When I was fifteen or so, my mother waded through the sea of clothes, books, school work and teenage flotsam and jetsam that covered my floor, and sat on the edge of my bed with tears in her eyes. I had to clean up, she said. It was really important that I get the room sorted. I made some excuse, but she cast her eyes downwards, subtly wiping a tear from the corner.
“I had a friend who never cleaned up. Every time you went into her house, the house was a complete bomb site. She had junk all over every surface. And she ended up in Ward 12B.”
Ward 12B, for those who never had the chance to go there, was the mental health ward at the old Canberra Hospital. So apparently, Mum believed that mess drove you mad and that cleaning was protective. It’s a particularly amusing little irony, as she probably wouldn’t have assumed mess made you crazy if she wasn’t a little bit of an anxious basket case herself. But she was perhaps correct to recognise that I had early signs of what could be described as mental illness. I don’t like that description much – the DSM categories are too absolutely defined (and yet, altered every successive update) to encompass the range of individual possibilities and challenges people might face. I prefer “eccentric”, or even “sensitive soul”, if you will.
In our family, we have lots of crazy. Mum is a bit of a catastrophist. I reckon Dad is on the autism spectrum somewhere – he is a profoundly dyslexic, nudist socialphobic, who Mum was always shouting at to at least put some pants lest he dangle in the butter. He grew up on a Dungowan farm isolated from his peers, bullied terribly because the other kids thought his grandad was black. Being odd and shy to start with and ostracised by schoolmates, Dad worked out his own rules for life. Treat others with extreme kindness, and if a social convention is illogical, don’t bother with it. Hence, no clothes. Left to his own devices, he also licks plates clean, farts, and is absolutely brilliant to have around if you need to scare off Mormons. He also has the ability to look at an electrical circuit board and understand it instantly. He’s much more acceptable in public and is still in well paid employment at a university, at the age of 70.
One brother used to sneak out at night and put home-made bombs on peoples’ lawns, and for a while got into shoplifting. When someone blew our letter box into its component pieces a few years ago, he was proud that someone was carrying on his grand tradition. The most successful member of the family is a diagnosed, treated schitzophrenic.
Then there’s me. I have had a blessed life, I really have, so I have utterly no excuse for being bonkers other than heredity. I’m probably a bit more severe than the others, who are just eccentric. My major issue is the same as Mum’s – anxiety. I have over a thousand twitter followers, but I’ve only met one, once, and then I made my excuses and fled back inside so that I didn’t have to interact. I have worked on my eye contact and have a number of close friends who I can talk with freely and trust. (That said, I do have about six birthday presents sitting on my bench, because I bought them and haven’t yet got up the gumption to visit the people – pathetic, I know). This is my every day life – a bit annoying, but hey, there’s an easy cure: if I avoid people I don’t get anxious. Voila!
Normally, life is pretty easy to manage. The real challenge comes for about 3-6 months every couple of years or so, when things go haywire, and I end up virtually housebound, or worse, pretty much living on some weird other fantasy planet. The fears started as middle of the night panic attacks in my teens. Picture a fourteen year old sitting on the tiled floor of the kitchen balancing a plate on her head at 3am. That was me – I was convinced I was going to have a heart attack, so reasoned if it happened the plate would fall off and alert my parents. Never broke any. You know that Arabia Ruska stuff – it’s pretty tough.
This was all pretty tolerable until I fell into a fairly wild place in my late teens and early twenties. My poor boyfriends had to put up with all sorts of nonsense, me leaving strange and suicidal and leaving threatening or pleading notes on their doors in the middle of the night, getting drunk or stoned, slicing myself with razor blades in front of them, desperately sleeping with people to try to find love, some vandalism (always reversible though – I had my morals), cartwheels over the University lawns alone at 2 am with loneliness so acute the pain of the frost on my hands was a relief, culminating in what would probably be called stalking these days. There were a few suicide attempts, but the thought of what it would do to the parents held me back. No arrests: I was bloody lucky, right. And a lot of really excruciating poetry, of course. Written in my own blood, of course. I’m not exaggerating. Wish I were.
I was from a middle-class white family, in Uni and with every advantage in the world, so I have no excuse. (No, not even Dad’s dairy product abuse is an excuse.) Writing it all down, I barely relate to that poor kid. But you see my point about diagnoses – you can shoehorn all that into several categories if you liked, and very few of them would be useful.
At Uni, I met with a young PhD candidate with whom I had the most brilliant discussions. He treated me as his intellectual equal – which was a compliment from someone with double first class maths and physics. One morning at 4 am, he knocked on my door in acute anguish and tears. Having left his country of origin, family and friends behind, his depression had become too much to bear. I took him in, offered him hugs and tea. We became a self-supporting unit and soon were inseparable – of course I threw myself at him, but while he accepted affection he refused sex. He told me I was worth more than that. I nursed his depression, he tethered me to reality. We were friends for five years before he gave in. With his help, I grew up. We married.
His family is also full of crazy, but with a different mix – where my guys are clinically nuts, his are clinically maudlin. His father definitely had Asperger’s – a brilliant, obsessive scientist who kept statistics of all sorts of strange things from the denomination of coins he picked up in the streets to the times, dates and details of sexual encounters. My husband has inherited his brilliance, but also his depression. P. is on antidepressants. For the first time recently, I’m on antidepressants, too.
Most of the time my anxiety is under control (which is to say there, but bearable), but when things are bad, I will become acutely paranoid. Early bouts included stuff like waking in the middle of the night absolutely convinced my body was going to spontaneously combust, or being unable to rid myself of the belief that there was a gunman outside. After I was married, the various fancies have been things like believing my husband was having an affair, or that he didn’t love me, or obsessing over the details of a grisly real life murder I’d read about. Back in January, I heard about the New York Cannibal Cop. I googled all the details I could, and then couldn’t sleep for two nights as my mind imagined what it would be like to be the victim, in horrifying detail. Realising that it was exactly rational or responsible behaviour, I turned to the doctor and Zoloft.
When I messed up my pills recently (mistaking antihystamine Zyrtec for antidepressant Xydep) I became a bit hyper and excitable, and very slightly at risk of running off with a Lithuanian fishmonger to start a circus just for the adventure*. But I recognised a spiral, and apart from possibly doing my own reputation a little damage by live tweeting my insanity, I was able to step back, facepalm and laugh.
Both my husband and I can see it coming from a mile away these days – as I can read in his face that the black dog is on his back with its tongue in his ear. As soon as I start obsessing over things I know to be stupid, I realise I have to do something and seek some sort of help – be that counselling or antidepressants. Whereas when he gets dour, he gets warmth, hugs, tea, and gently guided into his distraction activities until he feels better.
We treat our problems not as essential parts of our being, but annoying maintenance to which we have to attend occasionally.
Perhaps if we’d thought about it a bit better, we might have not done so, but I’m afraid we blended our DNA. Kids. Three of the buggers. It would have been a miracle for them all to have escaped our genes, but having been through it ourselves, we hope we are better equipped to deal with the whatever they face.
So that’s the negative. But not a lot of completely “sane” people (or people who think they are sane) realise that with these sorts of issues come positives. The curious mind my husband inherited from his father may be occasionally crippled by depression, but it is also genius, providing enough to carry us through any temporary down times. I’m creative-I love photography, design ads for our company, write, and review theatre. Our kids, too, are creative, genius, or both.
My family is a best case scenario. I have done so much better than I deserved, or than anyone meeting me in my twenties could have predicted. My husband, for all his depression, has been successful enough to support us well. Two of the kids show signs of not coping – random crying, panic attacks, phobias, suicidal ideation, a little self-harm in biting themselves to bruises.
The positive is that having lived with crazy for this long, I sort of know how to make the best of it. The following is a list of things I’m telling the children to try to help them deal with their genetic heritage.
Just as a disclaimer, it might not work for you – and you know, you’re well within your rights to tell me as a privileged bitch to just fuck off because what the hell do I know, and I’m not a trained counsellor. You’d be dead right. Okay, got that out of the way early.
As I was saying, this is our list for our privileged princess daughters. What would you add? What would you remove?
- It won’t always be this bad. When you’re in the pit of a depression, it feels like utter crap. But you’re not the only person in the world who feels like you do right now, and many, many people live with varying degrees of depression.
- Avoid suicide porn. For fuck’s sake don’t read anything about anyone who has suicided.
- Use your powers to be rational. This is the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which aims to retrain your brain out of negative thought patterns and into more healthy ones. If you’re able to find a good CBT counsellor, or really any counsellor, great. There are plenty of online resources to help if you haven’t got access to or money for counsellors.
- Help. Seek out whatever you can – gps, counsellors, hospitals, whatever.
- There’s no shame in medication. Don’t hold out until you are 39 like my husband did. If the first pills don’t work, try another, and another.
- Psychotherapy which involves any revelations of deep, dark secrets didn’t work for us. There is a freudian style of psychotherapy which tends to look for events in the past to blame for the current predicament. Not only does it drive a wedge between you and your family (because the parents almost inevitably get the blame), it can also drive in your feelings that you are a victim of the world, and you can be lost in a mire of self-pity, which only gets worse. We’ve both been there, and we realised it made us pathetic whiny little wimps blaming the world for our problems. (The advice doesn’t count for anyone who remembers abuse, trauma, ptsd and the like, and many people may find it helpful. We just didn’t though.)
- Recognise spirals. Spirals are when your depression or anxiety feeds on itself. Recent example of a thought spiral by my middle daughter: she’s missed a year of school, so she’s freaking out about school, so she freaks out more about school. Then she’s angry at herself because she’s caused herself to miss so much school, and she’s useless, and now she can’t sleep, and she’s a terrible person because she can’t sleep, and, and, and… So you can see, she was punishing herself for her symptoms, which just got worse and worse until she was catatonic. If you get into a spiral, distract yourself or seek help.
- Find things that settle you down. Breathing exercises, exercise, gardening, reading, listening to music, finding someone to have a good, logical argument with on twitter – hey, whatever works for you. I go outside and look at the sky through gum leaves or take the dogs for a walk.
- Phone a friend. If you have supportive friends – even just one supportive friend – you’ve got a wonderful asset. If you recognise you’re in a bad space, reach out by phone, twitter, email, whatever. Twitter is a marvellous way of finding like minded people without having to actually speak to them face to face.
- Know the shape of thine enemy. Much easier by the time you reach middle age, but once you know your stereotyped responses you can cut them off at the pass. Once you can see that you’re heading for a crash, call a friend, see a doctor, use your distraction strategies.
- Don’t let it define you. You’re a person with a problem, not a list of symptoms on a freaking check list.
- Humour. This is easier with neuroses than depression. Either way, don’t take it too seriously. If you can manage to step outside yourself and see humour or irony in your situation, you can take the sting out.
- Try everything. By which, I mean go to the net, see what has helped other people and do it.
- Don’t self medicate with pot. Been there, done that, got the postcard. Counterproductive.
- If you feel you have no friends and you’re lost in a horrible swamp of depression, you are allowed to go to hospital and ask for emergency help there. That’s something I wish I knew as I was making angels in the Canberra frost in the wee hours of the morning.
Okay, now a bit of advice for people who consider themselves to be normals
- Can it with the fucking stigma. If it weren’t for people with mental health issues, we wouldn’t have comedy. We wouldn’t have a lot of writing. If it weren’t for autists, we wouldn’t have the internets. Seriously.
- Don’t give up on someone. I’ll be honest, being a friend of someone with issues can be a drag. Sometimes you can see them digging themselves into the same bloody hole they did last time. They might always complain about the same thing. Yeah, that’s what they do. Love the person for who they are. Find other things to talk about. Go to movies. Take them out of themselves.
- For Christ’s sake, don’t patronise. Yeah, that actually goes for anyone. Especially doctors. Because if you dig out the DSM V, you’ll find an exaggerated version of just about everyone you know.
- If you see someone in a spiral, offer help. It’s a pain in the butt but you know you’ll kick yourself if they do something stupid. Don’t do what I did when the old friend turned up with a bunch of stuff he’d borrowed, yellow and pale because he was committing slow suicide by starving himself. I just took my stuff, too shocked to talk. Luckily he had better friends who looked after him.