My life-long battle with depression: the rest of my life starts now

Near as I can pinpoint it, I have suffered from depression since I was 14. I was in “Form 3”, today’s year 9, and depression enveloped me like a giant black fog. I had thoughts of suicide; I was terrified of “failure” and disappointing my parents who had sacrificed to send their first-born to a prestigious private school; I was afraid of not fitting in. On those days when the mood set in, I would dread getting out of bed; my heart would sink when my bus arrived at school – how I wished that bus would just keep going with me in it; and sitting in the classroom was agony.

I was a working-class son of immigrant stock from the wrong side of Melbourne. Introverted, afraid, self-loathing, I thought this confused inner turmoil was my private, secret hell. But one of the “masters” saw that something was amiss and took me under his wing. I was so grateful for his compassion and understanding. The feeling of release was indescribable. We had long talks and things settled down for a time.

Even so, I hated school and as result I didn’t make the most of being at one of Melbourne’s best schools. Despite my introversion, as a budding cartoonist I found that I had the ability to make people laugh. My cartoons about school life, including parodies of various teachers, were published in the school paper. But I remained an outsider, even if only in my mind.

It was the solitary passion of writing that became my solace. At home I wrote a weekly neighbourhood newspaper by hand. I preferred writing short stories and plays to going out on weekend outings with the family, much to my parents’ consternation. A comedy play I wrote was performed at school and was a big hit, but such moments were not enough to banish this boy’s demons.

The black moods came and went, confounding my parents, who responded by signing me up to gyms and dance classes, which only sent me into deeper despair. When I had the opportunity to go to the Australian National University in Canberra I jumped at it. It became part of a pattern throughout my life; when life seemed to get too much, I would flee, looking at new challenges, a fresh start, just being somewhere else.

At university I had that same self-doubt and agonising sense of failure. I dropped out of my Arts degree in my second year – confirming my worst fears – but thanks to the forbearance of the ANU I was permitted to return the following year. I continued writing, honing my craft and building up a portfolio of published articles. Student politics provided an unlikely outlet – I even enjoyed speaking at rowdy student councils. But on these occasions I was somebody else. When I was in my room at my residential college I – the real “I” – would not venture out if I could hear anyone in the hallway.

True tragedy strikes

Until this point, I was my only tragedy. But when I returned to Melbourne and the family home, true tragedy struck. My youngest brother – I was the eldest of four brothers – died by his own hand when he was alone in the house. He was just 15. Four years later, my second-youngest brother died at 22 in a car smash. I saw both bodies; in the latter case I had to identify my brother.

These were devastating blows, but I’ve never really “processed” my brothers’ deaths. Soon after my youngest brother died, I got my first job, as a reporter for the Numurkah Leader in northern Victoria. My career was off and running, and so was I. While nursing the guilt of leaving my parents to their grief, I had found my calling.

Through chance I fell into business reporting early in my career and I’ve never looked back. I joined a computer industry weekly newspaper as a reporter, lived in Sydney for a time, and then returned to Melbourne as the paper’s editor when I was 26. (A reporter I recruited, who years later went on to win a Gold Walkley, called me her “boy editor”.) From there I was poached by Bob Gottliebsen’s BRW Group at Fairfax, returned to Sydney, becoming editor of Rydges magazine and later, back in Melbourne, associate editor of BRW.

Throughout these heady times (it was the 1980s) the depression never left me, but writing, and later editing, remained my solace. Work was everything, even when my secret self-doubt and self-loathing were at their worst. As well as my workload at Fairfax I would take any freelance work that came my way; I was more than happy working seven days a week. I was running away from me.

When the fog descended on me – it’s a physical sensation, I can feel its terrible weight on my person – I could somehow keep it at bay as long as I was working. But as soon as I stepped into my car to drive home, the sobbing would start. At home it was worse. That’s when the Mahler came on. These episodes were frightening, perplexing, and exhausting. This overwhelming sadness would come unexpectedly from some primordial place deep inside. The pain was immense, its source unknown. There were terrible nightmares. And I craved death.

I simply had to wait for these periods to pass in their own time. It could be days, it could be weeks. But nobody at work would have been any the wiser. Perhaps I might have been darker or moodier than usual, or my humour was a little more biting, but that’s just who I was.

This was my normal

Very rarely during these times did I consider getting help. I convinced myself that this was my normal, that my pain wasn’t affecting anyone else. Besides, who says that everyone can be happy? But there were moments of happiness: I had a wonderful relationship for a couple of years (although its ending was crushing), my career was extremely satisfying – possibly life-saving – and I frequented some wonderful pubs whose publicans often became good friends.

But there was something else about the idea of “seeing someone” that put me off: the thought of all those demons, known and unknown, that I had suppressed over so many years might all come bursting out in a terrifying frenzy if I dared let anyone get too close to my innermost self. No, I could take care of this myself.

Then, in 1989, I got married. Maybe this is what it would take to put it all behind me? And for a time it was. This was the most decent, caring, giving human being I had ever known.

But that’s not how depression works. Not mine at least. The moods, the remoteness, the withdrawals, the anger, the selfishness were never far away. They came and went as always. It must have been very confusing and disturbing for my wife, but as always I was convinced that I could deal with it. And the way I dealt with it was to bury myself in my work, rather than my marriage.

The time of supreme contentment was with the birth of our boys. I gave myself over to them. As babies, toddlers and throughout their primary school years I was a doting, involved, blissfully happy dad. Those years were a gift.

As they grew older my love for them was undiminished, and I was so immensely proud of them, but I found family life increasingly onerous. At times the normal thrills and spills of family life would be overwhelming. More than once I thought of leaving, maybe work interstate for a while. Yet never did it occur to me to seek help.

The depression grew worse. The periods of depression lasted longer and longer, the crying more frequent. Sobbing quietly in bed without disturbing my wife became a specialty. Did it ever occur to me to talk to my wife about this? No.

Anything could trigger my black moods, tears and periods of despondency. A passage of music, a look, a minor disappointment, dropping my toast.

Life comes crashing down

The last three years have been the worst. During this time I basically closed down. They have been hell for me, but especially for my wife. We barely conversed anymore, I showed no interest in her work, I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to receive visitors, I was all but comatose when I got home from work. I was depressed at home, and at work.

As my employer, Fairfax Media, went through a litany of soul-sapping and seemingly erratic changes – endless strategic reviews, cutbacks, redundancies, new technologies, hot-desking – work was no longer a refuge. Never comfortable with change at the best of times, the environment at Fairfax had become intolerable.

Some days I could not bear to pick up the phone to do interviews. I would stare at that phone with dread as if it was my darkest nemesis. My daily ray of satisfaction was my column, even when each word was like climbing a mountain. Oddly enough, last year, the worst year for me personally, saw some of my best work (for which I thank the good humour, patience and inspiration of my young editor).

When the print edition of BRW closed late last year I took a voluntary redundancy. I thought my big challenge for 2014 was going to be rebuilding my career in a very difficult market. It turned out to be the least of my worries. In January, my wife could take no more. We separated just weeks short of our 25th wedding anniversary. I was inconsolable with grief. My world had been turned upside down. At last, sobbing, I asked my GP to refer me to a psychiatrist.

When the diagnosis of clinical depression was made, I was relieved. Finally, I had placed myself on the road to recovery. I am now seeing a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. And already I am seeing the benefits. It may be too late for my marriage, but I can see a light at the end of that very long, dark tunnel that goes all the way back to my school days.

I have dithered over posting this piece. I don’t want to alienate or frighten friends and colleagues, let alone future employers. I’m still me. It’s just that me has been very hard work. And there’s more of me that wants to come out. Good me; happy me.

My reasons for these revelations are simple enough. First, I want my beloved, treasured boys to know. I also want to offer some small explanation to anyone I have exasperated, hurt, confounded or upset over the years. And I also want people to know about the true nature and prevalence of depression in the community.

But most of all, there is a very personal reason for this column. I am drawing a line in the sand: I am going to beat this thing.



19 thoughts on “My life-long battle with depression: the rest of my life starts now

  1. Inciteful and brave to write about the personal devastation of depression. Very articulate and charts waters many of us find ourselves submerged in time and again. Helpful, authentically painful and finally hopeful.

  2. Hi Leo

    As I read through this, tears fill my eyes. Thank for you having the courage to tell your story so honestly and eloquently. Too many people suffer depression in silence. We need more people like you to openly speak out on this topic and, in doing so, help each other.

  3. Hey Leo,

    This is a courageous story that is also moving and is likely to strike a chord with many. What a mean thing our minds can be, torturing us while at the same time preventing us from reaching out for help. Glad your soul and spirit have got the upper hand and you are setting out on the road to recovery. Stay in touch.

    Kath X

  4. Courageous, moving and revealing. Illuminating that the comments so far are only from women. That men find it hard to talk about such matters is part of the problem (though that alone neither explains everything nor nothing). There is no courage without fear, and the fear of vulnerability is also part of the problem. Bravo, Leo.

  5. Leo, you’re a great journo, a gentleman and a loving Dad. I only have good memories of working with you, and that’s the truth.
    This is very brave of you. There’s so many people suffering out there in silence and I believe your article will help to reduce the fear of “coming clean” on depression and calling it what it really is.

  6. Dear Leo – I’ve been experiencing a chemically induced depression lately due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Although nowhere near what you have suffered over all these years, it’s a completely debilitating soul-sucking condition that I am sure more people suffer from than ever let on. I blogged on it last week in a bid to understand what was happening to me ( Thank you for your honesty and courage. And keep your posts coming. All the very best.

  7. Leo – what an incredibly moving and inspiring reflection on your life to date. You need not have feared that your honestly would frighten people away. I think you may find that your authenticity and vulnerability will in fact draw people closer than you could have imagined. Wishing you all the very best and I look forward to reading of your success in beating the fog. Kirstin

  8. Leo I had no idea when I was hot desking around you at Fairfax of any of this struggle but thank you so much for writing this column. I hope it helps others too. We all need a helping hand and fresh insight into our habits of the mind at times. Wishing you all the best, Rachel Nickless.

  9. Well done Leo. It is great you are seeling professional help. I’m sure it helps getting messages of support, Have a great week.

  10. As always Sir Leo, well said. So many who have the back dog as constant companions have so much brilliance, almost as counterpoints againsts the impossible vaulting over the peaks and troughs, and you shine like no other. Choosing to get help is very strong and courageous, keep at it. Its like a title fight and the its the fight of your life and one you will win.

  11. Leo – so much of this is familiar and scary – and so much inspiring. I can’t tell you how much I valued working with you – how much you taught me – or how much you made me laugh over the years. I am grateful to know you and grateful to you’ve shared this story with us. Thank you.

  12. Leo, what a great insight into the person you are. Depression is truly debilitating condition. You are on the way to recovery. Thank you for sharing, there will be bad days, but remember that there will be good ones. Concentrate on the good ones. Keep the stories coming

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