I’ve written, rewritten and deleted this blog more times than I can actually remember. The timing has always seemed wrong. Every time the issue of depression or anxiety has become a topic of discussion it has been around real and tragic events. Talking about myself has just seemed tacky, like dining out on someone else’s pain.
In hindsight that may also have been a convenient excuse to keep putting it off, and I’m not going to do that anymore. If I can’t talk about it now, when everyone is talking about it, when we should be talking about it, it’s a bit gutless really.
Last week an insidious, lying, bastard of a disorder took some of the light from this world.
It was a shock because it happened to the funny one – the talented one, the one who everybody loved.
How could someone who brought so much joy to so many people possibly have been in such pain? It doesn’t make sense.
But in a sad and strange way it does. When you are the funny one you aren’t allowed to feel sad, or you won’t allow yourself to. You are the person that makes other people smile when they are feeling bad and when you can’t do that people don’t know how to handle it – you don’t know how to handle it – you feel like you are letting yourself and everyone else down. The pressure can be immense.
For those who know me well this is not news, but for those of you who don’t – my name is Anna Kirtlan and I have lived with mental illness for most of my life.
I don’t talk about it in detail that often. I was diagnosed in a time when people didn’t talk about it – there were no brave celebrities and sportspeople putting a face to mental illness, there were no campaigns letting people know that 1 in 5 people were going through the same thing you were and there was a constant fear that if you let someone know you could find yourself in a nice comfy padded room.
Things have changed a lot but there is still that hangover there, there’s still the fear that lighting the fuse and pressing ‘publish’ on this post could have an impact on my life, my career prospects, the way people look at me.
What’s more important though is letting people who might be in that black hole right now know that they are not alone and with a little help they can claw themselves out.
Mental illness it does not make you weak. It does not make you selfish and you don’t need to just “cheer up and get over it”. You don’t need to justify feeling the way you do. You have an illness – and an illness can be treated.
So if one person stumbles across this blog and feels the stronger for it, then outing myself so publicly will be worth it.
It took me a long time to be able to speak out about this stuff. I felt I had to wait until I’d ‘proved myself’ – until I’d gotten my degree (which I was told by a well-meaning counselor not to pursue because the stress might be too much), my journalism diploma (which was much more stressful – and rewarding – than the degree) and had held down more than one high pressure job. I waited until I was chief reporter of a (albeit small) daily newspaper before I officially came out of the closet. That was before the paper had a website though – so you won’t find it if you google my name.
Several years ago now I did one of the scariest things of my life (and I am including sailing offshore in that list). I stood up in front of a hall full of teenage boys and talked about mental illness. I had been invited to do this after talking about my experiences in my weekly column – in support of a mental health awareness week initiative the district council had cooked up. The youth branch of the council had designed and produced bright orange t-shirts with five stick figures on then – one of those figures coloured in to represent the one in five who live with mental illness. The idea was to get as many people in town wearing them as possible.
The school was Waitaki Boys High in Oamaru – the hall was huge, and full. I got up on the stage and almost walked right back off again. There were three of us – a radio presenter (bi-polar), a district council spokesperson (post-natal depression) and myself (obsessive compulsive disorder/anxiety/depression).
The kids were amazing. They laughed at all my stupid jokes, but otherwise you could have heard a pin drop. Afterwards they were jostling to put on orange t-shirts. When I came into work the next day one of my workmates came up and gave me a hug. “What’s that for?” I asked. “My son told me about your talk at school yesterday,” she said. “It’s the first time he’s told me about something that’s happened at school for weeks.” I’ve never forgotten that.
So I’ll tell you guys what I told those kids.
First of all, mental illness does not make you weak. It took me a long time to realise this, but it takes an incredibly strong person to fight against their own brain.
I joke about being Anxiety Girl but there is an uncomfortable amount of truth there. I joke about a lot of things, it’s what I do. I am the loud, tacky, bright coloured one. It was an identity I chose for myself in high school after I came to the conclusion that I could hide away and be bullied or stop caring about what people thought of me. It was immensely liberating and helped me create life-long friends.
When you go from being the ‘out there’ one to a gibbering wreck however it’s a little hard to explain. I started showing OCD and anxiety type symptoms from a very young age but it wasn’t until I was in my teens that things really started flaring up. When I was at my worst I wasn’t eating or sleeping and could barely leave the house. I couldn’t stand up or sit down for more than a couple of minutes. I couldn’t stand having people physically near me, but I was terrified of being on my own. There was something affecting me physically but there was nothing that could be tangibly treated. It wasn’t a bug that needed antibiotics or a wound that could be healed.
None of it made sense. Bad things weren’t happening in my life, I had good friends and a loving supportive family, there were so many people out there so much worse off than I was. I had no right to be feeling this way.
I was the bright bubbly one so how could I possibly explain this black evil thing – these compulsions that made no sense. The anger and frustration at myself was visceral.
My parents took me to our GP and he put me in touch with the amazing 198 Youth Health Center in Christchurch (now 298 Youth Health) they in turn referred me to Youth Specialty Services – unfortunately based next to the mental hospital then known as Sunnyside – which was pretty frightening for a teen. (I used to tell people I had remedial Maths lessons when I had my appointments – they believed that, I was crap at Maths).
That’s where my recovery began. I fought against it for a while, but eventually a combination of counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and (I’m not ashamed to admit it) medication started to work for me.
One of the biggest helps was when a psychologist sat me down and drew a diagram of what was going on in my brain. She showed me how the chemicals in my brain were out of whack and how medication could help balance them up again. She said it was no different from a diabetic needing insulin to balance their blood sugar levels and that I had no reason to be ashamed.
Over the years I did go off and on the meds. Particularly in the 90s when a number of high-profile studies came out saying how terrible they were and that doctors were prescribing too much. When I went off them I would be fine for a while but then everything would come crashing back with reinforcements. This happened while I was at university but with the support of my family, friends and partner at the time I got back on the rails and passed with a double major. I now accept that happy pills are a part of my life and I am okay with that.
I have pretty much kicked the OCD symptoms now, but the anxiety still rears its ugly head on occasion. I am an A-grade worrier. If being terrified was an Olympic sport I could represent New Zealand.
The trick is to learn the difference between practical fear and completely pointless fear. For example, fear of falling off a boat in rough seas is sensible. It’s self-preservation and you can address it by making sure you are firmly attached to the boat by a safety harness and by not doing anything stupid. An absolute conviction that the boat is going to fall to pieces every time it makes a perfectly normal creak is not.
You may ask why then, if I am such a ball of neurosis, I would even consider getting on board a tin tub and sailing into the middle of the ocean? The answer is simple. I’m not going to let fear win.
I still get anxiety attacks from time to time, often in situations that people normally wouldn’t find stressful at all. Driving breaks me out in hives. I can do it, but I hate it. Put me in a high pressure work situation and I thrive, ask me to drive down the road and pick up a bottle of milk and I become a nervy, sweaty mess.
Funnily enough sailing doesn’t often do that to me. When things get a bit bumpy I may freak out a little but even then there’s a huge sense of accomplishment and pride when I get through it – and the beauty of a watch on a settled night with nothing but stars and ocean for company is incomparable.
I guess what I am trying to say is that mental illness may never completely go away but it doesn’t have to stop you living the life you want.
And for those of you who haven’t experienced this just remember, more people around you have than you think. And it’s the people you don’t expect – the zany ones, the bright ones, the people you respect and admire – it’s your boss, your doctor, your teacher, the fix-it person you go to when everything’s falling apart.
These people don’t need pity or sage advice, they just need to know that you know and you care and you don’t judge. You can’t fix them, but you can support them while they fix themselves.
As for Robin Williams – the amazing man who inspired this post – don’t focus on how he died, focus on how he lived and how he managed to touch so many people in his short time on this earth.
Dead Poet’s Society was one of the first films that truly inspired me, Mrs Doubtfire was one of my comfort films when I was feeling down. He’s been a fixture of my life through film and TV for as long as I can remember and the world is a better place for having had him in it.
Mental Health Foundation