I have just read Rosie Waterland’s book, The anti-cool girl, which captures with such precision the half-life of a person living with depression, with mental illness. Amidst the laugh out loud moments of life as a ‘houso’ in North Ryde, the pressing, the closing in, the self-sabotage resonate. It needs to be read, widely.
I lived a second-hand experience of depression through my brother: caring for him, trying to keep him alive through the fog of medication, alcoholism, weight gain, inertia.
I would circle back to stations to get him off a train, the one he’d promise to be on, and wait on platforms in vain. Two, three times. He’d lie in our spare room all day. My parents, my sister and I had no clue how to help him. When he died, it was a searing honesty that trying to keep him alive was the hardest thing we had ever done. We had failed, but now, amidst the grief, it was easier. That’s hard to live with.
What’s wrong with our society that we turn our backs on these sick people? Why do we value these lives less? He knew it would be easier with him gone, and without a decent support system to help him, to help us, it was. I have a tattoo on my ankle, a snake encircled around a tree of life. He was born in Hong Kong in the year of the snake and I was afraid that I would forget him.
Not long after my brother died, I met a woman whose father-in-law in Sweden had attempted suicide. He was incarcerated in hospital. He had care, therapy and sanctuary until deemed well enough to go home for short visits. He stayed for much longer. Our taxes wouldn’t pay for that, with our meanness, our blindness, our chosen ignorance. My brother had attempted to kill himself seven years earlier and was discharged from Emergency after two nights with a referral to a psychiatrist. Like he was in control of his decisions.
He was treated as an ‘individual’, although he wasn’t. Who amongst us is? His ‘right to privacy’ was paramount: his depression was his responsibility alone. It meant that my parents, his carers, were excluded from his medical treatment, his therapy. They were personae non gratis, in the eyes of the medical establishment.
Rosie’s account of having to rationalise to the triage nurse at A&E that, yes, she would kill herself if not admitted is our system in miniature: a bizarre Catch-22 of being sane enough to admit insanity.
While her life with a broken education at 17 schools, abandoned for days at a time, living with violence could be the polar opposite of mine, the frailty of human beings is universal. My best friend at school had alcoholic parents. They’d drink scotch at breakfast, so she raised herself. And spent lots of time at my house. Not that I knew anything at the time. So much is hidden.
Rosie Waterland found a way through in writing. She describes how she had read a vacuous article about exactly nothing and knew she could do better. Her published writing pulled her back and I was reminded of Marian Keyes’ account of her own depression and alcoholism. Like Rosie, Keyes, a bestselling Irish author, found that writing became a way of grounding herself, being able to see through the blackness around her, and reattach herself to life.
And my friend survived, grounding herself in a country which gave her the opportunities and home she had missed out on as a child.
My brother never found that thing that would bring him back. We need to listen to those who survive and reading Rosie Waterland is a brilliant start.