Content Warning: Suicide & Mental Illness
‘Nothing hurts more than realising you’ve been complicit in your own silence. Nothing feels better than unleashing your voice.’
– Clementine Ford in Fight Like A Girl
I was fourteen the first time I tried to kill myself. I already lived in an unhappy home in fear of my father, then my boyfriend phoned to dump me. After a brief conversation which comprised of me pleading with him to change his mind and him refusing (hinting at my frigidity as the reason why), I hung up the phone and went in search of a razor.
The blade was cool and fine between my fingers as I pulled it across one wrist, then the other. I winced at the superficial red lines I had carved and berated myself. I was failing at girlhood, A.K.A. life, and couldn’t even get my death right. I was sure there’d be no love lost the day I died, because that is the nature of the beast.
That is mental illness.
Born to a white, blue-collar family in Victoria, my mother emigrated from Italy as a baby, and my father is fifth-generation Australian. My parents loved, fought and worked hard to earn a living and raise my sisters and brother and I with the knowledge and tools they had. I grew up provided for, educated, and loved.
My family suffered its share of dysfunction – domestic violence – but from the outside looking in, I was an Aussie girl in the Lucky Country. I should have been happy, but the truth is, I can list on one hand the number of times I remember that feeling.
I knew it briefly when my mother relented and waved me off to boarding school aged sixteen. I had to get away from the father I feared and the mother I hated to see hurt. Denial was her area of expertise, not yet mine.
Thriving at a private girls’ school with a supportive girl gang wasn’t enough, however, to hamper my boy-crazy-adolescent-self, and after a year, I returned home. I hated feeling sad and scared, but it was familiar.
At eighteen, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I thought if I could take control of myself – weight, grades, chastity – I would get better. Instead, I under-ate, overachieved and grew sicker.
My boyfriends loved it.
My girlfriends started to worry.
I liked the attention but loathed myself.
I should have been having the time of my life, but spent nights studying and starving, praying to keep fat and stupidity at bay. I reduced my social activity, increased my worry bank and robbed myself of good times. Counselling was prescribed, and the years rolled by in a blur of sex with strangers, binge eating and bulimia, and under-eating and anorexia.
Oh, and lots of drugs.
Talk-therapy proved futile.
Drugs on the other hand, meant the possibility of the Ever-Elusive-Upper. Nothing made life worth living like boys who wanted me and drugs that disappeared me. You couldn’t have convinced my twenty-something-self otherwise, had you put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger.
But what goes up comes down.
I tried again and again to end my messy existence. Sober after all, meant sadness, and boys don’t like sad girls. Then one day, I stopped. The drugs, the alcohol, the boys, the self-harm. I moved to the Gold Coast, got a proper, professional job and met the proper, patronising professional I would have babies with. This good-girl fell in love, started medicating, counselling, exercising, and meditating and for a time, life was perfect. Except it wasn’t.
I had the right colour, the right patron, the right collar, the right education, even the right children, but what I lacked was my voice.
So, it stayed. I don’t care about your status, your race, your family, or that you win awards at university, it glowered. Don’t you know you can’t ever get rid of me?
For the past few weeks I haven’t had the will to get out of bed, let alone dress or eat. I’ve done the school run in my pyjamas, hair unkempt and face unwashed.
I’ve tried every medical and natural approach known to alleviate mental illness. I’ve worked psychiatric wards and I’ve slurped more herbal tinctures than I care to admit.
Nothing however, has made lasting difference to my quest to get well. Until this week when, exhausted from piggy-backing dread and spending energy trying to convince a family member I have no reason or rationale for feeling awful and I can’t talk myself out of mental illness with positive affirmations, something clicked.
Mental illness is as mysterious as it is unforgiving. Irrespective of gender, race, social standing, education and support, darkness is the baseline.
You might look at me and see a rainbow of colour. Plenty of people do. You might wonder how I can possibly have anything to be depressed about. But colours flit and fade, and when they do, the woman underneath is angry, bewildered, frustrated, and scared, remembering nothing of a life that wasn’t shaped by men who rely on her silence.
Is it possible that feelings like hopelessness, shame, and guilt, coupled with a desire to disappear, particular to women, could be fuelled by a lack of understanding, knowledge, empathy and insight, that we women promulgate by the quiet we keep?
It’s here I find myself today, questioning the fight from a new point of view.
Mental illness creeps, insidious by nature, and bit by bit it robs me, regardless of where I’m from or where I’m going.
But the question now is: what am I going to say about it?
K A Hough is a writer and former RN. She is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in English and Writing through UNE. She is a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar and in 2015 she was awarded the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She had a short story short listed for the 2018 Gertrude Stein Award for Fiction. She is writing her first novel.