A friend in any weather
When people take their lives, the common refrain is: “Why didn’t they talk to someone?” But one of the hardest things when you’re depressed, writes Helena Forrest, is finding a friend who will listen.
Iam about as privileged as a person can be. I am white. I hold a highly paid professional position and have no financial concerns. I have beloved family and wonderful friends.
But privilege isn’t necessarily the same thing as luck. And unluckily for me, my family have a strong (apparently) genetic tendency to depression. I was also unlucky to fall prey to the sadly common grabbag of childhood abuse.
No amount of privilege can insulate you from that sort of bad luck and I have spent most of my life, and a frustrating amount of that life’s energy, contending with depression.
In a way it was easier in my late teens and 20s because being miserable is a perennially fashionable pose for that age bracket.
But at 27 I found myself driving off from my work to “meetings” that were in reality me sitting on the side of the road in my car, sobbing. It was getting too hard and I was afraid.
So I finally did what all the campaigners and well-meaning folk tell you to do. I told a doctor. She threatened to commit me immediately. I carry the guilt of letting a beloved family member die in one of those hospitals. I knew I would not survive.
I walked out, went back to work and vowed never to tell anyone ever again.
I kept that vow for 20 years. I self-medicated. I selfsoothed. I learned to manage by way of a highly structured life masquerading as an array of wacky personal eccentricities. Of course, that didn’t keep the depression at bay but my props were my life raft and eventually I would reach calmer waters.
Then I lost another family member and this death unfurled a whole lifetime of complexities and anguish… mine, theirs. So much sadness. So many opportunities lost.
I broke. I sat in a friend’s kitchen and sobbed as she had never seen, and I had never done, before. My friend’s response? “Oh darling, everyone’s depressed. It’s not special. No one cares”.
So I renewed my vow and battled on. I stopped drinking. I tried to eat right and sleep well. I meditated and took long walks. I celebrated all the great things in my life. And all the time the millstone of depression just kept grinding away at the core of me.
Finally, I leaped at the chance to take antidepressants for an off label purpose. It dealt with the issue for which it was prescribed and as a bonus I did feel a bit better, all without having to talk to anyone about anything.
But the medication stopped being enough and I found myself driving around wondering which walls would be best to smash into so I would die instantly. Then it got worse and I was afraid.
“I called the psychiatrist and his efficient receptionist cheerily told me it would be a six-week wait for an appointment.”
I have a wonderful, kind, empathic GP. After days of preparing my revelation, I just blurted out a barely coherent plea for help. Her response was perfect and without fuss she suggested a referral to see a psychiatrist. This was a first and a pretty terrifying, career-threatening step to take but I thought it was the right thing to do, for everyone.
I called the psychiatrist and his brisk efficient receptionist cheerily told me it would be a six-week wait for an appointment. That is not six weeks in the public system but six weeks when you pay. I was a bit taken aback but reasoned that, of course, anyone good would be busy.
The wait was hard but I doubled my antidepressants (with my doctor’s OK) and redoubled my do-it-yourself therapies. I was buoyed by the thought of finally talking about all the pain I had bottled up for so long. Perhaps too buoyed, because I confided in two friends. One was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable with the conversation. The other took the proverbial. None of us has spoken of it again.
I have had friends commit suicide and people always say: “Why didn’t they talk to someone?”
I think they probably did but talking is a waste of time if people are not hearing.
I thought those failed confessions would be my low point. Then, after a month of waiting, the psychiatrist’s blithe receptionist called again: “Oh, he’s just let us know he’s not coming in that day. We’ve got another appointment in August?” I shakily explained that it had been very difficult for me to clear my work schedule for the original appointment and I doubted I could do it again in August. “Oh well,” she said. “You know where we are if you need us.”
And there I was standing on my emotional kerb surrounded by the boxes of grief and trauma I had hauled out into the daylight ready to be disposed of, but the psychiatric skip was not coming.
When you’re depressed, simple things become very hard. Just finding someone else and starting this process of waiting all over again is daunting, especially when my own work commitments make it difficult to fit into a doctor’s normal working day.
Most of the time I think I will just give up and go back to pretending like always. I have my props.
If it is this hard for me, with all my privilege, how are people without those props supposed to get help? To even ask for help? We wring our hands about suicide statistics but do we really care about the individuals those statistics represent? The people who got so damn tired of pretending because no one wanted to see the messy, broken reality of their hearts.
The system isn’t going to save people. I know that now. We need to save each other.
He taonga rongonui te aroha ki te tangata. Goodwill towards others is a precious treasure. Postscript: I showed this writing to another friend. And I talked and she listened. That was all. That was everything.
Please, be the one who listens.
This story was written under a pseudonym.