We’re all crazy. Some people are just better at hiding it. I wish we wouldn’t.
It’s here again. The fatigue unlike any other, both dreaded and familiar, worse than the summer I had glandular fever. Unlike the flu, however, I don’t get to take leave. I sloth on the couch and watch Dr. Phil. I function on muscle memory. I get ready for work, jumbling together an outfit from the ‘already-worn pile’. I apply makeup, smearing my war-paint haphazardly. I dream of ways to die that aren’t messy, painful or ineffective. I research suicidal chemical cocktails. I hope I won’t be wearing something from the ‘already worn pile’ in my casket. Life goes on – not that I want it to.
I’ve had depression since the age of 14. I can recall hundreds of events that have ‘triggered’ negative self-belief for me, but I feel it would be trivial to define my diagnosis down to a root cause. Regardless of how charmed my life has been, ‘inevitable failure’ has remained a constant core conviction. It is deep within me. Maybe it arose initially from bullying, but genetics has undeniably played a role. Evidently, this is not a teenage phase.
I started self-harming at 16 and liked it – the physical manifestation of internal distress. I relied on it for years, as ‘administering’ cuts never failed to slow my jagged sobbing. I also perversely liked the fright in others’ eyes when they noticed. Staring back at them with a “you don’t know the half of it” gaze, feeling a weird smugness in shocking people with just how fucked up I was. I just as vividly recall the intense shame I felt when family members saw what I was doing to myself. Cutting truly is depression’s voice speaking up – you want people to know your sadness, but you also don’t.
I sought medical help at 19. I went to our family doctor and voiced my fear of antidepressants. I didn’t want to feel numb, didn’t need a straitjacket, just to stop crying at the drop of a hat. What he said has always stuck with me, especially when people shun the need for medical mood stabilisers: ‘Em, you are meant to have a range of good and bad moods. Hard times are inevitable. But things don’t need to be quite so hard, and your moods not quite so harsh – especially on yourself.’
I still struggle with this but I value the concept. So I started on the same medication my Dad took.
Note to newcomers: don’t immediately attend a wine tour. The combination of alcohol, anxiety and new Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors made for an incredibly manic Hanson, and my first blackout experience. Rookie error. But from this initial hiccup things got better. I regained clarity. To my surprise I did have needs, wants and hope for the future. I felt purposeful and positive; something had switched in me. I praised Prozac.
The thing about me though is I have this streak of hubris. I believe I’m the exception, that the rules don’t apply to me. Which is why after less than two years, I deemed myself better. I was feeling great – depression cured! In my infinite wisdom, I set off on an exchange trip to America with a six-month supply of fluoxetine and no intention whatsoever to take it.
My time overseas was incredible. With nothing to balance my moods, I experienced everything in technicolor. Each moment was raw, real and important. I laughed loudly, danced wildly, loved easily. My sex-drive came back, as did my risk-taking behavior. I went to amazing gigs, slept through exams and fell for the sweetest boy. I learnt about politics, religion, the world and myself.
After an experience like that, it was impossible not to go through the blues. They warn you about ‘reverse culture-shock’ in the exchange student info pack. But something tells me that most students don’t ruminate over jumping off the roof of their share house. Most girlfriends don’t start fights hoping they will end in a break-up. Most returned expatriates don’t reduce their diet down to popcorn and Chardonnay. What goes up must come down – hard.
I went back on antidepressants. But during the blue period I had lost a significant amount of weight, and I started experiencing unnerving side-effects. I felt constantly cold, even in 35-degree Perth heat. Tremors in my hands were so extreme I couldn’t hold a mug. I cut out caffeine, had thyroid tests, tried alternative drugs. Desperate, I persevered with Prozac.
Three years on, I commenced my Masters while working full-time. I decided once again to go cold turkey and discover ‘who I was’ without medication. It was a hectic schedule, so I harnessed the fresh mania. I operated at warp speed, barreling from one deadline to another. The reduced appetite was great and the returned libido made for a burst back onto the dating scene, though my romantic judgment was totally off. I took it all in my stride, thinking ‘tears now, great story later’.
Then one day in August, I snapped. I was running errands at work, and I couldn’t stop panicking – I felt I could just drive into the Swan River at any moment. Terrified and out of it, I collected my belongings and took a bus home. Passengers on the 32 pretended not to notice the meltdown happening in front of them. I was openly bawling, with no understanding as to why.
Once home, I went into a dissociated episode that lasted three days. All I remember is a series of short, sharp flashbacks. I was frozen on my couch, unable to move a muscle. Then, in a manic burst, I applied for over twenty positions on Seek, resigned from my job and withdrew from university. I bought cigarettes, clean-skin wine and home-brand painkillers. I then sat on the foreshore, drinking a long-neck; crying, smoking and cutting while a mum and her toddler looked at the ducks.
I drove three hours down to my Dad’s house. Again, not much memory. I remember lying in a ball on the floor of my sister’s bedroom, feeling excited that I’d snuck a scalpel down with me – the winner of a bizarre game of hide-and-seek. I remember drinking heavily. I vaguely remember sneaking out. I don’t recall driving back to Perth at midnight: drunk, bawling, bleeding. Much later, I found a Snapchat of me with dripping wrists, doing 150km/hour to a Taylor Swift ballad.
I remember getting home and battling with myself.
It’s 2 am; maybe I should just go to sleep. No, I’m here now. I’ve been saving the sleeping pills for this. It’s why I bought the Panadol. Dad will be mad at me for sneaking out; if I don’t do it he will think I was just being hysterical. Don’t be the girl who cried wolf, you’ve already had two failed attempts. Tip out the pills on the kitchen counter. Swallow them in fistfuls. You deserve this.
Vomit. Missed calls. The thrumming of a car window. Fog. Waking up in my sister’s house. Embarrassment. Bile and back pain. Fear. Realising I hadn’t died but I had really hurt myself. Getting an Uber to RPH. Awkward emergency room explanations. Something called a NAC infusion. Seeing my sister’s heart break. Feeling like I belonged in a psych ward. Feeling just so fucking tired.
It’s been six months. Ever the perfectionist, I am now acting as if it never happened but of course it did. I can’t fathom my actions, but they happened. I can’t delete the hurt I’ve caused like I can that Snapchat video. Three months of group cognitive behavior therapy doesn’t cancel out liver damage.
Now on a different antidepressant, I still deal with shaky, shivery side effects. I still get days of chronic fatigue exhaustion, like a thick mousse-like fog. Sometimes the struggle to lift my eyes from the floor truly feels insurmountable. But now, I won’t succumb to the pressure to ‘act happy’ anymore. Sure, I’m a regular visitor to the ‘already-worn pile’ but honestly, who isn’t?
Depression is still a stigma-ridden condition. No matter how many mental health initiatives make the headlines, there is a pervasive societal shame surrounding it. For me, the black dog will always be my companion. I’m going to have to work at managing my depression for the rest of my life, in a world where it’s considered okay to slur “she’s insane”. It’s an uphill battle.
This is why I’m telling my story. I had to break right down to build back up again, because I didn’t let anyone in. I hid my crazy. When we are isolated with our thoughts, the illness wins.
Staying sane is hard work. But it’s worth it, so we need to work together. Let’s pretend less.
Flaunt your crazy.