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, the death of loved ones 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.

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.