Don’t let that Black Dog howl so loud it drives you mad
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.
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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