Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Recovering from psychosis with depression and Jane Austen

There's been a fair bit of talk about depression of late exemplified by a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by journalist Alan Stokes in which he comes close to saying - but does not say - that he is prone to the disease. Stokes alludes to things that happen to him and feelings he has but they're embedded in an oblique recount of things that belong to the lives of others, people who we know have had the disease. To me the most disturbing thing is not that he admits to having depression but that he does it in such a circumlocutious way, and it's disturbing because of the legacy of fear and non-understanding within the community about mental illness. Psychologists and psychiatrists are sensitive to this and display comprehension when you talk about your own anxiety - of being discovered.

Depression is not the name I give to my mental illness: that name is a label that carries with it an even heavier burden of freight. You don't normally go around saying to people, "I have schizophrenia and I have had two psychotic episodes in the past 14 years." It just doesn't normally happen. But surrounding this ailment there might be secondary ones, like depression, and I do remember a period of about 18 months - in 2002 and 2003 - when I did not wash or clean my teeth, when I ate only cheese for weeks, when I slept until mid-morning on most days.

If it was depression there were good reasons for it. I had moved out of the family home in early 2000 - leaving my wife and children - and within the year I was a resident of the psychiatric ward of a central Tokyo hospital recovering with the help of medications with such severe side effects that I walked stiffly, my face was drawn and unnatural, and I had trouble with muscular coordination. A few days before the planes hit the towers I arrived back in Sydney and after about a month I was settled in share accommodation in the north of the city. I had lost: my family, my job, my car, and my self-respect. They changed the medication at least. And then I discovered Jane Austen.

Because I was a graduate of the University of Sydney I was able to have made a borrower's card for the library and I bought a cheap blue backpack - which I still have - and caught the train once a week to Redfern Station, from where I walked to Fisher Library. I read widely. The books I borrowed were often history dealing with the time immediately prior to and concurrent with the time when Austen lived; I also tried to read the kinds of novels and books of poetry that she herself might have read when she was alive. The image that accompanies this post is taken from that library card and shows what I looked like at the time. This is what mental illness looks like, often. It can be unkempt and a little bit frightening, but the things that this person has to deal with may be far more frightening than your feelings about his discount-store clothes, his body odour, his straggly beard, or the fact that he is walking down the street at 2pm instead of inside an office at a safe desk job.

And I was one of the lucky ones: I had a home to go to. It wasn't grand - a share house in a suburb studded with giant eucalypti, a quiet street, a back yard, three bedrooms - and I resided there with two other men who lived with schizophrenia, but it was safe.

I sat every day on the living room couch and read books until somehow I managed to shuck off the slough of despond and, in mid-2003, find a job. Then it was a matter of walking to the corner on the main road each morning and catching a bus to the train station. One day when I was on my commute I saw a man on the train reading a novel by Haruki Murakami and I discovered in his books the types of unmanageable life that I had personally experienced, as well as magic, aimlessness, frustrated searches, evil and love. For me love came later - some four-and-a-half years later - but when it did it changed my perception of who I was and what the world could be. Although psychosis returned not long after this moment of clarity the effects associated with the experience of falling in love endured beyond the point when I emerged out the other side of it - it took three months to overcome the fear - ferrying me on its burnished wings toward a future of growing possibilities, and restless confidence.

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