Tuesday, August 12, 2014

let's talk

I was at the supermarket buying pumpkin seeds for my homemade granola this morning, a wholly benign exercise - the seeds and the granola - when I learnt Robin Williams was dead. Suicide. Depression.

It feels so much more personal today because I’ve been grappling with my own mental health for a while now; grappling alone, until earlier this year when shit got real. I cried sitting at my kitchen table, words spilling from my mouth into the ears of my parents and the sentence that I’d been terrified to say finally came out: I think I’m depressed.

I went to the doctor, I cried in his office. I tried to articulate how I was feeling and I’m not sure I did too well, perhaps because attempting to explain to others how you're feeling when you don't even really know yourself is incredibly difficult. He directed me to a website. I went to the website. I completed their online course. I took some time off work and then I did the best thing I’ve ever done in the course of attempting to work my way through this cloudy, scary place. I talked.

I talked to my sister and a few friends, I talked to my sister-in-law and a friend from work. I stopped feeling like I had to hide what I was experiencing; I stopped feeling like the sadness, despair and feelings of worthlessness that enveloped me and did their best to suffocate me weren’t there. I stopped. Those first conversations were huge emotional releases. Deep breathes, exhaled loudly and fully and weights at least shifted, if not lifted.

The irony of Robin Williams being depressed is not lost on me, a man who spent a lifetime making others laugh? The thing is, if you delve below the surface of the laughs and hijinks and general good times, there was a darkness that pervaded much of his work. Maybe the laughter was the light he used to beat the darkness? But then, depression is not the absence of happiness.

I walk now, alongside the talking. There is a link between exercise and mental health and on those days when the clouds take up more space then I want them to, I walk. And sometimes I walk when the clouds are all but absent, too. I’m not writing this as some kind of explanation of depression and what it means. Because I don’t really know. All I know is my experience, all I know is my clouds.

Something I do know is that depression is not the opposite of happiness. It is not a failure, it is not a defect, it is not a cop-out. Depression often lives outsides the bounds of explanation, because most times you cannot explain why you feel the way you do; and most times any explanation would fail to meet the expectations of those asking anyway.

Some days I wallow. Not because I like the clouds, not because I like the heaviness that pushes against my chest, not because I’m a fucking martyr. I wallow because part of feeling better, for me, is accepting that some days I will feel like I cannot move from where I am. Like I cannot communicate, like my ability to step beyond my depression has gone.

I’m really sad that Robin Williams is gone. Not just because he could make me laugh like no-one else, but also because it means that we still have some way to go in accepting that the pain we feel in our hearts and minds is just as real as a broken leg. 

Around a million Australia’s suffer from depression in any year, and Australian’s aged 18-24 have the highest incidence of mental illness in the community. Depression ranks third both in Australia and the world for burden of disease, and the World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030 it will be the leading health concern worldwide. 

So why are we not talking? 

There is still so much stigma attached to mental health and mental illness. I have barely discussed my experience with some members of my immediate family. Not because I don’t want to, but because things like ‘just get over it’ or ‘harden up’ are so destructive and the lack of understanding from the people you love the most, hurts the most.

But, if we have any hope of stemming the loss of people like Robin Williams and the thousands more that depression claims every year, we must talk. We must confront the stigma, we must dispel this notion of hardening up.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, or in fact any. I don’t claim to know other’s journey, this is only mine and yours may be different. I am no oracle of information, I have only my own experience with which to share.

I remember a line from A Night at the Roxy from the late seventies (well, I remember watching it online) where Robin said that we all had a little sparkle of madness in us and we shouldn’t let it go, because if you lose that, there isn’t much left. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist. I’m not saying depression is a ‘sparkle of madness’, I’m saying it’s that sparkle of madness within us that makes fighting those clouds worth it.

And that’s why I’m writing this. Because as hard as it is to say to the world, Hey, I have this thing, I have these clouds, I have depression, it is harder still to bear witness to silence and to death.

kb xx