Sharing the selfish illness

Mental IllnessAs I grated the sandpaper across my face, the skin rubbed away but didn't bleed as I expected. Gooey plasma softened the paper's rigid surface. I picked another piece and tried again, over the weeping skin. This time I got blood and was satisfied that if I explained that my face was the result of tripping up the stairs I could remain in the house for a few more days. I went inside and tried my hardest to remove all thoughts from my mind.

Three weeks later I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

It's a selfish illness: the desire to reverse your existence. However, in recent months my GP has found me medication that has been effective and I am returning to a feeling, whole human. Earlier this year, after a lousy day, I recognised I was both bored and frustrated — and went a little mad with happiness. It had been almost three years since I hadn't regularly feigned emotions.

Since becoming well, it has been difficult to describe what it was like living with depression. To get some distance and so to better articulate what it can be like, I asked a friend if he would allow me to share his story.

I remember meeting Mathieu more than 10 years ago on a youth group activity that involved catching a train to the CBD. He was miming a lawn sprinkler break-dance while moving up the carriage walkway; he encouraged other passengers to suggest different moves or join in themselves.

His lanky, uncocoordinated but enthusiastic efforts were too funny to ignore and broke the no-talking-listening-or-acknowledging-others-on-public-transport norm. Strangers, other youth members and I exchanged grins.

In short, Mathieu isn't someone you forget. Spending time with him makes you feel that the world holds colours you never dreamt existed: together you have stepped from a water-colour world to one of vivid oils and charcoal.

Until recently, I knew very little of his struggles. I knew he was sometimes moody, and he would frustrate me by disappearing out of my life for a few months, then popping up again as if nothing had happened.

Mathieu was bullied throughout primary school for being dramatic and 'different'. It was something of a surprise when, at high school, this 'difference' was not only tolerated, but gave him a counter-mainstream popularity among other kids who didn't fit in.

However, from year 10 onwards he struggled with thoughts of purging his mind and body. After absently-minded writing some poetry on an exam paper a couple of months before graduation, his teacher contacted his mother and suggested he see a psychiatrist immediately, as his teacher was worried Mathieu was going to kill himself.

Mathieu was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety disabilities, and began taking medication. Six months later, wanting to be free from medical 'control', Mathieu stopped taking his antidepressants.

He began listening to heavy techno music and binge drinking. He would stay awake as long as he could, because every time he awoke it was to the despondency of still existing.

During periods when he felt well, he would find work. However, shortly after starting a new job he would usually experience a panic attack, and the humiliation of explaining to an employer why he couldn't work but had to leave immediately meant he sometimes left without explanation and didn't return.

One year he decided to get a tattoo, and when his depression was thickest, he would ask his tattooist to work on the skin closest to the bones in his hands so the pain might distract him.

Several months ago, when looking through his father's office for a DVD he had misplaced, Mathieu found antidepressants prescribed to his dad. Hurt that he never knew his father also suffered from depression, he confronted his mother. She told him yes; both his father and grandfather experienced chronic major depression but she had felt it was his father's decision whether to share this with Mathieu.

Mathieu and his father still haven't spoken about their experiences. What example do they have when their thoughts and emotions are so far from the stereotypically laconic and relaxed Aussie blokes'?

Mathieu has been determined to break his cycle of short-term employment; six months ago, when he began his most recent job, Mathieu was open with his boss and let him know he may sometimes need to leave work suddenly, or arrive late. Since then, his boss has been supportive, has recognised Mathieu's many talents, and now wants him to stay beyond his six month contract.

At the moment, Mathieu is well and cautiously optimistic. He describes us both as 'sober depressives': he's well now and hopefully for a long time, but could become sick again. Mathieu wants a family, but fears how his illness may affect his future wife and kids if he is unwell for long periods.

I share this concern, especially for my one-day husband. What may I put him through when I'm unwell? Will I block him out like I recently did with those I love? How badly will I hurt him, and possibly our kids?

Although these are issues to consider, I continue to hope and work towards a strong marriage and wonderful family. I believe this is more likely to happen if we who suffer from depression share our experiences.

By the very irrationality of the thoughts it produces, it can be overwhelmingly difficult to even attempt explaining this part of yourself to someone who has never experienced a mental illness.

However, it is important to continue trying to remove the stigma that surrounds mental illness; otherwise, many men and women with major depression will continue keeping quiet and allowing their behaviour to be interpreted as slackness, unreliability or laziness, and the consequences will be perpetuated through future generations.

Helen BrakeHelen Brake is studying English Literature at the University of Queensland. She spent four months teaching English in south-west China, and enjoys continuing to meet students from other countries at a volunteer-run, conversational English class in inner-Brisbane.

Topic tags: Helen Brake, Matthiieu, depression, mental illness



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Existing comments

Dear Helen

I don't know what to say.

Other than - thank you for your courage in sharing what we share...

May you be blessed in your journey.
margaret | 15 September 2010

The heading for this interesting article is ill-considered. This illness is no more 'selfish' than cardiovascular disease or melanoma. The serious mental illnesses of schizophrenia, bipolar 1 and the major affective disorders are biological and incurable but amenable to therapy and medication.

Helen you are a person who is insightful, determined and resilient. You have every hope of continuing life with a happy marriage, raising children who, because of their mother's strengths, will be even stronger than you are, wherever their lives lead them.. Continue with good therapy and whatever medication may be necessary and keep talking about your illness!! That is our only way of helping lessen the stigma shown to the mentally ill. I speak of my daughter's disintegration from schizophrenia and subsequent suicide whenever I can, to help me and to help lessen stigma and discrimination.

The greatest stigma, of course, comes from state and federal governments and their permanent underfunding of mental health.

Maintain your courage and insight, Helen, and it is also good to maintain rage toward this political and bureaucratic contempt.

I majored in English literature. Nothing could be more helpful for you than these studies. I wish you well.
Caroline Storm | 15 September 2010

Well done Helen, I identified with your article, and the words stand out "the desire to reverse your existence" stood out, as I struggle to function and be 'myself' against the brain chemistry theatre.
I do want to say that it is possible to have a healthy, committed relationship and children! Married for 26 years and two adult daughters. As you have insight and manage your illness well, I'm sure you will do with a husband(they have their moments too!).
Julie McNeill | 15 September 2010

I was rather concerned, too, that this article implies that depression is a 'selfish' disorder. It is not. It is a result of many social and emotional factors from birth and early infant life, from family experiences and events from which meaning has been transmitted through generations. Bullying for example has its own intricate dynamic concerning the bully as well as the bullied. What one brings to a relationship is also borne from experiences of relationship within one's own family as well as life events.

Depression is a symptom that all has not gone well, that something needs to be and can be done about it. It is not entirely a matter of finding the right medication - although in the writer's case, it has been successful. There is the need for psychotherapy - whether CBT, Mentalisation based treatment, or indeed psychoanalysis. This has been overlooked in this article which implies that medication solved all. That it did so in Helen's case is marvellous. Feelings, including depressive feelings, are complex. The desire to express oneself, to feel overlooked and misunderstood, to feel that one cannot relate, to feel anger or traumatised are all part of human relating. Psychotherapy can assist in providing a language for these.

To refer to depression as 'the selfish illness', is to oversimplify its complexity and to add to ths guilt of those who suffer it, and who may not realise that there are options available.
Anonymous | 15 September 2010

I have worked for over a decade to try to dispel myths and to increase understanding of mental illnesses and of the people who suffer such illnesses. I am appalled at the heading for this article which refers to a "selfish illness". The community is only too ready to blame people who have mental illnesses.

There is no way that anyone with a mental illness can be called selfish. Apart from the terrible suffering they undergo, there is also the fact that, when they are ill, they rarely have any insight into what is happening to them, to the people around them or indeed the reality, or lack of reality, in their surroundings. I cannot express in words the hurt that this heading has caused me.
Sheelah Egan | 15 September 2010

Dear Shelagh

I am very sad at the reaction to the heading.

Depression IS (still) regarded as a selfish illness. A kind of self indulgence."Snap out of it", "keep busy" is the sort of reaction we receive, even if it is masked as CBT. I cannot think of a suicide - I have known of several in recent years - where a significant number of people did not say - How could he/she have done this to his/her family and friends? A reaction very different from giving said family and friends permission to feel angry...
Helen's wonderfully honest and insightful essay makes it quite clear that the heading (hopefully of her own choosing) refers to the paradox in which all of us experiencing depression live-that in sharing our selves with the wider community we must be honest about needing to share our limitations.

Please, when we do, at great cost, share our experiences as best we can, honour our right to choose our own words, even when we know they have a sharp edge.
margaret | 15 September 2010

Shelagh, your point is well taken. I remember a poignant story some years ago when three middle-aged men completed suicide within a few weeks. An article in the Age showed the families some time later.
One wife said "If he knew what he was doing to me and the children he never would have done it" I understand her grief but I wanted to cry "if you knew what he was suffering before his death, you would accept he had to do it".

All serious mental illness is seen by a great number of people as self-indulgent...this is a huge part of the stigma we have to work to try to eliminate.

And one can never be angry because a dearly loved daughter dies because of a fearful disease.
Caroline Storm | 15 September 2010

Helen's story is beautifully written. It was so compelling, I couldn't stop reading it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and part of yourself. I hope it will make me more compassionate for those in need.
Mary Ann Buhagiar | 15 September 2010

What a beautifully written piece. I too am convinced that we must actively work to reduce the stigma of mental illness. Oh how I would like to tell my boss that I am 'off' occasionally and know it to be transient. I can't trust him to understand and not 'use it against me'. Sad isn't it? A grown man in the last years of employment harbouring a constant fear. It is so true...that it is nigh impossible to articulate what feeling depressed is like. How frustrating but how good the moments when 'it' doesn't dominate. Go well all you sufferers...there is hope, so cling on to it!
David | 16 September 2010

Thank you. Very moving article. A friend was just sharing her grief this morning about a daughter's problems and I will pass this article on to her.
Kath | 17 September 2010

Well written article Helen. Wishing you all the best.
Try developing mindfulness skills/meditation...I know no other better way to freedom from suffering.

Ajanta Judd | 17 September 2010

Dear Helen
My husband suffers badly from panic attacks, depression, anxiety, etc. I love him unconditionally - remember - "through sickness and in health". I count myself as a very lucky woman to have this beautiful man that love me, wonderful children and a great life. My prayers will be that you will also find the a person who will love you unconditionally.
SO'C | 17 September 2010


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