Diary of a divorced man: the long, hard road to single-mindedness

When I used to tell people I was separated their response would be sympathetic and consoling; now, when I say that I am divorced I might as well be announcing that I like my toast buttered.

Someone who is separated is accorded a sense of loss and hurt, of a life disturbed with uncertainty ahead, an understanding that the upheaval is recent and emotions are still raw. But with divorce, it is assumed that time has done its work and it is a case of “join the club”.

My own broken marriage of 25 years has taken this familiar path. For a year or so I felt the deepest grief. With crystal clarity I could see the marriage from my wife’s perspective. After living with an undiagnosed depressive for so long, my wife simply had enough. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, a condition that had been present since my boyhood, she simply wished me well with the rigorous treatment that lay ahead. This was now my battle to be fought alone.

At first it was my wife that I missed dearly. My flowers and plaintive letters only strengthened her resolve. “This has to stop,” she demanded in one letter. “It’s over.”

But the overwhelming and lasting pain came with the loss of my family – our three boys – and the knowledge that I would not get a second chance to be the husband and father I had ceased to be in those last few years, a time when my depression plumbed to its deepest, darkest depths.

My remorse, growing self-awareness and greater control over my depression (with therapy and medication) would have no part to play in reprising my role as husband and father.

In those early days of treatment my psychoanalyst insisted that I had to be my first priority.

“You are no good to anyone, your wife, your children, least of all yourself until you regain your strength and confidence,” he stated bluntly.

“Now is not the time to concern yourself with reconciliation, and I can’t tell you if there ever will be a reconciliation, but I can tell you it will not happen until you are strong again.”

This was easier said than done, of course. I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of what I would be missing, the things I would no longer be able to celebrate as a family – the birthdays, the school events, the graduations. The milestones that one might normally take for granted. But I understood what he was saying.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage

Occasionally one will hear of divorced couples that remarry after some years apart. It’s a happy outcome that speaks to an idealistic hope that wrongs can be set right, lessons hard won can be activated and corrosive behaviours of the past can be exorcised. It’s also a reassuring hope that time cannot erase the good in a relationship that is inevitably overshadowed by the heightened emotions and catalogue of hurts that invariably crashes a decaying marriage against the wall of no-return.

The worst of the trauma of divorce is felt by whomever is not the willing party when it is not a mutual decision, or when the mutuality gives way and at the eleventh hour only one of you is determined that the marriage must end.

There is nothing nuanced about a failed marriage. By the time the final act plays to its torrid and bloody conclusion, there is no room for forgiveness, doubt or sentiment. Every fault is magnified a thousand times, slights previously overlooked coalesce into a damning tsunami of recrimination and the patience of the angels gives way to an unbending determination to endure no more.

Marriages end for many reasons but the end usually comes when one of the partners finally decides ‘enough’. By the time that point is reached, the anger, bitterness and possibly even hatred is all-consuming. Tearful entreaties for another chance will fall on closed hearts. Perhaps the angry and unforgiving brick wall is necessary for protagonists to maintain their resolve.

As a married man, it always struck me as odd, not to say insane, when there was rare news of an estranged couple remarrying. How could a couple step back into the fire of a flawed union?

From my new vantage point of being single after 25 years of marriage my perspective on that is much mellowed. Not because it gives me hope in my own situation – my (ex-) wife seems positively energised by her liberation from me – but because I stand in awe of the power of forgiveness, the supremacy of love and the optimism of spirit that such a reconciliation denotes. (For those who come back together as a matter of convenience, without resolution of the original breaking points, they are very likely buying into a resumed hell on earth.)

Resilience after a long period of fragility

There are men capable of swapping one marriage for another, much as one would return a faulty toaster, but even after four years of separation from my wife this is an alien prospect.

On one occasion, some time ago and to my own surprise, I attempted to initiate a romantic relationship, a venture that was politely declined. And recently I did ask someone I met at a dinner party to lunch, with romantic intent, but that invitation was also declined. Fortunately, in neither case did I find this a crushing experience, which speaks well of my resilience after a long period of fragility.

For those who viscerally feel the pangs of divorce there are various strands of emotional hurt but the overwhelming feeling of rejection looms especially large; doubly so in the case of pleas for reconciliation (or for that matter forgiveness) that are flatly denied. So, I’m rather pleased with myself that having dipped my toe in the waters of romantic possibilities I did not lose a leg to a ravenous shark.

Life does go on; maybe not the life you had envisaged for yourself, and maybe with more ebbs and flows than you would like, but a life of new beginnings, fresh prospects and good friends nonetheless.

I live in the country (Macedon, Victoria), a one-hour train trip from Melbourne, surrounded by gum trees, a spectacular array of bird life and occasional visits by a family of kangaroos. I am occupied with writing a novel (admittedly taking longer than expected, but now five chapters in) and a memoir (which is not the act of vanity that might suggest). Meanwhile, I sustain myself materially with a portfolio of freelance work, some of which is professionally fulfilling, much of which is tosh.

In more ways than one I find myself single-minded. And it’s okay.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review and was a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is a columnist with The New Daily and is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

 

Advertisements

It would be a great achievement, but we should drop the bumper-sticker promise to halve the number of suicides in 10 years

There’s something distasteful about politicians promising to halve the number of suicides in 10 years. That’s the commitment of the Victorian government. It’s also the policy that federal Labor leader Bill Shorten took to the electorate at this year’s election. But can it really be that simple? Can the tragic epidemic of suicide be solved as an equation? In just 10 years?

Despite the epic dimensions of the suicide crisis in Australia – each year 2000-plus Australians end their own lives – politicians have mostly looked the other way. But suicide has finally made it on to the political agenda, thanks to the tireless efforts of mental health activists.

It is just like politicians to reduce suicide to a mindless slogan, a mathematical fancy, oblivious to the agonising and very personal hell that each case of suicide represents. We cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life. Stephen Fry speaks of the “blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness” of depression, and so it must be with suicide. Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell.

Despite the unimaginable burdens that suicide victims carry, when they finally do take their own lives, even the closest family and friends report no clues or warning signs beforehand.

So, while halving the suicide rate in 10 years might sound a worthy and decisive goal, given the complex, personal, determined and often very secretive nature of suicide, how can politicians make this bold, not to say rash, commitment with such confidence? There is no doubt that carefully targeted strategies can prevent some suicides from occurring – particularly in communities with a high prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts – but it’s also true, if you will forgive the black turn of phrase, that suicide has a life of its own. No effort should be spared to reach every potential suicide victim, but bumper-sticker targets only trivialise the agony that somebody contemplating suicide must experience. Australia’s suicide epidemic is much more complex than such such neat targets allow for.

To some extent politicians can be let off the hook on this occasion because the ambitious and catchy promise to halve suicide in 10 years originated with the experts.

Three years ago this month an Expert Reference Group (ERG) on Mental Health Reform – headed by Allan Fels – presented a series of targets to then new Health Minister Peter Dutton which included the recommendation to reduce Australia’s suicide rate by 10% within four years and 50% within 10 years. (Another target was to “reduce stigma against those living with mental illness” by 25% within 10 years, which seems a somewhat nebulous goal.)

Jack Heath, CEO of SANE Australia and ERG member said at the time that the targets “have come from the mental health sector and the wider community”.

“Holding ourselves responsible to specific targets is essential to mental health reform,” Heath said. “They are ambitious targets but Australia can meet them – if we put our minds to it.”

The target strategy is well understood in business, as reflected in two well-worn management maxims: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it; and if you don’t know where you’re heading, you’ll never get there.

‘Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years’

The National Coalition for Suicide Prevention (NCSP) believes targets, when supported by “evidence-based strategies”, are attainable.

Professor Helen Christensen, NCSP member and director of the Black Dog Institute, says such strategies have helped to reduce suicide by 30% in Europe.

“Suicide rates haven’t changed in the last 10 years in Australia and just doing what we have always done is not really going to make any difference to those rates,” Christensen told the ABC last year.

“It has been a scattergun approach and funding has been distributed in a non-organised way. Initiatives are very fragmented and some are run by the government and others by NGOs.”

Christensen rejects the view that suicide is “an individual thing” and therefore not preventable: “[T]he evidence is very clearly the case that we can prevent suicide.”

There can be no ignoring the tragic proportions of suicide in Australia – and therefore the need for action – but until recently that’s exactly what has happened.

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics data released in March, there were 2,864 deaths from “intentional self-harm” in 2014, making suicide the 13th leading cause of deaths in Australia. (Around 65,000 attempted suicide.) Three-quarters (75.4%) of people who died by suicide were male, elevating suicide to the 10th leading cause of death for males.

Suicide is endemically rooted in Australian society. Annual death tolls are remarkably consistent and suicide is the most common cause of death among Australians aged 15-44. At the beginning of this century (2001), 2,457 Australians took their own lives, similar to the toll in 2013 (2,522) and 2012 (2,574). The 2014 spike is the highest since 1997, when 2,720 died by suicide.

It seems remarkable given such colossal loss of life that it has taken this long for politicians to confront Australia’s suicide epidemic. That they have finally done so is only because mental health activists have been relentless in their calls for government action.

Activists took full advantage of this being an election year to make suicide a policy priority for the major parties.

During the election campaign, an alliance of leading mental health advocates led by former CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia and inaugural chairman of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, John Mendoza, released suicide data in 28 federal electorates to stir candidates and MPs into supporting a national suicide-prevention strategy.

Its analysis of the 28 electorates found that between 2009-12 suicide rates exceeded the road toll and all but five had suicide rates at “high to extreme in levels”.

Any other cause of death at such magnitudes would have resulted in “a very assertive, nationally co-ordinated response”, Mendoza said. “Suicide and self-harm are now major public health problems in Australia that require a [national] public health response.”

To the credit of Mendoza and other suicide-prevention activists, this year has seen promising if belated political recognition of the need for concerted action on suicide.

‘No parent should ever bury their child’

Bill Shorten adopted the experts’ target of halving suicide rates over the next decade when he announced that a Labor government would invest $72 million to establish 12 regional suicide-prevention pilot programs in communities with high suicide rates, including in at least three indigenous communities.

Describing suicide as a “hidden story in this country” – in fact, not hidden, just ignored – Shorten also pledged $9 million for a national suicide prevention fund to support research into reducing suicides and programs to break down social stigma.

“Teenagers are taking days off school to attend the funerals of classmates who have taken their own life,” he said.

“Parents are sitting at kitchen tables, numb with incomprehension, shattered by grief, trying to write a eulogy for their child. No parent should ever bury their child. Yet seven Australians die every day at their own hand, every single day.”

Shorten didn’t get the chance to implement his promises, but for the first time a party of government had placed suicide front and centre on the national political agenda.

Victoria’s Labor government led by Premier Daniel Andrews is, however, in the position to implement a suicide-prevention strategy in his state. In 2015, 646 Victorians took their own lives.

“We cannot sit back and do nothing, and somehow accept that it is just the way things are,” Andrews said.

In July, he announced a strategy to halve Victoria’s suicide rate over the next 10 years by targeting at-risk communities.

The government has committed $27 million towards community-based support trials that will be implemented through sporting clubs, schools and other local networks. The program will also provide intensive support for people who have previously attempted suicide at six suicide hot spots throughout state.

The Victorian program will be implemented in 2017.

In August, an “integrated suicide prevention program” was launched in NSW with backing from the NSW Government, Commonwealth Primary Health Networks (PHN) and a $15 million grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation.

Based on successful European models, the “Lifespan” program was developed by the Black Dog Institute and the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Suicide Prevention.

The “evidence-based systems approach” will be implemented in four regional locations in NSW and involves the implementation of nine suicide-prevention strategies, including improved access to mental health care, quality education programs for people at the front line (emergency staff, teachers, GPs) and encouraging safe conversations about suicide in schools, workplaces and communities.

It is estimated that this new evidence-based program will reduce the suicide rate by at least 20% in “a few years” and suicide attempts by 30%.

These are welcome initiatives and hopefully herald ongoing government efforts to reduce the incidence of suicide in Australia.

Perhaps the “halving suicide in 10 years” promise was a clever ruse by savvy mental health activists to reel in politicians who tend to see things in terms of slogans and catchphrases. Given that politicians have notoriously short attention spans, it might also have been an attempt to lock them in for  10 years.

With suicide now on the political agenda, it might be best if we never hear again about halving suicide in a decade. Such promises have a way of turning into political red herrings that overshadow and even derail original good intentions. We need only recall Bob Hawke’s sincere but doomed “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.

We don’t need the artificial inspiration of arbitrary targets when it comes to the scourge of suicide – or child poverty, for that matter – we must simply acknowledge the problem and ensure that governments take the best-informed actions to overcome it. At long last, we now appear to be on that path.

In the meantime, as a community we can play our part by bringing suicide out in the open and ensuring that it never again becomes a “hidden story”. We must talk about it, we must confront it and we must do everything we can to understand and overcome this corrosive epidemic which is killing so many of our young people, and many others, in communities around Australia.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW and columnist for the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher or correspond via leodangelofisher@gmail.com

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, help is available from Lifeline ­(13 11 14), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467) or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).

 

RIP Sawyer Sweeten, the little boy from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ who became a young man who felt he had nothing to live for: when will this stop?

The death of former child actor Sawyer Sweeten attracted fond but fleeting media coverage. Sawyer, one of the twins on the much loved US television series Everybody Loves Raymond, committed suicide at his family’s Texas home. He was just 19, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday.

The series ran from 1996 to 2005 and has been a repeat staple ever since. But Sawyer, and his real-life twin Sullivan, who played Geoffrey and Michael Barone on the series, discontinued acting when the show ended and largely disappeared from view – except for their adorable television selves, and occasional cast reunions.

Many millions of people around the world watched Sawyer and his brother grow up on television over nine years; the twins were 16-month old babies when they began on the show as original cast members, alongside their TV parents Ray and Debra Barone (Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton), sister Ally (real-life sister Madylin) and extended family members played by Brad Garrett, Doris Roberts, the late Peter Boyle and Monica Horan.

Sawyer was visiting his family home in Texas, where he shot himself in an upstairs room, while family members were downstairs.

He was no longer the sweet little boy that we saw growing up on television, but a young man, described as “anti-drugs, very quiet and very shy”.

This won’t come as a surprise to viewers of Everybody Loves Raymond. Despite almost a decade on the show, the twins never grew into the precocious child actors we’re used to seeing on US television; on screen they were shy, awkward, ill at ease, fluffing lines and obviously following direction as best they could. They were not gifted child actors. But one suspects that it was precisely because we saw two happy little boys no different from little boys in our own families, rather than the slick performances of child prodigies, that we loved the Barone twins all the more.

What struck me about photos of Sawyer after the show finished in 2009 was that he was still very obviously shy and awkward in the public gaze. Recent private photos released by the family or posted on social media show a teen and young man who seemed doleful, even when smiling for the camera.

This is not a veiled accusation that others should have seen in Sawyer a suicidal young man. They would have seen a “very quiet and very shy” Sawyer being Sawyer. Suicidal tendencies will occasionally be so marked as to be unmistakable, but in most cases they are well disguised.

As is often the case with suicide, the family reports no clues, no warning signs, of Sawyer’s intention. Sawyer’s family will now be experiencing, along with the unbearable loss, the guilt and anguish that they did not discern the clues that may have saved his life. It is a fruitless torment, but understandable.

Madylin Sweeten posted on her Facebook page: “At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

‘Let your loved ones know how much you care’

Sawyer’s on-screen grandmother, Doris Roberts, also took to social media: “It is with great sadness that I learned the news that Sawyer Sweeten, who played my grandson Geoffrey Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, died at his family’s home in Texas. He was a very sweet young man who will be dearly missed. Make sure your loved ones know how much you care about them, and please check in with them if you haven’t touched base with them for a while. It’s very important to keep in touch.”

These pleas, and others like them posted by heartbroken cast members, friends and family, reflect the anguish of those left behind and the torment that a troubled soul was left unattended to go down the lonely path of self-destruction. And yet it is hard to imagine that Sawyer felt unloved or discarded. Most likely he felt unworthy of that love and undeserving of the care of those closest to him.

Suicide is an escape from an unremitting and deeply ingrained hell, but also, perversely, it is an act of love – a conviction that those closest to you are better off without you. Suicide victims carry unimaginable burdens that they can no longer endure, but very often they also feel themselves to be a burden to others.

The question that inevitably follows a suicide is “Why?”. It is never easy – or even possible – to adequately answer that question. In Sawyer’s case, suicide is a too common occurrence among former child stars. It is hard to imagine the sheer enormity of the transition they must make from child star to anonymous adult.

Professor Charles Figley of Tulane University in New Orleans, a psychologist specialising in trauma and resilience, says of child stars: “They often go from the height of fame to the depth of living without it. It’s more than the rest of us have to face.”

Chicago clinical psychologist Dr John Mayer, who specialises in treating children and adolescents, explains the difficulties posed by the unique circumstances of the child star.

“These kids are kept from the developmental skill building that most kids go through to make them capable adults. Such things as learning about rejection, loss, transitions, and the process of identity development are in limbo while the production companies unknowingly shelter them from those natural struggles a child or teen needs to go through. … They become ill-equipped, often dysfunctional adults. Many of these kids become adults with ‘holes’ in their development, and, at worst, they are emotional and social disasters.” (Quotes from Figley and Mayer reported by Korin Miller, Yahoo!Health, 25 April 2015.)

We can’t know why Sawyer took his own life. There are no reports of a suicide note, but suicide notes can just easily raise more questions than they answer. We ultimately cannot know what torment tears at the heart and mind of someone who feels he has no choice but to take his own life.

A little boy no more

The show’s creator Philip Rosenthal said in a statement: “We knew and loved Sawyer as a little boy. He and his real-life siblings Sullivan and Madylin were such a charming, integral part of our TV family. They never failed to make us laugh, or remind us how we feel about our own children. We are terribly sad to hear this news and our hearts go out to Sawyer’s family.”

We can surmise that being loved as a little boy who does not really exist, and being part of a fictional TV family that no longer exists, can weigh heavily on a sensitive heart.

For me, the death of Sawyer Sweeten is painful because I, too, loved that little boy and his twin brother. But as with any suicide, there are many strands to that sense of loss and grief. Sawyer’s death cut deep, and it wasn’t just as a fan of Everybody Loves Raymond.

My now estranged wife and I used to watch and enjoy the show, all the more so because we had our own twin boys whose age was not so far removed from that of the Barone twins. My boys will be 17 this year, and broken homes being what they are, I don’t see them as often as I would wish, and I can only celebrate their milestones second-hand. My grief at the distance which has been placed between me and my boys, coupled with the nostalgia of having watched the show with my wife, gave added poignancy to Sawyer’s death.

But that’s not my only connection to Sawyer’s lonely death (as all suicides must be).

My youngest brother Tony died by his own hand in 1981: he was 15, and like Sawyer, just a few weeks shy of his birthday. He shot himself in his bedroom – at a time when guns could still be kept in the home – when my parents went for an evening walk and left him home alone watching TV in his room. On their return, they found him dead; he had changed into his pyjama bottoms, the TV was still on. I was called from where I was living nearby and with my parents, in surreal disbelief, knelt over his lifeless body. I will never forget my parents’ quiet cries of anguish. “My son, my darling son,” my mother wept, “Why didn’t you tell us you were so unhappy?”

Tony was a shy, sensitive and very sweet boy. Only days before he died he walked up to my mother in the kitchen, hugged her and told her how much he loved her. One of the last photos taken of Tony was with me, just a few weeks before he died, in which we stood side by side. To this day I cannot look at that photo, guilt stricken that I did not have my arm around him to let him know how he dear he was to me. But in others of the last photos taken of him I can see sadness etched in his face, whereas much earlier photos of him showed a sweet, happy, almost angelic little boy.

What sadness had engulfed my brother in the days or weeks leading to his death? We know that he didn’t like the school he was going to, and my parents had promised he could change school at the end of the year. Reports subsequently surfaced that he may have been bullied at school, which breaks my heart, and you can imagine how my parents felt. We are all left with the forlorn wish that we could have done more.

Having initially acknowledged suicide, my parents quickly went into denial, such was the shame associated with suicide. (The coroner delivered an open verdict, but was of the opinion that in all probability it was suicide.) Even now, the subject is not broached.

Although I do not press my parents on the subject – why would I? – my view is that as a society we must talk about it; we must confront it, and we must do everything we can to understand this scourge which is killing so many of our young people (and of course many others) in our own communities and far beyond. We must do more in our schools, our heath systems, our community organisations, and in the media to raise awareness and understanding of suicide.

Suicides are deaths that can be avoided; but we have to learn how. We must tackle it as we would any other unwanted destructive element of society. Rather than fearing suicide as the last taboo, we should fear inaction on suicide. In the meantime, we can only farewell and remember fondly those who have slipped through our fingers.

Rest in Peace, Sawyer Sweeten. You were loved and you will be missed.

Let me end with your sister’s plea:

“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love. Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”

Support and information about suicide prevention is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

What happens after you’ve been diagnosed with depression? Let me tell you about my year…

Eight months ago, in April, I wrote about my long-time battle with depression, which included the declaration that “the rest of my life starts now”. That column generated a very warm response from friends, colleagues and peers in the journalist community and beyond. It was gratifying and humbling.

My “coming out” was cathartic and the response comforting beyond measure. Writing about my experience, many readers told me, was of great benefit to them, which made it a doubly rewarding experience.

I have wondered whether it would be appropriate to end 2014 with an account of how the “rest of my life” is progressing. Would it be an extravagance? An imposition on your goodwill? I hope not.

I’ve decided to provide some insight into my year not because I derive some perverse pleasure from laying bare my life, but because I believe it’s important to shine a light on what’s involved in overcoming, or at least getting a grip on, depression.

My intention is not to provide a treatise on depression and its treatment; this is my experience alone. And it’s only the first leg of a long journey.

My depression began when I was a schoolboy, just 13 or 14. At that tender age I experienced the physical sensation of depression sitting on me like a thick, heavy “black fog”. (Churchill called it the “black dog” – the description doesn’t matter; its salient character is that it comes unbidden and stays for as long as it pleases.) These occasions were crippling, not linked to any particular cause or event. The sadness was overwhelming, and to my parents’ consternation I would burst into tears for no evident reason.

A maelstrom of emotions combined fear, guilt, introversion, self-loathing and desolation. Without realising it, at school I learnt to disguise it; I developed coping mechanisms. My time at university was much the same. Like many undergraduates my period of adjustment was difficult, but for me “difficult” meant periods of the blackest anguish.

Soon after graduating with my BA in history and political science I landed a job as a reporter for a country newspaper, a happy time and the first step in what would unfold to be a mostly satisfying career. Journalism was my solace.

The depression and its manifold symptoms continued, worsened, and were left untreated. I convinced myself that I was coping. The death of two brothers, my youngest, at 15, by his own hand, the other in a car crash at 22, within the space of four years, were largely suppressed as I buried myself in my work.

Learning to juggle career and depression seemed to be working, but I know now that I was simply delaying the inevitable crash.

Marriage and the birth of our three boys over 10 years provided me with a time of unconfined joy. But it was only a stay. As my beloved boys grew into their teens, the depression dug in, by now equally persistent at home and at work. That’s when my depression entered its most destructive phase: when work no longer provided a release for all that pent-up anguish.

And it all came crashing down

Despite doing what I regarded as my best work as a columnist for BRW and the Australian Financial Review, every word was a mountain. I found it hard to concentrate, my temper was getting shorter, and motivation was hard to find. At home, I had all but closed down. By the end of 2013, I couldn’t go on and took a voluntary redundancy from Fairfax. Just a few days into the new year, on the eve of our 25th anniversary, it was my wife who couldn’t go on. Our marriage collapsed and for the next six months I lived with my parents.

The grief and devastation was unbearable. In February, I asked my parents to drive me to my GP. I told them I had some test results to collect. In fact, I was there to seek help for my depression. In the waiting room I was unable to stem the silent flow of tears – not helped by the fact that there were young mothers with their toddlers in the room, bringing to mind sweet memories I could not handle. The receptionist noticed and kindly allowed me to wait in a private room.

The GP was visibly moved to see me in such a state. He referred me to a psychoanalyst, who I was able to see almost immediately.

The psychoanalyst was straight out of Central Casting: sandals, round-rim glasses, jeans, Viennese. He even had the archetypal couch in the corner of the room, although over the next half-dozen visits I never once used it. We talked, I cried, he asked questions that took me to faraway times and events, I cried some more.

Even in a daze I found myself admiring his forensic skill as an interviewer. It was like being in a dream. “Am I really seeing a psychiatrist?” At other times it was all too real, and raw, as he expertly but without fuss linked pieces of my seemingly scattered narrative into cohesive threads.

“I think I can make a diagnosis, but let’s talk again next week,” he said. (Let’s call him Max.) Max prescribed some sleeping pills – for the uninitiated, psychiatrists are medical doctors – and wrote out a referral for several pathology tests.

Those tests resulted in prescriptions for compound medicines, in addition to anti-depressants, as well as recommendations for various vitamins and supplements and the beginning, for the first time in my life, of an exercise regimen. I was so determined to get myself on top of things that I unconditionally accepted whatever was recommended.

By the end of the second visit, the diagnosis of clinical depression came as a great relief. Partly because it provided the basis for treatment, but also because it provided some validation or context for the way I had felt for so long. “You’ve never seen anyone about this?” Max asked more than once, shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t know how you’ve gone this far without treatment.”

“This is very serious”

“Becoming unemployed can lead to depression, the breakdown of a marriage can lead to depression, but on top of that you have depression that goes back to your childhood which has gone untreated. This is very serious. You – must – have – treatment.”

This was not just a declaration. He wanted me to acknowledge the challenge ahead and to make a commitment to stay the course. I willingly made it.

“Getting stronger” – physically and mentally – was something Max spoke about often. I still longed for reconciliation with my wife. He’d seen enough marriage breakdowns to know what the odds were on that front, but he humoured me.

“There will be no reconciliation unless you are strong … You are no good to your wife or to your children unless you are a strong … They can’t be confident about the future if they see you like this.”

My challenge was to rebuild. An important part of my recovery was achieving a state of emotional equilibrium. Taking anti-depressants for the first time was a revelation. I had assumed that anti-depressants meant being in a perpetual torpor. Not so. I simply became me without the constant crying or sudden descent into melancholy. The medication kept a lid on all the cues that would normally set me off.

My diary entry for 21 February: “First day on anti-depressants. First day no tears.”

Max’s role was to see me in a fit state to progress to long-term clinical treatment. He recommended that I see both a psychotherapist (who can be a psychiatrist, but whose primary focus is helping patients gain an insight into their behaviour as the key to dealing with depression) and a psychiatrist, who would manage my long-term medication.

This was tricky, he explained, as psychotherapists often don’t like working in tandem with “psychopharmacologists” – psychiatrists who only provide prescriptions and manage medications. Max made his recommendations, undertook to write to them, urged me to make contact, and in the event that they agreed to work together, I would need to obtain referrals from my GP.

The psychotherapist (“Laurence”), a psychiatrist of some eminence, didn’t so much agree to collaborate with the workaday psychiatrist (“Harold”) as tolerate the fact that I was seeing him. In the eight months that I have seen Laurence he has never mentioned him or shown the slightest interest in what medication I am on.

Since April I have seen Laurence weekly. He has a couch, and it’s not a prop. Each week, I lie on the couch and he sits behind. In the early weeks he would simply say “Let’s begin” to start me off. I soon got the gist of proceedings, which was that once we were in position I would start talking. Sometimes Laurence would barely speak. Perhaps a “Mmm” here and an “interesting” there. Other times something would prick his curiosity and he would quiz me on something.

Bursting forth like a toxic torrent

There have been times when I think “What on earth am I going to talk about?”, but the moment I hit the leather the hurts, slights, torments and agonies from the past burst forth like a toxic torrent. All the while I hear heavy scribbling behind me. (I also soon discovered that while the Freudian Max loved picking my dreams apart, Laurence had no time for dreams.)

In addition to our weekly sessions, Laurence “recommends” that his patients also attend weekly group therapy sessions, which he oversees. These sessions can be like weekly soap operas and strangely compelling. The group comprises a core handful of Laurence’s patients. Occasionally a newcomer will show up, stay a few weeks and disappear. In the time that I have attended the group its membership has included lawyers, a university lecturer, an Anglican priest, a nurse … and a journalist. Some occupations go undiscovered. We only use first names, which provides sufficient anonymity for people to disclose the most horrific details of their lives.

Somehow, the stories in group therapy thread and intersect, with Laurence’s gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) guidance cajoling, stimulating and challenging; providing insight into our own lives even while we think we are discussing the choices, decisions and anxieties of others.

Harold, meanwhile, whom I see every month or so, is agnostic about therapy, and kindly dismissive of some of Max’s “holistic” approaches to care. Harold regulates my medication, trying to find that happy medium. It seems to be as much art as science.

But is it working? It’s early days yet. When I compare the mess I was at the beginning of the year with where I am today, the answer would have to be ‘yes’. But there’s nothing linear about this process. I have ups and downs, wins and losses, moods that still peak and trough.

Depression is not a tap that can be turned off and on. The flow of water is constant; it’s about managing (dare I say channelling) the stream.

A couple of months after I commenced my treatment I found myself feeling invincible. Marriage over? Fine, life goes on! Career to rebuild? No worries, the work’s pouring in and I might even write a couple of books while I’m at it. People kept telling me how good I looked. The first few times I took it as something that people say, but on one occasion I asked a former workmate, after she’d made the comment, what she meant. “The last couple of years at BRW you were walking around with a little black storm cloud above your head. We could all see it. The cloud’s not there anymore.”

This period of invincibility was perhaps a way of soaring above realities that still had to be dealt with. The high didn’t last. That would have been too neat and easy. There are more knocks to come; that’s just the way it is. But that light at the end of the tunnel is the best incentive I’ve got. My boys.

It’s all about my boys

I still miss my boys and try as I might I cannot come to terms with having to make times to see them. It’s not pleasant to have to make appointments to see your kids. And the one certainty is that no matter how enjoyable the time together may be, I always have to say goodbye to them as they return home – what until quite recently was “our home”.

My heart aches that I missed out on their school speech nights; that this year I wasn’t there to put up the Christmas tree as the boys gather to decorate it; that I won’t be part of the annual “family” holiday. I can’t help thinking of the milestones, parties, celebrations and gatherings that I will not be part of.

It’s fair to say that the boys – aged 19, 16 and 16 – seem to have made the adjustment to the new status quo much more easily than I. But the effort that goes into maintaining a relationship with my teen-aged sons today – as difficult as it may seem now – is about ensuring that we enjoy a more meaningful relationship for the long term. I get that.

In the meantime my grief and loss are still playing themselves out. Sometimes I’m above it, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I’m clear eyed. (It might be time for Harold to rejig the medication again.) But for all that, what I am is resilient.

At the beginning of 2014 I was reclusive and inconsolable with grief; now I enjoy meeting up with friends, contacts and former work mates. I’m living in my own apartment and I relish those moments when I walk through the front door and feel that I’m “home”. I’m grateful and humbled that there are so many people who care about me, worry for me and respect me.

And without a hint of embarrassment I will say that I don’t know where I’d be without Twitter. Whatever my mood and disposition I can engage with some of the brightest and most interesting people in Australia and the world. And while we’re handing out accolades, my home away from home, the Saint & Rogue, is up there as well.

Professionally, what pleases me is not that there is so much work flowing in, but that what I am producing is finding its mark with readers, editors and in many cases, me. I hope that 2015 will be even more fruitful. And, yes, that includes plans for at least one book.

Last year, having given my reasons for writing about my depression, I concluded: “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.” How’s that going? The battle’s not won, but I am winning.

And a final word: if you’re suffering from depression: get help. Now.

The original piece: My life-long battle with depression: the rest of my life starts now, 4 April 2014.

Oh Captain, My Captain: RIP Robin Williams 1951-2014

The death of Robin Williams has struck many people, including myself, in a very personal way because he was that kind of performer: so giving, so immediate, so intense that he left no distance between himself and his audience. To witness a Williams performance was to be swept into its maelstrom.

There was no half-way with this gifted actor and comedian. Everything about Williams was full on, strictly all or nothing. And he was loved for it.

His manic turns on countless television interview shows were hilarious forces of nature: a tempestuous stream of consciousness that fused anecdotes, impersonations, observations, gags and routines that would leave audiences gasping for air.

But it’s also true that Williams was hiding behind these walls of comedic sound.

No doubt there were times when Williams revealed a little of himself during these interviews – be they on television, radio or print – but one could never be quite sure when the real Robin Williams was offering a glimpse of himself. He was in that regard like so many of the great comedians, always “on” and much preferring to be somebody else, at least when in the public eye. Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Jim Carrey come to mind.

Making a lot of noise, being the irrepressible wit, dominating discussion: these are ways for people with depression to hide – from themselves, and from those around them. But it’s also a way of pumping the air of life into a deflated soul. To stop long enough for life to overwhelm you is to curl up in a corner and wish you could disappear, while at the same time wishing you didn’t feel that way.

My guess is that while Robin Williams was making the world laugh – or, with equal intensity, cry – he was desperately trying to keep himself alive. It’s a battle he lost.

His death at the age of 63 has shocked the world, a world that felt so close to him, yet many of us will now realise, or will come to realise, that we barely knew this giving man. We were so busy laughing or crying that in idolising Robin Williams we didn’t notice that he was unraveling before us.

The demons that swirled within

In an era when living to 100 is barely remarked upon, 63 is so young, but the blessing of this loss is that it did not happen sooner.

Williams did not let us peer deep into his soul, but neither did he attempt to conceal the demons that swirled within. He was a recovered alcoholic, had suffered drug addiction and most recently severe depression and had recently checked himself into a rehabilitation centre.

These burdens were part of who he was – and some will argue that an artist without demons is no artist, or a lesser artist – but they did not define Robin Williams. The tragedy of this life cut so terribly short was that in giving so much to his friends and family, and to admirers around the world, Williams felt he had so little to give himself.

Depression is many things, but its characteristics include self-loathing, hopelessness and loneliness. Robin Williams’ art and comedy may well have been offsprings of these conditions, but they were also masks that enabled Williams to confront life every day. Which make his performances all the more remarkable, and tragic.

Williams’ talent was not simply a ball of nervous energy. He was a Juilliard-trained actor whose cinema performances were as varied as they were compelling, moving and hilarious. His best-known films include: Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Fisher King (1991), Good Will Hunting (1997, for which he won an Oscar, having been nominated for the previous three films), Awakening (1990), Mrs Doubtfire (1993), The Birdcage (1996) and One Hour Photo (2002). He will also be known to a legion of fans as Mork in the landmark TV comedy Mork and Mindy, which ran from 1978 to 1982.

There is no ready answer

Beyond the shock, many will greet his suicide with the question “Why?” They will say that he was so successful, so wealthy, so loved, how could he possibly take his life?

These are questions, of course, to which there is no ready answer. But what answers there are have nothing to do with the gloss of Williams’ life. Everything we admired about Williams was the exterior he hid behind. We know that Williams was gifted, loved and loving. But he was also broken, bereft and afraid.

Is suicide a rational choice? I don’t know. But it is a lonely choice. And a desperate one.

Williams was married and had three children. His third wife, Susan Schneider, issued a statement in which she expressed her heartbreak: “This morning, I lost my husband and my best friend, while the world lost one of its most beloved artists and beautiful human beings. I am utterly heartbroken.”

Williams’ death, ultimately, was not the death of a comic genius and actor, but of a man.

His death will shed momentary light on this darkest of scourges: depression.
Let me conclude by quoting Stephen Fry, who like this writer suffers from depression, but unlike this journeyman journalist has the gift of writing with an angel’s touch:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”

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.