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Posts Tagged ‘depression’

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental illness and creativity. Specifically, my own. I have been uncommonly balanced for four years now – those who know me as friends and intimates now would perhaps not recognise who I was before. Though I’ve had periods of reactive depression, I’ve never reached the terrible depths of despair that used to be my default.

I also, during those times, was at my most creatively prolific.

I wrote during the periods when I was despairing, when I felt trapped and hopeless. I wrote because I hurt, and if I could just get it out of me, like bleeding a bad humour, then perhaps I would feel better. Perhaps the world would not seem so bleak. I wrote when I was suicidal, when I was suffocating with anxiety, I wrote when I felt helpless and hopeless and when I was having existential crisises about god and identity and the self. I wrote because I wanted other people to feel what I felt, to feel that sharp turn of emotional agony, like a knife in the belly, twisted hard.

If I examine my work from that period, it’s no surprise that I wrote almost exclusively about women whose power was taken from them, and their subsequent deaths.

Writing as creative catharsis became my norm, so when I balanced out after finally finding the right medication combination, I struggled, for years, to write again. I mean, if you’re not borderline suicidal and obsessed with the concept that your work will only gain value posthumously, what’s to write about?

The last major play I wrote before the depression lifted is about loss of hope. About fractured minds, delusions, the shifting nature of memory, but really, about the loss of hope. Because that’s where I was when I wrote it. After ten years of seeing doctors and other medical practitioners, after ten years of therapy and bouncing from drug to drug, I was losing hope. Had lost hope. It had been slowly torn from me, like stitches that rip thread by thread. All the drugs, while making minor improvements, still failed to stabilise me and often came with intolerable side effects.

There were times I hallucinated, or spiraled into mania, or felt cripplingly exhausted and unable to move, as a direct result of the drugs that were supposed to improve my mood. And every time I changed drugs, I faced the prospect that washing out from one drug before starting another would leave a small window when I was at my most vulnerable, when I would try to kill myself.

Did. Did try to kill myself.

I wrote all that out, let it fall onto the page in an attempt to be done with it.

Part of maintaining my mental health now is recognising who I was then, both as a writer and as a person with a debilitating mental illness. Though I’ve been well for several years, I will never really consider myself cured. I still take the drugs, after all. I call it a remission. I am a recovering depressive. Mental illness controlled and shaped me as an adolescent and young adult, moulded me and guided my steps in life. I am who I am because I grew up trying to manage an illness that refuses to be neatly boxed and put to one side. It hurt me. It hurts me to remember it, to know that without the right medication and strength of several years of mental wellbeing, I could be that person again.

That person who wrote all her pain on a page and sent it out into the world, away.

Now I think I write from a place of strength, not illness. It’s taken me a long time to start writing again, as though recovering from mental illness also meant putting away its crutches. And I missed writing, but I missed it like cigarettes. Because it came from an unhealthy place for the longest time.

A few days ago I put my fingers to the keys and wrote a piece of flash fiction for a competition. I don’t care if it’s never seen again – the important part was I wrote something, and it didn’t feel like bleeding. It didn’t feel like an uncontrolled gush of emotion, it felt like a regulated, modulated trickle. It felt like letting out a memory rather than drawing on something entirely present.

Afterwards I did not feel stunned and empty, like I used to. I felt calm. In control. Balanced.

I learned to be a creative person as a way of coping with mental illness. Now I find I can still be a creative person, and I don’t have to be sick or sad or suicidal to do it.

Good.

forevermore

 

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I’ve learned, after 10+ years of dealing with depression, that preventative measures can make a huge difference when it comes to mental health. This is generally called self-care, and I have certain self-care measures I start pulling out whenever I feel my mood is fragile, like now. Self-care can sometimes mean maintaining rather than declining, I’ve found. I want to go into detail on more of these in future posts, but here’s just one or two to start with.

Maintaining a routine. This one is so important for me, or I drift. I am more than capable of doing nothing for days on end while the chores pile up around me and I get nothing done. My mood can spiral because of the sheer nothingness of my days. With kids, maintaining a routine happens without a lot of effort from me – my days are defined by meals and naps anyway, so I put the effort in to keeping up regular activities like play dates, grocery shopping and outings. I try to keep active when the kids are sleeping and I’m not having a sleep myself.

Keep order in my environment. For me, this involves running the dishwasher once a day, trying to vacuum at least once a week, staying on top of the laundry. A cluttered environment clouds my mind, and it’s hard to stay positive and active when I’m feeling overwhelmed by mess. I’ve taken this a step further, and recently cleared the clutter out of our bedroom and set up a little dressing area for myself, with my jewellery and hair stuff organised next to the mirror. It’s a small space of calm that I focus on keeping tidy, so my bedroom feels like a positive space rather than just one more room that’s stressful for me to be in. No kids’ stuff allowed. 

My little corner of neatness.


Create small goals. Making small, attainable goals can be incredibly helpful for me. Rather than a big, looming five-year-plan type deal that seems both far away and unreachable, I like to create small tasks for myself, or break bigger projects down into smaller tasks. For example, I’ve been sewing a lined swaddling pouch for the baby – this is a project that doesn’t take forever, I enjoy and can work on in small bursts. Tidying all the clutter out of the bedroom was a goal I banged out in an evening, and part of our larger project of getting the house organised. I century organised all my sewing and craft gear, which I’ve been meaning to do forever. Small goals don’t overwhelm, and yet give a sense of pride and satisfaction when they’re completed, which is helpful to my mental health.

 

This isn’t prescriptive by any means, just some things I’ve found have worked to keep my mental health on an even keel. Sometimes depression happens no matter what, but sometimes I can hold it off by being careful, sticking to habits that I know keep me focused and calm. It’s when I start to drift into overwhelming stress and anxiety that my mood spirals very fast. Right now, because I’m aware that I’ve been feeling down and that can easily lead to depression, I’m pulling out all the self-care stops. 

What are your techniques for self-care?

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I have been finding it very hard to write as I am feeling very dark. I would not call it Post Natal Depression as yet… More that I have felt the edges of things I cannot control crowding into me. Maybe I can control them, and simply feel I cannot.

I feel immense responsibility towards my family – the end of my paid maternity leave looms and that means finding a replacement income. I don’t want to go into part time work just yet, it would mean childcare for two children, which is hardly feasible, and most likely the end of breastfeeding Morgan. I hate expressing milk, it’s time consuming and painful and anyway, what job would be flexible enough to allow me an hour or so each day to pump? I want to be home, with the kids. I need to consider my skills, the possibility of selling my writing and the likelihood I would regularly have the time to write.

I feel angry at a society that sets mothers up to fail – for some like me it is needing income yet finding returning to would come with too many financial penalties. For others it is the necessity of returning to work when they would rather stay home. There has been a lot of rhetoric lately about careers and choice, and I think choice in the workforce is a luxury. I am angry that I spent so many years sick, and thus my capacity to earn is greatly reduced because of interrupted employment and education. I am frustrated that the things I truly want to do don’t result in a paying career.

I am angry that society doesn’t value what I do as a mother, staying home with my two boys. Angry that I sit here, feeling both trapped and worried, doing mental sums in my head but mostly thinking about how I would love to work a day for two, probably, but realistically it needs to be all or nothing, full time work or staying home. For years, possibly.

I love em, but years? Years as a stay at home mother? Alex and I talk about our goal, which is f or both of us to work part time. But I don’t know how to make that happen. Isn’t that the dream, though? To do something you love, just enough so that it doesn’t bore you to tears?

Sometimes I feel like family is pressure, to do better, be better, succeed more, and I must have spent all that time leading up to children just faffing around and time wasting (which isn’t true), and not nearly enough time focusing on my writing (probably true), and now I feel a suffocating need to succeed at something, anything, to earn something for my words (or what else have I spent all these years working towards?) and then of course comes the crippling anxiety…

I look into my boys’ faces and feel I am failing them as a mother.

Which is normal, I guess. 

 

 

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I am now in my 28th week of pregnancy, which puts me in the third trimester. I am in pain, and uncomfortable, and feeling stressed and depressed. These are familiar feelings from my last pregnancy.

I have pelvic instability, which is very painful and makes walking difficult. I’m having horrible acid reflux and the kind of intense Braxton-Hicks contractions that leave me stupefied and breathless for minutes at a time. I feel like I’m constantly overheating, and every little task feels hard, and I feel helpless, which I loathe.

I grew up with chronic illness, with the ongoing and constant sense that my body was betraying me and I had lost control. Pregnancy reawakens all of these feelings in me. That I am powerless and helpless and have no say in what is happening to me. I love my baby, but I hate pregnancy.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

Alex and I when I was 20 weeks pregnant, pretty much the last time I felt comfortable.

I try to stay focused on accomplishing small tasks, like cooking something yummy or completing one small aspect of a project at a time, like getting the curtains finished for one room. It helps to break things down like this – I am just doing this one small thing, not getting overwhelmed by Giant Energy Sucking Thing. But even this is hard because Sebastian is at a fidgeting, attention-intensive age so I have to wait for his naps or bedtime, but because I’m in pain I’m not sleeping well and often exhausted.

I remind myself that this is temporary, that there is not long to go, that even this is better than last time. But a lot of the time I feel depressed, and quite sad that I don’t enjoy pregnancy the way some women do.

This is my last baby, because I don’t want to go through this again.

Early next year I will have this baby, and I will have joy that he has arrived, but relief that it is over too.

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A psychiatrist once asked me if I had to make a choice between being able to write, and being free from depression, what my choice would be.

At that point in my life depression was a fact of life and had been for ten years – I tried many medications, and yet all treatment only alleviated my symptoms to the point of basic functioning. I still had periods of anxiety and dark funks that lasted for weeks at a time. My mental health was linked intimately to my physical health, and I struggled to find ways to manage Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and severe insomnia. Nothing seemed to work. I would have brief bursts of physical ability, where I could have an almost-normal life, followed by relapses that left me housebound and useless for months at a time. I found it almost to hold down jobs, or study part-time, and this added to poverty and emotional, physical and financial dependency on my family made the depression worse. I felt like half a person for years on end, watching those around me finish their degrees and start jobs and have normal relationships, while I sometimes struggled just to leave the house or get dressed in the morning, crippled by anxiety and unable to even open my mail.

And yet, I wrote prolifically.

Not surprising really – when housebound, a computer is your best friend. I started writing when very ill as a teenager, when my only real contact with the rest of the world was through email-based writing groups. Over those long, isolated years I wrote short stories and novellas and bad poetry, branching eventually into plays through uni and seeing them produced when my health allowed, and using the inevitable months of illness after a project had finished and I had relapsed to research and write the next project. Through all that depression and illness, the highlight was that I knew my writing was constantly improving, each play better than the last, my craft improving and growing complexity.

The play I consider my best work was written during a period of intense despair and hopelessness. In Reverie went on to play as a rehearsed reading at 45Downstairs, and garnered extremely intelligent and useful feedback from the fantastic audience that attended (if you attended and are reading this, I still think it was the best audience I’ve ever had).

In Reverieneeds a rewrite, but it hasn’t been touched in several years. Because after I wrote it, something amazing happened. Several new drugs were released in Australia, and with the help of a consultant physician and the very psychiatrist that asked me that poignant question about writing and depression, I finally found a treatment that worked. My energy increased, my pain reduced, my sleep improved, and so did my depression. I started to live normally – I had a job, I studied, I took In Reverie through rehearsals and to stage, with no resultant relapse. I felt happy, rather than just not horribly depressed. I went out with friends. My anxiety went away – no more panic attacks about answering the phone. I felt whole, and real, and felt like I was living life rather than just observing it. Alex and I fell in love and my pregnancy happened and even through the pre-natal and post-natal depression that followed (which I attributed to my difficult pregnancy and baby sleep problems as reactive depression rather than chemical), I maintained. I had no deep dark despair, or disproportionate mood swings. And almost two years since Sebastian was born, I feel well-adjusted and happy. In over three years I’ve not had a period of severe illness or violent depression.

When the psychiatrist asked me that question – happiness or writing – my answer was immediate. I would give anything to be happy, I said. Anything. If that meant never writing again, so be it.

About 18 months ago I wrote a play, called Don’t Forget To Breathe, which went to stage with a brilliant cast. It was incredibly difficult to write. I was aware the result was good, but structurally flawed. I haven’t written anything since. Maybe a few doodling pages of ideas, a snatch of dialogue. Nothing of importance. Because it was easy to write when I was miserable – it was cathartic to write about my sense of hopelessness and frustration and anger and despair. I wrote a lot of tragedy. I don’t really know how to write something with a happy ending. I can still write, that hasn’t left me, but I don’t. Is it because I’m happy? Throughout history there seems to be a fairly obvious link between some artists’ genius and their poor mental or physical health. If I’ve accepted that medical treatment has gotten me to a place where I can find happiness and satisfaction in my life, do I accept that the cost is my interest in and commitment to writing?

There’s other factors of course – I have a toddler, I’m a mostly stay-at-home-mum, it is hard to find the time to get into the right head space to write, to find the time, there are always chores and financial worries and I’m too tired to sit in front of the computer in the evenings. I have other interests to engage in, like crochet and photography, that require less emotional investment. I once poured my heart into my writing but now I expend all my emotional energy on my son and partner. But I feel the lack in my life.

The choice that psychiatrist put to me isn’t really a choice – now that I am happy, I’m not going to stop taking the pills and return to emotional and physical instability and terrible mood swings and anxiety just so I can write again. It doesn’t work like that. I finally have a real, grown-up life, and that’s a human right rather than just an option I can disregard. I have responsibilities now. I can’t ever go back to living that way. A shadow of a person.

It’s new for me, being happy and calm, and part of this for me is knowing I have to find a way to write again. To let out the words that still crowd up in my mind. To force myself to find the time and the right head space to write. It’s another period of growth I suppose – I grew up with depression and illness and writing that out of myself. My transition from teenager to adult was stuck in that pattern, and now the pattern has changed again. I will write again. I just have to decide how to be healthy and happyanda writer.

Promotional art for In Reverie; Tilly Legge pictured.

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I fell pregnant unexpectedly when I was 25. Although I had known my partner, Alex, for years, we’d only recently started dating. I was naturally terrified. We both lived in shared houses (not together), I was a student and Alex had intended to go back to study the following year. He’d been working as a bartender and within a few weeks had taken a panic-job at a digital media company, where his role consisted of editing gay porn (as far as I could tell). It made him horrendously unhappy during the brief few months he was there.

Pregnancy and parenthood can be hard at any point in your life, but having an unplanned pregnancy can be downright traumatising. We were poor, and I smoked and took medication, and did not have private healthcare, and we ended up moving in together in the ‘burbs when I was five months pregnant and my pelvis began separating unevenly, causing horrible pain. Our furniture was (and still is) a mismatched combination of hand-me-downs, cheap Ikea units and op shop finds. While financially we did manage to scrape along by the skin of our teeth, we also had to prepare for a baby. It is ridiculous that the baby bonus is only paid after you have the baby, because most of the major purchases need to happen in the months before hand – we were lucky in that Alex’s brother had twins who were outgrowing their baby gear, so we were given a cot, high chair and change table, toys, clothes and other baby gear for free. Family members also contributed things like a swing, a bassinet, a car seat, first aid kit, clothes, blankets, electric thermometer, soft toys, newborn nappies, etc.

I will probably write more about my pregnancy and birth experience later, because it still sits in my mind as a thing I was completely unprepared for, in spite of all my diligent preparation. I did not enjoy pregnancy, or felt like I had some mythical glow or had found the meaning to life and was hiding it in my uterus. I felt guilty about that, but finally crystallised in my mind that loving my unborn baby and hating the process of growing him were two separate things.  And the birth was a nightmare of pain and failed epidurals that ended with me giving birth flat on my back with my legs in my air in an operating theatre with an audience of medical staff under fluro lights. It was not the beautiful scene of meaningful pain I triumphed over while angels sang in the background that I had been led to believe. Sebastian was born, and put on my chest for about 30 seconds while my hands were still too full of needles to hold him properly, and then he was taken away while my ordeal continued as I was stitched up.

I did not properly hold my son until about an hour after he was born, but when I did, it was exceptional. I was lucky enough to be one of those women who felt an instant bond with my child. I say ‘lucky’, because I know it is not always this way for women, and sometimes takes time and help for that bond to form, and some women finding that initial bond and some women not seems to be down to chance. We have a video my father took of me holding him, an enormous 10lbs 2oz (4.6kg) of fat, bloody, mewling baby. I held him to my chest, skin to skin with a blanket around both of us, rocking him as he made little baby noises, and I was in love.

We took him home a few days later, after a brief but stressful hospital stay. Being home with your newborn, I learned, is 90% panic and 10% furtive glee. We learned. Our whole lives had changed with the arrival of Sebastian, and money was still tight, and Alex had indeed gone back to study for a year, and I was being a stay-at-home mum. Within twelve months we had started dating, gotten pregnant, moved in together, nested, and had the baby. Sebastian was three months old when we went away together for our one year anniversary.

We still do not have a lot of money. Alex works full time, and I was working part time but that seems to have died off and I am job hunting again. We plan to get married, someday. We live in the country now, in a little cottage on my parents’ property in the Dandenong Ranges. Sebastian will be turning two in July (two!), and Alex and I will celebrate our third anniversary in September, and we are muddling along, making a life for ourselves, trying to keep a hold on what we love to do and how to make it work with a family.

The answer is yes, by the way. We do love each other.

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