I’m under no illusion when it comes to the privilege into which I was born. My family is loving, stable, financially secure, creative, active, emotionally intelligent – I’ve had an almost embarrassingly fortunate start to life. I was (am?) the anxious overachieving firstborn, and although anxiety is a two-sided coin (my therapist always tells me that anxious people rule the world), when combined with a relentless people-pleasing gene it can make for a tricky combination. The problem with these two traits coexisting is that, in order to please, I learned to pretend to not be anxious – to conceal worry and discomfort in order to allow those around me to remain comfortable. Truth be told, I didn’t even know I was anxious. I thought everyone felt this concerned about everything, and that everyone was just equally as good as I was at pretending that they didn’t.
The day I gave birth I weighed 97 kg. I had gained the extra 27 steadily and happily throughout my pregnancy, eating when the baby told me to and figuring it would all melt off gradually at the other end. Ha! The day after I gave birth the midwife supported my elbow as I tottered shakily towards the scales. I weighed in at a surprising 84. Okay, she was a 4kg baby, and there was probably a good two or three more kilos of, you know, birth stuff. I had also lost a litre of blood, but all of this together still didn’t come close to the 13kg I had shed in just a couple of days. I remarked on the dramatic contrast, and the midwife smiled and patted my wobbly back. “With a labour like the one you just went through, I’m not surprised!” she said in her thick Scottish brogue. “You did more exercise pushing that baby out than most people do in a month.” I was too exhausted to fully comprehend the impact the labour had had on me, but I did notice how light I felt as I carefully made my way back to bed. My knees didn’t hurt any more. I didn’t have to manoeuvre my bulk carefully through doorways. I was a flabby, rung-out cocoon, my tiny butterfly safely ensconced in the impossibly small hospital bassinet next to me. Her serene face belied the drama and effort it had taken to encourage her to leave her warm, safe world. When the doctor came by, he asked me how I was feeling. Not one to complain, I said that I wasn’t feeling too bad, considering everything I had just been through. He smiled in a tokenistic, distracted way, clearly no stranger to this response. He was turning to leave when I decided to mention in an off-hand way that it was probably just the intensity of the labour, but I had noticed that it hurt when I inhaled, like my lungs were bruised or something. And also, my skin was quite puffy, and when I pressed down on it, it crackled, but that could just be swelling from all of the pushing. This was all probably run-of-the-mill labour stuff, right? He stopped in his tracks and frowned at me. I gulped. “No, that’s not actually normal at all. Let me have a look at you.” He came over and examined me more closely, swiftly diagnosing oedema and subcutaneous emphysema, both severe allergic reactions to the epidural that had given me such blessed relief mere hours before. “I’m very glad you told me – this can be fatal,” he said. My eyes widened as he prescribed medication to be instantly administered, and for my progress to be closely and carefully monitored for the next couple of days. And to think that I wasn’t even going to bring it up. What was I afraid of? Wasting his precious highly educated time? Foggy as I was from such a long labour and severe sleep deprivation, I made a mental note to be brave enough to ask the ‘stupid questions’ from now on.
I was 27 when I had my first bout of diagnosed depression. My boyfriend and I had been slogging through a long-distance relationship between Germany and Australia for four interminable years, and he had finally finished his studies and joined me in Australia. We shacked up together in a cute little semi with pressed iron ceilings and creaky floorboards, ultimately living the dream to which we had both clung for so long. So, imagine my surprise when, rather than floating in the blissful couple bubble I had assumed we would inhabit, my moods turned volatile and I found myself reacting dramatically to things that wouldn’t usually have caused a blip. My boyfriend came home from work one night and told me he was going out to meet some friends at a bar. “Did you even think to ask me if I might like to come?” I retorted huffily, scowling at the bedspread. He looks confused. “But you’ve been encouraging me to go out and make friends and socialise. And now I have. Did I misunderstand?” I humphed, feeling childish and hurt – my ego bruised by the reality that I alone was not enough for him. He sat down next to me and gently suggested I go and see a therapist. I could have resisted, and my pride sorely tempted me to, but I grumpily agreed, common sense and curiosity fortunately winning out over immature ego bullshit. And it turned out that I loved therapy. I loved deep diving into the human condition and zooming out on my sheltered, privileged bubble. I learnt to meditate, and to journal. I still didn’t want to do either of those things, but being a type A personality, completing my homework to a high standard was more important than my level of enthusiasm for said homework. And the depression improved. With this level of organic management, it left me alone most days, and only reappeared from time to time in anxiety form, to which I was no stranger. And life went on its uneven way.
When postnatal depression hit me like a brick shit house (or some other badly-mixed metaphor), I didn’t waste any time. I marched into my doctor’s office and demanded the Beyond Blue test. But as he progressed through the questionnaire, I found myself baulking at the reality of full disclosure, not wanting to appear melodramatic or pathetic. I tempered my answers so that they tended towards mild, and my score fell just shy of the requisite level for Medicare rebated therapy. I was prescribed a better diet, more sleep, and more exercise, and despite being assured I wasn’t bad enough for help, I left feeling worse than when I arrived. A week of crying later, I was back, and through tears that just wouldn’t turn off admitted that I had somewhat downplayed things at my previous appointment and asked to take the questionnaire a second time, determined to be braver in my responses. Five minutes later, psych referral tucked into the nappy bag, I rang and scheduled my first appointment even before leaving the waiting room. Another week after that I was sitting across from a therapist well-schooled in supporting shell-shocked new mothers. I was feeling so low and so rotten that I asked her for an anti-depressant almost immediately. She scrutinised me closely and suggested I wait and see how things went for another month or so before taking ‘such drastic measures.’ I acquiesced to her superior education and dejectedly agreed to hold off. I didn’t have the nerve to bring it up again, and around six months later the depression clouds began to slowly lift, elevating me to what I assumed was a normal level of first-time mother anxiety. It certainly didn’t seem to be unusual in my parents’ group, but that may have said more about the demographic of Sydney’s Inner West than it did about first-time parents in general.
The next few years saw me ride the unpredictable undulations of life with little kids and not enough money and not enough time and not enough sleep and not enough exercise and not enough energy. Depression came and went, but never settled in for too long, and never got to the point where I felt suicidal or unable to get out of bed. I learned to act my way through the hard days, and trust that sleep would reset my brain. Often enough it did, and I got used to managing these shifting gears. One marriage breakdown later, I was back on the therapist’s couch, unpacking my woes and sifting through the debris, looking for meaning and patterns of behaviour that could point towards explanation or enlightenment. Again, I enjoyed the process (as much as one can enjoy such a thing) but still felt ruled by a heaviness of the soul that felt at odds with my core self. Again, the subject of medication was not long entertained as there was such a clear catalyst for this period of struggle, and because I had come out of each other depressive episode without medicinal intervention. I sighed and soldiered on.
The end of the 2020 January school holidays coincided with the end of my parenting tether. Living in a granny flat, worrying about money, flying solo with two cabin-fever kids – the cumulative weight of all I had been through weighed more and more heavily on my chest. I farmed the kids out and made a doctor’s appointment for a few little niggling things I had been meaning to check (a sign of the times is that this felt like me-time) and scored a lovely young GP fresh from med school, unjaded and curious and eager to help. His bedside manner made me feel comfortable, and somehow in control – as if he wasn’t going to assume he knew more about me and my body than I did. I took advantage of this unfamiliar feeling and spontaneously announced that I would like to try antidepressants. He took a thorough mental health history and asked me why now? I replied that I was sick of living at the mercy of my brain’s weather patterns, not knowing which days would be a struggle, not knowing how good a parent I was going to be able to be, not trusting my responses or resilience to what life threw at me. And, I finished up, because I had never tried them. I asked him for his opinion on why medication had not only not been prescribed but actively discouraged for me up to this point, and his response was refreshingly honest. Probably because you’re not bad enough, he said. At least, from the outside. You still seem able to function – you observe personal hygiene, you speak coherently, you don’t miss appointments. You can survive without medication. But if it’s this hard, why should I? I asked. He smiled and told me that he was very happy for me to try the lowest dose of something fairly mild, just to see how I went. The relief I felt when he didn’t try to talk me out of it was immense. I walked straight out of his office and into the pharmacy next door and took my first little green pill. After some initial bumpiness, I have found an equilibrium I didn’t think existed. One of the most common reasons people don’t stick with medication for depression and anxiety is when it doesn’t just even out the bad stuff – it puts a dampener on the good. That the pendulum ceases to swing very far in either direction. I know this to be true for some of my friends who have tried and done away with medication as what they’ve gained hasn’t equalled what they’ve lost. Personally, I have experienced the most wonderful alleviation of the burden that I carried around for the first 40 years of my life, almost without knowing how hefty it was. Like the weight that I gained during pregnancy, I only realised how heavy I had been when suddenly I wasn’t any more.
When I was fifteen, three of my friends and I planned a week-long trek through the Grampians. Looking back, I still can’t believe our parents let us go unaccompanied, in winter, before mobile phones. We must really have been responsible nerds. To train for this week-long hike, my friend Ali and I embarked upon a day-long training walk through a local national park carrying backpacks filled with stones to simulate the weight we would have to cart around with us on our trek. We lumbered up and down hills shouldering our self-imposed loads, and at the end of our laborious journey, returned the rocks to their natural environment and hoisted our packs back up, flinging them high into the air, so light they now were with their cargo jettisoned. That’s what medication has done for me. It has taken the heaviest rocks out of my backpack. The load is still heavier some days than others, but none are so hard that they compromise my ability to trek along my path. It took me four decades of normalised struggle to accumulate before I dared question the superiority of the medical profession’s opinion over my own intuition. Despite 2020 having been a total clusterfuck in so many ways, in this one way, for this one person, it has been a goddamn revelation. I count my lucky stars that I had the armour already well fitted with which to face 2020’s many curveballs. Not bad enough? Not good enough, either.