By Stephen Acott
It’s a beautiful day by the beach, a rare day at this time of year. The calendar says it’s winter, but your senses tell you otherwise. The sun is out, rising and shining, streaming through your windows, calling you to venture outside and revel in its warm embrace.
And you do. Dogs populate the parks, chasing all manner of tennis balls being flung in every direction, bikes whizz by in a stream of sweat, and the local shopping strip is buzzing with people spilling out on to the street, ice creams in hand, pushing prams and pulling trolleys.
There is a pulse to the neighbourhood, one that has been steadfastly dormant through the mid-year months. This day is alive and it’s barely begun.
Not far away, just a 10-minute walk actually, a different story is playing out. Here, there is no light, literally and figuratively. Inside this house there is the constant hum of young children refusing to sit still, refusing to stay silent. There is a husband and wife, but there is something in the air, hanging drably, desolately, in the atmosphere.
The curtains are drawn tight, shunning the light, toys are strewn everywhere, dishes are piled, unattended and unwashed, pizza boxes lay open on the coffee table, testifying to the night before, beds are unmade, laundry is in clumps and the shower is uncharacteristically dry for this time of day.
It’s noon. Morning becomes afternoon becomes … unbearable.
This house has a visitor, well an intruder, actually. An all-too frequent intruder. It has a name and you’ve no doubt heard of it. You may well have been introduced, you may even be in its unwelcome presence now.
It has a name and that name is depression.
Laura Mazza, 33, is on intimate terms with depression, frequent terms. They know each other inside and out, but it’s not an equal partnership. Depression doesn’t do parity, it unforgivingly dominates and destroys. Divides and conquers.
Depression visits Laura three weeks out of every four, on average. It isn’t dictated to by the calendar, the weather or surroundings. It simply announces itself, sometimes slowly over the course of a few days, at other times it’s just there when she wakes up, waiting to wipe out any plans she may have had.
That’s Laura over there on the couch. She’s been lying there for a few hours now. She knows she has things to do but, try as she might, she can’t get off that couch.
“The weight is so heavy,” Laura says. “It’s worse on nice days because I feel I should be enjoying the weather, so I just shut the blinds and lie there in darkness.”
Laura’s first encounter with depression was when she was 14. At the time she didn’t know it had entered her life and had no idea of the havoc it would wreak from that moment on.
“I was getting very tearful and feeling very low and would spend days on end being in bed with this feeling of impending doom,” Laura says. “I thought it was just a phase I was going through.”
Laura says depression really got its hooks into her two years later when her parents divorced. It was not a happy household, especially for Laura (for reasons she has asked we don’t disclose), but the separation was still a wrench. And depression likes wrenches.
Laura fell so far and so swiftly that she ended up dropping out of school, half way through her final year. That, obviously, had significant ramifications for her future, not least her employment. Laura was well aware of that, but when you are in survival mode you do what you need to do. Needless to say she couldn’t face the day, let alone a classroom.
Laura has since recovered enough to finish her schooling, but it took a long time, more than a decade. Two years ago, she graduated from university with a Master’s in psychology. She says she chose the subject because she wants to help others, she wants to stare down depression, but it’s a struggle. She’s still in its grips and knows she probably always will be. But that’s no reason to run, far better to take up the fight.
Depression has a way of destroying even the most wonderful moments. Laura has three children, two boys and a girl – Luca (5 years), Sofia (3), and James (1). But the first two births were overshadowed by what followed: post-natal depression. It was nasty, insidious, and the aftershocks linger to this day.
“I’m worried my children will end up having depression or suffering a trauma because of me,” Laura says.
“I can already see signs of anxiety. That’s one of the symptoms of post-natal depression, where you’re very worried you are going to ruin your children’s lives.”
When asked to describe what depression looks like, Laura’s response is at once surprising and illuminating.
“It looks like tracksuit pants,” she says. “It may not look like depression to the outside world, but it means I don’t go out. I put movies on and have pyjama days every day, takeaway for dinner, the house is a mess.
“I go off the grid. I stop replying to text messages. There will be times I’m lying on the couch physically unable to move, but because my children are so little I have to get out of bed.
“Other days, I try and find things to do so I keep busy and don’t have a chance to sit down and deal with my thoughts.
“When I get depressed it lingers around. Because I have children I have to hold it in. It can last a month.”
Laura says her depressive episodes vary in intensity and is worried they are worsening as she ages. And she has good reason to worry – in July she was hospitalised after attempting to end her life.
“I recently found out something that brought back memories I had long suppressed from my childhood,” she says by way of trying to explain how she ended up in such a state of mind.
“I’ve never tried to kill myself before, but I felt so numb from the pain I was experiencing, I felt I had to physically do something harmful to myself.
“I called my husband and he was able to come home and save me. I was at my lowest ebb. I felt hopeless. Helpless.
“People say ‘you have three children, how could you possibly do that?’ but that sends me into a spiral of guilt because I think I don’t deserve them, I deserve to die.
“It’s like this physical weight on you that you can’t lift. You feel like it’s harder to keep living than to stop living. You just want that weight gone.”
Our attitude to mental health is improving, but despite the fact there is more recognition, there are still misconceptions and misunderstanding. Laura says if you know or suspect someone is down it helps to reach out. But there is also a list of do’s and dont’s.
“The worst thing you can say is ‘I think you have depression’ because, given they are in a low mood state, they might take offence,” she says.
“You’re better off saying ‘I’m coming over with a coffee. I haven’t done my hair and I’m just in my trackies so please don’t tidy the house’.
“It doesn’t have to be big things. You don’t need to be a counsellor. Just sit there and talk about anything except how they are feeling.”
In other words, be a ray of light and a source of warmth. You might just make their day. Even in the depths of winter.
Need help? There are several organisations that will provide immediate assistance, including Lifeline (13 11 14) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636) or even your local GP.