Thursday, March 19, 2015

I Ain't Afraid Of No Ghost

Well, maybe just a bit ...
(Trigger alert)

I love dogs, so I'm not a fan of that saying that depression is like 'the black dog'.

Therefore, I don’t talk about 'kicking the black dog' like other depression-slayers do. Instead I relate mental illness to climbing out of the bottom of a very deep, dark tunnel. Or being swallowed by a thick heavy fog that just won’t lift, no matter how far you travel or try to run away.

We had a real black dog for a year. We loved that creature. No way it was getting kicked anywhere, even out of bed! 

To me, depression is like a nasty ghost. It’s always lurking in the background, and you never know when it’s going to show up and scare the life out of you. Literally.

You shower, dress in something nice, do your hair and make-up. But when you look in the mirror, you see someone or something standing behind you. The most horrific face you’ve seen in your life. The being which is there in your nightmares, but who also haunts your waking hours. And whose thoughts and intentions are far worse than those of any character ever dreamt up for novels or the silver screen.

I now know I’ve had depression on and off for most of my life, but I’ve blinked and ignored The Ghost and made It go away. For disappointingly short, but wonderful, periods of time, I’ve even been happy.

When I was younger I didn’t want to know about The Ghost. I was, I thought, young, clever and vibrant. I wasn’t the type of person who got depressed!

During some of my extensive travelling days. Even then I was experiencing crippling depression. Looking back, I wonder how much of my wanderlust has been about running away from depression and about Mindfulness, and living in the moment. You can't be nearly as depressed when you are breathing new air, enjoying enticing food and drinks, meeting new people, speaking other languages, and experiencing different lifestyles. But The Ghost is always there, lurking in the background.

When my first marriage broke up when I was 30, I tried all the usual things I did to beat my depression – exercise, yoga, work, travel, keeping busy. I even dated. (Well, that part was new, since I'd been with the same man for 10 years!) When all that didn’t work, I asked my GP for help.

 After my first marriage break-up, but my condition was under control and I was happy and doing well in my career. It was my friend on the left's 21st birthday. I was 31 I think. I'm in the middle! 

The GP prescribed anti-depressants and I also did counselling and hypnotherapy. I leant on my family and friends. Yoga was a lifesaver. After about a year I was off the pills and feeling good again.

But I never admitted that I’d been depressed. Of course, I’d been sad and confused for a while after my marriage break-up, but we left it at that. Life went on, I remarried, and for a while, things were good.

The Ghost appeared again a few months after I gave birth to my lovely son Chase. It was then diagnosed as postnatal depression, and later we realized I’d had prenatal depression as well. And Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, thyroid problems. ankylosing spondylitis, fibryomyalgia, insomnia, parasomnia, and many other physical conditions which contribute to depression and anxiety.

I hesitantly mentioned to people that time that I was depressed and was told: ‘What have you got to be depressed about? You’ve got a beautiful baby. You’ve got nothing to be sad about!’

So I learned to say nothing.

My condition was managed, but came back as prenatal depression when I was pregnant with beautiful Harmonie, now 12.

When you’re pregnant, everyone expects you to be glowing and happy. Could you imagine saying you’re unhappy, and admitting that you cry yourself to sleep every night? I was happy about having another baby, but I was just so inexplicably sad. And I had terrible morning, noon, and night sickness; hormonal headaches; and was just so tired. Again, I kept quiet about it.

Not to mention I was working full time, and even had to make work phone calls on the way to the hospital, at the hospital, and finish writing a story on the day I returned home with my beautiful baby. That certainly didn't help.

Pre and postnatal depression doesn’t mean you don't love your kids or that you want to harm them. (That's another, more serious condition). It’s yourself you can’t love or accept. YOU are the one who is never good enough.

In fact, you worry about your children even more. That’s part of the anxiety coming in. You worry every minute you leave them, that something will happen to them, particularly if you leave them, even for a medical appointment or work.

One of my first jobs after having Chase was hanging out on a movie set with stars all day, at Warner Bros. Movie World on the Gold Coast. I watched scenes being filmed, the stars reviewing the rushes, joked with a few of them, and joined a small panel of interviewers. 

The most stressful part was that the schedule ran extremely late. Perfectly normal, but as a new Mum, I hadn't taken into account that the fact that the milk would come in at the usual time anyway, even though I'd left plenty of expressed breast mik at home. So my boobs got very full, leaky, and painful and I ended up ending up having to 'milk' myself in the ladies room. I'll never forget the horrified look on a young publicist's face as she walked in on the scene halfway through the afternoon. Some of the male crew however, were very impressed with my temporarily enhanced assets.

But I digress.

“Weren’t you nervous?” non-writer friends asked.

Not at all. I knew what I was doing as a journo, interviewer and writer. I wasn’t so sure when it came to being a new mother. But bless him, my son taught me how to parent him. And his sister added to my skills after that. Work, it seems, has always been good for my condition. As has parenting. Once I got over the initial fear that I wasn't good enough. 

Again, my condition was managed. Medication was adjusted, viewed as safe for my breastfeeding baby. Counseling was given and I improved. Endorphins kicked in when Harmonie was born and I was really happy, until my second marriage hit the skids.

And make no mistake; I love my kids so much. None of this is their fault, and if I had to make a choice between having depression and NOT having children, I would choose them. Every single time.

As I wrote earlier, the depression and anxiety was always there anyway. It's not as if having kids caused it.

I was hospitalised as a kid for unknown reasons during time of family stress, but it was whispered that "she's a worrier". Back then, there were no child psychologists and no counselling was given.

Bad Things happened during my early and later years that I've only started to talk about in confidence with my team. There were times when I'd make appointments with specialists when I was in my 20s, and then cancel at the last moment. And then push the memories and triggers back into the archives. But I've learnt, they never go away. They just come back to bite you on the arse even harder.

As I found out during my years of therapy, for reasons way more complicated to go into here, I am what is known as a People Pleaser. A Highly Sensitive Person. A Perfectionist.

I would avoid confrontation and let people do bad things to me because I thought I had to do that to be loved. I have made bad choices in my relationships as a result. I am learning not to do this and to be more assertive, but old habits die hard. And because people are used to me lying down and accepting whatever crap they throw at me, my being assertive is interpreted as being aggressive. (What? But she also does what she's told ...) 

During the early years of my treatment, I never once put my hand up and admitted to suffering depression and anxiety to anyone but my GP, psychiatrist and my now ex-husbands. It was a Very Big Secret, and my exes still don't know the extent of what I've been through in the past. There have been things that I've hidden from myself that have taken me years to share.

Even though the academic, rational part of me knew these things were nothing to be ashamed of, the perfectionist in me felt like I had somehow failed; that I was ‘broken’. I felt people would judge me, even family.

I didn't want to bother my friends and family. Still don't. They had/have relationships, careers and/or kids. Some were/are recovering from cancer, injuries, with sick kids, or relationship woes of their own. I did not feel like depression compared to their issues.

As a journalist, health writer, and author, I felt my career could be harmed if I owned up to being depressed. If anything I worked harder. So I juggled mothering, being a wife and writer; trying to prove I could do it all. Al I was doing was wearing myself out and leaving no time at all for ‘me’. And unknowingly, getting more depressed in the process.

My second book Happily Ever Parted on the shelves next to one of my former Professor Mark Pearson's many best-sellers Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued.  A proud moment indeed. Photo: Nereda Fernandez

I plastered on a fake smile, pretending everything was normal. I’d do the school run and joke with other parents, help out at my children’s’ classes, make terrible birthday cakes (but they tasted nice), interview celebrities and experts, write well-received articles, and all the while feel increasingly empty.

I found myself crying at weird times – in the car on the way to meetings, at the shops, reading the newspaper, during clich├ęd toilet paper commercials. Then I’d wipe my tears, put the smile on, and act like nothing had happened.

As a journalist I regularly interviewed wonderful, amazing, high-achieving people I admired,  who admitted to struggles with depression, anxiety, bipolar, and/or mental health issues.

Yet I would never admit to suffering too. Even though I related to everything they said. Thankfully, this irrational fear ended, and I talk quite freely about it. Some of them have become very dear friends and supporters. They are among Australia's highest achievers, but I won't name them, because although many also talk about it publicly, they are their stories to tell, not mine. 

When my second marriage ended, I was voluntarily hospitalized for what was formally diagnosed as a ‘major depressive disorder’. In the old days it was called a nervous breakdown. I was also diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

It was the most difficult time of my life, up until then. The worst part was being separated from my children and being forced to examine my life and come to terms with my mental health issues. It was also probably the best thing I have ever done for myself.

I spent more than a month in that hospital, seeing psychologists, the psychiatrist I still see now, and doing group therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, Mindfulness, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Positive Psychology, CBT, meditation, the lot.

The worst part was discovering I had not just one Ghost to banish, but several.  And some had been constant companions since childhood.

I still continue to see a psychiatrist, psychologist, and study all the therapies. I’ve completed several outpatient courses in Mindfulness as well as women’s issues and parenting courses, assertiveness, and relaxation/meditation skills, which have worked wonders.

I’ve learned so much about myself, and in the process I’ve finally accepted that depression, anxiety and any other mental health illness are illnesses just like any others.

If you have a heart or lung condition, or diabetes or a broken leg, you see a professional to have it treated. The same with mental health issues. So why the big deal?

They can be managed and treated, which is where I was at for several years.

I had never been so in touch with myself, or aware of my moods and my feelings. Even when I felt low, I knew what to do to feel better, and no matter what happened, I could find joy in every day. Even the crappiest ones. It could be as small as a laugh with the kids, a snuggle with my dog, a decent cup of coffee, a good gym class, a beautiful sunrise.

When I went into hospital for the first time, I was forced to admit to family and friends that I was not okay. And they were wonderful.

Many of them had suspected that something was not right, but were not sure how to approach me.

My friends too, have been amazing. Many have gone above and beyond the call of duty, checking on me, getting me out of the house, making sure I’m looking after myself. Dragging me out for walks, feeding me, even though I don’t want to go out or eat, let alone be social. Allowing me to sob all over their very strong shoulders; and roam their hallways in the middle of the night. Looking after and taking in my pets when I'm in hospital, to the extent of letting them sleep with them!

I had a few people step backwards slowly – perhaps they thought depression was catching – but most people are really interested.

Quite a few asked questions before shyly admitting that either they have it too, or someone they love is depressed, or bipolar, or anxious or suicidal and they do not know how to help.

My psychiatrist suggested I write throughout my recovery as therapy and I often posted on my personal blog ( about my journey to happiness.

Indeed, journalling is a big part of some recovery treatments, and I did it long-hand first time around. A big ask for a writer used to typing at a bazillion miles an hour. Now I find it easier to type because my fingers can keep up with my thoughts. Also, if I want to go back later and read where I was at a particular stage, I can actually read what I was thinking! 

I stopped blogging about depression and anxiety a few years ago when I began getting trolled. It didn’t bother me personally – in fact it spurred me on. But when the trolls went after my followers, good people they did not even know, I felt I had to censor the comments for the very first time, and put an end to the posts.

However, often the posts about mental health were the most well-received and commented on, and I've decided to start again. Of course, I'll still be writing about travel, life, writing, authors, stuff that shits me, and whatever the hell else takes my fancy. But in my pursuit of happiness, depression - and my recovery from it - is part of all that. And I'm not staying silent any longer. 

I’ve certainly found blogging about my pursuit of happiness healing, and I find it rewarding to help others through their own journeys. I’ve organised a few things like the inaugural  RUOK day in Brisbane, and been an Australian ambassador for International Domestic Violence Day. (Funny – one of the trolls and his family assumed I was writing about him, when I was writing about someone else entirely. Guilty conscience perhaps?)

I do a lot of voluntary writing for mental health charities which don’t get a lot of funding, and I’m passionate about the lack of resources and training in Australia for people who need help – especially in remote and rural areas, where the needs are highest.

I’m amazed how many people suffer in silence, who feel unable to speak out lest others judge them. And I admit, when I am depressed, I still find it nearly impossible to ask for help. It’s extremely hard, especially as an adult, to admit: ‘I’m not okay’. Especially when you are barely able to speak, let alone hold a conversation. (And I can't tell you how many times that has been held against me. I am now not even allowed to speak to my children in case I cry. Rather than be allowed to reassure them that I am fine. And I am okay. Now.)

Some days, it’s a major effort just to get out of bed and have a shower.  Sometimes, it’s easy to get caught up in the worthlessness, particularly in the middle of the night, when you think there is no one you can call, when it’s so easy to step over the edge. And I'm talking in general here. Not about me Right Now. Read my lips: I am not suicidal. I am perfectly safe. If I were suicidal, I would contact my psychiatrist, psych. nurses, counsellor or GP, whoever answered first. Always have done. And at the time of writing this post, I am in a hospital, a proper psychiatric one. So I'm safe. 

I would like to point out that to be blamed and hated and to told you are selfish and deserve what you get if you’ve been driven to the despair of considering taking your life, is one of the reasons that people feel ashamed and remain silent. It can also be what drives people over the edge. Sorry, but it's the truth. Mentally ill people don’t choose to be that way.

I choose happiness. I always have. I live for those fleeting moments of joy that flit into my life. No one would ever want to feel the way that depression makes them feel.

I regularly ask my psychiatrist for a magic pill for a cure, but he hasn't found one yet. Instead, I take what I am prescribed, and do my therapies. The meds have their benefits, but I find the side effects disgusting. They include weight gain, confusion, irritation, extreme fatigue, allergies, gastric problems,  dental problems, weird mouth movements, and even sexual problems. (Thank God, I don't get all of them!) But, apparently, they do the job. So I take them. Or have until recently. (But wait, there is more - please don't stop taking your meds without tapering off on medical supervision). 

There is still so much shame and stigma attached, and so many people and organisations still try to use mental health against those with it – even though it is discriminatory.

My own advice is, if you are suffering, reach out for help. You would be amazed how many people are there for you who will help if only you let them. GPs are great, if you have a good one. Beyond Blue can be wonderful. Local drop-in centres are usually fantastic. And the people who help you the most, are often the last people who expected to give a damn. And that’s a beautiful thing, which makes up for every troll and misinformed comment in the world.

Overweight after one of my hospital treatments, but rediscovering my inner child with former school friends in Thailand, whose cheer-up activities included shopping for willie whistles. Which I then had to declare when I returned to Australia. Laughed more than I had in ages, and did me the world of good. Way better than any pill.

And yet ...

Recent events in my life, caused my depression and anxiety to spiral out of control for the first time in years. I cannot go into the reasons here, but many of my regular social media followers and real-life friends will be aware of my struggles.

Feeling good last year after taking my kids to Darwin to see their Dad. My condition was being managed, and my career was going well. But it was all torn apart months later, by events I cannot go into here. Hence the new and additional diagnosis: Situational or Reactive Depression 

I voluntarily sought help, and after much research and discussion with two psychiatrists and my team of carers, I chose, under medical advice,  to come off one of the major drugs I’ve been on for the past two years or so, cymbalta (duoloxetine). 

I’m no wimp – I came off effexor-xr before – and that was even worse. Both withdrawals were hellish experiences. Though both drugs worked when I first took them, they lost their efficacy after a few years - and higher doses. Extra meds were added into the mix, but the side-effects were not worth the perceived benefits. For me.

For me, exercise, meditation, yoga, mindfulness and counselling were working better than the pills, and with the blessing of my psychiatrist, I came off the cymbalta. Previously, I came off effexor because it stopped working and I also needed to go on medication for debilitating migraines, which I was unable to take whilst on effexor. It may have been coincidental, but weight dropped off, and my blood pressure came down once the effexor was out of my system. My migraines became less debilitating and frequent as well.

Coming off the meds has been compared to coming off hard drugs like meth, cocaine, heroin – not that this fact makes it a badge of honour. But it’s damn hard. 

Weeks since I touched my last tiny dose of cymbalta, I am still experiencing excruciating pain, brain zaps, electric shocks, migraine and back ache, gastrointenstinal bugs, hot and cold sweats, flu-like symptoms, irritability (sorry), and more. Oh and the latest - hypersexuality. God help me. Probably just as well I am in hospital right now, or no one would be safe. Regardless of gender. 

The hospital I’ve been admitted to many times in the past 5-6 years is great, with amazing staff, and has pioneered many ground-breaking therapies in Australia. But I have done so many courses there and group therapies that I could pretty much teach those classes myself. I know what I need to do: It’s putting it into practise that is the challenge.

My other problem is that although my clinical depression has been controlled with medication, psychotherapy, counselling and exercise for some time, the reason I’m ill again is situational. (IE. People treating me like shit, and cutting off contact with my children). And no amount of medication is going to fix that – although it might banish The Ghost while I deal with my challenges.

I’ve always been quite a holistic person, and I’m becoming more so as I age and the more I research, the more convinced I become of this. Why continue to put good food and drink into my body, get adequate sunlight and exercise, meditate, practise gratitude, for example, if for now, extra drugs aren’t what my brain and body needs?  So I’m looking into the whole thing. 

I have recently voluntarily admitted myself to a different hospital which includes exercise, music, diversional therapy, diet, nutrition, being in nature, and more. And of course, the right medication for specific conditions. Or I may go back to see my former psych., who I know has my best interests at heart. It's a one day at a time thing at the moment. 

My writer’s block seems to have cleared back after The Very Bad Thing happened in September-October last year, and my life and health fell apart. I don't think it's a coincidence that this has coincidence that the urge to write reappeared as I came off cymbalta. That doesn't mean I might not go on psych-recommended medications if necessary. But I'm thinking more clearly than I have in years.

I’m no longer afraid of my mental health being used against me. Let them go for it. It’s an illness like any other. And it’s a sign of my strength, not weakness, that I am here at all.

I have a great support group around me – and I don’t just mean professionals, I mean people who care about me and don’t give up on me.

For now, it’s one foot in front of the other at the moment. Or one hand at a time, as I climb out of this pit, and push The Ghost’s face, quite roughly, out of my line of sight.

Most importantly, in case they read this, I have the best motivation in the world for getting better, my kids Chase and Harmonie. And I hope they know The Ghost is never around them. It cannot harm them.

My hearts ... Chase, Harmonie and Lucy. Just after being chosen as one of Escape Travel's Family Reviewer's in 2013. The only single parent to be chosen.  Photo: Anne Martindale, South Burnett Online (

It is my illness and my battle and I will beat it again, and be the silly, funny, Mumma, they were impressed  with when they saw her on Sunrise and on other television shows all those years ago. Who cries only at silly shows like when Patrick dies, and not when she can’t get an appointment at the chiropractor, or buys the wrong chicken. And who will one day refuse to make pasta with two different sauces, because it’s okay not to be perfect. (Sorry, but that’s life).

I am still the Mumma, oops Mum (because they're too old for that now), who they can talk to about anything, and who will sort out their friends' problems as well. And who can get them games and cool stuff to try out before anyone else in the country. Because that's what Mummy Bloggers do.

I wrote the following post years ago, not that long after my first major breakdown:

It came from the heart and it didn’t win, probably because I didn’t write about the New Ford Territory or how fabulous it was at all really.  But I feel the same way now, even though my circumstances have changed. 

(Except this time I would actually mention the New Ford Territory and the fact that it drives great, we loved the slushy cup holders, extra handbag room, and air-conditioning throughout, and the fact that we naughty Mummy Bloggers took turns posing  with glasses of champers in our hand in the driver’s seat and pretended to be screaming to children in the back ‘don’t make me come back there ...’) And then were all too scared to post the photos. Because we wouldn't actually do that in real life and couldn't condone that, and we just knew people would take it the wrong way. But oh how we laughed! See I was happy then too!

I love you Chase and Harmonie, and don’t ever have to feel you have to ‘save’ me. You have already done that, and you do that every day just by being the wonderful young people that you are. You have taught me far more than I ever have taught you.

And I’ll get there again. Back in the driver’s seat. (Except I expect you will both be fighting over who gets to drive by then, or expecting a car of your own ... x)

Get help:

National 24/7 Crisis Services • Lifeline 13 11 14 • Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 • Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 • MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78

General support: beyondblue support service phone 1300 22 4636 or email or chat online at
Suicide Call Back Service
SANE Australia Helpline 1800 18 SANE (7263)
Young people: Kids Helpline
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples: Social and Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Services
Culturally and linguistically diverse background: Mental Health in Multicultural Australia
LGBTI, other sexuality, sex and gender diverse people: MindOUT! QLife line 1800 184 527
Veterans: Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service 1800 011 046

Most of all, don't suddenly stop taking medication, and don't rule it out. DO see a psychiatrist if you are taking anti-depressant or other brain-altering drugs. In general, GPS are not qualified to treat mental illnesses. Their job is to refer you to someone you can help you. Every person is different though. A proper diagnosis too, is key.

UPDATE: I am home again. I DID finally find my way back to see my former psychiatrist. He is the best, as he has been with me all these years. I'm on a new medication to Australia - in fact I'm his first patient to try it. And I won't go into that yet. The important thing is that I've been to hell and back and I'm still here. And I am home again, and with all the supports in place to get my life back again. Thanks everyone, for sticking with me. x


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Fantastic post Bronnie. I have been worried about you and seeing your facebook updates and hoping that you were ok. I can't believe that people would tell someone to snap out of it or that they had a lot to be grateful for! That sounds the height of insensitivity and ignorance about the whole issue of depression. Thank you for sharing your story xxx

Janet Camilleri said...

So sorry to hear all that you have been going through. I can really relate to this line: I didn't want to bother my friends and family. That's what I was like too :-(

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. On this day, when I rose out of bed because I no longer wanted to stay there with my own thoughts for company, when doing some exercise and 'putting one foot in front of another', taking another breath, repeating the mantra 'this too will pass' is the 'push-through' methodology for 'one more day', to read your post has been encouraging. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Thanks Lorraine, I think you know how much it means to me that you are the first to comment on my first post 'back'. And that you understand as well. And thank you too Janet, and for being so accepting. Most of all, Robert - thank YOU. It is for people like you that I feel I must start sharing again. Because it is only by sharing that we can start to normalise our health issues - and they are just like any other health issues - and support and encourage each other. I won't offer you any platitudes, but thank you, and I hope today is easier for you. Thanks for taking the time to comment, because it helps me to know that I'm not just talking to myself. x

Mark Pearson said...

Hi Bronnie,
What a compelling piece of writing. Just want you to know your old prof is very proud of you and all your achievements - and seeing that pic of your book there on the shelf next to mine was one of my proudest moments. I bragged about it to friends and colleagues!
Get well and let me know when you are up for a visit or a coffee shop catchup! Cheers, Mark.

Unknown said...

Well, Professor Pearson, that is possibly the best comment ever. And you didn't even correct all my errors. Thank you so much. (Bows).

Sammie @ The Annoyed Thyroid said...

I'm sorry to hear how hard things have been but I'm pleased you're getting the support and help you need both medically, emotionally and professionally. That's great that you have a good psychiatrist, they are worth their weight in gold! One of my favourite quotes is "winter always turns to spring, it's the law of the universe." Even in my darkest days, I like to remember that.

Kirsty said...

I'm so glad to read that you are back home now. Sharing these experiences will help others and I hope it helps you too. Look after yourself Bronwyn x

Tegan Churchill said...

You've been through so much, and yet here you are still kicking people's arse. I wish you all the best with everything and I hope that you start to see an improvement soon xx

Unknown said...

Thanks Kirsty and Tegan. I'm getting better. The new anti-depressants are expensive but they seem to be doing the trick (together with all the hard stuff like the counselling and the exercise and the positive stuff like seeing people and doing good things). I'm sleeping better and best of all I'm writing again, which is always a good sign. And I don't cry if I can't get an appointment at the chiropractor!