I should be dead now. I’ve been close. My life could have ended several times over the past forty years or so, a victim of depression, the mental illness problem that society constantly denies. I’ve been picked up out of the gutter by Ambulance officers having a massive asthma attack while stoned off my face on a combination of booze, pills and grass. I’ve imagined jumping off a balcony, I’ve thought of driving into a sandstone cliff, I’ve looked at a pile of pills.
Most people realise that suicide is the largest killer of young men under 25. Not many people know that suicide becomes a larger and larger killer the older you are – when measured as deaths per thousand of the population suicide is a bigger problem in older men, it’s just that other causes of death outrank it so we only hear about the young, where it stands out.
I had my first bout of depression when I was in high school though at the time I didn’t realise it was depression and nobody else did either. My mum realised I was not in a good place one day when she was driving me to school. I said:
I don't believe this is Wednesday morning, it feels like Monday morning.
It must have been the way I said it or something because she asked:
Why? What does Monday morning feel like? Monday mornings I want to be dead. Oh, that doesn't sound good. I guess not.
Mum thought that this feeling was due to me “not fitting in” at school. Not fitting in was actually the three years of constant, savage bullying I underwent at Killara High. Killara High is a general public high school in a fairly affluent upper middle class section of Sydney. At the time it had a fairly good academic reputation and was certainly considered one of the best general public high schools in NSW (as distinct from selective public high schools like North Sydney Boys where my friend Robin was bullied).
The truth is that I am a trauma survivor, an abuse survivor, and have lived with mental illness ever since. My trauma is not that of the battlefield, but I am typical of a PTSD survivor. My abuse was not sexual or at the hands of people in a position of trust, but the similarities of outcome are large. It was just as damaging to my trust levels as those I thought I could trust, my teachers, were of no help and often just made the suffering worse. Nor could my parents help, instead they delivered me every day into the arms of my torturers.
How bad was it? Not a single day went past that I wasn’t physically assaulted in at least some minor way. Most days I didn’t manage to reach school with all the books in my briefcase, travelling home at least once a month or so one or more of my books would be thrown out the window of the bus, which meant begging the driver to stop the bus, walking back to get my books and then walking home from there as the driver never waited for me (regardless that it was his failure to control my fellow students that caused the problem). Morning tea and lunch were likewise a constant battle to keep control of my briefcase and it’s contents, usually lost.
Once, when my maths teacher asked where my text was I replied “Those two boys there, Peter and John, stole it from my briefcase just before class, Ma’am, and refused to give it back, I think you’ll find mine in Peter’s bag.” When they were punished I was beaten so badly by them and their friends one of my teeth was broken when my head was slammed into a brick wall.
On another occasion when I complained about my treatment to a teacher I returned to my pushbike to discover a tyre slashed and spokes broken in both wheels with half a dozen boys waiting for me turn up – one of them said “Enjoy the bus ride home today.”
I’ve heard Australian soldiers talking of their experience in Afghanistan where they spend weeks in constant tension, never knowing a moment of real peace as at any time they can be attacked. The slowly rising levels of anxiety as they are attacked again and again. That was my life at Killara High School.
My parents decided to move me to a different school where I spent most of the first year hiding in the bush nearby. Luckily I found a friend there who was happy to hide with me.
That school and my next basically cured that bout of depression. I found people who accepted me and wanted to spend time with me doing silly things, I also discovered grass, which was for many years a saviour (until it became a problem).
My second real bout of depression (I had other minor episodes) eighteen years ago was triggered by a truly horrible year and a half. It started when my marriage totally broke down and we separated, then my father became ill with a relapse of prostate cancer, I started a relationship with a wonderful woman that then fell apart after five months, my ex-wife started refusing to let me see my daughter, my father died and two weeks after that my ex-wife told me she was moving to Newcastle, a hundred miles away, taking my daughter, Jessi, with her.
I got a court approved agreement saying my ex- had to let me pick up Jessi for the weekend every second Friday. Her response was to never be home, so every second Friday I would drive for three hours to knock on the door of an empty house, wait an hour, then drive three hours home. I kept that up for months.
Two things made me realise I had a serious mental problem. The first was that on a couple of occasions driving back I had serious fantasies, almost hallucinatory, of driving the car into the sandstone cutting along one stretch of the road at over a hundred kilometres an hour. The second was when a policeman pulled me over for speeding and by the time he reached the car I had broken down into uncontrollable sobbing and was hunched over the steering wheel unable to speak.
One of the strange things about serious depression is that you almost certainly won’t kill yourself when you’re at rock bottom. Suicide is usually far too much effort and requires far too many decisions that are just too hard. Doing simple stuff is difficult, killing yourself far too complex. You do, however, spend a lot of time wanting to be dead, wanting life and it’s pain to stop.
This means recovering from depression is the most dangerous time. As you recover you get back energy and the ability to think through complexity long before the pain goes entirely (if it ever does, my current theory is that it never truly leaves).
Getting help for depression is not easy. There is no part of the NSW health system that caters to the ongoing treatment of chronic depression. If you have a chronic chest complaint or a chronic heart condition then you can find a clinic to take care of your ongoing care at almost any hospital – the same is not true for depression. NSW Mental Health does have a crisis team, but they will not treat you – just give you lists of people who might treat you.
The Federal Government is no help. They don’t consider major depression a disability as you might get better in less than two years and since you are too sick to work they don;t worry about your unemployment. This means you get no services or case management at all from the Department of Human Services.
There are some services and help, but they are few and far between and you will probably have to search them out yourself. I was lucky with that bout of depression to find some people that helped me craft a semblance of health.
My GP, a wonderful woman who has been my primary medical caregiver for thirty years now, got me through that second bout by constantly reminding me of two things; the damage I would do to people important and close to me if I committed suicide and what I would miss if I was to die.
Right at the core of those two ideas is one person. My daughter Jessica.
Jess provided an anchor to life for two reasons. One, when it came to the people who would be effected by my suicide she and my Mum were the only ones I really cared about, and little Jessi (she was three and four when I went through this) much higher than Mum. The effect on her life would have been devastating. I could not cause a person I loved so much so much pain.
The other reason is that I would miss out on seeing so much of her life. This manifested itself in a number of short term goals more than long term ones. I was more thinking of stuff such as starting school and reading her my favourite kids books back then rather than now when it is her University graduation, her wedding or my first grandchild now that she has passed all those earlier milestones.
Do not however misunderstand, these are not expectations of Jessi, truth be told she has achieved more than I asked and more than I hoped when she was born. From a point several years ago it has been impossible for her to ever disappoint me in any way. They are more like a clairvoyant’s predictions, a reading of the tea leaves that she probably will have a graduation, a wedding and a baby. It does make it difficult to talk to her about this stuff as I never want her to think I expect her to do anything. Her life and the choices she makes are her own and all I can do is teach her by example what a good life might be and let her make those choices. If her choices so far are anything to go by then I must have done a good job and can easily trust her future choices. I will just watch in love and awe as they unfold.
Early last year she was also responsible for getting me to Hospital when I was incredibly close to losing it totally. I described that day in this post but nothing will ever convey the gratitude and appreciation I feel for her help. There are some things a parent should never, ever have to ask of a child; picking up a babbling, incoherent mess off the floor and getting them to medical help must be high on the list.
So when, on occasion, I say that Jessi has “literally saved my life” I’m not misconstruing the meaning of “literally” or engaging in hyperbole. Today I walk this world because of all that I share with my daughter; her love and care for me and the limitless love I feel for her.
I’m working hard on this post as I’ve decided to publish it as part of my Christmas gift to Jessica. That’s an idea I’d like to pass along to you – this Christmas don’t just give the important people a gift. Take the time and make the effort to tell the people you care about, the ones that care about you, how important that shared love is in your life.
For those who do not have and cannot find an anchor to this world as strong and good as mine I extend my sympathy. I wish you all the best this holiday season. Take care out there.