My Daughter, The Beast & Me.
One. Jin, The Beast & Me
Looking back, Jin was a difficult teenager. Because she was my first child I just thought she’d been sent to ruin my life and that that was the normal state of teenhood. I was a very young mother with another child to care for, and didn’t have either the maturity or the experience to look any deeper than my initial eye-rolling reactions to the annoying, baffling and downright obnoxious behaviours she presented with. She left home at 17 - probably because some of her basic psychological needs weren’t being met - and that was it. She was out of my hair.
But I want to tell this story in retrospect, so let’s roll forward 18 years to today, and start again.
Ten years ago my daughter was in her early 20s and in a really, really bad space. She was clearly mentally unwell and all the recreational drugs, lentil burgers, lifestyle changes or boyfriends were not managing to mask the disturbances going on under the skin. The depression that had gone undiagnosed since she was a young teenager was screaming for attention - eating my daughter alive and savaging the woman she was trying to be. She called it The Beast, and she began to attempt to describe it to me.
The way she reached out and offered me the chance to understand what was happening to her changed our relationship forever. I’ll go so far as to say it may have saved her life, and enriched mine beyond measure. I never thought I’d write that. The journey has been harrowing and bleak and frightening and seemingly impossible - but we have kept going. This blog is about the conversation that started when Jin began to describe The Beast. When we named it, saw it for what it was and began to learn to live with it. It changed everything and - this is the primary point of the blog - for the better. Unbelievable.
This is our story.
Two. Med Med Medication
As often happens when you discover depression in your tribe, it began with a crisis. Up until a crisis, you just don’t realise there’s Trouble on board. You cope, strategise, discuss it with your mates (or whoever will listen to you) trying to make sense of the chaos your Beloved is creating. And the chaos comes in many forms; withdrawing, anti-social behaviours, self-harming, obnoxiousness, acting like a person possessed - but at some point it comes to a head and you realise you’re up against something you don’t recognise. Sometimes the crisis is the first inkling, and for us, it was the dawning of an awareness that something was up. Big time. So you go for help... and so began our journey with the medical profession.
Just as an aside, I’m a fixit kinda person. I roll up my sleeves and get onto whatever needs dealing with and I keep at it till it’s done. Depression does not and cannot respond to this method. If you bulldoze depression, it oozes out into different directions and resists all attempts at bullying it into submission. It doesn’t work, which is why phrases like ‘Just snap out of it!’ and ‘Get over it - there are lots of people worse off than you!’ don’t and won’t ever work. Depression is an entity that demands understanding. If you don’t understand and get to know it, you cannot help the person who lives with it. Once I realised this, we went looking for help.
Ironically this was probably the worst part of the process, and it went on for years. We bounced from doctors to alternative disciplines, professionals to spiritualists, diets to drugs, therapists (which is the thing that does help) to counsellors….and back again. And again. And again. I think the conclusion for us is that not one single thing worked, and trust me, we searched for that silver bullet like our lives depended on it. Which for Jin - it did. At the same time, we were dealing with depressive episodes that were quickly escalating as we endured the roller-coaster of hope and hopelessness when each venture disappointed us or exacerbated the situation. So we headed to the chemist.
Perhaps you’re already familiar with the process of trying a drug (because you’re desperate) knowing that it may help or may make you worse. Calibrating drugs to achieve mental stability seems like a game of russian roulette. It's not just the choice of which drug to take - there’s the dosage experiments, the side effects, the drug mixing experiments, the social stigma, the cost - and the truly cruel risk of ‘depressive side effects’. It’s like waiting for an axe to fall.
However. When you get it right, the benefits can be life altering. This is what keeps you at it. My advice to anyone going down this track would be to treat the journey as an exercise in coming to grips with your mental needs for yourself. As the years go by, no-one knows your physiology and psychology like you do - unless you’re lucky enough to have a stable of available, on-to-it, affordable professionals on hand throughout the whole process and beyond.
Don’t give up. It is horrendous and can take ages - and all when you’ve put your hand up for help because you’re already desperate and it seems unbelievable that you now have to experiment.
For us, drugs have turned into a probable lifetime commitment. We had to be gentled onto the drug pathway because despite our desperation, taking drugs seems to be the final frontier of denial and is a difficult defense to breach. We began because Jin really needed a holiday from herself, and until then, the holiday came in the form of...alcohol.
See you for that story later,
Three. The Wellness Safari
In some ways, our pathway to discovering depression was due to alcohol. Jin was drinking heavily, and it wasn’t agreeing with her - or anyone around her. Ours is a family of drinkers and we’re well used to knocking back way too much way too often, so her dependence on it went undetected for a long time. Unlike the rest of us, though, Jin’s drinking was clearly something more than good times. She was trying to reach oblivion.
Alcohol is just one of many obliteration choices. Your Beloved (which could be yourself) will almost certainly be doing something to dull the unbearable experience of mental illness. The question to ask yourself is this: what takes away my - or their - pain? Is it making yourself hurt? Sleeping? Sex? Drugs? Lashing out at others? When you identify which Tool of Oblivion is being used, you’re in a great position to enter the Realm of The Beast. Think of it as a gateway into the illness. And for Jin and me it came with an invaluable gift - it changed our relationship and lives.
Exploring alcohol consumption was our first real trust test. The task before us was to explore our drinking (because I was drinking way too much too) from a position of investigation rather than annihilation. This was extremely confronting because we had to ask some really hard questions of ourselves. Namely, after multiple attempts, why couldn’t we stop drinking? You’ll see here that I had to learn to expose myself when really, I could’ve gone on the way I was with no-one any wiser (well, that’s what I tell myself).
This process of joining someone in their journey to mental stability is a real game-changer. You can say to someone ‘we’re in this together’ till you’re blue in the face - but it’s meaningless unless you’re in that Hideous Black Hole with the Beast. However. You can say, ‘I’ve got my own bag of trouble and I’m keen to explore it’. If you can do this for someone with mental illness, a few amazing things happen:
You’re not rescuing. Rescuing can be a power imbalance that is often rejected, and can actually add to the problem.
Your Beloved gets to witness and participate in someone else’s journey (when and if they can).
You learn the art of active communication (this is the actual game-changer), and
You get to sort some of your shit out.
You might not be able to get into the Black Hole with your Beloved and The Beast, but you can join them on the journey. Having company is a good thing because the Wellness Safari is a rollercoaster ride.
As part of our own personal journey, Jin and I were really coming to grips with listening to each other; accepting painful insights, learning how to broach seemingly unbroachable subjects without being accusatory - learning how to be open and honest in a way that was caring and productive. We’re a normal mother and daughter, so this was NOT an easy road. For me in particular, I found it very confronting and had to learn the difficult art of being undefensive. In some ways my parenting was coming into question, and I had to own some things that were really uncomfortable. But if I couldn’t be honest, open and brave, how could I ask Jin to be? How could I hear what she was saying if I was busy taking it personally? It took time and practice, but I came to trust her. Even if she got it wrong, I chose to hear her intentions rather than feel the barb (real or perceived) of the words, and over time we just got better at it.
So let’s just cut to the bit where we can finally talk to each other without bloodshed. It became increasingly obvious that we both had a dependence on alcohol. This was our road into about a conversation depression. We were drinking for something, and it wasn’t just a good time. This is where our stories merge for awhile.
I’ve had a long term depression that I quite literally couldn’t have dealt with any sooner than I did - which was in my early 40s. I couldn’t because I didn’t have the emotional tools or the time. I was filling my days up with parenting, working and studying - and filling the gaps with alcohol. And it worked for a long time. When I was finally forced into questioning my alcohol consumption by a loving partner, the cracks busted open and the problem became clear to anyone who wanted to look. But the point of this story is that my own exploration of my drinking gave Jin the impetus she needed to look at her own, and we undertook our investigations together.
More on that in the next post,
Four. Boozy and The Beast
So alcohol gave us our first authentic conversation about addiction and its place in depression. It’s also been our longest running conversation, and continues even now with no sign of conclusion. Together we discovered that we were using alcohol to quieten ourselves, and for Jin, what needed silencing was her inner voice. Perhaps her Beast’s most destructive device is rumination. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that from time to time, alcohol has had its place, affording her some much needed peace. I know I know - its a depressive and that’s a ridiculous thing to say about someone who has depression, but I contend that anyone who has lived with Jin’s beast would do anything to take a break from it. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not advocating alcohol to combat depression. What I am saying is that I understand how Jin came to depend upon alcohol. It makes sense and is actually a rational response to want to deaden an unbearable soundtrack, by any means available. And alcohol is legal, readily available, socially condoned and affordable.
All well and good until you need the alcohol to manage. Not good. Not good at all. It goes from sometimes to all the time, from one glass to one bottle, from socially acceptable to social menace and a drain on the family finances. It also interferes with medications - the ones that you’ve worked so hard to calibrate in order to stabilise your inner turmoil. Not good at all. Managing drinking has become a major part of our lives, and we keep an eye on each other. Interestingly, this doesn’t ever entail ‘Do you think you’re drinking too much?’ It’s more a case of knowing that someone else knows what’s going on, and is onto you and your tricks. We invariably ‘confess’ to each other our own drinking worries. This drinking conversation has been so valuable. It has strengthened our communication and provided each of us with a booze minder.
Alcohol consumption still gets away on each us, but we view it as a sign that things are not good, and tackle the excesses of the alcohol cycle as it manifests. It’s something that we can do together and for each other, and lifts our relationship from one of helper/needer to the mutual support that it is.
Alcohol kickstarted a conversation that hasn’t ended, I suspect because the inner soundtrack that is the constant background noise to Jin’s depression is not something that goes away. To me, these two things cohabit and are central to her mental wellness. I’m going to talk about rumination next.