“We make ourselves vulnerable by being truthful, but we do a huge service to others.”
- Mia Freedman
We’ve all heard the staggering statistics: 1 in 5 Australians suffer depression each year. Two million Australians will experience anxiety this year alone. 1 in 7 Australians commit suicide every day. It’s raw and real and heartbreaking, but it’s easy to see the facts as a bunch of extraordinary numbers, until it’s close to our hearts. If you look around your closest circle of friends or co-workers, at least one of them will be experiencing mental illness. But, unfortunately, in the face of fad diets, the obesity epidemic and various exercise phenomena, mental health is still a topic of fear and stigma for many people. It was seven years ago that I was first diagnosed with depression, but only in the last twelve months that I’ve told some of my best friends, and it’s still an awkward topic in my family home.
Campaigns like R U OK? Day last month, and Mental Health Week coming up next week, are starting to open the conversation and raise awareness about mental illness, but change starts with one person, and in our own lives. There’s nothing quite like reaching out to your friends and having a reflective chat, or sharing your experiences. There’s also a lot to be said for strong women in leadership roles admitting their struggles to keep the rest of us striving forward. Mia Freeman and Rosie Waterland are public figures, no less, and have encouraged us all to write and share our stories, because it’s doing a service to others who might be experiencing the same darkness.
Tara and I were so excited to attend the first Mamamia Live event a couple of weeks ago at Double Bay Intercontinental, featuring Mia Freedman in conversation with Rosie Waterland, to celebrate the launch of Rosie’s first book and memoir, The Anti-Cool Girl. The day the book came out, I had to fight not to open it before driving home from the bookshop, such was my intense desire to lay eyes upon Rosie’s words immediately. Of course, I read Rosie’s recaps of The Bachelor, plus everything else she’s ever written for Mamamia, so I was already a fan. I read the book that night, in about five hours, over a bowl of ice cream and several cups of tea. We had to fangirl at Mamamia Live; it was a no-brainer.
Champagne was sipped, canapes were nibbled, chats and networking ensued, before the doors opened and there Rosie and Mia sat, all beaming smiles, dirty jokes and sparkly jackets. Tara started a crowd clap at one point and I asked a question (because I’m a total question nerd) so we were both pretty chuffed by the end. But enough of the peripheral details, let’s get deep.
What Tara and I found most rousing (and kept us up having a deep “life chat” past midnight) was how open and honest they were about their mental health issues. Being two influential women in Australian media, and the subject of their share of controversy in the last few years, they were both brave enough to sit there in front of 100-odd women and talk about often stigmatic subjects like therapy, living on medication, suicide, and weight-loss surgery.
Anyone can pick up a copy of The Anti-Cool Girl, or read Mia’s articles on Mamamia, but their equal presence on the stage was undeniable, honest and heartfelt. The conversation between Rosie and Mia was stimulating, intelligent and, of course, hilarious. Rosie talked about her book, which starts in utero and ends with her huddled in a ‘blanket fort’ sipping vodka and basically avoiding her publisher’s emails about the deadline for the manuscript. She took a month off work to write the book, and returned to work six months later. And all the while, she sings Mia’s praises as being the most understanding employer in supporting the reality of her mental illness.
Rosie Waterland’s life was anything but easy; in fact, it’s heartbreaking. Growing up with two alcoholic parents who suffered from substance abuse and mental health issues, Rosie and her sisters were shipped from unstable home and back again more times than she can probably count, before becoming wards of the state and being placed in foster care. They were abused and abandoned; her father died, she was bullied at high school, her uncle kicked her out. As Mia said, ‘When I read the book, I just wanted to slay all your dragons.’ Yet somehow, Rosie’s childlike naivety in recounting her memories, plus her wry tone and black humour make it not just bearable but compelling. And, to be honest, pretty funny at times. It feels almost blasphemous to say that in the face of such horrific stories, but it’s true. Rosie has a gift and thank fuck she decided to share it with us all. She really takes us into the story. As Rosie says when it came to writing the book, ‘It was like turning on a tap. It just poured out of me.’ I almost gave myself a UTI because I didn’t want to stop reading and go to the loo.
In light of that, it’s important to remember that everything is relative. We experience and deal with mental illness in our own ways, and regardless of our backgrounds. For some, depression or anxiety is brought on by an event, loss, grief, trauma, and for others it’s just a cloud constantly hovering in the corner of our lives, ready to rear its ugly head when we least expect it, for no apparent reason. One of the most crippling thoughts I’ve had to endure over the years is: ‘Why me?’ Why should I be struck down by mental illness, when so many others have it worse off than I do? There are children who’ve been abused, starving people in Africa, yet I’m stuck in a dark tunnel with no light. I have a loving family, a roof over my head, great friends, a budding career, so why don’t I want to get out of bed in the mornings, and why do I spend my nights writing suicide notes?
Mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it can’t always be explained. And yet, we live in an age of comparison, fuelled by constantly seeing other people’s lives laid bare on a canvas via social media, or reading memoirs like Rosie’s. Other people’s suffering is available for all to see, which can be a double-edged sword. Reading The Anti-Cool Girl, I was comforted by the crazy, and I laughed and cried at her innate ability to turn trauma into humour, as a lot of us are wont to do. Yet, it also invited feelings of inadequacy regarding my own struggles with mental illness. Who am I, to feel the way I do sometimes? Who am I, to want to share my story?
Rosie and Mia are encouraging us all to remember that you can still achieve and be successful (wildly successful, in both their cases) in the face of mental illness. Depression, anxiety and PTSD are not weaknesses, nor are we defined by our trauma. We can strive and succeed despite the dark cloud, with the right support and free from the stigma that mental illness often creates. Recently, writer Anna Spargo-Ryan wrote a beautiful article that brought me to tears, about the way anxiety has affected her employment opportunities and the boss who showed her the ultimate in understanding and compassion.
In honour of keeping the conversation open, and proving that even the strongest, most talented and creative souls can be battling their demons deep inside, I asked the Dream Team to share their thoughts and experiences here. As entrepreneurs, employers, leaders and creatives, it’s up to us to keep the conversation alive.
"I really believe that everyone experiences depression in their life, to some degree. It’s important to talk about it."
I’ve grown up around mental illness and it’s in my family. The closest experience I’ve had is with my mum, who was diagnosed as mentally ill eleven years ago, triggered by the death of her mother. She had a really tough childhood. She’s been in and out of hospital ever since so from a young age my three younger sisters and I were exposed to her anorexia, suicide attempts and letters she’d leave us. It was never kept from us, they didn’t try to shield it from us, and I became a bit of a protector for my sisters, as the eldest. When we look back at some things that happened, we laugh about it, because it’s quite extreme but you have to see the funny side and make light of it to get through. That’s why Rosie’s book really spoke to me, because it’s how some people handle it. I first had depression at 17, which lasted a few months. I didn’t want to talk or eat or get out of bed, and I was questioning everything. Then I had anxiety during my last year in London; I wanted to come home, I was injured and miserable and lonely and experience such crippling indecision and panic attacks that sent me on a downward spiral for about six months. I was a shadow of myself. But I started seeing a psychologist and got through it, and I’ve always felt comfortable opening up about problems because of the experience we had in our family. But it has been hard opening up to friends; I don’t like sympathy and I was scared of myself for a long time. Scared that I would bring it all back by talking about it. I really believe that everyone experiences depression in their life, to some degree. It’s important to talk about it. - Tara, 29, Founder & Creative Director
"The thing I find most problematic is that I’m feeling more and more comfortable sharing my story online, and yet can’t seem to find the courage to sit with my mum, or my best friend, and explain what my mind has done to me."
For more than ten years, I’ve ridden the wave of depression; the ebb and flow, highs and lows. I’ve searched for solutions and excuses in every hidden crevasse. Surely it’s just teenage melodrama, puberty, a thyroid disorder, chronic fatigue, cancer … anything but that ‘dirty’ word, depression. As a budding ballerina, I was constantly under pressure to be thin, skinny, skinnier, particularly when I hit puberty and started growing boobs. Because heaven forbid a ballerina with boobs. I’ve floated in the grey areas of eating disorders since I was 13; starving myself for days at a time, then losing my resolve and eating everything in sight. I think I’ll always struggle with body image issues, and it’s a constant battle to exercise self-love. I’ve realised that my depression is always there; it never truly goes away, but at times becomes more manageable. With years of therapy, I’m learning to ‘manage’ myself with preventative tactics. I gave up self-harm and stopped having suicidal thoughts after high school, but this new “adult depression” is a whole other level. It’s every few years, the latest (and potentially worst thus far) of which I’m experiencing right now. It’s panic attacks in my sleep, it’s insomnia, it’s fatigue and exhaustion, it’s not wanting to get out of bed, it’s nervous breakdowns at work, it’s the constant fear of spiralling out of control again that compounds the anxiety and makes it worse. The thing I find most problematic is that I’m feeling more and more comfortable sharing my story online, and yet can’t seem to find the courage to sit with my mum, or my best friend, and explain what my mind has done to me. - Amy, 26, Copywriter & Content Editor
"It's hard to force your friends to seek help when they don't want it. The best thing is to be supportive. Listen. Don't push. When it feels like the weight of the world is dragging you down, the last thing you need is more pressure."
Mental illness permeates every cell of your being and drags you down until you can’t see anymore. If mental illness was viewed the way that cancer or diabetes is, there wouldn't be the same half-arsed treatment around it. Societal pressures to be the ideal citizen places a huge stigma on the way that mental illnesses are often viewed. But, let me tell you: it doesn't discriminate. It can affect you, your parents, your best friend, your teachers and mentors. I am a huge advocate of seeking help. Being diagnosed with anxiety and depression at a young age, I sought professional help and overcame it on my own quite quickly; sometimes you just need someone to talk to. I've seen friends who have grown older and not sought help. As you get older, it gets harder. It cripples your ability to live a healthy life, especially with factors of jobs, university and social commitments, it can often feel like too much. It's hard to force your friends to seek help when they don't want it. The best thing is to be supportive. Listen. Don't push. When it feels like the weight of the world is dragging you down, the last thing you need is more pressure. - Nadia, 22, Creative Intern
"I feel that the dialogue around mental illness is one of trepidation and is feared among the community."
During this year, I have become aware of a close friend’s struggles with mental illness. It wasn’t something that I was acutely aware of until it was pointed out to me. Some of the signals were things that I had previously passed off as character traits. But when I was made aware, I couldn’t stop seeing the signs and wondering why I hadn’t noticed them before. Their mood had changed and they had stopped doing some things they loved most. Communication became vague. They weren’t signs I had picked up on, because I wasn’t made aware through education that these were things to look out for. I feel that the dialogue around mental illness is one of trepidation and is feared among the community. Maybe, in Australia specifically, the ideals that we are grown up to believe in, of a hard-working nature “She’ll be right” attitude go against our wish to have an open dialogue. The people who are suffering are generally passed off as “just having a moment”, or that they should just change the way they’re thinking. But it’s not that easy. A person who is suffering is not necessarily the first person to admit that they’re struggling. Essentially, they need to feel that there’s somewhere to go; that there is help. Being available and open to listening and talking through situations and feelings is the most valuable thing someone can do. It needs to be made clear that there is no “cure” but having a strong network of love, support and understanding can help get them through the darkest of days. - Beau, 25, Creative Intern
"Everyone has something to play a violin about. We've all been through shit which is out of our control. What is in our control, though, is how we choose to deal with it."
I had a fairly 'eventful' childhood and was thrown out of home at 15. At the time, I just managed to sort my situation out, but as the years went on I really began to question what had happened and struggle to understand how my mum could have done that to me. I've spent years affected by this situation and spent a lot of time trying to deal with feelings of abandonment, rejection, and found it difficult to trust or rely on anyone. I've definitely experienced periods of depression and anxiety and have considered starting anti-depressants several times, upon recommendation from my doctor. I could, and previously have, let it seriously affect my relationships; however, over the past couple of years, I decided I didn't want to let my past affect my future. And just because I'd had a shitty childhood, I wasn't going to let it give me a shitty adulthood as well. Through seeing a therapist as well as researching and psycho-analysing myself, I learnt to accept my situation and realised that I had to stop seeking love from others and find it from myself. They say the only person you can really trust in this world is yourself so I decided to make the most of this. I made myself the best possible person I felt I could be. Everything I was searching for in others, I found in myself. And when you stop looking to others for love, trust, acceptance and loyalty, it is truly empowering. Everyone has something to play a violin about. We've all been through shit which is out of our control. What is in our control, though, is how we choose to deal with it. Every day I write a gratitude list, I take myself on weekly dates and make sure I dedicate time to being the person I want to be. To anybody who is struggling with inner demons, I would advise to do the same thing. It's only once you love yourself that you can really love everything and everyone around you. - Jo, 29, Creative Intern
Honesty is one small step towards helping us move forward and affecting bigger change. We encourage you to share your stories too.
Thanks to Mamamia for the opportunity to attend Mamamia Live on 14 September.