Over the five years since I was diagnosed with clinical (or severe) depression I have gained a self-awareness that is both liberating and confronting.
In that time I have written about my depression, and the ongoing treatment for it, in part as a means of catharsis, partly in the hope of providing my sons with an honest account of my inadequacies as a father and husband and my efforts at remediation, but also, with that mixture of humility and arrogance unique to journalists, in the hope of shedding light on matters that favour the anonymity of the dark.
Depression is truly awful. It never really stops being awful but it is at its most crippling when it goes undiagnosed and untreated. My depression went undiagnosed from my early teens to the year my marriage disintegrated in January 2014.
From childhood onwards depression has been like carrying the deadweight of my broken self on my shoulders. One broken self, many demons: melancholia, self-loathing, self-doubt, simmering anger, anxiety, fear of being exposed as a fraud, negativity, mood swings and an aversion to the new or unfamiliar.
Undiagnosed depression did not mean I was impervious to my inner turmoils. I managed to function. Consciously and otherwise, and to varying degrees of success, I found the means to keep the demons at bay.
My greatest fortune prior to marrying was to fulfil my ambition to be a journalist. Whether as a reporter, staff writer, columnist or editor I buried myself in my work. If my employment did not fill enough hours I would take on every scrap of freelance work that came my way, which I would do on company premises. And when work did not occupy me, I would close the day with an hour or three at my local, my preferred home from home. Indeed, my preference to home. Home, where I lived alone, was usually where everything came crashing down. Or in the car if I drove straight from work to home, too tired to contemplate a night out.
When I married I maintained the relentless pace of work; the pub thing not so much. Losing myself in my work had become second nature; I loved the work, but it was also a means of protection and validation. It never occurred to me that I could lose myself (much less find myself) in my marriage.
The fallacy of coping
Undiagnosed depressives convince themselves that they can live with and control their unravelling selves. Why? I don’t know. The tears, the anguish, the fear, the constant thoughts of suicide, the sheer exhaustion of being…why would you not seek help? For me, it was a case of, “this is who I am and I just have to live with it”.
Except that when I got married it was no longer just me. I’m sure there was more dancing on eggshells for my wife than I’d care to admit, which is unfair for a partner to have to bear. The fallacy of coping starts to break down when others are involved.
My wife and I never discussed my depression, other than an occasional, towards the end of our marriage, “maybe you should see someone”, and even that was a way to touch on the subject without actually confronting it. It shouldn’t be up to the long-suffering spouse to break down the barriers. It was for me to open up, to explain how I felt, to give her insight into my life-long battle, to reveal when it was getting worse, to admit that I wasn’t coping and that I was in danger of being overwhelmed.
Even as I convinced myself that I was keeping things together, the fact was that my depression did intrude on our marriage from day one.
Understanding how it began
My relationship with my parents, well-meaning and generous though they were, was corrosive from my early teens. My mother was Sicilian-born and my father was born in Australia of Sicilian migrants and was more Sicilian than Sicilians. Their desire, and in particular my father’s desire, that their first-born son should be perfect, proved a crushing burden.
Now, it doesn’t follow that anyone in my situation would end up with depression. Many, probably most, boys from migrant backgrounds in circumstances that mirrored mine, went on to live lives without debilitating mental anguish.
By whatever combination of biological and psychological trauma, my brain, my mind, responded in a way that would shape the rest of my life, including the relationship with my parents. (“Maybe the day will come when I forgive my father,” I said hopefully to my psychotherapist a few years ago. “You will never forgive your father,” he replied chillingly.) And including my marriage.
At some point in my teens I rejected the celebration of my birthday. I didn’t want it marked or acknowledged in any way by my parents.
My parents found such an idea unthinkable and disturbing. They heatedly urged me to see a psychiatrist, a rebuke intended to insult rather than revealing parental sensitivity. No matter that I would greet birthday presents with a stony face the presents continued. (When at the age of 15 or 16 I announced that I wanted a typewriter for my birthday, this was greeted with astonishment. “Typewriters are for girls,” my father insisted. I persisted and they relented; I got my typewriter.)
But that tactical gambit aside, my aversion to birthdays remained. As an adult, I did not and do not celebrate my birthday. It was always a matter of some pride that when asked my age – and it’s amazing how often people do – I would have to pause to calculate my age (which my wife, not unreasonably, always thought an affectation). Others’ birthdays and the fuss made over them were likewise a source of bemusement. (There was one exception to my aversion to birthdays and that was in the case of children.)
A few years ago I sought to correct this anti-social attitude to birthdays by posting birthday greetings to Facebook friends, but I felt like a phoney. I stopped the birthday wishes and removed the birthday setting from my own Facebook profile.
The birthday thing resurfaces
Last week, I saw my psychiatrist for our monthly visit. I had mostly good things to report. I had steady work coming in, I was meeting deadlines, my interviews were satisfying and editors were happy with my work. The only thing amiss was that I was crying a lot, for reasons I could not discern and without any obvious pattern or stimulus.
Psychiatrists are forensic interviewers. They are measured and precise in their questions, not handing over obvious answers or lines of thinking on a platter, forcing their patients to dig deep. They are also masters at joining the dots, taking seemingly disparate pieces of information to identify significant narratives. They also do not believe in coincidences.
Before long the conversation, its flow interrupted only by my flowing tears, turned to birthdays: the rejection of my own birthday, my indifference to others’ birthdays, my inability and/or refusal to observe birthdays as a social ritual, even when it came to my wife’s birthday, which, it transpired, was only days away.
And then I recounted two “mongrel acts” that I continued to feel enormous and unresolved guilt over.
Mongrel Act #1: “I told you…”
My wife knew, as a bare fact, that I didn’t “do” birthdays. As a right-thinking person she was entitled to believe that my aversion to celebrating my birthday was an exaggeration and in any case that as a customary rite between husband and wife an exception was in order.
It was early in our marriage and my wife presented me with a thoughtful gift (I no longer recall what it was), so thoughtful that surely previous protestations would be set aside. As she presented my gift, my fury was visceral and I could feel my face turning to stone. I cast her a withering look as I seethed, “I told you I don’t want my birthday observed”.
She was firstly shocked and then visibly hurt. I may have apologised later and there would be birthday presents in subsequent years, accepted without demur, but as she would state on the occasion of another birthday gone horribly wrong, the hurt never went away.
Mongrel Act #2: “Not so happy birthday…”
That occasion was my wife’s fiftieth birthday, October 2010. I did not keep track of her age, but I did observe her birthday every year. In fact, I enjoyed doing so because it involved a family tradition I adored, which was taking my boys shopping for Mum’s birthday present.
“Pick whatever you want,” I would tell them. Sometimes we would do the rounds of Southland in an hour, other times several hours, sustained by plenty of ice-creams, fizzy drinks and milkshakes. Despite no dollar limit they never took advantage of that and each put great care into choosing the perfect gift and they understood that was the measure of its value. They didn’t inspect price tags and so it was that one boy might happily choose a $10 gift and another opt for something priced $110. I enjoyed watching the boys joyfully and proudly presenting Mum with their carefully chosen gifts. (Yes, I’m very proud of my boys, all of whom are young adults now.)
Around September 2010, my wife announced that she had booked a week’s holiday on Hamilton Island for the family to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. I was immediately worried because the black dog, or more accurately, a pack of black dogs, had had me in their clutches for some time.
The end of 2010 marked the beginning of the lowest point of my undiagnosed depression. Over the next three years spells of depression were occurring more frequently, lasting longer and plunging me into deeper and deeper pits of despair. Over this time the uncertainty of Fairfax’s future intensified: retrenchments, voluntary redundancy packages, cutbacks, constant rumours, new editorial systems, feckless management flitting from one strategy to the next…and don’t get me started on hot-desking.
Work was no longer sustaining me, even though I was producing some of my best work for BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review. If I may suspend modesty for a moment in order to make my point: at BRW I was the most-read columnist, had the highest unprompted name recognition in marketing surveys, generated more letters than anyone else and featured regularly on digital Fairfax’s daily top-five most-read list. I should have been dancing on air, but I was, pure and simple, miserable at work and at home.
At the end of 2013, accepting I could not go on, and against my wife’s express wishes, I took voluntary redundancy from Fairfax, dealing myself out of the mainstream media.
When my wife announced her milestone-birthday idyll I was at the beginning of my downward spiral. All I could do was inwardly panic. I didn’t think I could rise to the occasion of a week’s birthday celebrations. I could see what the right thing to do was but I could not rouse myself to greet the news with excitement and anticipation. Fortunately, the boys made up for whatever my insipid response was.
I just hoped that I could snap out of it in time. In the meantime, on the Friday night before departure, I took the boys gift shopping, but after an inconclusive hour or so, my head swirling in the noisy and crowded shopping centre, I suggested we resume shopping the next day. Which we did not. This was not looking good.
I really did not want to go on this trip; I considered pulling out, but thought that would be just as awful as any other eventuality. Zombified, no presents in the kitbag, my only hope, ludicrously, was that it would all work out somehow, even as I stared impending disaster in the face. I wasn’t even able to take the boys shopping on Hamilton Island.
As best she could my wife sought to make a special occasion of the week away but I dragged the whole thing down. On her birthday, my sorry failure to organise the boys’ shopping (including my own), coupled with my near-comatose demeanour, prompted a much deserved (and rare) bollocking from my wife. That’s when she mentioned the hurt of Mongrel Act #1. Eventually she decided to plan the rest of the week around me.
And then, in the last couple of days, the fog lifted and, while much too late, managed to restore some semblance of family occasion. It was an awful, awful time and words cannot begin to describe the sorrow and guilt I have carried.
Not seeking forgiveness
When I say these were mongrel acts it suggests that they were wilful acts on my part. They weren’t, but from my wife’s perspective, particularly as I did not take her into my confidence, there was only one way to view these (and other) instances.
I would be mortified if this were to be seen as an exercise in seeking forgiveness. There can be no forgiving hurts that run so deep.
Hopefully, I have allowed some understanding of the incomprehensible, a glimpse into the inner maelstrom that is depression.
Depression is itself unforgiving. It ravages everything in its path. It burrows so deep that it becomes an intrinsic part of who you are even as you desperately wish you could banish it from your person and your life.
My regrets, apart from the hurt I have caused to those who have loved me, is that I did not openly and candidly communicate with my wife about how I was feeling, and that I did not seek help when my body ached for it.
And I wish I had made more of my wife’s birthday, even if it was to say “Happy birthday”. Two simple words that weighed so heavily on me.
Well, on that score, forgive my indulgence, but: Happy Birthday, Jag.
Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW, brw.com.au and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is less introspective on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher