Mental Illness affects everyone – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status:
Sense of utter hollowness
I was first made aware that I had depression in 2001. I was 29 years of age and had recently completed a PhD in Australian cultural history. I had won a post-doctoral fellowship to research Australian literature at the University of Sydney and from most points of view appeared to be leading the picture of a successful life. I was in a long-term relationship and had loving parents, sisters and a brother. They all thought I was a swell guy. Yet in the mornings I would stare at the kitchen window of my third-floor apartment on Glebe Point Road and think that it would be a nice thing to open it and fall quietly to my death. Or, to calmly slice the arteries in my wrists and lie under the shower until I disappeared.
This did not alarm me. Suicide presented itself as an increasingly logical solution to problems I could not even quite formulate. Much more troubling was that I was beginning to find it difficult to think – a problem for an academic. I suppose I had always found it difficult to think; in fact, I had consistently placed myself into positions where difficult thinking was necessary. But in 2001, the very basis of thinking – concentration, equanimity, memory – started to break apart, along with confidence in any kind of future and the belief that what I said could be of the slightest interest to anyone. It became so that even those tiny, seemingly simple bridges that join one moment to another faltered. The only thing that felt real was a creeping sense of utter hollowness.
That I am not like this today. That I am writing at all. That my thoughts are no longer edged with razors whose edges were only allowed to cut me. This is my story. It is a story I will share with anyone who wants to listen, but it will take some time. It will not be the story of anyone else but me.
Depression was the word that doctors gave to the state in which my will to live had been exhausted. It is as good as any word can be in describing a condition which, like many other mental illnesses, exists mainly in the terrain between and beyond the reach of words.
There is no word to describe what it means to become un-depressed. Undoing depression is no less simple than doing it. It took me several years. Depression is not itself a condition which needs to be cured. Depression is nothing other than the psyche announcing on behalf of the organism that it is unwilling to put up with any further violation of its right to exist. It has most in common, I believe, with the pains of childbirth. Pain which is borne by both mother and child and which places each in genuine danger, but which accompanies and is the truest registration of the miracle of life.
That I did not kill myself is a miracle of life too. It would not have happened had I not met the most wonderful therapist. Anti-depressant medication helped too, providing the space for the slow, arduous work of reconstructing a self from the ruins of a statue. I have no advice for anyone. I have only my own example, which continues to reveal itself to me with all the awkwardness that would accompany someone who, after half a lifetime of paralysis, attempted one day to learn to walk.
Tony Hughes-d’Aeth is a Lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, where he teaches courses on comparative media and cultural theory. He researches in the area of Australian literary and cultural history. His book Paper Nation: The Story of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia, 1886-1888 (Melbourne University Press, 2001) won the Ernest Scott and Keith Hancock prizes for history. Currently, he is writing a literary history of the Western Australian wheat-belt.
Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.
So I’ve always had a natural tendency to be on edge, extremely aware of my surroundings and alert all the time and, although a predisposition to being quite observant is great for your career, it isn’t always the best for your personal relationships. As a writer your job is to see the things that other people don’t necessarily see. It’s because of your ability to notice anything and everything that you are able to draw conclusions, notice trends or comment on various social phenomena.
I was very fortunate to have a brilliant upbringing and a really supportive family, but mum and dad were in the process of getting divorced when I went off to university. I was worried about putting on weight and all this domestic stuff was going on at home so I’d spend a lot of time at the gym working it out of my system. Seeing the results [weight loss], I’d feel the need to do it a bit more, then a bit more and a bit… I’m a perfectionist, so if I was going to do something I was going to do it well! It never got to the stage where I was hospitalized but I was very well aware that my behavior was not normal.
Mum and dad in their different ways could see what was happening and they were very supportive of me going to see a psychologist. When I got the diagnosis – anorexia nervosa/bulimia nervosa with mild anxiety disorder – it was a shock. Even then I didn’t recognize anxiety as the main thing even though it was feeding into the eating disorder and that was the symptom.
The psychologist used CBT. Good old CBT – it works every time! I’m a big champion of it. The best things for me are the techniques that allow me to separate the emotions from the thought; to realize that what I’m feeling inside isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of what’s going on. So if I’m feeling stressed out of my mind, I take a step back and notice that I’m feeling stressed, then take another step back and notice that I’m having the thought of feeling stressed. That simple dissociation between “I think, therefore I am” really helps.
My anxiety lasted for about a year before I got into the CBT then within 6 months I got back to being more like myself. The central issue is control; more specifically the lack of control is what precipitates anxiety. It definitely flares up when I’m stressed. People deal with anxiety in different ways. For some it’s addiction; mine is an eating disorder. Your weight and your intake is something that will never be out of your control – that’s why you find comfort with it. It will never completely go away, it is part of my chemistry, but doing the CBT helped me stop going too far, over-thinking things. It helped me acknowledge that a thought is simply a thought rather than the truth.
I’ve had a couple of years where I’ve been more mindful and observe myself from a birds-eye perspective. I know what my limits are now. [Having moved to London] there were definitely times last year when I fell back into the old patterns of thinking because I was chronically stressed about my job and repressing all those feeling of loneliness, missing the creature comforts and yet wanting to be this strong person. I was probably too proud to acknowledge that I was having a tough time. I’d never really admit to friends how I was feeling deep down because then I’d have to admit to myself that I had a problem again. So I went home and had a booster session with my counselor.
I can gauge where I am in my overall well-being by my drive to watch what I eat or how I exercise. Now, if I have dessert, that’s OK. The more that food or weight are in the forefront of my mind I know that I need to change something in my life that is causing me that stress. But I can’t have coffee anymore, which is devastating, because I get confused by the increase in heart rate and I think that I’m worried about something when really I’m not – I’m just hyper-sensitive to it.
I used to repress everything to the point where I would become overwhelmed with emotion, I would cut off, but that doesn’t ever help because you explode – it has to come out at some stage. Now I can allow myself to feel that way for a little period because I know that ultimately it will subside; let it wash over me, but then stop it because I know that the body can’t be in a state of stress for that long and will eventually calm down.
Additional Stories can be found here: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/get-involved/your-stories/