Keeping company with misery

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'It's Not You, Geography, It's Me' cover image

At fifteen years of age, I had an epiphany. It wasn’t the sort of thunderbolt where I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a veterinarian or that my sexual orientation was other than straight; it was that suicide would be the best way to immediately deal with the acute unhappiness and distress I was feeling. Like a tattoo of your ex-boyfriend’s name, a permanent solution can seem like a good idea at the time… 

In retrospect, my problem-solving may have been a little overreaching, like fixing the flat tyre on your car by pushing the whole thing off a cliff, or cutting your leg off because your shoes are giving you terrible blisters. I certainly had second thoughts about the wisdom of my epiphany when I ended up in hospital with a stomach full of tablets and spent the next few hours crying and throwing up into a plastic bowl in the Emergency department. Suicide was actually a rubbish idea, as it turned out. 

When a child and adolescent psychiatrist came to see me the next morning, I learned that the way I had been feeling had a name – clinical depression. Its sudden presence in my life may have been linked to the serious bout of glandular fever I had recently experienced, the doctor said, or perhaps I was going to be the latest instalment in a story of mental illness that spanned generations of my family. There was no way of knowing, and even if there were, it wouldn’t have made a dent in the way I felt. Only time, and television, would help. I spent months at home, recovering in solitude and becoming embarrassingly addicted to Days of Our Lives.’

The saying ‘Misery loves company’ couldn’t be further from the truth of my experience with depression. Misery loves isolation, sleep and lethargy, sure, but company was something I could absolutely do without. 

For the next six years, I attempted to manage my mental health with good intentions, stern self-talk, guilt and cigarettes. Finally, exasperated and desperate, I started taking an anti-depressant medication, and when it actually worked, I was stunned to feel happy. 

Like any new relationship, the honeymoon period is brilliant… and temporary. My love affair with medication was euphoric for the first few months, and soon became boringly familiar. In the blink of an eye, I took my newfound mental stability for granted and barely noticed that I could now work for six months in a row without breaking into tears for no reason around the three-month mark. Once upon a time, such physical and mental endurance would have been unimaginable, and now I was simply underwhelmed. I wasn’t depressed anymore, but I wasn’t sure I was happy either. 

In my experience, when you get the thing you always wanted, you start to notice the other things that you don’t have and want them instead. Something is always out of reach. For the longest time I had just wanted to stop feeling depressed, to arrest despair before it swallowed me whole, and now that it had finally happened, it seemed I wanted the whole world, or at least to see extremely large hunks of it.  

For much of my life, I thought that happiness could be found somewhere other than where I was; that it was a place that existed outside of my head, like Iceland or Tasmania, and if I just kept looking, I’d eventually stumble across my peace of mind in a faraway place. Of the many delusions that I have entertained in my life, such as the idea that there is a weight at which I will be satisfied or a gym membership that I’ll use for more than two weeks, the belief that the grass is greener elsewhere has always been the most entrenched (although there is a town called Hell in Norway and I expect that the grass there is probably scorched, if not dead).  

Unreasonable expectations are sort of my forte, so when I bought a backpack and headed to London on a ‘working holidaymaker’ visa, aged 23, I expected life to meet me more than halfway. In fact, I expected it to meet me at Heathrow’s arrivals area with a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolates and an open-mouthed kiss. For someone with a history of depression (still managed to this day by medication) I have a surprisingly strong optimistic bias, constantly underestimating how long any given task will take to be performed, or how much preparation time I will require in order to depart the house in a semi-presentable state. I applied this same deluded notion to travel, convinced that the act of depositing my body on British soil would dispel any residual melancholy I had accumulated in Australia and that the direction of my life would unfurl before me like a silk ribbon flapping in the breeze as soon as my feet hit the tarmac. 

When two years in Europe didn’t deliver on the promise I had envisaged, I returned to Australia and studied to become a nurse. A meaningful job was something that had been missing in my life until then, but even its arrival didn’t dispel the restlessness. It was still there, simmering quietly underneath, calling me to Vietnam and Cambodia and Iceland and Mexico, calling me home, wherever that is…


Kristy Chambers

Kristy Chambers is an Adelaide born nurse turned writer who now lives in New York City. Her latest book It's Not You, Geography, It's Me was published last month, and follows her 2012 memoir Get Well Soon! My (Un)Brilliant Career as a Nurse. The image is from the cover of It's Not You.

Topic tags: Kristy Chambers, mental health, travel, writing, personal development

 

 

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Thank you Kristy, you have described my life exactly, except I became a teacher instead of a nurse. It's me, right down to the bit about underestimating the time it will take to get ready etc. Drives my husband nuts, still, after 39 years of marriage. Your story is very familiar to this 61 year old. Thank you x
Jan | 08 October 2014


Thanks Kristy for a very readable piece. What is very important to emphasise from it is that anti-depressant therapy is now most of the time very effective, and can allow you to get on with your life...but as you found out, that is not necessarily that day. but it is a life!
Eugene | 08 October 2014


When I was young I was taught there were 7 Deadly Sins. Later, I learned they were not actually sins, but dispositions, either internal or through circumstances, that could lead to sins unless precautions were put in place to counter them. King Canute may have been tempted to pride when assured by his courtiers that he could command the tides and they would turn back, but he used the occasion to enlighten them. I learned again that the 'Sin' called Sloth was earlier called Sadness, and wonder if it should be called Depression. Depression seems to result from a loss of purpose in life, either from a collapse of the external structures that gave us such a purpose, or perhaps from some chemical imbalance in our brain which inhibits us from finding or recognising our personal purpose in life. Perhaps a combination of both. Help may be needed to restore confidence, but often it not available, at least in an appropriate form.
Robert Liddy | 08 October 2014


Thank you Kristy! I have so enjoyed your writing and also the interviews on ABC radio. Your insightful, humorous and honest writing certainly speaks to my own experiences - sleep, lethargy, and yet existential restlessness in trying to find that stable, safe spot! All the best with your new adventures in New York.
Virginia | 09 October 2014


Kirsty I heard you on Triple J this morning and I've really enjoyed reading the excerpts from your books and I look forward to reading them both! As a fellow depressive disorder surviver, I am married to a bi-polar surviver - we make our way through life's challenges together and I will no doubt share your stories with my husband ??
Christine | 09 October 2014


"Like any new relationship [with antidepressants], the honeymoon period is brilliant… and temporary." Our son was a psychologist who'd become anxious and depressed, and had put his trust in psychiatry and psychotropic medication, instead of seeking the underlying cause and undergoing psychotherapeutic intervention. Following his slow decline while taking Lovan/Prozac, followed by Zyprexa and Nardil, Daniel took his life on 6th August 2014. We have since learned that suicide often follows antidepressant medication, and that Eli Lilly [Zyprexa] and Pfizer [Prozac] have been exposed for their dishonesty. After reading Gwen Olsen's 'Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher', Dr Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Pharma', and Dr David Healy's 'Pharmageddon'; and viewing Youtube video 'Making a Killing: The Untold Story of Psychotropic Drugging', we no longer trust the pharmaceutical industry nor their compliant psychiatric accomplices. We are also concerned about the LONG-term consequences of psychotropic drugs. Notwithstanding the false and misleading propaganda of vested interests (mainly Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Liquor), there is an abundance of evidence that cannabis, especially strains high in cannabidiol [CBD] have anti-anxiety, antidepressant and antipsychotic properties. That's why we support cannabis re-legalisation.
Gordon Rowland | 10 October 2014


Dear Kirsty, I am not saying anything new here, but people with sensitive, questioning natures like yours are meant to get in touch with the spirit. This spirit is the One who inhabits us all 24/7, and in whom we find our only true "home". Try contemplation & be sure to persevere in it, having a daily meditation time just for yourself. Then you and your spirit will slowly begin to experience and tune into this peaceful indwelling spirit. Subscribe to the Richard Rohr daily online comments for help & inspiration. When Jesus said his spirit would be with us "always", he was not lying. We all need to realise the psychological saying "when I think. I am" is definitely not true. When I think 24/7, like most of us in the western cultures do, bar when we are asleep, I am not - that is I am not being present to my true self. I am mostly just being present to my ego concerns at that time. John Cronin, Toowoomba Q
John Cronin | 10 October 2014


Thanks for your article Kristy. Searching for meaning and purpose, having goals that you care about... sometimes the 'meaning' is accumulative and can be built up over time. It is a mystery though - but that bias towards optimism (I can relate to how you've described yourself) and actually the desire to find something new or better - I think that's a pretty human tendency and for many people, it keeps them going. Whatever works for you though - Days of Our Lives included. :)
M Grey | 16 October 2014


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