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Whispering in a crowd

Tuesday 25th March 2014

“When I’m having [a depressive episode], it feels like I will never be happy again. It feels like everything in the world is a weight pressing down on me. My self-esteem evaporates and I hate everything about myself, and my brain tells me that nobody could possibly value anything about me... Tiny tasks that, at normal times, are so insignificant that you don’t even notice them, become barriers that are virtually impenetrable. Getting out of bed. Showering. Eating. Talking. Let alone making a phone call to a doctor, getting to an appointment and explaining this. I feel like there is no hope.” We speak to four young New Zealanders who suffer from mental illness.

This piece includes frank discussion of suicide. If you, or someone you know is struggling, help is available.

Anna*, 27, suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which comes with anxiety and depression. She monitors her anxiety levels at all times. That means watching for potential stressors that may increase her anxiety, and carefully planning her schedule to avoid combining too many situations that may exacerbate it. “My PTSD is triggered by things that many people view as day-to-day activities. The smallest thing might set off a chain reaction that results in a severe panic attack. At the same time, I try not to let it rule my life, which means risking exposure to triggers on a daily basis.”

Anna’s depression comes and goes. “Sometimes I’ll be fine for weeks, or even months, before slipping back into it. This is usually accompanied by insomnia, and exacerbates my anxiety disorder as well. The uncertainty caused by the unpredictable cycle makes me worry about planning events too far in advance. I worry about letting people down and wasting money.”

I end up screaming and crying with frustration and usually just have to let things run their course, which is upsetting for me and those around me

Katy*, 31, also worries about turning down social and work commitments. Medication keeps her post-natal depression stable, but she often finds herself in low moods. “I can get through the majority of those with rest, meditative activities like knitting or walking, and calm quiet time by myself. The main effect on my life is a lack of resilience – small upsets or even just tiredness can magnify and echo easily, so I have to be careful about the commitments I make.

In Katy’s worst episodes, her brain drowns out rational thoughts with a storm of “noise” – a snarl of despair, anxiety and paranoia. She likens it to trying to whisper in a shouting crowd. “I end up screaming and crying with frustration and usually just have to let things run their course, which is upsetting for me and those around me.”

Grace*, 28, suffers from depression, as well as bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. “Certainly in my early twenties, I was particularly bad at taking my medication, because you feel like I’m on top of the world’... and then six months later it’s like ‘Oh, I should have been taking those drugs that entire time’. So it has been a long road.”

When she doesn’t take her medication, or it stops working, she swings between reckless, manic highs, and suicidal lows. Her bed is both a haven and a prison. “You’re lying in bed, and that is the safe place, and you don’t really feel anything, you’re just kind of numb,” she says. “It’s not that you want to kill yourself it’s that you just don’t want to be there anymore. And staying in bed is a really good way to do that. It distances yourself from the world.” At other times, she stays in bed, because she’d terrified that if she gets out of bed, she’ll hurt herself.

“I think actually it’s far more terrifying for those around me,” she says. “I just think, ‘why wouldn’t you stay in bed where it’s warm and safe?’”

Te Rangatahi Taniora, 27, grew up in the Bay of Plenty, with a father who was a gang member. His mother sent him to Australia when he was 16 to get him away from the gang he idolised, and from drugs and alcohol. He’s still there now.

It’s just really dark stuff… no one would want to help me. If I told them my story they’d be scared, they’d never talk to me again’

“Unfortunately when I came over here, I was even more unsettled than I was over there.” He was isolated and lonely, got into drugs and alcohol, and was homeless for several years. “While I was on the streets, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about how bad I had it, or how shit life was, I was too busy getting drunk and high…I found comfort in the homeless kids I was with.”

Depression overwhelmed every sense, emotionally and physically. “And that’s when you turn to drugs,” he says. “I had a lot of support around me, but I honestly was thinking that they were only doing it because that was their job. Or ‘this person doesn’t love me’. It’s just really dark stuff…’no one would want to help me. If I told them my story they’d be scared, they’d never talk to me again’.”

Te Rangatahi Taniora is now clean – after hitting “a few rock bottoms” – and works with kids in the same familiar situation he used to be in. He credits his own children with being able to turn his life around. “Me getting better is paramount, because if I don’t get better, they’ll have no father.”

When Katy was initially diagnosed with post-natal depression she was supported by her midwife. “She recognised that what I was going through was not normal well before I did, and helped me make the connections to get ongoing care after my time with her ended. I am now under care of a GP, and I feel very fortunate that we have found a medication that works very well for me with minimal side effects.” And she adds, it’s subsidised, so she can afford it.

She found her brief interaction with a Community Mental Health team stressful in itself and was relieved when they decided they didn’t need an active relationship any longer. “I think they were geared up to deal with more acute (or at least different) situations than me and didn't have any less rigorous strategies available. For example, once I asked if instead of calling me every day I could call them if I felt I had a problem and they said ‘oh no, that would be counselling, we don't do that’.”

 If you’ve never hyperventilated at the same time as bawling, I can tell you that there are times when you feel like you might not get enough oxygen to keep breathing.

Grace says the system terrifies her. “I know the system, I am reasonably intelligent, and I know what I need [but] it terrifies me … I come from an incredibly supportive background, an aunt who is a nurse, amazing friends who understand mental health, and I still struggle.”

When she was struggling late last year, Anna sought help, and found the system difficult to cope with. “You shouldn’t need to be on the verge of killing yourself before you’re able to access help through our public health sector. Psychologist appointments are incredibly expensive.”

For Anna, the telephone calls and appointments with new doctors every time are stressful, and exacerbate her anxiety. The first sign of a panic attack is her stomach and chest feeling tight. “Everything around me starts to feel overwhelming; it’s too loud and too bright”, she says. “As it escalates, I start crying uncontrollably.

“This is not pretty-crying or gentle weeping. This is uncontrollable, overwhelming ugly-crying, complete with nose-running. My breathing gets more and more shallow until I’m hyperventilating. If you’ve never hyperventilated at the same time as bawling, I can tell you that there are times when you feel like you might not get enough oxygen to keep breathing. My whole body shakes as adrenaline fills it.”

“I have private health insurance, and there’s virtually no plans which cover more than a few hundred dollars of treatment each year; an amount that is woefully inadequate for someone in need. Rather than intervening early to try and prevent escalation, we prefer to wait until it’s almost too late. Sometimes, it is too late.”

Cover image: Flickr user Sander van der Wel

If you need to talk to someone about your own mental health, try these helplines. If it is an emergency, call 111.

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Healthline - 0800 611 116
Samaritans - 0800 726 666 (for callers from the Lower North Island, Christchurch and West Coast) or 0800 211 211 / (04) 473 9739 (for callers from all other regions)
Suicide Crisis Helpline (aimed at those in distress, or those who are concerned about the wellbeing of someone else) - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline - 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email