A thought from Rachel Smith

11th June 2015

Talking about it

My father had type 1 bipolar disorder. He was very sick with the illness before eventually losing his life to suicide. I was 12 when he died. I'm pretty matter of fact about telling people this when they ask about him. In my mind, my father's death was not really different to my mother's which was due to an aggressive brain tumour. They both got sick, the doctors couldn't cure them, they died from the illness.

What was different was people's reaction to their illness. When my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer I was surrounded by an outpouring of support from friends and family. When my dad was sick we were in a small Australian town in the late 90s. In public opinion, mental illness was basically not even a concept. My dad was just “crazy". My mum had to cope with his illness, mostly alone, as friends didn't really understand the situation. She was also a very strong, proud and independent woman and back then the expectation was to keep such “issues" within your own family.

The way my parents struggled with my dad’s mental illness in a community that wasn’t educated on the subject has always inspired me to educate those around me about mental illness in whatever small way I can, especially in my conversations about it. For a long time I thought I was helping but only very recently I realised I was still part of the problem.

I have experienced severe depression twice in my life. The first, was after I graduated from university in 2008 with intentions of working in HR (don’t ask) just when the financial crisis was hitting Australia. I could not find a job, and, it was the first time in my privileged little existence that I felt I had truly failed. The second time was in the months after my mother had died. Depression is different for a lot of people. For some, like my father, it renders them completely unable to do anything, even get out of bed. For me, my deep depression hurtles me out in to the world to self sabotage myself and my relationships with alcohol, substances & general bad behaviour. It stems from something within that is telling me I am worthless, disgusting, and deserve none of the good of my life. At first, this inner voice is quiet, on the peripheral. Then it gets louder and soon it is all I will listen to. I over compensate for these feelings by being more cheerful, more outgoing, more of a fun party girl on the outside and in my interactions with people socially. As such most people would never even guess I’m depressed. It took the person closest to me: first it was my best friend Jess, second my husband Andy, to recognise there was something wrong and help me out of those episodes.

In the depression after my mother’s death I went to see a professional. They told me I was suffering from the effects of an adjustment disorder due to the stress accompanying my mother’s sudden illness and death, and essentially being orphaned at 25. I remember crying tears of relief that there was a name, and a clear reason for the way I’d been acting — i.e. my mum dying. You see, I had been terrified that I was sick, like my dad was. I have relatives that have struggled with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, severe postnatal depression and addiction problems. I’m basically a genetic mental illness time bomb. This mental illness that I had always claimed to be so mature about in my conversations with other people still had me completely scared.

This fear, could explain, why I was in denial when the symptoms of depression started creeping back on me this year. First, the joy in life starts to seep away, I feel numb. It’s extra hard to get out of bed in the morning. I’m crying for no reason in the shower and before I fall asleep. And then the little voice starts: “hey you, you don’t deserve this, you’re garbage”. It was there, but I didn’t even realise it. I couldn’t admit that something was wrong, because, this time was different. I wasn’t unemployed and struggling to pay rent. No one had died. In fact, my life was perfect. I had an amazing husband and amazing lifestyle on the beach and I was killing it career wise. For me to admit that I was depressed at that moment seemed like defeat: there is no reason for this sadness, it has happened, I am sick.

It actually took a couple of friends admitting to me in the space of the month that they had been struggling with depression themselves for me to snap out of my denial and realise how bloody stupid I’ve been. I always talked to friends as someone who understands mental illness because my family has lived with it, and it's okay if you live with it (but it hasn’t happened to me, oh no). I realised how hypocritical my words were when I was telling people that it's okay to talk about it, when I couldn’t even acknowledge my own depression to myself.

It's interesting, as soon as I admitted something was wrong, I was able to take steps towards making things better. My strategies for fighting depression are pretty generic — but they do work for me.

Doing this helped stop me from slipping further in to depression and feelings of self hatred before it got bad again.

I am feeling a hell of a lot better now. Since I started feeling better, part of me wanted to act as I had before, write off that depressive period as a blip — "I’m fine now, and I will be forever". I’ve come to the realisation that I can’t live like that any more, for the sake of my health. I need to be honest about my own mental illness. It is part of why I’m writing this now, to acknowledge, finally, I have problems with depression. Because of this, I’m going to look after myself properly, because I deserve it, and I need it. I’m writing this for me, and for you, friends, who may have felt the same way at some point. And if we are friends IRL or online, and you are struggling and need a friend to listen, please reach out, let’s talk about it.

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