It is RUOK? Day today, Thursday 10 September 2015. RUOK? Day is an Australia-wide initiative that seeks to raise awareness about mental illness and encourage everyone to ask a simple question to friends and colleagues: R U OK? Start a conversation; this simple question can be so much more helpful than you could ever image.
I am ok, however I haven’t always been. I wanted to share a bit about my life with clinical depression to coincide with RUOK? Day.
Please note that this post deals with depression and may be triggering for some readers.I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2009 while working as a corporate lawyer in Sydney. I was doing work I enjoyed, working with a great group of people and had very good bosses. I was well-educated and well-paid. I grew up in circumstances that many would describe as privileged. I was not abused or neglected. I was deeply loved and loved deeply. I came from a stable, happy family (my parents are still, occasionally sickeningly, in love) and I had, and still have, a group of very precious friends. And yet towards the end of 2009 I found myself, almost out of the blue, finding it difficult to breathe and shaking uncontrollably in my office. It was my first panic attack.
Somehow, as if on instinct, one of my bosses, who I had worked with for many years, arrived in my office as I was panicking. She asked if I was ok and, as I somehow managed to shake my head, she knew immediately what was happening and demanded that I go to the GP that day. I was completely shocked. I probably mumbled something about needing to get a letter to a client. I insisted I did not need to leave work and I firmly stated that I did not need to see the GP. I was wrong and luckily my boss did not take no for an answer. She rang my GP from my office and possibly, in that moment, saved my life.
My GP organised specialists and treatment plans and, for the first time in a long time, I surrendered. I let someone else tell me what to do and what would be best for me. I could not fight it even if I wanted to; I literally could not get out of bed.
I took a week off work, which turned into two and I stumbled through to the end of the year. After the usual 10 day period over Christmas / New Year when the office essentially closed, I returned to work, confident that my time off had left me fresh and ready to go again. By this time I had told my best friend and my then boyfriend, now husband. I had not told my family and I had kept correspondence with work to a need-to-know basis.
I honestly believed that no one, other than my now husband and best friend, would believe just how bad it was. I thought I was overreacting. I thought I was being a hypochondriac. I thought my inability to get out of bed was just laziness (and in my family there was almost no greater sin than laziness). So I pushed on, until I could push no longer. A week or so later I found myself being dropped off at a private facility for a three week stay. I walked slowly, my vision was fuzzy and I slept for the first 48 hours.
I had the considerable advantage of being fully insured. I was able to attend the private facility when I needed to. The number of public beds available is so very few. This is not, in any way, a means to push private health insurance. It is simply to say we need more public beds, we need more accessible support. It should not be the case that only those with private health insurance or independent finances can get the help they need when they need it.
The three weeks I spent as an in-patient on the mood disorder ward of the private hospital literally changed my life. I would return, twice, over the next 3 years, each time gaining more insights from my stay.
However that first stay figuratively and literally opened my eyes.
I expected to be ridiculed. So many others had come from abusive backgrounds, many had experienced a recent divorce or death in the family, some suffered from bipolar, others had been in and out of the foster system for their entire childhood or had been homeless for many years. I had been wearing red-soled heels in the boardrooms of Australia’s largest corporates just weeks earlier. I was loved and I had plenty of places to stay, including my own apartment. I was just whining, being lazy and I did not deserve to be there.
I was very nervous during our first group session. What would I say? Oh, I’m here because I had a panic attack in my office overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I would be laughed out of the room.
And yet, of course, I wasn’t. I was treated, not only by the staff, but also by the other patients, as in need of help as any of them. And I was as in need of help as any of them. We had all been to black and were fighting to get out.
I had finally learnt that I was not lazy and, that just because I went to private school and had a pool in the backyard of my family home, I was not precluded from suffering from a mental illness and, equally, was not precluded from seeking or receiving help for it.
Over the next few years I managed to slowly climb out of the deep hole. I used a combination of therapy and medication (I am not condoning or condemning these or any other method of recovery, I am simply stating what worked for me).
I honestly believe I am one of the fortunate ones. I know that sounds strange, but bear with me. I started suffering from a mental illness when I was closer to 30 than 20. I had a bit of life experience and was a little more secure of myself at that age. I was able to share my suffering with people who cared about me and I instinctively knew that taking action would not take anything away from me that really mattered. I knew that if I was let go from my job because of my illness, I was better off without that job (I was not let go). And if my boyfriend judged me, I was better off without him (I was not judged, he is now my husband and father of our beautiful daughter).
I can’t imagine how difficult it is for those who start suffering during their teenage years or early twenties, when hormones rage and a sense-of-self is often still developing. The strain would be enormous. If there is one area of mental health I am most passionate about, it is reaching out to teenagers and young people to try and get them help early. If there is a reason I am putting this out now, it is because I truly believe that the fact that my depression only kicked-in in my late twenties is one of the main reasons I am here, healthy, today. I will never know what would have happened if I started suffering as a teenager, but I do know it would have been exponentially harder.
It is hard to explain, what it feels like to have depression and anxiety. I cannot blame people for not understanding; I didn’t understand what it felt like, until I felt it. It is different to sadness, for me at least. In fact it is no emotion at all. I knew I was coming out of the darkness when I started to cry watching a movie; I hadn’t cried for 9 months!
While it is very difficult for me to explain what it feels like when I was at my worst, I can try to explain what it is like living with well-controlled depression and anxiety. I find myself reaching for this analogy: living with well-controlled depression is perhaps like living with well-controlled asthma. Sometimes you are well, sometimes you are less well and sometimes you are very sick. It can be set off with certain triggers and the more you know about what those triggers are for you, the easier it is to manage. Some people need to take medication for life to treat their asthma; it is the same for clinical depression. For most of the time I will be entirely functioning; my usual self. I can work in the corporate legal world, I can look after my daughter and I can nurture my friendships and family relationships, just like anybody else. For some of the time, I need a little bit of extra help to do all of that.I have now been fairly well for over 2 years. This is not luck or a change in genetics. I do all that I can to maintain my health – I see my therapist fortnightly and my psychiatrist every 3 months. I take the medication I am prescribed. I need to exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep. I need to work; to put my mind to something other than caring for my daughter. And, I need help. I have a fabulous nanny for Isabella, whose hours we vary each week depending on what my husband and I need. My husband’s job as a surgeon means he is at work before 7am and home after 7pm (usually much later) and is often called out in the middle of the night and over weekends. Our nanny provides a much needed cushion when required and I am so very grateful to have the ability to have her in our lives.Perhaps most importantly, I have an extremely supportive husband, family, family-in-law and friends. Not everyone has this. Not everyone has the means to attend fortnightly therapy sessions or pay for their medication. Not everyone has the ability to add a cushion to his or her life. Why should I receive treatment when so many go without? I battle with this question everyday.
Please help reduce the impact of depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness by donating to Beyond Blue.