The following is an article I wrote attempting to explain how I have been affected by depression over the years. It tackles some of the things I have done and also some basic personal views I have on the subject, which I may deal with in more depth in the future.
My War against Mental Illness
There is a war raging most people do not know about.
It’s crippling people, ripping apart friends and family, destroying millions of lives across the planet. This war is killing people daily, and yet it’s passing so many people by.
I could reel off statistics to prove this: “by 2020, depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease” or “about twenty in every hundred people will experience some form of mental health problem at some time in their lives.” How about, “up to 12% of people affected by mental illness take their own lives (compared with an average of 1.7% for the whole population)” I could go on and on, citing references, figures, percentages, but what’s the point? It’s boring and no-one’s listening.
In any war, the truth of the conflict doesn’t hit home until it affects you personally. It is the individuals on the front line who are often forgotten about, it’s their stories I’m interested in.
My name is Addy, I am 28 years old, and I exist in Melbourne. I have been fighting on the front line against chronic depression for fourteen years now, and have no military training.
The first time I nearly killed myself was in November 2000.
I’ll never forget what it was like to stand so close to my death. The tails of my trench coat dancing in the maelstrom that the Scottish wind orchestrated. The ice cold drizzle, that delightful West Coast drizzle, raining from the heaven above to mix with the tears already dribbling down my face. It was a gloomy Friday in early November, a few weeks from my 22nd Birthday, and it was on this day that I had chosen to die. I didn’t jump, I turned around, and I kept on fighting.
The second time I nearly killed myself was in March 2006.
It has to be said the weather was a darn sight better. A balmy march evening on the South Coast of Victoria, Australia. With the laughter, music, excitement and passions of the folk festival ringing in my ears I walked humbly to the beach where I had chosen, a few weeks previously, to be my final resting place. I sat there, on the soft white sand staring out over the black void of the ocean. The gentle sound of the waves egging me on. I remember my hand shaking as it held the cold steel blade against my wrist. I didn’t slice, I threw the blade into the ocean, and I kept on fighting.
The third time I nearly killed myself was in May 2007.
Twice before I had committed the error of pausing, to reflect, and it was something I decided wasn’t going to happen this time. I’ll never forget lying naked on my bed staring at the ever-growing crack on the ceiling. I emptied the remaining white escape pills from my pack of anti-depressants and downed them with the sweet nectar of Glenfiddich single malt. I placed the bottle clumsily onto the floor, and closed my eyes. When I woke up my head pounded, my body swum and through the haze of numbness and pain could only vaguely recall what had happened. It was the letter and the photo I found beside the bottle of whisky that slapped me back to reality. I didn’t die, but only through my own stupidity of not taking enough pills, but all the same I kept on fighting.
The fourth time I nearly killed myself was in October 2007…but we’ll get to that later.
The underlying reason why I had decided to kill myself on each of the above attempts was the same. It wasn’t because of a song, or a movie, or a person, or a place, or an action, or an event – on all four occasions the reason I had decided to end my life was simple: the pain I was feeling was so great that I just couldn’t cope with it anymore.
Reading this I’m sure you’re all thinking the same thing ‘sad little twat, if you hate life so much just stop bloody whinging and do yourself in already’. Well, you’re all wrong. I LOVE life! Absolutely adore it. Period!
I love walking in the rain. I love the smell of maple syrup. I love dancing to cheesy 80s songs. I love singing Chasing Cars at the top of my voice. I love laughing and smiling and talking. I love the looks people get in their eyes during moments of joy or excitement. I love the noises women make whilst making love. I love wombats and daffodils and rainforests and turtles and sunsets and snow and instrumental piano solos. I love prancing around the room pretending to be David Tennant with my sonic screwdriver. I love Pub Quizzes and whisky and dreaming and green skirts, spanakopita, goose bumps, pancakes, beaches, flowers, bellies and whipped cream. Bellies and whipped cream! I love Glenfinnan and Port Fairy and Melbourne and this list could just go on forever but hey – jam! – who doesn’t love jam?
I love life so much that the thought of not having it any more fills me with such a deep sorrow I just want to burst into tears. It makes me feel so utterly confused because all my mind keeps telling me is to die, because death seems the only way to make the pain stop.
Aye, there’s the rub.
What’s the point of all of these wonderful things about life that I just want to snuggle with, when I am in such a constant state of pain that I can’t actually enjoy any of them?
The first time I hurt myself was when I was fourteen. I was sitting in my bedroom feeling incredibly alone. Repeatedly bullied at school for being overweight, wearing glasses, the way I spoke, eating a sandwich, who knows why people decide to bully someone. I was feeling so cold and numb that I just wanted to feel something…anything. So I picked up the compass I was using for my maths homework and started scratching my arm until it bled.
The second…look, there are so many times throughout my teenage years that I would cut, hit, burn, whatever myself to inflict self harm that I can’t possibly go into all of them. Believe me you wouldn’t want me to! I did slowly start getting this under control, and by the time I was eighteen was no longer hurting myself.
Over the years I did occasionally regress and always for the same reason. The loneliness and numbness of feeling nothing overwhelmed me so much that I inflicted pain on myself in order to feel alive. It is something I hid for a long time, telling no-one, and always hiding the wounds from sight because it is something people just don’t understand.
One of the last times I hurt myself was in May 2007. It was the worst I had ever inflicted. Taking a pen knife I sliced dozens and dozens of cuts into the flesh of both arms, so much so, that the blood red colour outweighed that of the flesh. After doing this I burned myself several times with cigarettes. Then I hit myself repeatedly first with my hand and then with a belt – because I wasn’t getting the release I needed. I still wasn’t feeling anything. (After all of this, well, I reached for those pills and the Glenfiddich I mentioned earlier.)
Sounds frightening, right? Well it is. Feeling so empty that the only way you can feel something is by hurting yourself is one of the most frightening experiences. But hey, all wars incur some form of injury, yes? Sure I had some control over my actions, but, on those occasions although I knew what I was doing was wrong, I wasn’t able to stop myself from doing it. Almost as if I wasn’t in complete control of my choices.
No-one chooses to suffer from depression. I am NOT a depressing man; I have a positive, optimistic outlook, I have a sense of humor and a passion for humanity that knows no bounds. I am a man suffering from an ILLNESS – and this is what a lot of people do not understand. As soon as the word ‘depression’ is used, a label is placed on me that will never be removed. They cannot comprehend that depression is an illness and not a state of mind. This persecution is the root of the stigma that people with mental illnesses encounter on an almost daily basis. It is these people who make the war so hard. Those who assume that the solution is to just ‘cheer up and get over it’ or ‘just go for a jog, you’ll be fine’. Would you say this to someone suffering from cancer, or diabetes, or any of the myriad of physical illnesses affecting millions of people around the world? With these illnesses because the symptoms are believed, then anyone who is fighting against them are given all of the encouragement and help they need.
How many of us have visited a physically ill person with a bunch of flowers or grapes to wish them to get well? How many of us have talked to a physically ill person about their symptoms, how they’re feeling, tried to emphasize with what they’re going through or what can be done to help them get better?
Most of us have, at some point.
Now, how many of us have visited a mentally ill person with a bunch of flowers or grapes to wish them to get well? How many of us have talked to a mentally ill person about their symptoms, how they’re feeling, tried to emphasize with what they’re going through or what can be done to help them get better?
A lot of people don’t want to even admit there is something called mental illness, let alone trying to understand it. If overcoming an illness was as simple as ‘cheer up and get over it’ or ‘just go for a jog, you’ll be fine’ then we have just discovered the cure for every single disease mankind has ever known. HIV, Cancer, Whooping Cough, Measles, Polio, the Black Death…yep, all you have to do is stop complaining and you’ll be fine. Why didn’t any of us realise this sooner?
The first time I started taking medication for my illness was in 2001. It started with pills that would help me cope with anxiety and panic attacks. This then moved onto anti depressants. I hated being on them because of how they made me feel, the way they messed with my head and played games with the chemicals and thought processes of my mind. I didn’t stay on them for long.
The second time I started taking medication for my illness was in March 2007, following an emotional breakdown. This breakdown was triggered by several events which all occurred within the same two week period and made it impossible for the defenses I had been using in my war to be effective. In essence I needed to call in ‘air support’. The side effects I experienced during the first five weeks of this medication were gruesome: nausea, vomiting, increased heart rate, tremors, a somnambulistic state, confusion, sleeplessness, mood swings – pretty drastic ones at that – and they’re just the effects I remember. The medication in essence changed who I was, and was another skirmish I needed to fight through. I’m still on them now.
My ongoing war against my own mind has destroyed my life. It has affected my ability to talk, to communicate, to laugh, to make decisions, to form whole relationships and friendships. I have lost everything; possessions, friends, family, any chance of the life I wanted. This seemingly never-ending conflict has left me feeling like the husk of a man with nothing to offer anyone – not even myself.
Don’t get me wrong for I am not making excuses. It certainly sounds like I am blaming everything that has gone wrong in my life on this “illness”, but that is not the case. I am more than aware of the mistakes I have made and the cost of those mistakes both financially, personally and on the people who tried to care about me. That’s one of the things that is so hard to fight against. My mind is constantly reminding me of everything I once had, the people in my life, the moments in the past where I reached a crossroads and took the wrong route. Over time the memories and words and laughter, all of those moments where you wished you had done this or said that won’t leave you alone. The continually perplexing question of ‘what if…’ that haunts every single one of us at some stage of our lives dominates my thoughts all of the time. What if I’d done this…would I be further along the road to recovery? What if maybe I’d said that…would that have stopped this war from even kicking off in the first place?
It’s a dangerous cycle, but the problem is that when you suffer from a mental illness you do have decreased control over your thought processes.
Depression can impact on every facet of everyday life; eating, sleeping, working, friendships, relationships, even how a person thinks about themselves. The most innocuous of playful personal criticism can do irreparable damage. You are also affected physically, depression can affect; “your central nervous system, your sleep-wake cycle, your hormonal system, your stress response system, your immune system and your gastrointestinal system” so “when you are depressed you feel physically unwell”
How to put this another way? Well, have you ever felt so sad and worthless that you just can’t get out of bed in the morning? That simply going about your normal day seems pointless and impossible.
Imagine what it would be like to feel that every single day. To feel so sad that not only does getting out of bed feel like climbing K2, but that constructing a workable TARDIS from the contents of your fruit bowel sounds far easier than walking to the shower. Let alone getting dressed, making breakfast, eating breakfast, going for a cycle, heading off to work, hanging out with friends over lunch, meeting your psychotherapist, grocery shopping, cooking dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up, cruising down the pub for a few bevies and flirtatious conversation.
Imagine feeling mental and physical pain every single day of your life with no end in sight. Forget smiles, forget laughter, forget cuddles, forget giggles, forget chortles, forget glints in the eye and warm fuzzy bunny feelings.
Imagine feeling so worthless that anything you do feels like a minor battle. That’s what living with depression is like – a daily grind to accomplish even something as simple as peeling an apple, let alone achieving any moment of happiness.
The fourth time I nearly killed myself was in October 2007. For three days I was in what I can only describe as a trance. I knew where I was, what I was doing, but it was almost as if my brain had given up and I had no control over my actions. I left a suicide note and I walked and walked down all these streets I’d never been to or even knew existed. All I knew for sure was the rough direction I had to go and I just let my feet take me there. My eyes would glaze over as I passed families, mothers with their children, friends having fun – reminding me of the future I would never have. My feet just kept walking until I reached the Dandenongs, where my soul wished to be. I tied a scarf to the tree and the other end around my neck and all I needed to do was let myself fall into the peaceful quiet oblivion. At that moment death was all that I wanted. As I allowed myself to drop, the trance ended, I struggled for breath but managed to fight myself loose and drop to the ground. Once again, I had failed to achieve the peace I crave so much.
To be honest, I just don’t know. Maybe it was to do with the survival instinct that lays dormant in all of us. At the moment I was hanging from that tree I wanted to die. It’s hard to explain to people who have never been there – the overwhelming urge, the need, the desire for death. The contradiction of loving life yet craving to just let it all go. I wasn’t thinking about the people that care about me, because my mind has convinced me that no-one does. I cared only about ending the war.
I’ve tried explaining to people over the years what I feel and what I suffer from in the hope that they will understand but, well, skip back a few paragraphs! Sure there are some people who get it – usually those who have suffered from or know someone who has suffered from a mental illness – but most don’t. They judge or mock or laugh or attack or, worst of all, just don’t listen to what is being said to them and pretend it’s not there. It’s a shame, because if more people took the time to listen then maybe things would be different. That’s really all I ever needed.
I honestly believe that this fight with mental illness will never be won. Not for me as an individual, nor for the millions and millions of people around the world who wage their own wars. The human cost of mental illness is staggering and this needs to be understood before change can occur. Lives are being torn apart; family, friends, hopes, dreams, passions and desires. Everything is combusting and turning to dust.
Victory will never be reached until one thing happens: acceptance.
People need to accept the fact that mental illness exists.
People need to accept the fact that mental illness is not a choice someone makes.
People need to accept the fact that mental illness can happen to anyone.
People need to accept the fact that mental illness is not who a person is or who they will always be.
Nor is it who they want to be. They are so much more.
I have the utmost respect for people who are suffering from mental illness because I know from personal experience how exhausting it can be. How hard it is to live and not just exist.
Until people stop judging and compartmentalizing people with mental illnesses, nothing will ever be achieved to overcome it. By endlessly sweeping this issue under the carpet we are losing the war.
It is a war being waged not with guns, missiles or bombs but with our minds: the most dangerous weapon available.
 WHO report on mental illness released October 4, 2001.
 SANE Australia (referenced 18/10/07): http://www.sane.org/images/stories/information/factsheets/0706_info_factfiction.pdf
 SANE Australia (referenced 18/10/07): http://www.sane.org/Information/Factsheets/Facts_and_Figures.html
 BeyondBlue (referenced 18/10/07): http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=1.13
 BeyondBlue (referenced 18/10/07): http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=1.13