Related ABC Radio interview (1 hour and 29 minutes in ) http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programitem/pe8PDK605L?play=true
CW: mental illness, suicide, eating disorder
When I moved into the six-square-metre rental room I had to build a loft so I could fit my belongings under the bed. Suspended six feet from the ground, I meditated on being buried twelve feet further down almost every single day for the next year.
I could not and would not tell anyone. I couldn’t burden them with something they might not have the power or the pep-talk to change. I couldn’t ask them to carry that weight in case it felt as heavy inside them as it did inside me.
The desire to die became my secret hidden under the floorboards, pounding like Poe’s Tell-Tale heart. Not that we had floorboards. In Redfern you have to cough up a third of your pay every week for a square of Lino in a share house.
Each night I would drag my feet up the wooden rungs to sob into my pillow, doze fitfully, wake up to cry again and spend the hours before dawn talking myself into turning up for work.
If I started mentally preparing at 6am (depending on how many times I had to redo my ruined make-up) I would be early enough for work to breathe slowly at my desk before anyone arrived.
On weekends I would catch up on sleep by taking a non-addictive anti-histamine as I reasoned it was the most responsible way to knock myself out. I would later discover how easy it was to get Valium which I would then ration out for the week.
My psychologist of seven years had retired and I was intent on coping alone until I found someone new that I both respected intellectually and trusted completely.
I scrolled through photos searching for the least confrontational looking male GP in the area who bulk billed. I wanted zero banter and a subsidised mental health-care plan in less than ten minutes.
He avoided my eyes and handed over the obligatory Depression Anxiety Stress Scales (DASS) test, offering a sympathetic chuckle when I suggested they should reverse the acronym.
The first psychologist asked nothing of my mental health history, spent the session stereotyping me as an over-worked female before spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about zinc tablets. Blood spilled over my nail beds and onto my stockings. I stopped listening about 45 minutes in when he began a sentence with “young women often”.
I had been around addicts long enough to avoid developing any kind of dependency but comfort eating soon turned into bulimia.
I’d binge on whatever food was in the house and spend the night cradling the ceramic toilet bowl in my hands while I threw it all back up, holding my own hair back. I’d sleep an hour and then get up to get to Coles as it reopened and replenish my house mates’ groceries so they wouldn’t notice.
Other habits were easier to conceal; I’d scrape the back of my hands along rough walls until they bled a little, I’d let boiling water pour over my skin and hold baking trays until I had branded shiny burns into my skin. One left a shell pink satin scar which healed in the shape of the Nike tick. Just do it, I thought. I’d pick around my nails until red pooled along my cuticles. I hated my body so much that I dragged it around bumping and battering my limbs until I was stained with slate grey bruises.
The next psychologist was sweet and softly spoken but constantly close to tears. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for a receipt reprint let alone burden her with plans to die so I spent two months detailing non-existent improvements- all thanks to her- because I wanted her to feel like she was good at her job. I spoke only of my body-image problems because I knew they would be most palatable and formulaic for her but water still threatened to spill through her eyelashes. I filled in the nonsensical sheets of CBT homework in the language and handwriting of a stranger, pretending my negative thought patterns had been erased and replaced by a mosaic of trite motivational messages. I faked a long holiday and never made another appointment, more convinced than ever I did not want to be here.
Some days I’d have a fully-fledged panic attack in the bathrooms at work, hyperventilating with my back against the door and pinching myself so I wouldn’t pass out. If it went for too long I was forced to pretend I’d had an impromptu interview but I never took a day off.
When I thought I was at risk of hurting myself I’d go to the nearest hospital and explain myself to the emergency department who would leave me waiting for a psychiatrist. I felt safer just being in a hospital and then I would decide whether to leave or stay and talk to the on-call and overworked shrink who would make a referral I would never use or give me Valium which I would stash for another night. I discharged myself every time, hopping in a cab back home and mentioning it to no one.
My friends knew that I was depressed but only a few people were across the extent of my mental health history so short of me being open and honest I was confident no one would realise how bad things were.
Each time I imagined telling anyone the reactions ranged from dismissive to devastated to scornful or ready to level accusations of self-indulgent hysteria.
I was committed to keeping it to myself.
It is only when you’re trying to disappear that you consider what is inside you, how much space you take up, how long it might take someone to pack up your books, how heavy you might feel in someone’s arms.
Although I was acutely aware of the impact of suicide I busied myself not with the immeasurable grief but with the quantifiable grievances I might cause and began devising plans in which they were minimised.
I spent sleepless nights weaving a web of fantasies, stitching inwards to a version of the same finale in which I died leaving no score of sorrow nor mark of inconvenience for those still breathing.
The only place I felt calm was in the bath with the lights off, floating in the darkness where I could not see myself or feel my weight. It was there that I most wanted to die but that mirage was punctured when I thought of my house-mate who was terrified of blood turning on the light and discovering an opaque red pool.
I researched cliffs and bridges but I had visions of SES volunteers trawling the coastline for the remains of a female, believed to be in her 20s, when there were sandbags to haul into floodzones and fires to help put out. It was often these faceless human resources I considered first, knowing it was less painful than considering those who knew me best.
Depression makes you disastrously introspective but I could not go far enough inside so as to discard those implicated in each of my plans. Someone would not only need to sell me the drugs or the car but search for my body, find my body and transport my body. I needed a way to die and a way to disappear.
I often fantasised that the loft bed might collapse and I would die in my sleep. But then I imagined the mammoth law suit my family would launch against IKEA and the subsequent anti-Swedish sentiment that might start on a tabloid cover — IKILLER- and spread across Sydney, robbing thousands of affordable flat packed furniture. So when the bed began to creak and the planks of wood shifted in my sleep, I got out the Allan key and tightened the screws.
My time was divided between work and making it to work. One morning I was trying to succeed in the latter when I walked past a sign that, save for what I hoped was a spelling mistake, promised to solve my problems.
I stopped and stared at the obnoxious blue font, frozen in the stillness of relief.
The moment passed but instead of acknowledging what was clearly a fabric shop-front, my little soul, starved of sleep and self-love and stinking of desperation became obsessed with 216 Devonshire Street.
I cast the dying service provider again and again and again.
In the most comforting script a dark-haired woman wearing a navy suit opened the door offering a handshake and an iPad in which to enter my details.
I created a (very) temporary account and punched my date of birth into the homepage. I was shown into a room lined with monitors, their screens alive with numbers and letters.
“Someone will be with you in a moment.”
A generic white guy staring at a clipboard shut the door behind him and said my name dispassionately.
He looked up, smiled with his mouth only. He told me the types of calculations — similar to those made by insurance risk assessors — his team had made to ensure my passing had the least impact on those around me. He detailed exactly how my death would appear to the outside world, where it would be faked, the number of actors involved and the emotional training they had undertaken, why the method would upset almost no-one, what chemicals he would inject into my bloodstream and how long that would take. He handed me a white gown and left the room.
In another version an elderly man with an orthopedic tread lead me down a dark hallway lined with watercolour landscapes muttering about the rain that was forecast that afternoon. I got the sense this place was an institution. I considered how dated the decor was then reflected, morbidly, on its irrelevance. He pushed a piece of paper into my hand that was blank save for the date and signature space left at the bottom. I filled it in and handed it back with a crumpled cheque for all that was left in my bank account. In a sing-song manner with the rushed confidence of someone who had said it hundreds of times before he recited a sort of terms and conditions of which I only caught bits: “body which will be untraceable”, “loved ones briefly consoled”, “cause unknown” and the monologue faded until I saw him check his pocket watch as my eyes closed forever.
The smell of a forced smile; lavender maybe, met my nostrils as the door of 216 Devonshire Street tinkled shut behind me. A tanned, blonde woman with friendship anklets piled above her bare feet padded towards a shelf of oils where she picked one. Yin yangs and Om symbols dotted the room, feathers and crystals strung on pieces of leather hung from the ceiling. Bianca — said the badge pinned to her Aztec printed top- dotted some oil on my wrists and smiled maniacally.
“Namaste,” she said as she brought her hands together in prayer and up towards the bindi stamped on her forehead. I could not bring myself to say it back but I answered a series of awkward questions about my food preferences so she could determine my “signature scent”. The operation seemed itinerant, like a pop-up on a six-month lease. In this version I was cremated and stored in an urn perfumed with sandalwood.
I felt calm only when daydreaming about The Dying Service. It made me feel like someone was going to end the anxiety and the depression.
Some time not long after this I took too many sleeping pills and caught a cab to the emergency department. I wasn’t trying to die, I wanted to sleep for a long weekend. Lying in the hospital bed I could hear my heartbeat slowing and I was convinced the blood might not reach my fingertips. The next night I went home and closed my eyes and thought of 216 Devonshire Street but I felt anything but comforted.
I asked for help.
I didn’t tell the whole story to one person. I handed a little bit of heavy to each of my loved ones and hoped that together they could share the load. I told my sister I was bulimic. I told my father I was depressed. I told my friends I hated myself. I told a work colleague I hadn’t been sleeping.
I found a psychiatrist I could trust. I told him I wanted to die more than anything but I wanted to want to live even more.
People need to talk about suicide and anxiety and depression because if I had any other chronic illness I’d have taken a bloody sick day. I would never have worried about being thought of as incompetent, hysterical, dramatic, a diva,weak.
When I went on medication I was told by someone I respect to take it before I go to work because it could ruin my chances of ever getting promoted. “Pretend you have a physio appointment every Wednesday morning instead,” he said.
I want people to understand that the right professional help you need might take a while to find. That mental illness can be managed. I don’t want to live to spare anyone sadness, I want to live to bring them joy. I figured out what was killing me and I’m slowly killing it, but I still need love and support from others to do it and you might know someone else who does too.