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Pain isn’t always visible, it’s often a deep, invisible sensation. In this piece Tim shares his experience of depression, his story is one that is individual and also universal, and he shares an honest portrayal of his experience. The piece includes several graphic descriptions which may be triggering to some people, and discussion of suicide.
Depression was a dampness. It started in the margins of my life, every so often leaving its residue precipitated on the windows. I would try to clear it with my fingers, but soon its fog came every morning and every morning my hands were wet and cold. The moisture arranged itself about my room with careful, quiet footsteps. It darkened the surroundings, adding weight to the carpet, my clothes, sheets, and duvet. All around me, something soggy and uninviting began to replace the firm, sharp surfaces. It eventually found its way inside my body until I myself became damp. By then it was inescapable. I lived separately from everyone else, alone on the foggy side of the windows—numb, empty, and afraid.
I dreaded leaving my bed. Life’s most routine tasks— waking, standing upright, eating, drinking, and speaking—became so frightening that I could no longer physically perform them. Instead, I spent each day covering my face with a pillow, waiting for the quiet to put things back to where they are supposed to be, drifting in and out of tears and sleep.
I hated myself for it. There was a shame and inadequacy in not feeling ‘better’. I hated myself for being self-consumed and for being dependent on others. Every conversation was about me, every conversation was hopeless. I was a burden, always sullen, incoherent, disconsolate and lethargic. I felt sad that my sadness made others sad. I worried about how others worried about me. Even to those that had experienced their own version of depression, I was inaccessible. No detail escaped my intense observation.
I felt guilty of my presence. Instead of dragging around my long face dressed in despair, it was easier to give the impression that I was okay and improving. I wanted others to believe that all of the late-night conversations, tears, money spent on doctors and psychologists, stress, and love, had achieved something. I wanted to appear normal, when all I felt was a harsh and unforgiving emptiness.
Depression was worse than sadness, worse than a bad mood. Depression was exhausting. It was the absence of feeling; the inability to envisage ever being happy again. It made me feel like I did not belong in this world. And nothing could assure me that I did.
After my mum died of breast cancer when I was seventeen I could not sleep. For years I tried all the conventional things: no screens at night, exercising every day, only using my bed for sleep and sex, chamomile tea, walnuts, bikram yoga, and meditation. But the nights were always heavy and inflated. I would lay there in the dark, angrily passive, watching my duvet rise and fall—the effort of falling asleep was always too noticeable. Time slowed to an unbearable stasis. All I could think about was my dead mum’s still-warm hand. There was such a stillness to her eyelids, a lifeless look: a look that no longer saw anything. Despite the metallic aftertaste and grogginess of the next day, I relied on Zopiclone, a small blue sleeping pill that tranquilises the nervous system.
My anxiety developed in my first year of university. I was eighteen, living in a hall of residence, drinking a few nights a week, and regularly taking drugs. My hangovers and comedowns carried with them an overwhelming sense of unease; an unease that I could not attribute to any obvious cause or reason. It was just there. This was fine until I remained anxious into the next week, and then it became constant—incessant and always lingering. On good days I could go to class or busy myself with readings and essays. On bad days I could feel the weight of every individual’s stare passing me in the hallways, in the streets, and in the claustrophobic aisles of New World Metro.
With the anxiety came panic attacks. They would happen abruptly, alarming the heart until I could no longer breathe. My mind became an uncomprehending flow of thoughts: a room of crowded, unfamiliar voices arguing with each other, yelling faster and faster. Every second felt like I was falling further from reality and into the territory of the deranged, who cannot return to the world but instead live in their own unique place that is horrifying.
I cannot remember the exact moment when depression joined me. It was sometime during second-year. Perhaps I was reading the paper one morning, not looking at anything in particular, when the sky became sad, too, sagging grey as I found myself climbing the endless steps of profound melancholy. My adolescence—the six years of foreboding that led up to my mum’s death—was partly characterised by a fear of pity from others. Years later, the same feelings returned. I did not tell anyone that I was depressed. Inwardly, I lived a secret life disconnected from the people around me. They only saw a false, smiling mask.
At the worst point of my depression, I had just turned twenty-one and had moved to Melbourne after completing my undergraduate degree. Melbourne was an escape. As if my mind would be refreshed from a three-and-a-half-hour flight and two thousand five hundred kilometres of geographical separation. I was on the plane, crying privately, thinking: “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be here.” Here was not the Melbourne I was heading to, or the Wellington I had just left, but being alive in the world. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
The unfamiliar landscape added to my sense of aloneness. Melbourne was an endless grid of flat streets and tram stops, without a horizon of green, bush-covered hills. I started drinking a lot more. Just one sip would make me feel calm, one glass would ease the day, ten more would make me feel like the person everyone expected me to be. I started abusing pharmaceutical drugs. I craved the numb happiness they brought. For whole evenings, nothing would matter, nothing would exist. But sober, during the day, I nursed a paranoia subdued by a tough self-loathing. I hated the hopelessness, the humiliation, the attached meanings of conversation, and the bushy eyebrows that did not suit my face. I hated how everyone seemed to live so naturally, when nothing seemed natural to me.
For months I was captivated by the idea of suicide. I would research ways of killing myself—hanging, jumping from height, vehicular impact, bleeding—and entertain each method in daydreams at work. They were such horrible ways of dying. I remembered, as a child, a neighbour’s chocolate Labrador ate rat poison while on a walk somewhere and died spewing up parts of her stomach. My doctor in Wellington had given me three-month’s worth of antidepressants to last until I was settled. Added to the supply of prescription drugs I had obtained in Australia, I easily had enough for a fatal overdose. But, all I could picture was that poor dog.
One evening after my flat mates had gone to bed, my preoccupations culminated into a pressure I could no longer withstand. I grieved for everything lost: my mum, my friends in New Zealand, my childhood home, my former bubbly self, a time when everything made sense. I felt as if there was no place on earth for me. All I had left was the desire to end things. I took a drink bottle to the bathroom and swallowed my remaining Zopiclone all at once. I did not count them, but I remember thinking that there were not as many as I had hoped—probably about twelve or fourteen. Then, with an immense nervousness, I waited to be carried off to sleep. At first, nothing happened. I lay clutching each arm, listening to the traffic lights clicking at intervals. Far off, the dull hum of cars coming and going. The sheets were sticky. It was such a strange interlude, counting each breath, anticipating the tide gathering itself in the distance and coming to pull me under into depths suspended in time, darkness all around and inside, where I could refuse to exist.
I awoke the next evening with a headache. Frustrated it did not work, and frustrated about what was to come, I staggered to the bathroom and cut my left wrist several times with a razor blade. I then vomited over and over. My flatmate found me in the shower, crying, holding my arm with a towel. It was not so much the appeal of taking my own life than wanting to escape consciousness. How lucky I would be to fall asleep forever, I thought, and not have to face the days.
I promptly moved back to New Zealand. I had no immediate family living there. Thankfully, however, I did have the support of some very close friends whose families looked after me as I tried to get my world back into focus. It was a confusing period of adjustment. I had no sense of what parts of my depression arose from my mum’s passing, a family history of susceptibility, sleepless nights, protracted hangovers, post-graduation existential concerns, and which parts were invented. The sense of isolation persisted.
Life, having tried to bury it under my tongue, was divided into fortnightly prescriptions and weekly visits to doctors and psychologists. I hated seeing medical professionals. Doctors, I felt, could not help me. Each week, the same story of how my anti-depressants were not taking effect was met with a prescription for a higher dose. My head was always muddled. My face in the mirror remained disconnected. No matter how many steps I took, I remained in the same place each week, seated in a sterile consultation room, feeling nothing.
There was such a difference between each psychologist I saw. One gave me an instructional lecture on the science of depression: how the brain works, the way chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. Another sat in silence, as if waiting for me to burst out in monologue and reveal the full extent of my disastrous thoughts. The expense of private consultations also created an underlying pressure to reach some sort of outcome after each session. I felt guilty and somehow responsible. There were so many things I would say in my head, things no one else could ever know.
It took six months of clumsily articulating my thoughts and feelings until I found an anti-depressant (my fourth type) that actually restored within me a sense of optimism, and a psychologist I could confide in. I stopped drinking and taking illicit drugs. I no longer relied on getting wasted to the point of oblivion every weekend, pretending I was still an undergrad.
I also decided to tell my family—my Dad, my uncle and aunt—about how I had been feeling all of these years. Until then, they had not known the details. I had shut them out, thinking that they would not want to hear, or would not cope with the pain of what had been real for me. The conversations with my family were at times difficult and uncomfortable. But those who loved me the most now understood the feelings I was experiencing, and wanted to help. My words had been filed away in a small, dark drawer inside me for so many years; it was nice to give them some air.
An exercise and sleep routine helped me break the depressed habit of thought. Routine provided a sense of structure, familiarity, and direction. It gave me purpose. Exercising was the only way I could feel sleepy at night. So for forty minutes every evening, I left my cluttered mind at home, and ran. It was almost like I went into a day-dream while on my feet, a temporary relief that gave me a space to rest my head. Sometimes I could even forget my depression altogether. Consistent sleep brought demarcation between days: a break between the recurrent fits of gloom. My tiredness was not as heavy. I began to remember things in clarity again. The dark circles under my eyes lightened.
About two months ago, I returned to Melbourne. This time, aged twenty-three, to start my Masters degree at a university over there. I was reluctant to leave Wellington. Over the past year or so, the daily walk to Kelburn had become manageable as I learnt to restrain my depression. I had grown fond of the sterile office buildings that stood huddled together along the edge of the harbour, as if sheltering each other from the wind. Wellington was familiar. On the plane I felt scared. I was returning to the place where I had tried to kill myself. I was worried the thoughts of malignant sadness might still be there, waiting for me when I arrived.
I am still overcome with that feeling of dampness. Spread throughout my body, it seems so fixed and implacable, like it may last forever. It is no longer, though, something totally consuming that takes from me all that makes life worth living. Now, there is a line between functioning and feeling, or rather, between depression and vitality. Some people throw themselves across the two extremes, while others stick to the line, wavering tentatively over to each side and muddying the border. This is me, wearing a false, smiling mask only some of the time. I am here.
If you’ve been experiencing depressive thoughts on a regular basis, or are finding yourself experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, or just want to talk to someone about your own mental health then please reach out and get in touch with a professional. If it’s an emergency please call 111.
Youthline: 0800 376 633, free-text 234, or email email@example.com
Suicide Crisis Helpline: (for those in distress, or know someone who is) 0508 828 865
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 / www.depression.org.nz