“Black seeks black. Ooohh, blacker, ooohh, blacker…”
‘Ms’, An Awesome Wave (album), Alt-J, 2012.
I see, I listen.
On Monday morning of this week I was listening to the radio. The ABC (Australia’s public broadcaster) was kicking off its coverage of mental health week. With his trademark sardonic humour, the host Red Symons introduced an interview with “I’m now contractually obliged to talk about mental illness. Welcome to the show, Doctor…”.
Part of the interview with the mental health professional covered off on how so many more people were now associating themselves as having a mental health issue. The point was made that sadness and depression are different things, and that you can feel anxious without experiencing profound anxiety. Sadness and feeling anxious are ‘normal’ emotions, he said, and part of everyday life. Later, on the train, I surfed Facebook and saw a picture that someone had shared to their wall. It showed a sign on a street saying “sometimes when things go wrong, it is because you were stupid and made bad decisions.”
I sat there on the train and thought about these things, myself, and the people around me; friends, colleagues, family.
I try to understand.
There are people in my circle who have anxiety. None of them have made it a public ‘thing’. I see how it affects their relationships, the way they organise their days, the social interactions they avoid, the physical health effects. It is something that is always there, to the extent that it is part of them, part of their personality. The anxiety is effectively invisible and they are all maintaining outwardly otherwise successful lives.
There are people who have depression. Some are on ‘happy pills’, some have told the world about it, others have only told a select few, with that few including me. Most have sought professional help, been diagnosed and have been active in researching their inner selves. I’ve heard them speak of feeling removed from situations, not feeling like themselves, for long stretches of time. They speak of the debilitation.
There are people with bi-polar and with schizophrenia. There is a necessarily high reliance on others in their families and networks to stay on track. I can’t pretend to understand what they experience.
None of these people chose these things. Within the expectations that society has on them to function and flourish, they fight to adhere. Of course, they are not always successful.
Yesterday I saw a post on Facebook from “I Fucking Love Science”, an excellent aggregator of science news. It was about cognitive biases, and the author used the introductory phrase ‘our little meat-bag brains’. I read it and laughed, it was genuine and funny. The combination of fact and humour defrayed some negative emotions I had been momentarily feeling. I read the infographic of cognitive bias, and understood a little bit more about myself and others.
I thought about how a handful of written words had changed my emotional state. I’ve been in a good place this week overall; that is something I’ve learnt to monitor and act upon when I fail. That’s because I also experience depression.
It has happened since I was about 10 years old, when I would find myself so periodically distraught, I would do random things; like walk in the middle of the night the 4kms to the parish priest’s house to ask about God. It happened when I was 14, when being picked on in the schoolyard compounded my feelings of smallness. It happened when I was 17, when instead of a attempting an end of year exam, I wrote a poem on the paper instead. It happened when I was 29, when I went to speak in a conversation but nothing at all came out, no matter how hard I tried. It has happened a fair bit. It also happened 6 weeks ago at work.
In the past, the depression always felt like it had a trigger. Death of a loved one. Bullying. Family problems. Career disappointments. But there was no trigger 6 weeks ago. I turned up to work early on a Thursday morning, fresh from holidays, just another day. I unpacked my bag, set up my workstation and logged on. As I did so, unaccountably, tears just started to stream down my face. It was 6:50am (I start early most days), so no-one else was in the immediate vicinity. I sat there for a couple of minutes and just let the tears flow. When this happens, I feel cold too. It has happened often enough in my adult life that I don’t freak out; on this morning, I let the feeling pass, I checked email and went down to set up for the problem-solving sessions I was running that day. Mistake.
How could I be mentally fit to guide groups safely in a facilitated environment? Well, facilitation takes me out of myself, my headspace. I’m just there for other people. It is a temporary escape at such times. That day, I even up-skilled a colleague in how to run the sessions too; somehow I was in top form. Odds-on, no-one would have guessed about any depression. But then I left the room and immediately felt the coldness again.
The next afternoon, a colleague asked me an innocuous, work-related question; she was trying to get context on a situation she hadn’t previously been involved with. Well, it was like something in my head snapped. I felt a surge of emotion wash over and out of me. It poured out. No tears, but just a really disproportionate response that left my colleague wondering what had happened. I knew what had happened. I apologised immediately, awkwardly.
That weekend, I finally afforded myself the time and space I needed. Even so, I spent my time thinking about what I should say to my colleagues on Monday. I wasn’t myself, and I was worried they would think it was something that they had triggered.
What did I learn? I learnt that when I am sick, I should give myself time to heal. I was an idiot and made a sequence of bad decisions; it just happened to be around the handling of my depression. I’ve been an idiot and made bad decisions invariably whenever I’ve been sick with any affliction, I always turn up to work and take longer to get better. The depression wasn’t stopping me telling people at work about my depression, it was my pride. As soon as I saw my colleague that Monday, I told her the truth. She was great about it.
I forget, I remember.
The last 6 weeks I’ve been healthy. I actually forget pretty quickly about the depression when it’s not there. I’ve got a fantastic partner, somewhere to live, the job of my dreams, I work in a great team and for a great company. My friends are long-standing and have character. I get to help people most days of the week. I’m helping to organise a conference happening in May. I’m privileged, and I understand how much so.
On Thursday night, my company’s 2015 graduate cohort held their annual fundraiser for BeyondBlue. They were riotously successful, raising $50,000 to help people with mental illness. Having got to know a lot of them this year, I’m so proud of the cohort. The highlight was hearing from Cameron McConville, a retired racing car driver from the locally popular V8 SuperCar circuit. He shared his story of experiencing depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, all while forging a very successful career in elite sport. He told his story as a BeyondBlue ambassador, to a room full of 300 strangers. I thought to myself, “That is brave”. He spoke also of the hesitation in doing so; about how it put everything on the line: his reputation, legacy, relationships, future opportunities and also his ongoing mental health. I understood.
I am vulnerable.
I’ve been blogging now for over 2 years. I’ve been quite open and I believe in sharing. But I haven’t shared my story of depression, not until now. It is intensely personal, and this is absolutely the hardest post I’ve ever had to write. Like Cameron McConville, I don’t know what the repercussions will be of sharing my story. Will I lose facilitation gigs? Will I lose some trust I’ve worked so hard to win, all whilst hiding this from people? Maybe, but everyone has to understand themselves and other people a little bit more. To have that happen, we need to be extra vulnerable with each other. So here is my vulnerability. I need people to understand why I am acting the way I am sometimes. I need people to feel good to ask me “Are you OK?”. I need to feel good about answering truthfully. I need people to understand when I need to withdraw for a little while. I know professionally what I need to do now too. As a Certified Professional Facilitator, there is an expectation that I create a safe environment. I will never facilitate again through my times of depression, whatever the refuge I feel in doing so. I will also research all I can to cater for those with a mental illness in any groups I look after in the future. I will be part of a future that understands that mental health deserves the same attention as physical health.
If you feel you need help, you can approach the following organisations in Australia:
You can find more stories and resources regarding mental health by searching #mentalas on Twitter.