Depression

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The following is not my story, but my sister-in-law’s. M is younger than ex-Mrs Legend and lived with us for a while when we were first setting out on familyhood in the late 1970s. She was (and is) an attractive and often vivacious young woman and it was with some bewilderment on my part that we ultimately delivered her to Richmond Fellowship and residential care.

Subsequently, she moved into the block of flats in Freo recently the setting for Tim Winton’s Eyrie (2013) while I removed myself and my reluctant spouse to Melbourne. Now we are all back in Perth but, until earlier this month we had not seen or heard from M for four years and it is with some joy that we have resumed contact.

“It is a painstaking almost impossible affair to try to explain one’s experience of the dark underbelly of depression when one is in the midst of it. And the nature and content of these low (dark) moods are so changeable from one bout to the next that developing insight into one’s predicament is, whilst not impossible, certainly something that requires both personal persistence and the initial help of an individual who can assist one to build a narrative through it. These individuals, however, are rare and not easy to find.

In the late 1980s I went to stay with my sister and her family in Melbourne for a few weeks. Though I had developed some insight into my situation, and spent quite a few years in the revolving door of the mental health system, my condition remained untreated (pharmacologically for almost 15 years) and the symptoms of the ailment were entrenched.

I had begun to sew a little by then and I realized that making something with my hands aided me (like the smoothing stroke of ointment on an open wound) so I took along some raffia straw, some white cording and a book on basket weaving techniques and I began to weave a shape into existence. It was simple and repetitive and it became a way of communicating to my family that I was there; the unfolding straw form was proof of my existence and a contribution of sorts.

As the days passed and I was made mute by despair, it became a lifeline for me during my stay there. Each day as they went off to school and work it allowed me my own measure of industry, a way of participating in the daily life of that little home. With my bleak thoughts and few remaining interpersonal skills I experienced moments of rest – and glimpses of hope through the rhythmic weaving of the straw shape unfolding before me.

In later years and upon reflection I look back at that time fearful for that young woman and the cascading horrors of breakdown yet before her. I still wrestle with many of the symptoms of mental ill health but I manage them now, by means of a combination of therapies and medication and careful living.

I have learnt that my ability to weave a coherent narrative of my life has strengthened as I have matured through adulthood, and each time as I surface from the tempest of ill health this understanding is further enhanced.

It seems that over time our brain is capable of undergoing the neuroplastic changes that will enable us (if we are willing to listen to the prompts) to appreciate in ever widening spirals of greater complexity a broader understanding of the world and how our lives fit into the matrix of diversity that surrounds us.  And as I have become capable of this wider-angle perspective I am permitted a modicum of peace.

Sometimes only distance and self-knowledge enable us to make better sense of what has happened and what makes us who we are. And perhaps it is so, that suffering can be a journey deeper into the heart of life – if we choose to manifest such.”

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Since this time M, has become a notable hat designer and milliner, and for a while established and lived with a women’s sewing cooperative in northern India. She has written a memoir which is almost ready for publication. The hats and the photographs are hers.

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5 thoughts on “Depression

  1. Lovely post Bill. Mental illness is a scary thing and the more people share their experiences the more the rest of us can understand. A person in my own family who struggled with her mental health for ten years or more wrote to me the other day that she can’t understand or imagine any more what drove her to behave as she did. That was lovely to hear, and I hope it’s indicative of, if not a perfect “cure”, having reached a place that she can be aware enough not to slide dangerously back from.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing M’s words and experience. Good for her.

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  2. An astonishing piece – having experienced my own version of this, I was struck by how apt the account is of what it’s like, especially from the inside, and how art-work can help. James Bradley (the Australian author who wrote Clade, a wonderful SF novel about climate change) speaks to a similar view in his paper ‘Never Real and Always True’ (Griffith REVIEW Edition 23: 2009).

    Thanks for sharing this, Bill. And you too, M.

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    • It is impossible for me to understand what M has been, and is going through so I am glad you are able to validate her account. There is some criticism in the media, by Helen Razer for instance (whom I otherwise admire!) of individualised accounts of mental illness, but I am sure in my own mind that each account is of value. I look forward to M’s memoir,

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