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.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - HEALTH -

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.

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