I was fifteen years old when I had my first encounter with the dark demon of depression. Previously I had been a well-loved, well-adjusted kid who grew up in the country and spent weekends riding my horse and hanging out with childhood friends.
This was also the year that my family had moved from Miles, a small country town west of Brisbane and settled in Brisbane city. Everything was different. I attended a new school that had in excess of 1000 students (my previous school had 180), we lived in a more rural area of Cleveland, but it certainly wasn’t a patch on the 100-acre farm I had come from. I had met a few friends but no one as close as my bestie from Miles who I had known since I was an infant. Life certainly wasn’t the same and coping, I was to find out, wasn’t my greatest skill.
As the year wore on, I began to become paranoid. Just a little at first, but it grew and grew. Every time I hopped on the school bus, I thought that someone would yell at me or tease me or tell me I was disgusting. No one ever did, but that didn’t stop me from being convinced it was going to happen any second. The bus ride to school was excruciating. I was convinced that everyone hated me, that everyone was looking at me, laughing at me. I’d hear someone laughing at the back of the bus with their friends and I just knew they were laughing at me. I did my absolute best to become invisible. I didn’t talk, didn’t smile, I barely existed.
As my paranoia increased, my ability to function decreased. I’d spend less and less time with friends and more and more time in my room. I slept a lot. It was the only escape from the incessant thoughts about how ugly I was and how disgusting I was. It was the only time that I didn’t feel sadness and guilt and self-loathing. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. One afternoon after math class, I was packing up my belongings in my bag as quickly as possible so I could exit before anyone noticed me. A girl whose name I don’t remember came to me and said:
“You’re so ugly you look like a man.”.
Finally, the thing that I had thought all along was said out loud by one of the kids who I feared the most. Confirmation that I was in fact disgusting. Confirmation that I was right to be paranoid. The world was most definitely out to get me and so began the spiral.
I began withdrawing completely from everything. I no longer rode my horse (something I had enjoyed every day since I was nine). I no longer hung out with my friends. I no longer talked. I completely and utterly withdrew from life. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I was not a spoilt little girl who had her feelings hurt by another spoilt little girl. I had been tiptoeing along the edges of depression for months. An uncomfortable little interaction just tipped me over the edge. My dysfunctional tension tank was full to the brim and I could not bear life anymore. I began thinking about my existence and what a waste it was. I felt that I was so disgusting and such a waste of space that everyone in my life would be better off without me. Thinking about dying was the only comfort I had in a very dreary existence. It’s so difficult to articulate the misery that is a depressive episode. The darkness and the loneliness and the turmoil. It feels like you are trapped somewhere deep beneath the surface of the earth, in a place damp and musty. You feel like you will never again see the sun. Never feel its warmth, never see it brightness. You will never again feel light, and while you are all alone in your dark and musty dungeon, you feel the constant torture of hopelessness. You know that things will never get better. That you will never escape, and while you are down there, the voices in your head echo around your dungeon reaffirming to you that you are lost and hopeless and a complete waste of air. No one is searching for you. No one would bother because you’re not worth it. You are less important than the mud that lies on the damp ground. No one cares. No one is coming for you. You pray for release. Just for a second. If only you could see the light for just one minute. But the dungeon is unforgiving. It is a fortress. In your turmoil you will stay.
My family knew something was wrong but they were going through difficulties too and largely put my withdrawal down to me being a moody teenager. I think they tried to see the best in a bad situation. If they just gave me some space, I’d work things out and everything would be alright. I just pretended I was fine and at every opportunity would skulk back to my room where I could feel everything unabated. My poor mum had no idea how unwell I had become. My main mission in life had become to be invisible and not let anyone know that I wasn’t ok.
For so many years this became my mantra. Pretend you are ok so no one can see the mess that lies inside. For looking inside is too dark, too murky for anyone to tolerate. It was here that I became very very good at hiding. I hid my pain from my parents and my friends. Oh, they knew there was something wrong for sure. They didn’t know how deep my sadness was or how desperately I wanted to stop existing. This I kept hidden from everyone. It was my personal pain and I kept it that way. This was a skill that I developed over my entire life. I became an expert at it. I learnt during this period to wear a mask all the time. Don’t let anyone in. Don’t let them see the real you, the real pain. No one wants to see that.
I lived through my first depressive episode. It lasted a month or two, but I survived it. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why. I don’t know how anyone can survive a full-blown depressive episode without some kind of help. Any help. But I guess for many of us that has been the reality hasn’t it? We teach ourselves to keep getting up in the morning and putting on a mask and participating in life as much as we can. Since these days I have learnt the value of help. I have learnt the importance of putting up my hand and saying, ‘I’m not okay.’ It’s not shameful to ask to for help. It’s such a strong thing to do in whichever way we choose to do it. There have been so many times in my life that I have agonised over those words ‘I’m not okay.’ I have run scenarios in my head about what would happen if I said them out loud. I have obsessed over how to get them out of my mouth. I have panicked about who would listen anyway. And yet every time I have said those words, someone has listened. Someone has reached out to me and offered me comfort. Not always the same person and not always in the same way, but inevitably when I’ve asked for help, people have taken me seriously and offered me a hand.
I still have days and weeks where I need to utter those dreaded words. I still find them incredibly difficult to say, but I also know that keeping them to myself in the long run is so much harder.