I’m sitting curled up on the floor of my kitchen.
Inside, I rage with self-hatred, hopelessness, and pain.
Why?! Why am I like this? Tears trickle from my eyes but I can’t seem to let out the sobs.
I hate this.
I hate myself. I’m so angry! I’m so angry at this pain, at myself, at how pathetic and useless I am.
I can’t live like this; I can’t live with this pain inside me, fuck it!
I punch myself in the face, fist clenched, as hard as I can.
I do it again, and again, and again. Fuck you, Clare! Fuck this fucking torment inside me.
I continue to belt my face, over and over, and FUCK IT HURTS. But I don’t know what else to do, I don’t know where else to put this pain, I don’t know how else to release this pain.
Finally, after only a minute or so, the strength in my arms, fuelled by anger and self-loathing and desperation, passes.
I feel physically weak, spent. I stop punching.
I curl into a ball again, head burrowed down, arms wrapped around my knees, and begin to rock, and cry.
I sob, and with the sobbing comes relief. Finally I can cry; the anger subsides and lets me feel the pain, the sadness; I can let it out.
After a while my crying eases, my breathing slows, and I am aware that my face really hurts.
Why did I do that? Why did I do that to myself? Oh Clare, Clare, you can’t treat yourself like this.
I cry again, more gently this time.
I am sorry. I’m so sorry, Clare. This has to stop. I promise you I will get help.
It’s 1988 and I am completing year 12.
It’s not going well.
For reasons I can’t understand, I’m not coping.
Falling behind is foreign to me. I’ve always been in the top 10% of the class. I’m smart. Everyone tells me so. I find learning easy. I find understanding things easy. I consistently get marks above 90%.
I write a list of everything outstanding and realise I have 26 tasks overdue. How on earth has that happened? Every time I try to complete something, I can’t focus. I end up stressed, overwhelmed ,in tears.
I find myself thinking I’d like to die. But my sister has had a baby girl, Emma, and she is so beautiful. I can’t leave Emma, can I?
Somehow I get through year 12. I start university. I study psychology.
It’s 18 months later, June 1990.
I’m completing first semester of my second year.
I’m still going in and out of sadness. I am functioning; going to uni, going to work, going out with my friends. But I find myself crying a disproportionate amount of the time. My body feels heavy. I wish I could just stop feeling.
I have a sociology exam. I’m trying to study. I’m trying to function. But I feel like I’m going to implode. I’m so heavy. I’m so overwhelmed. I’m so pathetic. I can’t deal with any of this. What am I going to do? I become desperate. I am terrified. I can’t. I just can’t.
I crawl into Mum’s bed. I pull the blanket up over my head. She hears me crying and comes in.
“I can’t do it,” I say between sobs. “I need to drop out.” I’m so worried that I am letting everyone down. The first of 7 children in my family to go to university, and I’m failing.
She reacts kindly, as always. “Of course, love. Take a year off. It’s okay. You don’t have to go to university to prove anything to us.”
Oh my God, I am so relieved. I sleep. Over the next year, I slowly get back to my old self.
For the first few months, I don’t do much. I sleep. Work part-time. Sleep. Go out. Sleep.
After four or five months, the sadness seems to have dissipated. I am not crying all the time any more. My body is my own again; I no longer have the heaviness weighing me down.
When I return to uni one year later, my intuition tells me it’s best to study part-time. I get straight A’s. Five years after I started, I finally graduate. I apply for the Graduate Diploma of Applied Psychology at Monash, knowing that only about 5% of applicants will make the cut. I make the cut.
It is a challenging year, but I love it. I get through it with high marks. I get my first real job with Accenture, a worldwide management consulting firm and I am stoked. Working for Accenture is like being thrown into a pool and left to sink or swim. I swim. It is challenging, scary, and rewarding. I am living in Melbourne, renting a room with a friend of a friend, Patti. I feel really happy. The workload is enormous, and I begin going into work at 5am some mornings. I’m working 60-hour weeks, but it comes with the territory at Accenture. My days consist of waking up, working late, eating late, going to bed. I don’t factor in any time for exercise or recreation, other than seeing my boyfriend. He also works at Accenture, so we wake, work, eat and go to bed together.
By mid-1997, 18 months after starting at Accenture, something starts to shift. I can’t concentrate. I don’t like taking phone calls within earshot of people. I stop making ‘to do’ lists. My notebook, which previously consisted of neat lists of “tasks for today”, starts to look like a messy collection of scribbles; no lists, no structure, no organisation. I know that I have a lot to do but I can’t seem to get started. I shift from one thing to another, completing nothing. During meetings I am role-playing; I say whatever is required to get me out of there. I start working in a private office, with the blinds closed, so no-one can see me staring blankly at the monitor. Soon enough, the sadness comes. When I’m home, I go straight to my room and hop into bed, lights off, and cry.
My body is heavy. It feels like someone has taken a syringe, and injected concrete into my bloodstream. Standing up is hard. I want to fall forward, onto the floor. Getting out of bed is excruciating. Oh, this is familiar. I recognise that this has happened before. Here I go again. Why the fuck can’t I just achieve like normal people. I think maybe I’m just lazy – is that it?
I reach a point where it’s taking all my energy not to cry at work, never mind actually get my work done. People start to notice that I’m not delivering on my promises.
Oh, I can’t bear this. I haven’t built up this credibility and competence to have it all ruined because I’m falling into a fucking heap.
I want to resign, but why? What excuse could I possibly give?
Then one day – inspiration.
Travel. Travel is a legitimate reason to leave a job whilst not looking useless.
I resign. They offer me 2 promotions if I’ll stay. “No, I really want to travel,” I smile.
In the months following I do temp work as a receptionist.
I do one day here, three days there, never taking on anything that extends beyond one week. I manage to plaster a smile onto my face, but at home it’s another story.
On my days off, I stay in bed. I don’t shower. I don’t get dressed. I sob, uncontrollably. I sleep. I’m so sad. I’m so heavy. Finally, Patti tells me she’s done.
“I need you to move out. You’re just too hard to be around Clare. Sorry, sweetheart, but you need to leave.”
Getting back from Melbourne to Ballarat is a blur. The day I arrive back at Mum’s house, I end up in the bath. My head is thumping. I vomit. Mum lifts me out of the bath and helps me get into bed.
Whilst the security of Mum’s house is reassuring, my inner struggle goes on. It’s all the same as before. Tears, heaviness, sadness – at what, I just don’t know. I am in my bedroom, sitting at the end of my bed. Inside there is so much turmoil. I feel contorted inside, contorted with deep, ugly despair and sadness. But I can’t get it out. I fluctuate between sadness and rage; self-loathing at my pathetic state. The sadness is easier, because then at least I can sob. The rage… the rage is vicious. I want to cry but instead I feel like I have to scream. I feel like if I scream and punch and smash something I might actually be able to burst a valve and get this poisonous, toxic despair out of me.
I get a knife from the kitchen and hold it over my wrist. Don’t go long-ways, I say to myself. If you go longways you’ll burst a vein. I don’t want to die. I just want to let out some of this anguish. I cut, gently at first. Then gradually I get braver, until I am jabbing the knife across my wrist, creating a red, raw gash. It hurts. I do it again, and again.
Once I’ve caused myself physical harm, something in me shifts. I begin to sob. All this pain, this heaviness, these feelings of despair… they move through me and roll down my cheeks as I cry loudly. Eventually I feel tired, and relieved, and finally I can sleep.
The wrist and arm cutting goes on for the next 6 or so months. When I leave for a trip to Ireland, I pack plenty of long-sleeved tops to hide the scars on my left arm.
I return from Ireland 9 months later, content and optimistic. Yet again, time has helped me heal. I get a job at the University of Melbourne, once again utilising my skills. I am working three days a week, commuting from Ballarat to Melbourne. It is tiring but I love what I am doing. I have a nice balance; four days off a week seems to suit me.
It lasts for about 12 months.
When it happens again, it’s all the same as before. I am disgusted at my pathetic inability to just cope like a normal person.
One morning I am feeling particularly bad. I want to die. Why aren’t I brave enough to just kill my stupid fucking self? I manage to get on the train and make it to Southern Cross station. I walk around the station aimlessly, crying. I ring Mum. “What’s wrong?” she says, oblivious to what has been happening internally for me.
I can’t seem to speak. “Clare!” she says. “Clare, what’s wrong?”
I begin to sob. “I don’t know,” I cry. That’s the thing, you see. I don’t know what is wrong. She tells me to get back on the train and come home, so I do.
I visit a friend in Sydney.
Afterwards, I say goodbye and board the bus from Sydney to Ballarat. As it departs the station, I begin to cry. The tears feel unnecessary and I wait for them to stop. But they don’t. One hour passes. Two hours. Four hours. Passengers around me start to touch my arm, ask if I’m ok.
“I’m sorry,” I say, embarrassed, “I just can’t stop”.
I cry for fifteen hours.
The following week, I’m on the phone to an old friend from university. She is a psychiatric nurse. I tell her about the bus incident.
“Clare, I think you may have depression. You should go and see a psychiatrist.”
I’ve used the term depressed for years. It has described a feeling. But it’s never even crossed my mind to view it as an actual condition.
I take her advice.
The psychiatrist asks me all about my past. He gets me to walk him through my life since I was about 16 years old.
“Is there any psychiatric illness in your family?”
I describe my father. His extremes of emotion; anger; joviality; melancholy.
I tell him about the great aunt on my dad’s side, who was put into a mental hospital in her early 20’s and died, still institutionalised, sixty years later.
I tell him about my six siblings, two of whom definitely struggle with similar feelings to me as far as I know.
After listening intently for 45 minutes, he finally speaks.
“Clare, you’re describing a pattern. I believe you have endogenous depression and you have been going in and out of severe depressive cycles since you were about 16 years old.”
The terms endogenous and exogenous, which mean “from within” and “from without,” differentiate whether the depression is coming from internal causes, such as biological and or genetic, or external causes such as traumatic events or stress.
I. Am. Gobsmacked.
And… so bloody relieved.
Maybe I’m not pathetic? Maybe I’m not useless? Maybe I’m not lazy?
Maybe all this time, I’ve actually been unwell?
The first few months on Prozac I feel like a totally different woman.
In fact, I am too high. I feel sooo damn good that when people want to talk to me for advice… meh… I can’t really be bothered.
After about 3 months I even out, acutely aware that my mental health struggles have also developed my compassion; that everyone’s struggles probably develop their compassion.
The next 12 months are so important for me.
I get to feel normal. I find myself thinking, “No wonder other people can handle life!” “No wonder other people can keep a job!” and “No wonder other people COPE!”
I’m by no means happy all the time, nor am I sad all the time. I am just normal, and it is wonderful. I just feel… even. I get to feel a healthy range of feelings, to function without having to constantly manage these extremes of emotion.
I realise that I am not pathetic. I am not weak. I am not lazy.
I am me. I am okay after all.
And yet, by November 2001 – 18 months after starting on Prozac, here I am sitting on the floor in my kitchen.
Face bruised, lip bleeding, eyes swollen, cheeks stinging.
One thing is clear.
Medication alone is not going to save me.
When I finally get in to see my new psychiatrist, Dr. Greene, I am embarrassed to tell him what has occurred.
It seems so shameful, so unnecessary, so melodramatic, now that I’m not in the grip of the feeling.
I share my idea about how to handle it.
“When I feel like that, it’s like I can’t function unless I can SMASH something. It’s like the anguish inside me is so intense that until I express it physically, I can’t ‘break through’ to the other side and cry, and feel the pain.”
“I’m thinking that I need to buy a box of old crockery.”
“Next time I feel like that, instead of hurting myself, I’ll smash the crockery. I’ll create an area out in the back sun-room and I’ll just smash and smash and smash until the pain passes.”
“What do you think?” I look at him expectantly.
He doesn’t say much, this psychiatrist, and he really listens when I talk.
“Clare, I don’t think that will work. Here’s why.”
“Have you ever been on a walk through the bush?” he asks, and I nod yes.
“And which path do you take, Clare?”
“Well, I take the path that is already there.”
“Exactly,” he says. “You take the easiest path, the established pathway.”
“The same is true for your brain Clare.”
“Every time you deal with these feelings by hurting yourself, whether it’s cutting your arms, or punching yourself – you’re walking along a familiar pathway. You’re reinforcing the same neural pathway. If you buy cutlery and smash it – you’re still using that neural pathway.”
“What you need to do Clare, is create a new neural pathway. A way of dealing with these feelings, that doesn’t involve aggression, towards yourself or other people or crockery.”
“Does that make sense?”
I nod. It makes perfect sense.
My first attempt at doing something proactive about maintaining my mental wellbeing – of forging new neural pathways – is when I negotiate a 9-day fortnight with my employer. This helps a little, gives me some breathing space and time to take care of myself.
Even so, by 2003 my early symptoms are returning.
I tell my partner, Peter, that I have decided to resign from this job that I love. “I can’t bear it,” I say. “I can’t bear to have built up this credibility as this smart and capable woman, only to fall to pieces in front of them.” The feeling is sickening, and all too familiar.
He reminds me of a promise I made myself. “Clare, you said, next time I want to resign from a job, remind me to ask them for help.”
I cringe. He is right.
I go to a rehabilitation counsellor and we draft up a schedule of what my week needs to look like. We factor in plenty of time for sleep, rest, exercise. We decide that 3 days a week for 8 weeks would help me turn this situation around.
I approach my boss, heart in my throat, shaking, certain that he will refuse my request. It is 2003 and I don’t actually know of anyone who has taken sick leave because of mental health before.
I explain that I have a pre-disposition to depression, and that some of my early symptoms are back. I try to describe what it feels like without getting too emotional; I don’t want to make him uncomfortable. I explain why going back to working 3 days a week for 8 weeks will help. I clarify that I do not expect the days off to be paid as sick leave; I will just get paid for what I work.
His response astonishes me.
“No, Clare, you will use sick leave. We will treat this no differently than if you had a broken arm. What other things can we do to help you while you get better?”
It is as if someone has thrown me a life raft. Maybe this illness does not have to destroy everything in my life, every time it reappears?
Encouraged, I feel brave enough to confide in some close colleagues and over the next 2 months my team mates rally around me. I do work below my pay-grade. Colleagues answer my calls for me, screen them and then let me know what they are about – this helps because my diminished cognitive abilities mean being put on the spot is scary. They understand that when I go off and work in a room by myself with the blinds closed, it’s probably because I need to cry – they don’t tell people where to find me. They protect my privacy. They protect my dignity. They protect me.
By the time the 8 weeks is up, something amazing has happened.
The depression has gone.
Day by day, week by week, following this schedule has worked. I have gone into a downward cycle of depression but… unlike previously… I haven’t gone all the way to Rock Bottom. I realise a critical fact: I do not have to go all the way down before I can get myself back up.
If I recognise that I am sliding downward early enough, I can turn it around.
Oh, thank God.
Realising this fact makes the remainder of my thirties so much easier than my twenties.
My cycles continue. Every few years it is like my body wants to slump into a depressive cycle, but now I have a vital advantage: I realise I can influence the cycle.
Under the supervision of my doctor, I go off anti-depressants in the hope of having children. Meg is born in 2005; I am acutely aware that I may be a candidate for post-natal depression, but aside from the usual exhaustion, I am not depressed. When I return to work after 9 months off, I negotiate a three-day week. The permanent part-time thing seems to suit me; Max is born in 2007 and again, I experience no signs of post-natal problems. I am slowly accepting that this ‘illness’ may be something I have to manage my whole life, so I am careful to nurture myself even though I have small children. I am not afraid to ask for help; sometimes my sister has them for a night, purely so I can fit in some ‘me time’. I explain to people that it is not selfishness, but “self-preservation-ishness”.
My husband, Peter, is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder during this time, and the challenges we are facing are enormous. He is unable to work, and is severely depressed and suicidal. His ability to function normally and ‘pull his weight’ in our family life is restricted. We lose one, then two, then three investment properties as he tries to sink money into his electrical business to keep it afloat while he is unable to work on the tools. We are in litigation with the Christian Brothers due to their historic sexual abuse of Pete; and then, just when I think it can’t get any worse, his brother tells him that he wants Pete out of the business Pete built. We then commence mediation with him, Pete trying to explain that you can’t just take a man’s business; you have to buy it.
Eventually it all gets too much. I feel myself starting to slip. My husband is already fighting severe depression; we have young children – we can’t afford to have two of us losing the plot. So I go back on medication.
In 2010 I take on a 12-month contract with AGL in Melbourne. It is a huge role, full-time, and means being away from home 3 nights a week. But I am passionate about my career, and have finally begun to realise that I am really good at what I do. I want to succeed. I want to step up and forge the HR career I know I am capable of achieving. I figure that if I use all my strategies, I can get through 12 months and then fall across the finishing-line and take time off. We rent a Melbourne apartment so that I don’t have to travel every day and can get downtime and plenty of sleep.
So I am devastated when, about 4 months in, I start to falter. No! I love this job, I love this team, I’m good at this… but I can’t control it. My symptoms return. The role is simply too big to ask to go part-time; my boss is already noticing that I’m dropping the ball; I just want to get out of here! I retreat to the apartment during my lunch break and cry in my bedroom, terrified of walking back into the building.
Eventually I tell my boss what’s going on and we negotiate for me to finish after 6 months, instead of 12. I am offered a part-time opportunity if I will stay – but by then it is too late. I am too unwell. I just need to sleep.
Aside from the depression itself, I learn that one of the hardest things is the loss that comes with it. My whole life, I’ve known that I am smart. I’ve known that I am capable. I’ve known that I will be very successful professionally.
And yet… I won’t be. Not in the way I thought, anyway. I have this enormous capability; I should be Head of HR somewhere. But I won’t be. I never will be. I have lost that; it’s never going to happen. It dawns on me that my capability exceeds my capacity. It is a feeling of grief, and I feel angry and resentful at this stupid bloody illness that restricts what I can achieve.
In 2014 I spend 2 weeks in the Melbourne Clinic, a psychiatric hospital, undertaking a 2-week program on anxiety and depression. My experience reinforces even further that I can influence this illness. They teach me a raft of strategies, based in cognitive psychology, and I try to apply them. It’s taken 17 years since that conversation with Dr. Greene, but I really do have a toolbox of strategies now.
And yet… my world has a clear line down the middle of it. There are those who ‘know’ me, and understand that I manage depression on and off, and there are those who don’t. Potential employers certainly don’t. How do I have that conversation? How do I explain that I’m not a nut case – as such – but I can’t commit to 48 weeks a year, sorry. How do I show them that my battle with depression doesn’t need to scare them; I won’t go off on Workcover, I won’t let them down.
During interviews, I explain my preference for contract work and flexible work arrangements with a range of legitimate explanations, but I avoid the fundamental reason; my health. “My family are in Ballarat, I don’t want to work in Melbourne fulltime.” “I like change, so contract work suits me well.” “My husband needs my support.” It is all true; it is just not entirely true.
In October 2017, I am in my bedroom one day worrying about money. I am not depressed. I am just sad and frustrated. If only I could get a fulltime, senior level role, our financial struggles would be eased. I search seek.com.au, as I have many times before. There are around 1,100 HR jobs in Victoria. Of those, only X pay over $100,000, which is the minimum I need to earn. Of those, only 3 percent are part-time. 3 percent. I quickly research the average and learn that approximately X of women need .
My sadness quickly morphs into anger.
What the fuck!! All these companies talking about diversity… where are the part-time jobs? Diversity of WHAT? Gender, race, age? What about health!!
There and then, I make the decision that I’m tired of pretending my depression doesn’t exist to all those potential employers out there.
I’m tired of pretending life is always rosy.
I’m tired of buying into the bullshit belief that if you have mental health challenges, you’re a high-risk employee.
I’m tired of having to censor what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘not appropriate’ to disclose through the selection process.
I’m tired of only taking part of me into my professional world, of not being authentic, of using energy I don’t have, to hide this part of me so that other people don’t feel uncomfortable.
I write a 1,000-word article called “Look me in the eye and tell me that you’ll hire me” and post it on LinkedIn.
Within a few days, it gets 12,000 views, 670 likes, and 80 shares, so I know it is resonating. I know there are other people out there feeling like me.
That’s 12,000 people who probably won’t hire me, but there’s no going back now.
Exactly one year and one week has passed since I published that article.
I’ve written five more articles, and have spoken at three corporate dinners about my depression. I’ve told my children about my struggle, reassuring them that I am okay, and that I have learned how to manage when I feel depression coming on.
I have realised that the knowledge and skills I have acquired – in order to survive – aren’t ‘common knowledge’. I’ve realised that I have something unique to offer, and have developed workshops under my BrainSweet brand to share what I’ve learned about the relationship between your brain and your wellbeing.
In the 17 years since I was sitting, rocking on my kitchen floor, I have never again harmed myself. Because I have learned three fundamental things.
First, I am in charge of my own mental health. The minute I blame someone else – be it my employer, my husband, my father – I give away my power. If someone else is ‘at fault’, then they are also the ones who have to ‘fix’ it. I am the one with the power here. I am the one who is responsible for turning my downward spiral into an upward spiral.
Second, in the words of Alex Korb, “There is no one solution. There are one hundred small solutions”. I am a work in progress. I still experience bouts of depression and possibly always will; I am still on a low dose of anti-depressants. But every day, I try to make small decisions that will help my brain, so that my brain can help me. I read as much as I can, always keeping an open mind about possible causes and potential treatments. When I feel well, I am humble and thirsty for understanding, because I know that if and when my depression does visit me, I will need all the knowledge I can get.
And third, I wouldn’t change this journey I’m on. It is frustrating, demoralising, challenging, confusing, debilitating and humiliating. It is also rewarding, amusing, enlightening, inspiring and motivating.
Depression, my friend, you have been many things. But never boring.
(c) Clare Linane