Continued from Behind Smiling Eyes.
It was my second year of high school and I had settled in with a small group of good friends. Just a few months shy of fifteen, puberty was in full swing.
In April 2005, my family took a month-long trip into the deserts of Western Australia and just two days into the trip I had changed forever.
Trapped in a car for most of the day, day after day, is uncomfortable for anybody. For a young teenager wedged in the backseat with two younger sisters, it was a nightmare waiting to happen.
I felt segregated from the other kids from the outset. I was the eldest and my changing experiences made me different to them – they no longer related to me so easily.
On the second night away, I spent eight hours in a caravan park swimming pool, diving and swimming energetically the entire time. Afterward, I managed to sit and chat with one of the other kids for a while – it was well into the early hours of morning by then and mosquitos settled on me in swarms.
The following day, I was ill. I had what seemed to be the flu and as I bundled myself back into the car we headed out into the desert. The weather was humid and sweltering, the wet season not quite finished yet in northern Australia. For days I existed in a state of confusion between waking and fitful slumber.
For a week I was feverish but eventually the more acute symptoms started to lift. In spite of this, I continued to be exhausted and slept away much of the trip. My body felt heavy and ached all over. As we returned home and the fatigue continued, my family became concerned that perhaps I’d been infected with Ross River Virus that night I’d been eaten by mosquitoes, but a trip to the doctor yielded negative results.
What I failed to tell the doctor or anyone else, though, were the thoughts and strong emotions that had taken my mind hostage. As I emerged from that infection on our holiday, I became self-loathing and felt despised by everybody else there. I had experienced low self-esteem at times like any normal child or teenager, but that did not compare to the extreme self-hatred that gripped my stomach and made me snap at those around me like a rabid dog. I didn’t want to be seen. I felt like everybody was talking about me and wishing I wasn’t there, that I was a huge burden on this trip. I tried to make myself small and avoiding contact. I didn’t like them pretending to my face that all was well, so I snapped at them to go away and leave me alone.
As these feelings continued and we returned home, deep unrelenting guilt was also thrown into the mix. I felt terrible about my behaviour on the trip, that I’d been a downer and ruined everyone else’s experience. Instead of inspiring me to make amends, this guilt drove a wedge further between myself and the rest of my family and fed into the negative loop that exacerbated my hatred and anti-social behaviour.
I’m not sure when or why, but at some point I became aware that I must be depressed. Seeing this as a character flaw or some challenge I must find the strength to overcome on my own, I kept this knowledge hidden and didn’t seek help.
I visited the doctor a few more times over the ensuing months because of my ongoing fatigue which was greatly affecting me at school as well as at home, and my parents were worried. I had a history of anemia and fainting spells, but blood tests now showed up nothing.
“Have you been feeling particularly down or depressed, or had lots of negative thoughts lately?” asked the doctor patiently. I jerked to attention, and shot a sideways look at my mum who was sitting in the appointment with me.
“You don’t feel depressed, do you?” she prompted.
I didn’t want to upset her. I was worried she might take it personally that I wasn’t happy. I knew deep down that she cared about me deeply and did her best to bring a happy life to all three of her daughters.
“No, no more than usual.” I murmured. I justified my lie by reasoning that I had been feeling terrible now for months, so the depression for me had become ‘usual’. I was naive then, too – I didn’t think depression could really affect someone so physically, so I thought the fatigue must be caused by something else and my depression was irrelevant to the doctor’s diagnosis.
I left the doctor’s office with nothing. No results indicative of a problem. Having answered no to the question about depression, I left without anything helpful.
And so my depression went on.
In retrospect I can see sub-syndromal changes before this first true episode. There are many things that can precipitate a mental disorder – genetics mingled with environmental triggers like traumatic childhoods or severe stress. I was clearly predisposed to the condition, but not everybody who is genetically susceptible develops bipolar disorder or depression. What cemented that fate for me?
If I were to hazard a guess I would say it was a combination of starting the contraceptive pill just a couple of months before that trip to manage other health issues, together with two severe flu-like infections within a six-month period (I had been very ill before this trip with the flu, then tonsillitis and the development of anemia all at once), and the physical stress of the holiday in the desert which exacerbated conditions in other family members too. All of these things combined with the normal stress of puberty was just too much strain on my body. A strong genetic history of depression and anxiety on both sides of my family finally manifested itself in me also.
To be continued…
In my next memoir post I’ll be describing the dysphoric, psychotic mixed mania I experienced in high school. Be sure to follow my blog to stay tuned!