One of the lowest points of my life came when I was a 17 year old runaway scratching out a heavily eyelined living as a waitress in Sydney.

A little darkness and a little light need not be a recipe for disaster. Pic: AP

Thanks to a Great Dane-sized bout of black dog depression, I’d gone from being a straight-A student to a high school drop-out in a few short months.

In 1987, I was writing three-unit English essays on Jane Austen and dreaming of becoming some sort of millionaire adventurer balloon-ess.

In 1988, I had The Smiths on constant rotation in a slummy, inner city sharehouse and was in the grim grip of a ghastly despair.

I abhorred everything about myself, could see no hope for the future and felt utterly convinced the world would be a better place without me in it.

That’s when I put the soundtrack to the French art house movie Betty Blue on at deafening volume and Master Chef-ed the back of my arm with a kitchen knife.

It wasn’t a serious suicide attempt, as such, but neither was it the stereotypical “cry for help” – mainly because I was too ashamed to let anyone know I needed help.

In the days that followed, I kept my bandaged arm discreetly covered in much the same way I kept my desperate inner life under wraps.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, I was the same outgoing and over-the-top teenager I’d always been.

A few days later, however, an off-duty detective drinking at the seedy dive where I was (underagedly) serving schooners caught a glimpse of my wounds and grabbed my elbow.

“Hey,” he said. “I know what’s going on with you.”

Really? So someone (albeit someone with a beer belch and a bad double-breasted suit) really had some inkling of my inner hell?

“Yeah,” he said with a salacious smirk. “You’ve been girl fighting.”

Low as I was, I couldn’t help entertaining the blackly humorous vision of this sleazy jerk volunteering his services for the Lifeline suicide hotline.

“So you wanna top yaself?” I could imagine him saying. “Well how ‘bout first ya tell me what kinda panties ya wearing…”

Two-and-a-bit decades later, I look back on that time and feel terribly sorry for my poor, teenaged self.

I also feel terribly self-conscious sharing such a harrowing and intimate story in public. (Most people in my life have no idea.)

But Andrew Robb’s book Black Dog Daze and next Saturday’s World Suicide Prevention Day have reminded me of something important: that while talking about mental illness might be excruciating, not talking can be fatal.

In fact, I reckon those of us who can emotionally finance disclosure may have a moral imperative to do so because so many others suffer in such deadly silence and stigma.

When I ponder my own, life-long wrestle with what’s been called “malignant sadness”, I often wonder how much is genetic and how much is the result of the shitty things that have happened to me over the course of my life.

Either way, some of my earliest memories involve profound melancholy.

I have vivid recollections of hiding in a dark corridor beside my house wondering how the hell I could drag myself to school when existence seemed so comprehensively pointless. 

I was five at the time.

These days, I view depression as being like diabetes, asthma or any other chronic illness requiring ongoing management.

Having an unquiet mind is my particular health burden and I’ve just had to get my head around the prospect of being on-and-off medication and in-and-out of therapy forever.

Sure, it can be expensive, inconvenient and embarrassing. But the immense improvement in my quality of life is worth it – and the worst-case consequences of letting things slide are just too, too grave.

My last really bad turn was in 2007 when I was the new mother of a six-month-old baby who hadn’t slept for more than a couple of hours in a row.

I realised the insomnia-related exhaustion had morphed into something darker when, one dismal Sunday morning, I woke convinced my daughter would be better off if I wasn’t around.

Once again, I was out of my mind – quite literally – with misery. Once again, I found my head filled with terrifying thoughts of self-harm.

But what I did next was very different to what I’d done at 17 when I was still on my depression L-plates.

Instead of panicking about the bleakness of my thoughts or buying into their enditall! “logic”, I used them as diagnostic. Clearly I was heading downhill fast and needed help.

So instead of hiding my condition, I told a few key friends, family members and professionals who encouraged me to check into the postnatal depression unit of a private psychiatric hospital.

Asylumisation can obviously be a life-saver for some – but it isn’t everyone’s cup of ECT. I wasn’t a fan.

One staff member talked to me as if I was my daughter’s age and nearly alerted Homeland Security when my big toe accidentally strayed over the “do not cross” line in front of the nurses’ staff room.

Another had the disconcerting habit of shining a whopping great fishing torch into my face after lights out and shouting “HAVE YOU DONE YOUR MENTALLY CALMING RELAXATION EXERCISES?” while I was trying to do my mentally calming relaxation exercises.

I also got in big trouble for walking out of art therapy classes and suggesting silly, politically correct synonyms for madness such as sanity challenged, mad-i-capable, left-minded, dementedly gifted and psychotically curious.

I did, however, benefit from some sleep and some effective new medication – as well as from the glorious realisation that I now had more insight into the way my brain worked (and sometimes didn’t work) than many paid professionals.

So how am I today? In rudely excellent mental health. And how will I be tomorrow? Quite possibly viewing life through poo-coloured glasses again.

But thanks to my vigilance about the early warning signs of depression and my knowledge of – and willingness to dip into – the smorgasbord of treatment options, I feel brazenly functional.

If you have a dodgy mind, I hope you know: a) that you’re not alone; b) that you’re not any more of a freak than someone with dodgy knees; and c) that all sorts of assistance is available.

Sure it can take time to find the right professional, the right medication and possibly even the right nut house. (Unlike hippy harem pants, mental illness is not a one-size-fits-all affair.)

But, please: don’t give up. Things can and do get better.

For urgent help with depression and other mental illnesses, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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41 comments

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    • Chris_D says:

      07:02am | 05/09/11

      Congratulations Emma on a very brave story.

      I am sure this article will help others who need help or advice go and seek it out rather than suffering in silence.

      Well done.

    • James M says:

      07:05am | 05/09/11

      “Low as I was, I couldn’t help entertaining the blackly humorous vision of this sleazy jerk volunteering his services for the Lifeline suicide hotline.

      “So you wanna top yaself?” I could imagine him saying. “Well how ‘bout first ya tell me what kinda panties ya wearing…””

      Almost snorted cornflakes up my nose at this.

      I’ve been on anti-depressants of one variety or another since I was eight years old or thereabouts, except for a period of a few years during which my life was reduced to the four walls around me and from which I’ve yet to entirely recover, particularly socially. Frankly, the idea of NOT being on anti-depressants is kinda scary.

      I hear you re: knowing your own mind and thinking of depression as something to be managed. Some of my strategies:

      * Anti-Depressants (duh)
      * Daily exercise
      * Caffeine (not too much as it increases anxiety)
      * Omega-3 (Salmon!)
      * Sunlight and time with my wonderful canine friend.
      * Regulating my exposure to partisan politics and other ‘dog eat dog’ matters wherein selfishness and hatred are manifest and celebrated as virtues - yes, that includes The Punch - and ensuring that exposure to depressing material is effectively counter-balanced: cheery Nintendo games are good, also Gandhi.

      Best wishes to all, but particularly at this juncture to those dealing with similar issues. Emma is right: things can get better.

    • Chris L says:

      09:17am | 05/09/11

      Ben Williams is quoted saying “There is no psychologist in the world like a puppy licking your face”. Not that he has any qualifications in the mental health department, but I think he may be right.

    • Robert Smissen of country SA says:

      11:18am | 05/09/11

      Chris L, you are so right, instead of focusing on SELF focus on someone or something that needs us

    • sir ronald bradnam says:

      07:58am | 05/09/11

      Wow to put that in a public domain is amazing EJ.

    • stephen says:

      08:03am | 05/09/11

      If your illness is not too chemically based, i.e. an imbalance in the mind, naturally occurring or otherwise, then I reckon regularity and repetition is a help.
      Yoy know, getting up, preferably with someone else, getting breakfast, sitting down to eat it, going to work, that sort of thing.
      (The repitition part of it I can’t stand. Boring, it is.)
      Yet I think a lot of psychological unstableness is, in fact, unstableness, or no set patterns of perceptions and response.
      Behaviour should have its boundaries and they should be ascertained and set during the school years.
      ‘Chemical’ troubles are quite different I guess, especially if they have not been treated and aberrant behaviour makes it worse over time.
      There are causes for mental illness, and treating them should have no stigma attached as, say, getting a broken arm fixed.

    • Justin says:

      09:13am | 05/09/11

      I strongly disagree. That’s when I’m at my lowest, nothing new to keep me going, wondering what the point is, wondering if I’ve already seen the best days of my life and have nothing to look forward to or hope for.

      Life is an adventure. Nothing confirms your love for life like living like dying doesn’t matter. Jump out of a plane, tie some elastic off your ankles and dive off a bridge. Race a car (under controlled conditions at a track, not on the street). Just do something that needs your full and complete concentration. Something where you know your mind can’t wander, knowing to err is to die. Now THAT is living!

    • Smidgeling says:

      05:23pm | 05/09/11

      Agreed Justin.

      While a healthy regular diet, exercise and sleep is beneficial, general repetition is not.

      New experiences and opportunities, provided they aren’t overly stressful, are the best treatment outside therapy and family support.

      When I’m at my lowest a regular or repetitive day causes me to go off the deep end. Why live a banal life that isn’t fulfilling?

    • Aurora says:

      08:04am | 05/09/11

      For anyone who is suffering from depression, may I recommend meditation.  At my lowest ebb, I sought out a meditation teacher who has helped me immensely.  Really helps to keep the black dog at bay, quietens the mind.

    • stephen says:

      04:13pm | 05/09/11

      Yeah but good meditation.
      In the late 70’s I tried the method espoused by Dr. Ainslie Meares, (not that I’m crackers, so ter speak, but I am a bit ‘flighty’, shall we say) and it’s tops.
      If the means of stabilization is solitary, and not, say, with a shrink, (which I have seen a couple of times professionally and when I went to make another appointment his secretary said, slightly tearfully…‘oh, the Doctor he’s seeing a shrink’ and when I told her my name she hung up, quick smart) then be certain you get associative advice from a professional, i.e. there’s no reason in the world - this one or any other one - why an ill person would or should turn automatically to a Religion.

    • Slothy says:

      08:31am | 05/09/11

      My experiences with depression and mental illness aren’t my story to tell so I can’t add much to this conversation, but I just wanted to say thank you for this article, Emma.

    • Gardener says:

      03:18pm | 08/09/11

      Nicely put….

    • Helen says:

      08:42am | 05/09/11

      You’re such a good writer, Emma. The two often seem to go together, unfortunately! I don’t know why that is and perhaps it’s just me mistaking correlation for causation. Great article.

    • morrgo says:

      09:31am | 05/09/11

      Emma’s piece should be part of the school curriculum.

      Beyond that, people should be taught:
      - how to self-diagnose the early symptoms so that early action can be taken;
      - that being depressed and seeking help is no shame;
      - that pills do help but not necessarily the first one tried.

    • Stephy says:

      12:24pm | 05/09/11

      I agree, morrgo. Also, how to play a support role for someone with depression.

    • Aphrodite says:

      09:38am | 05/09/11

      WhenI first moved to Australia after my marriage circa 2009, I didnt have a job, no friends and constant rejections from employers (I didnt have local experience) didnt help much. There were days when I was just lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling. Getting up in the evening before husband came home was a chore. I didnt share any of this with him. He had enough on his mind than to start worrying about me. I had a wonderful career in the UK and was well educated. Rejections kept coming and that drove me into a black hole. Crwaling out of which was too hard. I contemplated suicide more number of times than I can count but I was too much of a coward to do something about it or may be there was something that kept me going. I always remembered my parents, siblings and husband and how much they would be affected if I did something foolish.
      Depression is not pretty. It never was and never will be. Get help as soon as you can. I didnt and I still do relapse into my dark moods even though I have a job now and too less time to think about bad stuff.

    • Pauline says:

      09:41am | 05/09/11

      My strategy is that before you do anything final (and yes, I too have had periods where I’m convinced the world would be a better place without me) - have a cup of tea.  Just focus on making the tea, drinking the tea, feeling the warmth of the tea.  My furry friends are often on watch during my darkest times and they’ve been invaluable.  Personally I’d rather go into a box than into hospital again, but it can be very good for the “escape” factor - you do escape being in your life and being in charge of your life (the good and the bad) for a little while.

      But a cup of tea is how I start, and then take the recognition of knowing I need some help and some time out right now…

    • Helen says:

      09:53am | 05/09/11

      Poo coloured glasses! I’ll remember that for next time. Thanks for sharing, Emma. My way through was Positive Psychology - forcing myself to look for the good things in life.

      When I was at the Master Chef stage (another good term) I went on to some of those sites in the internet (I live very remotely and had no help) and found ways I could actually do what I was thinking of doing. It was only my refusal to pass in the XYZ kitchen that prevented the follow through. Now I know myself much better and take steps when I feel the shadow of the black dog upon me.

      Excercise, fresh air, sunshine, vitamin D, plenty of good fats (including saturated) and St Johns Wort.

    • Emily says:

      10:13am | 05/09/11

      It wasn’t a serious suicide attempt, as such, but neither was it the stereotypical “cry for help” – mainly because I was too ashamed to let anyone know I needed help.

      THIS ^^  it hit home with me.
      Its how I have felt. I don’t feel like going into too much detail at the moment.

      Thanks for sharing I think it needs to be more spoken about.

    • Eleanor says:

      10:41am | 05/09/11

      Bravo, Emma. It can’t have been easy putting this out for the world to read.

    • Henry says:

      11:13am | 05/09/11

      It is good to hear that you are coping with depression, myself… not doing so good lately. I too realise that the world is a wonderful and exciting place and would love to be able to enjoy it, but I just feel blocked at every turn. It just feels like there is a voice screaming continuously “Look at how much it costs to live these days, work harder, don’t take time off, only got one degree? so does everyone else, start studying for the second one right now if you want to ever own a home! You need to save $1,000,000 for a good retirement, don’t eat anything that tastes good it all too fattening and unhealthy!” and on and on and on until every waking moment is spent abhorring my life. I already know I am going to kill myself, it simply makes the most sense, but I am going to try for as long as I can to stave it off. Who knows? I might even get ahead long enough to have a weekend off to just lie in the sun and maybe things won’t seem that bad for a while. Ciao

    • Theres so much to life... says:

      12:29pm | 05/09/11

      Henry please dont hurt yourself.  Call lifeline for help on 13 11 14 http://www.lifeline.org.au/

    • carolyn says:

      11:16am | 05/09/11

      thank you for normalizing depression as an illness like many others that needs to be managed on a daily basis. I remember my doctor once asking me, ‘if you know exercise can help you, why don’t you do it?’ and therein lies the crux of the problem.  low self-esteem makes it hard to look after yourself.  my self-talk now is about exercise being as essential as my medication and it is something that just needs to be done!

    • Cat says:

      11:41am | 05/09/11

      thankyou for speaking out, it is both inspiring to hear your story and utterly necessary. Thankyou for being brave enough to risk the stigma, it is no small feat and you should be increadibly proud of this piece.

    • MWTH says:

      12:02pm | 05/09/11

      The epidemic of Depression is no accident.  Our bodies are in a constant state of stress - simultaneously attempting to process sedatives with stimulants and various poisons. Of course you are depressed, your body is exhausted simply trying to survive.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sd_Mg0xCvcM&feature=related

    • Stephy says:

      12:22pm | 05/09/11

      Emma, good on you for relaying your experiences. I’m currently going through Post natal depression and it’s nothing like I expected it to be. When I thought of depression I thought of sad people. Nothing like that at all. I get angry - mad. Mad as hellfire. Screaming and throwing things. There are days where I’m just down and things look bleak but it wasn’t until I found I couldn’t talk to my husband without snapping at him that I realised I needed help.
      For other mums going through PND, all I can recommend is - take the drugs. They really do help. And if you can, find a PND support group with other women who are going through it as well. Sometimes there’s nothing more calming than being able to ring up nother mum and say “oh gods, I’ve just yelled at my child to shut the F*** up” and instead fo them going “I’m reporting you to DHS” saying instead “Hey, it happens. Give him a cuddle, remind him mummy loves him. Are you feeling better?”

    • Jem says:

      01:09pm | 05/09/11

      I hope I don’t come across the wrong way, however, I disagree with the advice regarding taking the drugs.  I was diagnosed with PND and the drugs made things worse for me.  I was unable to do anything, literally unable to hold my child due ot hand tremours, care for my child or myself in any way, and that exacerbated the depression.  I went back to my GP and explained the problem and her comment was that drugs don’t work for everyone.

      People should definitely try the drugs, but always work with your doctor to make sure you are getting the benefits, rather than ended up in a more adverse situation.

      Thank you Emma for this article.  Too many people suffer from depression without realising how many others suffer as well.  It should never be seen as anything other than another medical illness, one that needs ongoing monitoring and treatment just like diabetes.

    • Stephy says:

      07:06pm | 05/09/11

      Jem, I can totally understand that drugs don’t work for everyone, I guess I was saying just give them a try. I put off taking them for about two months, attempting to find alternative sources to curb the depression spikes, but it wasn’t until I was holding my crying husband after him threatening to leave and never return that I realised I myself couldn’t do anything without help. The drugs aren’t a miracle cure - but it hasn’t gotten to the point where I’ve affected him enough that he threatened to leave again.

    • PaulG says:

      12:58pm | 05/09/11

      You should be proud of yourself, even if for nothing else, for the courage it’s taken to write this piece.  I enjoy you’re writing in general and it’s great to see your take on such a personal issue.

    • MT says:

      01:46pm | 05/09/11

      Personally I myself suffered a work related injury that has seen me house bound for five years now, I’m on medication and in need of three differing surgeries which the insurer is unwilling too do due to the potential outcome being far worse for both of us. Though for me the risk is worth it as I have little choices left, I exercise as required, my diet is one of a very healthy nature, though sadly for the insurer it is not as they fear the potential costs may be far greater than me sitting at home.  I’m now having trouble getting up or even facing my wife and child as I know both will leave the house for work and school commitments, this is the time when I feel most vulnerable as I feel I’m not contributing financially towards the house or the family as a father should.  As someone who has worked from the age of fourteen through to my early forties before the accident I now feel totally dependant on my family rather than being depended upon as I was raised all men should be. For me personally that is the great black dog, the alone time, the time I should be working not sitting around hoping for a miracle that will see me one day wake up and find this was all a bad dream.  Believe me who ever thinks staying at home week after week, month after month and year after year is a great lifestyle is kidding themselves - time away from work gets boring real quick, and its not long before you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, throw pain in with the mix and their is your black dog, though clearly this one is not coming at you with its tail wagging!

    • stephen says:

      02:04pm | 05/09/11

      Hi Emma, I went to high school with you and only recall the zany bright OTT teenager, and am very moved by your story.  How many friends and peers where going through similar stuff without anyone noticing or if they did, not being equipped to help? 

      I too have struggled with depression, although less dramatic it was more of a long term slide into the abyss.  A few months ago I hit the brick wall and realized that unless I did something I would not survive much longer.  30 years of denial were about to give way.

      For 30 years, since being 10 I pushed things aside, as both my brothers fell victim to depression and anxiety brought on by a f*****d up childhood.

      Now after a year of solid therapy, where at times I felt like I was ripping out my own soul with a pair of pliers, I have some inner peace at last.  My relationship has never been better with my wife and my kids.  I am lucky, and also I was determined that it wouldnt claim me as it had other family members.

      Seek help - don’t be afraid, self examination/therapy can be a scary palce to go but its the only way.

    • Huey says:

      02:05pm | 05/09/11

      Thanks Emma, my “unquiet mind” (so very apt)  is a condition I know well. Lack of sleep is the thing that affects my control of me. No more therapy now but one sleepless night is the max..my medication is a sleeping tablet on night two. Works for me. Once again ...thanks.

    • Sally Oakley says:

      02:14pm | 05/09/11

      Good stuff, Emma, thank you. I have depression too. I’m also trying to write my way through it, in hopes that the conversation will help others. I hate that people are ashamed to talk about it. I understand why. I feel it too. But we’ve got to talk about it if we hope to improve things for any of us.

    • Richard Perin says:

      02:20pm | 05/09/11

      Hugs (any kind you want) Emma. Ditto.

    • matters says:

      04:27pm | 05/09/11

      fantastic article.  After a recently failed marriage and some work related issues I found myself, just yesterday contemplating the unthinkable.  This morning, after reading this I immediately rang lifeline and now have an appointment with a Psychologist.  timely.  Thankyou.

    • James Ricketson says:

      05:45pm | 05/09/11

      Emma, congratulations on a great article; on having the courage to share such an intimate part of your life with us. I have close contact with someone who suffers from a mental illness; who is one person when she is well and quite another person when she is ‘mad’. She doesn’t like being ‘mad’ and has tried hard to find the right help for years but hasn’t yet found it. I am deeply unimpressed with the services available for the the mentally ill in NSW but very impressed by the caring and compassion shown by the police when they are involved in a bout of her ‘madness’- as they very often are. Hats off to the boys (and girls)  in blue. Wearing my documentary filmmaker’s hat I am working on a doco that looks at mental illness from the point of view of those who suffer from it - in an attempt to demystify it and see it as little different from suffering from recurrent migraines, dodgy knees, asthma etc. Anyone interested in contributing thoughts, please do: jamesricketson@gmail.com

    • Rose says:

      11:31pm | 05/09/11

      Thank you for publishing this article.  I hope that many, many people read it. All the best.

    • tony says:

      01:26am | 06/09/11

      the staff member shouted “have you done your mental calming relaxation exercises”?,while i was trying to do my mental calming relaxation exercises,poo coloured glasses,funny stuff,ive been on antideppressants for 13 years for severe depression,the pills arent a perfect cure but i dont know where id be without them,thanks for the story.

    • Octavia says:

      11:57am | 06/09/11

      Always thought-provoking, often hilarious and now magnificently brave and humane.  A most important article.  Many thanks and all the best.

    • Richard Monfries says:

      02:05pm | 06/09/11

      Hi Emma
      From both sides of the fence - I’m mostly dysthymic; under control with meds, and I’m an RN working in public mental health - thank you for your piece.

      Yes, one shouldn’t give up, but more than a stoical attitude is required; challenging the icky thoughts and actively doing something about them will befriend the black dog.

      On the other hand, stigmatising attitudes towards mental illness in society at large is a battle yet to be won.

      Thanks

      Richard

    • Nobody really gives a stuff says:

      02:22pm | 09/09/11

      Thanks for sharing Emma. Depression in men manifests itself a little differently than in women. I’ve often tried to anaylse and rationalise the feeling but with the onset of the fog it’s difficult.

      The best way I can describe the onset of an episode are lyrics from a Metallica song called the ‘Unnamed Feeling’, from the album ‘St Anger’. Noting your reference to The Smiths, I thought it appropriate.

      No offense is intended.

      Get the f@@k out of here
      I just wanna get the F@@K away from me
      I rage, I glaze, I hurt, I hate
      I hate it all, why why why me?

      I cannot sleep with a head like this
      I wanna cry, I wanna scream
      I rage, I glaze, I hurt, I hate
      I wanna hate it all away.

 

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