Quite a few of my friends have been going through tough times, of late. Only, unlike speed bumps in the past, their recent troubles have shaken them to the very core. Because it would seem that there is a moment in life, often around our early thirties, where the armour we used throughout our twenties no longer works. The bravado, the self medicating, the deflection; it all stops protecting us from the very painful realisation that something inside is broken. Something isn’t working. And we might need to face it.
Everyone goes through their own journey to get to this point, and everyone takes their own time to reach the crucial moment. The one where they say to themselves honestly, and purely, “I need help.”
I can recognise this moment happening in my friends, because it happened to me. My epiphany came when my life began unravelling a few years ago. To even the people closest to me, it just seemed like I was in love with someone who didn’t love me back, someone bad for me. It looked like I just needed to come to my senses, shut him out, and everything would be OK. But I knew it was more than that. I was losing myself. Losing my mind. I would wake up and not want to be awake. Every day felt like torture. I couldn’t face going to work. Day after day, I woke up wondering how on earth I was going to get through the day. And of course you can’t just call up and say, “I can’t come in today, I’m having a breakdown”.
So I would go into work, and I would feel trapped. I hated my job, I hated myself for allowing myself to be in the situation I was in. And I couldn’t see how I could escape. Then the blackness came. The kind of engulfing, swallowing sadness that makes you fragile, vulnerable and angry – like a caged animal. You want to hide away, and if you can’t you want to lash out at those causing you pain, or getting too close to your wounds. You want them to feel what you’re feeling. Like a dark, black wave of sadness is drowning you. Pulling you under. And you want to give up and let it take you.
My moment came when I went to Adelaide to see my parents. I ended up trying to tell them that something was wrong, and of course, like usual parents (and people in general) they said I should snap out of it. To not be so ridiculous. To just get over it. It’s not their fault, and I don’t blame them. Sometimes people can’t see how bad it is. Finally I had to tell them that I had thought about suicide. More as a concept, as a way of stopping the pain, rather than an action. But I’d thought about it a lot. Mum was shocked, and a bit angry. Was I just using this to hurt them? To make myself sound more dramatic?
It’s a strange feeling, begging those who should know you best to please listen. To please take this seriously. I suppose when you have a history of being emotional, of being dramatic, then maybe it’s hard for them to take this cry for help seriously. Was I just the girl who’d cried wolf too often? Or was this maybe, just maybe, the moment into which all the other moments had compounded? Perhaps all those emotional cries for help had been misheard, misread, misunderstood for so long that now I was sitting here begging for help.
Wait… Maybe we need to go back. Because after all, this is the end, not the beginning…
I was a happy kid, as far as I remember. Until the age of 7 I was popular, and confident. I was loud, and I had a penchant for the dramatic. I guess I was also hard work for my mum. The kind of kid who got out of the car at intersections. Who screamed bloody murder when my fingers got caught in the toilet door in primary school. I guess the seeds were always there. When my brother was born, Mum no longer had the time or energy to give me the attention that I needed. And that’s fair. That’s valid. She had a new baby to deal with. And to be honest there probably wasn’t enough time and energy in the world to have satisfied me. I was a handful. But a 4 year old doesn’t understand when her mother says, “Mummy’s busy right now.” Or “Just stop it. Pull yourself together”.
Then when I was 7 we moved to Perth. To a new school. And that was really the beginning. I had trouble making friends. I was very different. I never wanted to go to school. I pretended to be sick. I used to pour water on the floor in the night, so that in the morning I could tell Mum that I’d thrown up and cleaned it up. I was still loud, and seemingly confident, but teachers often mistook that bravado and challenged me more. They thought I was just the kid who didn’t do homework. Who wanted attention. They couldn’t see how smart I was. Or how lost.
It was also around this time I stopped sleeping. I would be awake half the night, afraid someone or something was going to get me. I would pile all my soft toys on the bed so that an intruder would just think I was a toy. I would hide under the coffee table in the living room, or sleep in the laundry with the dog. Then in the morning I would sneak back to my room, and Mum would never know.
After four years in Perth, when I had just started making good friends we moved back to Melbourne. I started high school at the same girls’ school I’d gone to up until grade 2. I thought it would be great. I had friends from before I left. I was going to walk into high school with a crew of cool friends. But when I started, all my old friends disappeared. The film Mean Girls, that’s not an exaggeration. That was what high school was like for me. Girls writing awful things on my locker, whispering behind each other’s hands, shouting mean things across the quad.
I made friends, eventually, and I’m still friends with some of those girls to this day. We were nerdy, and smart, and fun. We talked about how much we loved Degrassi, and Press Gang, and The Late Show. We learned the dance from Blossom. In a way that was the first sense of myself I had ever found. But the seeds of something darker had been sown.
I can’t remember when I had first felt the sadness. I guess it first starts early on, when the other kids leave you out of things. When girls say bitchy things behind your back. But I can’t say for sure when it started to come from inside me. When I started to sit in my room at night, crying. When I held paper scissors to my wrist and wondered if anyone would care if I wasn’t there. I know it was there by the time I was 14.
So what seemed like dramatic teenage outbursts to my parents, were actually deep cries of pain. Only we all just thought it was adolescence. After all, that’s why they call it teen angst, right? Everyone was going through this shit. It was the mid 90s. Kurt Cobain was dead. River Phoenix was dead. We revelled in our angst, and being misfits. Reality Bites was our movie, and tortured Troy our pin up boy.
And then came the late teens, and drinking and smoking, and all the things that come with that stage of life. I’d changed schools, I’d found a place for myself. I grew my hair long, learned to play guitar. I was hanging with the alternative theatre kids, going to parties, and feeling for the first time in my life like I was cool. I had found my armour. The armour that got me through most of my twenties. Surround yourself with friends, and socialising, take the edge off, and you can feel safe. Like you belong.
So that was how I coped with all the twenties drama, heartbreaks and growing up. Move fast, stay busy, stay numb. Get on a plane, go somewhere, anywhere. Keep feeling everything but what’s inside. I got used to the sadness. It would come often enough. It would creep up on me whenever I stopped. My mum used to say, “This just happens whenever you’re not busy.” So I stayed busy. I did comedy, put on shows in festivals, played in a band. I travelled and lived in different cities. I made friends and went out lots, made amazing memories and fantastic stories that I don’t regret making. But I couldn’t stop.
I didn’t know what that butterfly feeling in my chest was, but I learned that if I medicated it enough, it would go away, and I could keep going. Which was fine, because all the best times were at pubs, house parties, barbecues, anywhere people got together and socialised. And drank. And when I drank I always slept.
Eventually, while living in London, I started dating a calm, quiet guy in the hope that I could catch it. That he would rub off on me. It didn’t work. After three years we broke up. I was beginning to lose faith in the comedy dream, I was recently single, and had just been made redundant. It was time to come home.
Without going into all the the things that happened when I came home (I’ve written about it here before), there just came a point where cracks began to appear in the armour I had built. I didn’t want to run anymore. I wanted to stop, and I wanted to be happy when I did. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. There was too much pain. And since the breakup the pain had gotten worse. It was a deep scar of rejection that no amount of medicating and socialising could solve. In fact, that only seemed to make it worse. Then I met a guy who brought out all the insecurities in me. All the darkness. And the cracks got so wide I nearly fell into them.
So there I found myself, sitting at the table in Adelaide, crying to my parents. Begging them to understand that this was serious. This wasn’t teen angst. Or me being a drama queen. Perhaps it had never been that all along.
“We’ll help you get whatever help you need,” they said. And finally, I had the words I needed to hear.
I did get help. And I was lucky. My therapist was amazing, and it actually worked. I took the process very seriously, as I knew it was my chance to really get to the bottom of things. It took over a year, and I had to go to some hard places, and face some things I wan’t ready to face, but I got there. So now I talk about my experience, because there’s no shame in admitting that you need help.
I had always thought that I could fix myself. But my self assessment was turning to blame for my own shortcomings, and that was actually causing my sadness. I didn’t even know anxiety was what I was experiencing whenever I went into a room of strangers. I didn’t know that was why I was drinking. But now I do. Now I understand all that. Sometimes we just need a little help from people who know what they’re doing. And it’s OK to ask for it.
My life is so much better now, but it isn’t perfect. I still have bad days. Days where I want to stay in my pyjamas. Days where the butterfly beats its wings relentlessly in my chest. But those days are rare. And I know what it is now. I can recognise it, have the tools for dealing with it, and mostly I can stop my thoughts tumbling to the places that open the dark little boxes where the pain is. Best of all, I sleep.
I also know now that I am not alone. Lots of people are going through the same thing, quietly, painfully, trying not to let anyone see. But they shouldn’t feel ashamed. Asking for help is not shameful. It’s the first step on one of the most important journeys you will ever take.
Somewhere in our early 30s, things change. We know we have to grow up. Sometimes that means facing the things that are holding us back. It’s not always pretty, but on the other side, there really is a whole new world.