|Publisher:||Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited|
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A Better Life
How our Darkest Moments can be our Greatest Gift
By Craig Hamilton, Will Swanton
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Craig Hamilton and Will Swanton
All rights reserved.
Depression. Let me tell you about the real deal. Wrap every heartache and sadness of your life into a clenched fist of black cloud and that's what it feels like when the darkness moves in. Depression has been completely debilitating on every level of my being. There's been the total and utter lethargy; the extreme negative thoughts that have made me embrace the notion of the darkest possible night of the human soul — suicide. There really have been times when death has seemed like the only way out. It's just sheer suffering — that's the best way I can describe depression. It's a suffering so acute that, even though I've always tried to live life to the fullest, even though I love life, ending it has felt like the only way to ease the pain.
I have great empathy for people who try to take their own lives. I didn't want to but it just felt like the only reasonable option: the only route to get away. I can't think straight when I'm depressed. I can't eat. I can barely stand the thought of seeing another person, even those I adore. I don't want to drag everyone else down. I don't want to be a burden.
My wife, Louise, is a wonderful woman.We have three children I would take a bullet for: Josh, twenty; Amy, eighteen; and Laura, fourteen. But when I'm strangled by depression, there's just no respite and not even the thought of my family can snap me out of it. The cloud is just so thick that there is no sign of sunshine, anywhere. All I want to do is escape. I have to get away.
Thankfully, this state does not last forever. It is transient and I know it will pass. That's solace during these periods. If you have experienced severe depression, you already know what I'm talking about. It's a living hell: I cannot get better, I cannot get better; I don't know why but I cannot get better. It's not as if I have three or four hours of feeling poorly but then the rest of my day is manageable. The gloom is overwhelming and complete.
If you're depressed right now, you need help from anywhere you can get it.
When I'm in deep, when the low is so all-consuming it feels like a knife is digging into the very core of my soul, the feeling lasts more than days or weeks. It goes on for months. My longest depression has hung around for nine months. It's torturous. I push and strain with all my might but the boulder refuses to shift. I know suicide would destroy my family and friends. I know it can impact on an entire community. But when a depression is in full swing, suicidal thoughts are as persistent as they are uninvited.
Why am I telling you this? Why don't I take these stories to my grave? Because I don't want to be silent. I want something good to come from my struggles. And if you're depressed right now, you need help from anywhere you can get it. Silence is cowardly and prevents the sharing of knowledge. Insufficient knowledge kills people, families and relationships. I am not prepared to sit on my hands and let that happen. I know how easily a mental illness can strike the unlikeliest suspects but most importantly of all, and here's the moral to the story, I know how it can be overcome. I know what's on the other side of every rough patch: good times, the natural highs of contentment and wellbeing — the best kinds of highs. In my experience, the good times outweigh the bad by ten to one. That's a good ratio. That's a full life. If I can help educate people about the realities of mental illness by sharing my knowledge, I will always endeavour to be truthful, even brutally so. If anyone out there is prepared to listen, I will always talk.
Abraham Lincoln said this nearly 200 years ago and it's as true now as it's ever been: 'The probability that we may fall in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.' I think it's important to try to make a difference, big or small, noticed or unnoticed, successful or not. I want to increase understanding of mental illness. That's my lot in life. That's my mission statement. If there is one sentence in this book, one word that improves awareness or the quality of someone's life, I will have succeeded in spectacular fashion. I want my story to be thrown into the pot of knowledge. I want people to be armed with enough information to recognise traits, symptoms and behavioural patterns in those they're working with, sharing relationships with, raising families with; people they've grown up with, been friends with. I want to help them intervene before it's too late. Everything I have come to know about depression, mania, bipolar and chemical imbalances will be relayed in these pages.
'You must be the change you wish to see in the world.'
There is always the temptation to keep my travails private, put them in a vault for all time and make Louise promise to never tell a soul. Perhaps it would be better for my family if I concentrated solely on getting through another morning, another afternoon, another night. If I concentrated on no-one but myself. We've had a number of meetings, believe me, to thrash out whether this should remain a private or public crusade. We've decided, together, to tell the truth, and hope we can make a positive contribution to the debate. I feel no embarrassment whatsoever. Louise has misgivings, of course. She's very protective of the kids and so am I. They're the number one consideration, but they're old enough to understand the issue now and they've given me their consent.
They were babies when I was diagnosed. Now they're teenagers. They've grown up with me being like this. They haven't vetoed any part of my journey and I thank them wholeheartedly for that. Louise went through the manuscript and sections of it definitely made her emotional. She shed a tear while putting together her own chapter. However, it should be noted that she still cries at the end of An Officer and a Gentlemen and Pretty Woman.
There are bad memories in here that I'm sure she would rather forget instead of having me tell the world. This is serious stuff. I know I'm not exactly the textbook husband; I'm not even the same man she married. Louise didn't grow up hoping she would find a handsome prince who would end up in a psychiatric hospital with a lifelong affliction. But Louise knows what I'm trying to do here, even if it makes her roll her eyes. She supports me 100 per cent. Well, 99 per cent: she worries that publishing a book will lead to another episode; she frets about me being more concerned with everyone else's welfare than my own. But you wouldn't be reading any of this without her selfless consent, either. A weight has been lifted from my shoulders by telling the truth. Opening up is the ultimate liberation.
I am a better husband with bipolar disorder than I was without. I am a better man. People say the bravest thing I ever did was go public. To do speaking engagements to rooms full of strangers, to write books, to be an ambassador for beyondblue, to talk about mental health on the radio. I disagree. The bravest thing I ever did — the bravest thing I am still doing — is living through it in the first place. The talking part is easy. I'm telling the truth, so what's there to be worried about? Hiding would be harder. I say 'I'm living through it' in the present tense because this is an ongoing and never-ending battle. Every day is somewhere between a challenge and the fight of my life. It's taken me twelve years to feel that my plan of attack is right. Hopefully I can help you avoid it taking so long!
Stuff the stigma: mental illness must be confronted instead of whispered about. There should be no shame in it. Thankfully, the stigma is fading: organisations such as beyondblue, SANE Australia and the Black Dog Institute in Sydney do tremendous work. High-profile people such as Andrew Johns and Wally Lewis have made an enormous difference by revealing their own battles — but there's still a way to go. The lack of understanding lingers.
Mental illness must be confronted instead of whispered about.
There's still a desire to sweep it away like a dirty secret and I'm not prepared to let that happen. I understand the unease because I used to feel it myself. I never wanted to know about any of this either, mental illness was creepy and dangerous — until it was forced upon me. Pre-bipolar, when compassion was not exactly an emotion I was overly familiar with, if someone told me they were depressed, I told them to get over themselves and man up. Stop being such a bloody sook. How wrong I was, how naive and stupid.
Perhaps I was so ignorant and uncaring that actually getting bipolar disorder was the only way to have some sense knocked into me. If that's the case, I've been given my comeuppance. I have learned my lesson, good and proper. I have been shown in no uncertain terms that physically, emotionally and spiritually, clinical depression is possibly the most painful experience a human being can have — but I've also learned it is temporary.
In the twelfth century BC, Persian poets wrote about a king who asked his men to create a ring that would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy, to remind him of the temporary nature of all emotions. The sages handed him a ring with the following words written on it: 'This too will pass.' Those with a mental illness can do more than persevere. We can prosper. Depression, too, will pass. I must have repeated that to myself a million times. This too will pass.CHAPTER 2
Blessings from the fallout
There had to be a consequence for living the way I did. You can't exist with my kind of innate restlessness without a collapse. I used to look for answers to my anxieties in all the wrong places: material possessions, career achievements, the opinions of others. I was barking up three wrong trees. My diagnosis was not the start of a slide into oblivion; rather, it was the start of everything coming good.
Without a word of a lie, hand on heart, despite the road I'm travelling on having potholes the size of the outback, I am happier with bipolar than I was without it. I'm a more complete human being. I'm a more understanding and compassionate human being. Initially, undoubtedly, being diagnosed with mental illness made me think I'd been dealt a dud hand, but I'm here to tell you that ace–king isn't the only way to win a game of 21. There will be no descent into sentimentality here, but I can honestly say that outside marrying Louise and the three miracles of Josh, Laura and Amy, mental illness is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.
My diagnosis was not the start of a slide into oblivion; rather, it was the start of everything coming good.
It's forged layers of self-awareness I would never have experienced otherwise. Introspection is now performed with an attention to detail previously reserved for analyses of the outside world. Not that it's all plain sailing. Shortly before getting started on this book, despite more than a decade of self-maintenance and knowledge-gathering, I was still swallowed by depression.
Only through expert and heartfelt care, a tweaking of my prescribed medicines and — another shock, horror — the influence of alternative therapies I used to dismiss as hocus-pocus, did I return to balance. That three-month swirling cloud of depression is still fresh in my mind, but I feel stronger for having survived another storm, and I've since gone more than a year feeling better than I ever have.
'There are two great days in a person's life — the day we are born and the day we discover why.'
Every fight toughens me up, gives me another layer of insight into the enemy, adds to my own bulging files of information. I've done more than 300 public presentations on the topic of mental health in the last six years, all of them relating to the hardships I've encountered but also, importantly, to the triumphs. These public engagements have been the most rewarding work experiences of my life. Don't get me wrong, I love ABC Radio. I feel privileged to be working for it and the support from the organisation has been unstinting when it comes to my mental health advocacy. But my public speaking comes from my heart. I've spoken in every state except Western Australia. I've been to Darwin, Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane. I've been to little places like Cloncurry and Muttaburra in Queensland and Condobolin in central NSW; from big cities to small communities hit by serious psychological problems. Rural life is tough and unforgiving and whole livelihoods can hang on something as fickle as the weather.
Depression is skyrocketing. There are droughts in some areas, floods in others. The tales are harrowing once you seek them out. Stress and worry are sticks of dynamite to mental illnesses that otherwise might never emerge in a lifetime. In every town, I tell my story as faithfully and truthfully as I can, take questions and afterwards talk to anyone who's up for a chat. The depth and breadth of mental health issues is as vast and diverse as the country itself. Hopefully it's good for people to hear my tale. I know it's good for me. When I've been down in the dumps or depressed myself, I've found that concentrating on someone else's woes has been a fantastic tonic. I'm trying hard to replace selfishness with selflessness. Helping: it's just terrific therapy. I end up forgetting what was bothering me in the first place.
The ripple effect is what I cherish: when a knowledgeable word touches someone I wouldn't have expected to be touched, or didn't even know existed. I give my spiel in a public forum, relate my own experiences, make sure everyone understands I'm ashamed of none of it, throw in my twenty cents worth and see where the ripples wash up. One day when I was talking about depression on Newcastle radio, a guy rang the studio and said, 'I feel like you're talking about me. I've had all those symptoms for the last three years. I've been suicidal four or five times.' I told him to hold the line so I could talk to him after the show. I wanted to help him; I wanted to know more. He'd made a big step just by picking up the phone.
Talking to him off air would have been perfect. But he said no, he couldn't do it — and hung up. That was terrible, hearing the line go dead. I felt ill. The following night, I had another speaking engagement in Newcastle. Afterwards, a girl of about fifteen or sixteen came up to the stage. She'd been crying and said she wanted to say thanks: the man who called the radio station the night before was her father. That's the ripple effect. That's why I will keep grabbing as many microphones as I can get my hands on.CHAPTER 3
Daring to open up
My first public talk was at a local school. Will you come? We've got some kids here with depression. Can you help? That's how it began. Very basic. I spoke for twenty minutes to a class of thirty kids. It went well and an invitation arrived to speak at a Catholic high school. That was a step up. I expected a much tougher crowd, given the ages of the students to be herded into the hall: Years 9, 10 and 11, mid-teens, not always the most attentive lot when a stranger is talking about this kind of issue. They gave me their full attention. The moment I saw the fascination on their faces I was shocked. They sat and listened to every single word. It was almost eerily quiet. That's when I realised I was on to something important. When someone like me can stand in front of a Year 11 class and they're not clockwatching or staring at their feet or sniggering and mucking up; when I could actually engage them and see the recognition in their eyes, I knew something significant was happening. I was thrilled my talk had gone down so well. At the very least, I liked the thought that some of these kids would leave the hall with more information than they had when they arrived.
But then a couple of them approached me — privately, a bit tentatively — when all their friends had left, to say their mum or dad was depressed and they wanted advice on how to help. The irony was obvious: they were in school, in the very place that should be teaching them life skills, but until then they had known nothing about such a large and real issue. Generations of Australians have entered adulthood clueless about it.
I'm glad to report that's changing. Openness is crucial. The bigger the support network, the better for all of us. I am hopeless at many things, believe me. Changing a light bulb is the upper limit of my practical prowess. I have broken more things at home than I have fixed, but I do know how to communicate. I know what I'm talking about when I get up and take the microphone on this subject. When someone tells me they're depressed, I know exactly how they feel. You've been suicidal? Me too. You're losing hope? Don't!
Writing this, I have nothing but positive thoughts. Perhaps this is therapy for me, too: 'The best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it,' says Benjamin Disraeli. The dark times are only mentioned to contrast the brightness on the other side. I can see the relief on the faces of the people I talk to; the relief that someone knows where they're coming from. Old or young, rich or poor — depression can hit anyone. I act normally. I talk normally. I am normal. And if I can get through depression, you can too. I can see the shame and embarrassment washing off people when they realise they're not the only ones. There should be no shame attached to any of this, except perhaps among those who turn their backs on it.
Excerpted from A Better Life by Craig Hamilton, Will Swanton. Copyright © 2012 Craig Hamilton and Will Swanton. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword — Professor Patrick,
1 The truth,
2 Blessings from the fallout,
3 Daring to open up,
When you just can't sleep,
4 The manila folder,
5 Meeting David Mackenzie,
Naked in Sydney,
7 The Yogi and his message,
8 Finding balance,
9 Close your eyes and relax,
10 What next?,
11 Hands off! The power of reiki,
12 Discovering Philip Yancey,
13 Dark nights of the soul,
14 Show some respect,
15 Hang on to your dreams,
16 Medication — a vital part of the jigsaw,
A painful dose of reality,
17 When blokedom doesn't help,
18 Changing the status quo,
19 Take care you don't drown in self-pity,
20 Authenticity takes you places,
21 What works for Wally Lewis,
22 Mark Gable's fable,
23 How Garry McDonald takes the edge off his anxiety,
24 Jessica Rowe — a real inspiration,
25 The thing about alcohol,
26 Don't define yourself by your condition,
Back to hospital,
27 Why support at work is critical,
The Black Dog comes back,
28 Nine and a half kilometres,
29 The miracle of yoga,
30 Learning to chill,
31 Emotional freedom technique (EFT),
32 No, not the needles!,
33 (Anti)social media,
34 Confessions of the preacher,
The Lakeside Hilton,
35 Finding your way out,
36 The emotional cost of mental illness,
37 Soul mates,
38 Louise's take on things,
39 Vivid lifetime memories,
40 My doc lends his perspective,
41 The eleven commandments,
Afterword from a friend — Barry Smith,
Top shelf: The books that changed me,