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7 weeks and counting…

In early September 2015 I hit rock bottom. I was sober, I was nicotine free but I was miserable as hell and getting worse. The panic attacks were escalating and even a 10 minute train journey to Woy Woy was becoming too much to handle. Getting the bus home was an equally awful nightmare and if I managed to make the less than 15 minute journey without getting off the bus, it was cause for celebration.

In early September my friends son turned 1. I was excited to attend his birthday and then found out there were no trains that weekend. It meant a 60 minute bus ride to Sydney, plus another shorter trip to his Grandmother’s house. I couldn’t get on the bus. The thought of it was terrifying, and sitting in my bedroom, my sanctuary, my fear of getting on a bus to Sydney trigged a panic attack that left me exhausted and with a migraine.

That day was the beginning of the end of that particular chapter in my life. I realised, sitting under the house nursing a hot coffee as I tried to stabilise my breathing that if I didn’t do something to fix it, nothing else would.

The following Monday I made an appointment to go and see a doctor at Woy Woy. As I sat in the waiting room, surrounded by elderly people and young mother’s I felt like I was the biggest failure on the planet. It wasn’t the first time I’d sat in that exact same waiting room, with the exact same problem. This time however, was a decade later and it felt like nothing had changed.

But it had. The last time I was here I was hungover as hell. I had a glass of wine by my bed waiting for me first thing in the morning. I was usually drunk before I left for work. I was snarly and nasty and a down right arsehole. The world, it appeared, hated me so I was determined to hate it right back in its stupid, stinky face.

This time I was sober. I still felt the world hated me, but I was able to briefly grasp the logical section of my brain from time to time. I knew I wasn’t thinking rationally. I knew my brain was automatically reaching for, and grasping tightly, the worse-case scenario. I knew that my emotions were out of control and I knew it was make or break time.

The Doctor looked like he was about 15, neatly pressed maroon shirt, tucked into grey trousers and comfortable looking slip on shoes-on his feet. The shoes reminded me of the ones I’d worn to school when I started Year 11. Only my ones were grey.

In a sort of disinterested way he asked why I was there, and I told him about the depression, the anxiety, the fear of leaving the house that was growing stronger by the moment. I told him how I’d lost my job, and how I didn’t want to be seen. How when people looked at me on the street my throat closed up and I felt like I was dying. I told him I knew it was irrational, that I knew my fears were unfounded, but in my head they were real. I told him I was fixating on the most stupid, irrelevant and no factual thing I could find and I’d dwell on it for hours until the world I was living in inside my head became the only thing that was real.

I told him I wanted a prescription for anti-depressants. He asked me a checklist of questions, looked up and said “yes, according to this list you have depression.” I wondered at the time what would have happened had the list not come back with the correct answer. It was almost like one of those quizzes you see on the cover of Dolly Magazine in the Newsagents.

Is Mike depressed, answer these 18 questions and find out?

List or not I got the prescription and I can still feel the mixture of relief that something might change and the gut-shattering shame as I stood behind an old lady at the Chemist who was picking up blood pressure medication. In that moment I felt a strange combination of having won a jackpot and failed at life, all mixed into one turbulent mess.

Nothing much really happened for a while after that. I started a job at my old company that came up out of nowhere and the day  I to was start the most vicious panic attack I’ve yet had was trigged. I ran off the train as the doors were closing at Woy Woy train station. I was breathless, gasping for air as the Station spun around me. My heart was racing and I felt sweat pouring down my face. I could barely stand up. The bus journey home I simply sat there, my eyes tightly closed, trying not to vomit all over the floor.

I can still see my Father’s face as he realised I was walking in the door. Dad isn’t a big believer in depression or mental illnesses. It’s a generational thing I guess. He was however one of the first people after I missed Oliver’s birthday to suggest medication might be required. The first was mum. But I digress.

As I stood at the kitchen sink, my hair and clothes soaked through, he just looked at me and told me to go to bed. I slept for hours, finally emerging at about 3pm. It was at that point that he suggested I should reconsider house sitting for my friend’s in Sydney. I was due to arrive there the following Friday, and even though I had no idea how I was going to make it there I also knew there was no backing out. I wouldn’t do that to my friends, but more importantly I wouldn’t do it to myself.

That Friday, as I boarded the train weighed down with bags and suitcases and God only knows what else, I felt a slight twinge of fear.

How the bloody hell am I going to get all this shit off the train at Woy Woy,” I thought.

You bloody well aren’t ya big tit. You’re going to Kirsty’s, now shut up and watch TV.” I thought back.

I opened my laptop and starting watching The Big Bang Theory and managed to not only make it to Mascot without a meltdown, but also managed to be in a car for about 10 minutes without trying to climb out the window. I took it as a win.

I’ve now been here for three weeks. I’m loving it. Work is going well, the house is clean, the lawn needs to be mowed but is still soaked through from all the rain. But there’s something else I’ve noticed.

About a week ago I was lying on the bed talking to a friend. One of those rambling, stupid conversations about nothing. Drifting backwards and forwards through memories and silly things we’d done when we younger. Threats to tell her son all about his Mother when he grew up, met with counter-threats of telling my Mother what I’d been up to when I was younger. One of those lazy conversations filled with laughter and good times. I hung up the phone at the end of the call and realised it was the first time in longer than I could remember when I’d not only participated in a conversation fully, but it was the first time in longer than I could remember when I was both genuinely happy, and laughing a real laugh.

I walked into the office a couple of days later and one of the sales people said to me;

Mike, you’re such a joy to have around. You’re always smiling, always quick to say something funny, always just fun.”

Ana,” I said. “You do realise I have no control over the annual pay rises, right?

She just laughed as did the rest of the sales team, and I just sort of smiled and started working. It was a fairly innocent comment on her part, but I realised as I thought about it over the day that my outlook was starting to change. The good moments were not as rare as they had been. Life wasn’t as dark as it had been. The world, it appeared, didn’t really hate me as much as I thought it did. And my teeth weren’t falling out.

I’ve been on my medication now for about seven weeks. I feel stronger than I have in a long time. I feel happier than I have in a long time. For a while there the sky was bluer, the neighbours roses redder and more fragrant. For a short time it felt like I was walking through wonderland and I realised how dark the world had been before.

I also realised that for more than 2 years I’ve ignored my own pain and fear, treating myself with contempt for being weak. I am not weak. I am merely me. I am acknowledging what a butt-hole I’ve been. I know that by ignoring the depression when it first began to stir because I “wasn’t going through that again,” I made it ten times worse than it needed to be, and I made those around sad too.

It is hard to sit back and watch someone you love self destruct. It’s even harder when you know what is wrong with them, but can’t bring it up. I am one of the luckiest bastards around, you know. I have a collection of totally insane friends, who love me no matter how daft I can be. Without them I honestly don’t know where I’d be or what I’d do.

Recent statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that in 2013, 75% of people who died by suicide were male. It’s a sobering statistic that I saw a lot on Twitter this week. When Doctor Checklist asked me if I was suicidal I didn’t need to think about the answer. It was no. That night was a long time ago, at the age of 19 when I went to visit a friend, and called my parents from Woy Woy Train Station to say goodbye. I will never understand how my father got from home to the station so quickly, but he did. I can still feel his hand on my arm, telling me it was time to go home.

Suicide was never my decided on “outcome,” really. I always worried too much about my parents. If I died they had no one to care for them when they got old. Strange, but no matter how dark it got after that particular night, it’s never been a thought I have had.

If there is one takeaway I hope whoever reads this post can have, it is there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The journey may be bumpy, it may seem as though the world hates you, that you are worthless or useless, or unloved. It may seem like today is forever and nothing will ever change.

But that isn’t the case. For me, the answer was a little white pill I take every morning as soon as I get up. It helped to stabilise my thoughts, to calm my irrational side enough that I can look at things logically. It helped to realise the depression didn’t have to be all I had going for me.

While I was unemployed, I began to define myself by my anxiety. I didn’t have the strength to face it head on, so I avoided those things that triggered it. I didn’t go out. If I did I only went two stops on the train in either direction. I didn’t get into a bus if it could be avoided. I only drove in a car with my Father driving, and only then with the window down. My panic attacks began to become the very centre of my world, and of course that triggered all sorts of other reactions

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. No matter what your brain is telling you when you pick up the phone to make the appointment, or while you’re sitting looking at Facebook while waiting to see the Doctor.

For any help to come you have to extend your hand first. You will be surprised by the number of people who reach out to grasp it. If you can’t trust yourself right now, then trust me. I’ve been there. I know that you can find help. But, you have to want it. If you’re not ready, that’s fine too. When the time is right ask for help. Don’t wait too long though, there’s a wonderful world out there and once the haze is gone, you’ll see what I mean.

Depression can’t be fixed by simply changing your thoughts, or helping yourself, or manning up, or being stronger, or any of the other dumbarse shit I’ve been told over the years. There is a difference between depression and having an off day. Ask for help. It’s there when you need it.

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43 year old Australian writer currently working on the first of a planned three book Epic Fantasy series. When he's not writing policy discussions, or tales of swords, Gods, and magic, he can be found making a mess in the kitchen, and turning perfectly good ingredients into crimes against humanity.

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