out of my zombiefied state and challenged me, like living in Japan for a year. I joined the Army too. I tried on new careers to see what fit. I explored wherever possible. I bungy jumped and hiked and learned to SCUBA dive. I finally found somewhere that again felt like ‘home’. But it took a long time without proper help. Years. Time that could’ve been better spent still having adventures but not being depressed.
A print of this painting hangs on our wall. It’s followed me across two centuries, and if I had to choose one work of art for eternity it’d be this one. It’s called Cafe Terrace at Night, and is by the brilliant but troubled Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh.
I’ll always remember the first time I saw it. I was out walking by myself at night, as I sometimes did when down in the hole, to feel the breeze and see the stars and find a little peace. The print was displayed all lit up in a framers’ window, and when I saw it I literally gasped – I mean look at it! The colours, the warmth of the cafe against the coolness of the night sky, the way it draws you in. I grew to love it even more because of how I saw myself in it – out in the dark, looking in at people’s bright, happy lives and wanting to be a part of it all, but thinking I couldn’t. Vincent apparently felt the same, but was still open to finding the beauty in the ‘outside’; the stars I loved were a detail he would have missed had he painted the scene from inside the cafe.
The ability to still see beauty around us despite any bad shit we’re going through is SO precious. I remember reading somewhere that appreciation of the small stuff and being able to laugh at things even while having the shit scared out of you are survival traits. I really like this quote:
Laughter is one of the most powerful healing experiences. It is contagious and relieves isolation and loneliness. It is impossible to laugh and feel afraid at the same time.
(Normal laughter, I’m assuming… hysterics would probably be counter-productive.)
It’s part of our skill set. In one of my past lives I was an outdoor recreation instructor and I really admired one of the guys I worked with. He was super fit, the go-to guy for rockclimbing and high ropes instruction, and a mad keen kayaker and long distance swimmer as well. The thing I liked most about him though was how when we were at the pub he liked to stand next to strangers at the bar and freak them out by nonchalantly twisting his prosthetic leg up at the knee and using the heel of his shoe as a beer coaster.
At the tender age of 20 his car collided with a semitrailer and incredibly, he survived. He lost his entire leg but retained the best attitude and sense of humour of anyone I’ve ever met. His lust for life was infectious, and he inspired by example and never let the fact that he was perpetually “legless” (nb for non-Aussies that’s also a slang term for drunk) stop him; he was a Paralympian for God’s sake!
That ability to find the funny in even horrible things is one of the qualities I admire most in my fellow humans. It’s part of why I fucking adore Billy Connolly, who I rave about at every opportunity. These are very special people and we must treasure them.
Some of those Legends:
The Gesundheit Institute, which Patch Adams started back in the 70s to help cheer up hospital patients, is now global and not limited to hospitals.
Interference with the Wally Lewis statue at Suncorp Stadium provided much needed comic relief during the horrendous Brisbane floods in 2011. Unknown prankster, we salute you. …QUEENSLANDER!!
And when Matt Damon was stranded alone on Mars for over a year he was still really funny even after his poo-tatoes blew up and the rescue rocket crashed and everything was looking really bleak, including his teeth … ew.
That’s some inspiring shit.
And of course
Man I wish something like this had been around 15 years ago. The honesty, the support, and the general awareness of depression as a disease rather than a lack of character. I wish I’d read about someone else’s experience of it back then, so I would’ve known that yes, it really was something, it wasn’t just me being stupid. I probably would’ve gotten help. Everyone needs help sometimes, it’s just that occasionally the thing you need help lifting can’t be seen.
What did help.
My sister Justine is my best mate but I hid the worst of my feelings even from her because I didn’t want to burden her with something that I couldn’t explain and that I figured she couldn’t do anything about. Even so, her just being there for me and asking, and then asking again, (because I can be really stubborn but then again so can she) if I was okay and what was wrong helped me to unload some of what was festering inside. It didn’t magically cure me but each time I said the bad thoughts out loud and saw them for the bullshit they were, it got a bit easier. The people you were born to and the family you’ve made for yourself, who love you no matter what, want to be there for you so give them a chance. And if talking isn’t enough, find an understanding doctor who can get you the help you need.
I moved interstate, started a new career, came out from behind my wall. I made new friends, had some fantastic adventures. I met the love of my life and yaaay he felt the same! I felt the bad stuff was behind me and I was the happiest I’d ever been. We married and had two beautiful boys (not necessarily in that order), and built our dream home close to nature. I was more social than I’d ever been in my life, and I surprised myself by how much I now enjoyed having people around (to a certain extent). And with all of these wonderful things happening, while living a life I’d scarcely dreamed was possible, the depression came back. Except now, because I was connected with the people around me, the lies changed; they told me I was lying to everyone, that I was an inadequate mother and a failure, and that I didn’t deserve any of it. This time though, I knew what my brain was trying to do, the bastard. I talked to J and then I talked to my doctor – the first step we took was a simple mental health questionnaire. I composedly answered each question until the last one; “Do you ever feel worthless?” whereupon I answered “all the time” and burst into tears.
Force it out into the open.
She diagnosed me with mild depression and referred me to a counsellor. I talked with the counsellor about what I was feeling, and not feeling. I cried a bit. Or maybe a lot. I felt like an idiot but she was understanding and patient and practical. Everyone experiences depression differently; my symptoms weren’t severe enough to require medication but that didn’t mean they didn’t need treatment. Mine included simple remedies like getting more exercise and fresh air. Getting enough sleep. Taking time to do the things I loved that were just for me. None of these things were easy with two little boys to wrangle but we did what we could and it made a difference. Not bottling up how I was feeling was important too, as was seeking out things that made me happy. And thank you, internets, you’ve been a great help there.
God I love this. (Mark Gee’s Full Moon Silhouettes short is even more incredible on Vimeo!)
A fantastically supportive community of Lawsbians was out there too. Maybe we can all vaccinate ourselves against the bad shit if we watch enough hilarious videos of swearing robots. (Jenny always finds the best stuff! This was on her blog last week.)
These days I still have regular bouts of shittiness, numbness and wanting to be alone, same as everyone, but they are usually short-lived, and are the exception not the norm. So why write about depression now? I imagine the contents of this post will come as a surprise to a lot of people as I’ve hardly been forthcoming about my mental health issues. I’m writing about it now because one in six people, people! You could be feeling something similar to what I did and telling yourself it’s nothing and to ‘just get over it’. Or worse, listening to the lying bastard in your head that’s telling you that you’re not enough. It’s BULLSHIT. When I think about my dark days at uni my biggest regret is that I didn’t get help and deal with it. I didn’t because I kept telling myself I was just being stupid. I wasted years trying to pretend there was nothing wrong.
Hopefully the more of us who know depression share our experiences the less those with it still undiagnosed will suffer in silence. Because you don’t have to. So why would you?
Like Jenny says, depression lies. And you are not alone. Even though sometimes you might need to be alone. Or maybe you don’t want to be alone but also can’t handle being with actual people. (It can be very conflicting.) Anyway, if you’d like to be alone together with a bunch of lovely people who’ll understand come on over to Jenny’s place. Bring tequila.
If you’re in Australia and you need professional help with depression and/or anxiety contact Beyond Blue and/or your family doctor.
Everywhere else: online, your family, a friend, your doctor, a hotline where there’s always someone to talk to if you need it.
And if you’re lucky enough to never have had depression, but are perhaps trying to understand what someone you know is going through, read the blog post Adventures in Depression by Allie Brosh, and especially the sequel, Depression Part Two. Even though everyone’s depression is different, and hers was/is acute, she writes about it extremely insightfully; I learned about my own depression by reading about hers, and I had it! Her webcomics are brutally honest, relatable, and you guessed it, hilarious. Both her and Jenny have it so tough yet still use humour to shine a light on something horrible, and can articulate what it’s like when the rest of us can’t find the words.