I have been a prolific diary writer on and off over my life. When I read back over them, one of the things that comes up constantly is how incredibly unhappy and confused, tired and unmotivated, lost and self-destructive I have been at many moments of my life.
My diaries cover my tumultuous adolescence in a small town, feeling lost and lonely in a big city when I moved away to go to university, and my many relationship break-ups (including a six-month drinking binge, post-three-year-relationship, where I felt completely out of control). I have recorded many moments where I felt sad, confused and times when life just felt too hard. If I hadn’t been able to express my feelings in words in my private diaries I don’t know what might have happened to me.
I recently bought a book of Dorothy Parker’s poetry. I found her poems very amusing and I got to thinking how it had been many, many years since I had bought books of poetry and read them and quite some time since I had written it. As a child and teenager, I often wrote poetry to express how I felt, and yes, there was the usual angsty teen stuff but looking back at some of it I realise that since writing this stuff nine-ten years ago, I can still relate to those feelings I expressed all that time ago. My poems Despair and Help were written when I was 16, in Year 12 and incredibly unhappy. Those few months in Year 12 were the only time in my life, until very recently, when I actually felt suicidal. I felt so alone. I confided in one of my teachers at school about how I was feeling. He told me that one day I would leave that small town, go to uni, meet people like me and I wouldn’t feel so alone. He reminded me of the story of the ugly duckling and said to remember that after an unhappy childhood, the grown up swan finds his own kind. This is where I got the name for my zine Ugly Duckling (of which I am currently working on Issue 8). He also said that many people get depressed and each time I feel like that, I should think of it as being a lot like a visit to the dentist – a largely unpleasant experience that happens on a regular basis that you have to put up with, but it won’t last forever and after it’s over you go back to normal. He even wrote me a poem called Something (Another Dental Visit) – he wrote a lot of poetry that he shared with me and a number of my school mates.
I wrote the poem Severe Depression in 1995 when I had just left home and moved to Brisbane to go to university. It was a very exciting but incredibly scary time for me and I often felt very lost. It was around this time that I decided to see a doctor about feeling depressed. She asked me if I was having trouble sleeping? No I wasn’t. She asked if I was having trouble eating? No I wasn’t. I can’t remember what else she asked but I don’t think she thought I was depressed. She referred me to the counsellors at uni (she was a doctor at the university health centre) who I went to once and was told to look in the mirror everyday and tell myself I like myself. The whole exercise actually made me feel worse. I vowed then that I would never ever again seek help from a healthcare professional as the whole exercise would just make me feel worse. I thought, “I’ve dealt with this on my own until now, I can continue to deal with it on my own”. This experience contributed to my long-held belief that I wasn’t really depressed, it was all in my head, that it was really my own fault that there were times when I felt so heavy and lethargic that I couldn’t do anything. This was 1995. I hated my course so 1996 saw me at a new university studying a new course. It still took a while to make friends and find my way around the huge scary campus filled with heaps of people but I sought out and found the Women’s Room and would go and hang out there and listen to the women talking. I started to learn so much about the world and politics. The Howard Government had just been elected and were busily slashing funding from heaps of social programs and women’s programs and health and education. It was a very interesting time for me. I made many friends through the Student Union at UQ, particularly the Women’s Area. I got active and involved even though I still didn’t really know what I was doing with my life study-wise.
In 1997 I went through a relationship breakup that really messed me up. I lost a lot of weight and felt like shit for a long time.
I left uni in 1998 and worked at a coffee shop, I lived by myself for the first time that year which was very liberating. I remember distinctly walking home from work one night, swinging my umbrella around and feeling excited that I was going home to a place that was all mine, filled with my stuff and there would be no-one else there. I remember thinking, for the first time ever I think, “This is independence”. I was almost 21.
Over the years (since my early teens) I have had regular ups and downs but I always thought it was some personal defect on my part. The thing that actually made me go and see someone was needing a letter for a late assignment at university (in late 2001). I asked a lecturer for an extension and he said I would need a doctor’s certificate or a letter from a counsellor. At the time I was living with a partner and was going crazy because I never got any time at home on my own. I went to see a counsellor at uni, initially because I needed that letter for an extension but I also knew that I wasn’t coping with uni at the time. The counsellor said it sounded like I was living in a depressing situation and was obviously depressed. I was actually surprised because I thought: “I’ve been depressed heaps of times, how could I be so depressed at the moment and not realise it?” I only went to the counsellor a handful of times so I never really dealt with the bigger problems.
The following year, after that relationship ended (early 2002), I started going out and drinking heaps. I got drunk many times a week which became a habit and lasted for six months. I felt completely out of control. Once again I got behind at uni so I went to see a counsellor. This didn’t help much but I think it’s mainly because I felt too down to really talk about it – the counsellor did most of the talking. Plus I was one of those people who went to a counsellor three times then thought I’d sorted it all out. It wasn’t until I talked to a friend about how I was feeling really really depressed and how I was drinking heaps and heaps that I put the two together. I said: “Maybe all the alcohol drinking is making me feel depressed.” My friend responded: “Hello! Substance abuse!” During this time I discussed my feelings with a lot of friends and felt better even though it was often very hard to talk about it.
I kind of got over that bout of depression and lived on. I met heaps of new and interesting people and life was fun and exciting. I finished uni and was quite lost and didn’t know what to do. I never really enjoyed studying anyway. Half-way through 2003 I had three things happen that I reacted to very strongly. I was fired from a job I’d had for three and a half years. They said they needed to cut back on staff and they were cutting back on me because I only did two shifts a week. I was so hurt. They told me “It’s just business.” I got off the phone and cried and cried and cried. Two days later I was waiting around at home for a phone call from someone to go out to dinner. It got late and I was hungry. I finally got hold of the people and they had already eaten and they were going somewhere expensive for drinks. I was really upset that I hadn’t been given a thought. One of the people there I hadn’t seen for over a year and I wanted to see her but I was too upset. I got off the phone and cried and cried and cried. Two days later the person I was seeing broke up with me. It definitely hadn’t been the easiest relationship I’ve ever had, we’d only been together 8 weeks but I had wanted us to get together for months. I was so upset. Once again I cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe my reactions to these events. I felt out of control. It was very weird. I felt so incredibly down and heavy and useless and unable to cope with anything. I had just started a job one day a week but I called in sick to it and decided that if I was going to call in sick because of how I felt then I HAD to see someone about it. I rang doctors’ surgeries and most of them charged unbelievable amounts of money to see a doctor that I just couldn’t afford. I cried when I got off the phone. It all seemed too hard. Eventually I found a doctor who bulk-billed [in Australia that means they are free to patients – because the doctor bills the government for all their patients’ fees in bulk, instead of billing each patient individually]. I went in and said I was depressed and that I get depressed regularly and I wanted to do something about it. He didn’t ask very many questions. He said there are a few options – seeing a psychiatrist (it’s covered by bulk-billing, you need a referral and there would be a waiting list), there are psychologists and counsellors (not covered by bulk-billing so would be expensive) and there are anti-depressants. I said I wanted anti-depressants. He prescribed Avanza (mirtazapine). He gave me 4 repeats! Lucky I wasn’t suicidal. I started off on half a tablet a day and he said to come back in two weeks. In three weeks I went back. I said they weren’t having any effect so he said take a whole tablet each day. I was on Avanza for five months. It made me very tired and need to sleep for twelve hours a day. I only worked two days a week but getting up for that was very hard. I constantly felt spaced out. I found my eyes took longer to focus, my mouth was constantly dry, I didn’t type as well as I used to and I would sometimes write/type the wrong spelling of a word or the wrong word entirely. I would also have really vivid dreams which was cool. In this time I was doing cool stuff with my life. I spent the end of 2002 and the first half of 2003 making heaps of zines. In the second half of 2003 I went to various arts festivals/get-togethers all over the place (This Is Not Art in Newcastle, Ladyfest in Melbourne and Straight Out of Brisbane in, you guessed it, Brisbane) where I spoke on panels or gave workshops which was cool but I spent heaps of that time feeling tired, numb, shy and depressed.
Being depressed can be incredibly isolating. At times when I have felt really friendless and alone I have had to force myself to reach out to someone in order to continue living. Working out which people in your life will make you feel better and which people may not is not always easy. I have found that some people do not understand depression at all and see it as a weakness of character while yet others will be sympathetic when you confide how you feel but will be surprised that you STILL feel that way a week later. You are allowed a week or two at the most to be down but then many people expect you to “pull yourself together” and “just get over it”.
I have also spent many hours wishing that something really bad would happen to me (be assaulted, hit by a bus, attacked in the street, put in hospital with some awful disease, have family members/friends die, etc, etc) so that I would have a reason to be depressed. I have never felt that I deserved to feel the way I do so if something really bad happened to me, then I would finally be entitled to feel the way I do. Many times I have stood at the edge of a busy road and imagined jumping out in front of a car or bus so I could be put in hospital so I could escape the pain of everyday life but also have a reason to be down.
In February this year I went back to the doctor and said that I wanted new medication because Avanza (mirtazapine) made me too tired to function normally. He prescribed Lovan (containing fluoxetine which is Prozac!) and I was on it for six and a half weeks. In that time I felt I had more energy, but I had just spent five months feeling totally zonked out. Fluoxetine took me up and down, up and down, up and down. Some days I felt completely at peace with the world. Other days I hated life, I hated myself, I didn’t want to live and I really wanted to hurt myself. I regularly thought about slashing up my arms. I wanted to buy razor blades but I wouldn’t let myself. I got as far as standing in front of them in Coles and thinking of buying them but I knew if I did I would just be using them to slash up my poor defenceless left arm. I have looked at it so many times and thought about cutting it up because (I guess) I needed some kind of physical manifestation of the mental pain I was feeling.
I knew that fluoxetine was no good for me – and not just because I have read literature saying that many people become suicidal or homicidal after taking it. I have been so depressed so many times in my life and it was only for a short period, all those years ago in year 12 in 1994 that I ever felt suicidal. Here I was, constantly thinking about how I just didn’t want to live anymore. I spent days lying around my house wanting to walk to Coles [a supermarket] and buy those razor blades. I wanted to slash up my arms and slit my wrists and then call an Ambulance and have them take me away. I thought of just calling an Ambulance and telling them that I wanted to kill myself and then they would come and take me away. I thought about going to the emergency ward of a hospital and saying I want to kill myself, please do something for me. I spent one Sunday calling heaps of friends and hardly anyone was home. But I knew I didn’t really want to die so why oh why did I feel like that. I was so up and down emotionally. The days that I didn’t want to kill myself came as a welcome relief. I might still feel tired and depressed but at least the yearning for death was gone – it might last a day or a few short hours but any relief was a relief. I spent heaps of time searching the internet, looking up sites on depression, suicide, antidepressants and anything to do with these. I did so many “are you depressed?” quizzes on these sites and all of them told me I was depressed and should seek medical advice.
I asked around my friends for a good female doctor and I was recommended someone in West End. I went and saw her. I told her my history. I told her about the different drugs and their effects. I told her about wanting to slash up my arms and hurt myself. I told her that life was really hard. Unlike the other doctor she asked me questions. She told me to stop taking the fluoxetine and we’d try something new. She told me to try to get into a clinic that uses Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. She talked as though we would make a plan for dealing with this. When I left I felt so much better. A plan! To deal with this! Life might actually be worth living!
I’ve been on Efexor-XR now for 6 or 7 weeks. It doesn’t seem to have any nasty side-affects. I’m still on a waiting list for cognitive behaviour therapy.
I recently had a bit of a revelation about myself. I have always hated the “just think positively” approach to dealing with depression and life and I realised part of why I hate it and why I hate myself for getting depressed is that that approach assumes that people can control and change how they think. I knew that I hated myself for being depressed but I could never really work out why. I feel like I can’t control how I think. I can’t “just think positively” when I don’t have positive thoughts. I’ve always thought that there was obviously something wrong with me because I can’t do that.
I have often thought that I didn’t really suffer from any kind of clinical depression because I often got really depressed BECAUSE of some particular event (like a relationship breakup). But I have also often felt like I am always very close to being really depressed, like I’m almost always at least mildly depressed. Many times in my life when I’ve been very busy (e.g. studying full-time and working part-time), I’ve felt constantly tired and constantly like I’m walking along next to a big cliff and the smallest slip will see me go over. I was talking to a friend about this and he said it sounds like I have double dip depression – a constant mild depression that is triggered by events which make everything come crashing down. I actually think this is a very good description of it, but I have never come across the term “double dip depression” on any of the websites about depression I have read on the internet.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling better. I know that I’m feeling better because I’m hardly feeling the need to write in my diary lately (after ten months of prolific writing). And I’ve had more energy and my mood has been higher. I don’t think a lot of people realise that feeling depressed is a mixture of physical and mental symptoms. I am so happy that my symptoms have lifted and eased and I am taking such pleasure from doing everyday things, like washing and hanging it up and then folding it and putting it away. I have been going through the piles of stuff that was sitting on the floor of my flat and been throwing out stuff that I don’t need and filing and organising the stuff I want to keep. I’ve been cooking meals and washing up. After months of feeling unable to do these things it is such a relief to finally be able to do them again. I still feel somewhat reluctant to make a lot of plans for my future in case everything comes crashing down again and I’m back to feeling complete shit for achieving nothing – if you have no plans, then when you can’t do anything, you won’t feel disappointed. Still, I am thinking about my future, in many senses. I’m thinking about getting more active but being aware of my limitations and not beating myself up about them. I’ve spent far too much time doing that already. I can’t do as much as other people, but I think my happiness with life is far more important than any expectations (from myself or others) so concentrating on planning a happy life that may include regular bouts of depression is now my priority (and if people could just stop asking me if I’ve found a full-time job yet, then life could be a tiny bit less stressful).
Stay tuned for the next Another Dental Visit after I’ve completed the cognitive behaviour therapy course and have hopefully learnt even more about myself and depression and life.