The depression monster first dug its claws into me when I was 17 and from then on it was always there—dragging me away from a worthwhile life. I didn’t know my monster’s name until I was 20. Mixed and influential messages from various sources, amateur and professional, fell broadly into two categories:
a) depression is a choice; and
b) depression is a valid medical condition
Suggested plans of action accompanying A-type views could be summarised under the heading ‘HTFU’, whereas B-type advocates, also known as ‘soft cocks’, were more likely to encourage a blend of support and tablets.
For several years I went with the soft cocks. In retrospect, I can see that I made important progress in that time: I started leaving the house regularly; volunteered at an Oxfam shop; found a job that forced me to interact with other humans; and eventually started spending time with other humans just for fun.
But I couldn’t let go of the shame I felt over choosing support and tablets. I suppose I’d managed to synthesize all of the advice and information I’d received into one succinct and bitter line which I repeated incessantly to myself: I’m defective.
This broken record of self-loathing was reinforced by a CV that I imagined screamed underachiever. For years its most dazzling bullet points included my BA (minus the honours year I’d dropped out of because I was a quitter who never finished anything); my volunteer work at Oxfam; and 5 years as a Jenny Craig Weight Loss Consultant. By the time I’d reached the first phase of old age (my mid- twenties), I hadn’t changed the world at all. Ergo, I was a failure.
So I came up with a brilliant plan to improve myself: I’d start doing things that scared me—things like flying, applying for new jobs, further study. I’d quit medication cold turkey too because tough people do things cold turkey. Tough people never need help.
It took me four years to tick off all the dot points on my impressive to-do list. My achievement timeline looked like this:
2006: Quit medication cold turkey. (Very painful, possibly tough, definitely stupid. Wouldn’t recommend ‘achieving’ this to anyone.) Also enrolled part-time in a journalism degree.
2007: Started new job with emergency services.
2008: Ended long-term, safe but stifling relationship. Went to China and the US.
2009: Finished journalism degree.
Throughout all of this ‘progress’ I was drinking like Frank Sinatra. I’d started drinking when I was 17. I doubt my reasons for drinking were ever extraordinary. At first I drank because alcohol was new and fun—a magic potion that allowed me to shed my 17-year-old-awkward-girl suit.
While sands slipped through my hourglass, I learned that drinking buys a lot of great stuff—acceptance, escape from discomfort (minor and major, emotional and physical), escape from anything that ultimately requires facing up to, really. Hindsight can be terrifying, and I reckon the only thing that diminishes that terror is sharing lessons learned with others. If I had to plot my drinking timeline on a graph, it’d show a sharp and uninterrupted incline starting in 2006—the year of my first big achievement. Yes, Geri, connect those dots and suffer in your jocks as you reconsider the thing you were so proud of.
Tablets might have been shameful, but in my world drinkers were champions. My substitute medicine was always accessible and relatively cheap. And I could or would not see that I was digging an ever-widening trench between who I was and who I wanted to be. Why was it so hard to put down that shovel?
I think a key part of the answer is that my social world revolved around alcohol and in Australia that’s almost monotonously normal. This makes it very easy for problem drinkers to escape detection. At most social gatherings people who decline a drink are usually subjected to intensive interrogation that stops just short of a full-body cavity search. If you hang out with heavy drinkers you can expect to enjoy the kind of welcome ordinarily reserved for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Abstinence can be thirsty work—much easier to go with the flow and forget where it’s carrying you.
I’d developed a taste for oblivion, too. It felt good, and if something feels good you don’t over think it, you just do it. Who cares if it’s only short-term gratification and bugger the consequences, yeah? Self-sacrifice is for masochistic losers, for example, Christians and vegetarians. I secretly believed that modern medicine would save me from any dire consequences anyway. As a faithless person, I had some truly wild beliefs about science.
At 31 I made another magical discovery as a result of persistent sleeplessness: calmative meds (Mersyndol then Restavit then Xanax). Curiously, I wasn’t ashamed of taking any of those tablets. It was what tough people sometimes had to do to get some well-earned Zs. It wasn’t long before I made a subsequent magical discovery: calmative meds plus alcohol equal a sleep only rivalled by anaesthetic or death. Pretty clever, I know, but apparently not clever enough to consider that the same combination in the correct quantities could actually produce death. Oh well, everyone makes mistakes.
After a couple of years, the rickety support structure I’d set up for myself collapsed. Predictable maybe, but I was still pretty shocked. Under the influence of a broken toe and a 2-litre goon-bag hangover, I committed to a 12-month dry spell on Hello Sunday Morning (HSM). At 33, I finally noticed the ‘terms and conditions’ asterisk on the bottle’s price tag.
I could perhaps best describe HSM as an online support community for problem drinkers even though I’m pretty sure that’s not the target audience its founder, Chris Raine, had in mind. When you sign up you can set goals to motivate yourself—most people’s checklists include saving money, weight loss, fitness, improving mental health and other self-renovation projects.
I did save money and I lost 8kg eventually, but my mental health didn’t improve simply by omitting alcohol. Life without anaesthetic was challenging and often uncomfortable. I learned that getting older isn’t the same as growing up, just as being smart isn’t the same as being wise. In short, there was a bunch of stuff I had to face. I had to admit that I needed support… and tablets. Hahaha. Sigh.
But I’ve generally found that admitting errors sucks much less than the outcomes of concealing them. Toward the end of my 12 months I posted this on my HSM blog:
“When I consider how I was before I’m so glad I decided to change despite all of the discomfort it’s involved. My robot life, in some ways, was easier—going through the motions, sticking to my precious routine, disconnected from feelings. It was an operating system I developed in response to a deep sense of worthlessness (horrible to think that the operating system and the worthlessness that inspired it were perpetuated by the same fuel) and an inability to face all the sadness I saw in the world. I suppose the aim of my game was self-preservation. I now believe that aim was flawed. (Can a life spent in cotton wool and ether be thought of as lived?)
HSM has given me the time and clarity I needed to work out what matters to me. It’s taken a while, but now that I’ve done it, I’m no longer willing to make choices that support comfort and convenience at the expense of what I hold dear.”
I’m 34 now, and I still feel the jab of those claws every so often. It’s OK to feel things though—that’s how we grow.
‘Depression’ from Toby Allen’s Mental Illness Monsters series.