30 July, 2014, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, Australia
You have been promised a night of tales guaranteed to amuse.
I so wish that I had a funny story to tell you tonight.
I wish I was one of the performers in the annual Melbourne Comedy Festival event, Best Comedians, Worst Gigs, so that I could have you all in stitches as I regaled you with anecdotes of falling flat on my face in front of an audience: side-splittingly self-deprecating tales of humiliation, mockery and disgrace that only go to prove what a good comedian I really am.
I wish I could tell you about the time that I toppled into a swimming pool at the wake of a prominent sporty identity and had to wear the deceased’s clothes all night until my sodden ones had been put through the dryer. Unfortunately, that was my husband in the pool, a banana peel moment of truly epic proportions.
I even wish I could tell you about the multiple rejections I received for my recent award-winning book and how, after a decade of work, I thought it would be exiled to the Orphanage for Abandoned Manuscripts before being miraculously rescued from obscurity and skyrocketing to stellar success. But this is not what happened, and the truth — a bidding war between multiple publishers — is not the stuff of short poppy glory.
In fact there is little in my CV that would suggest I should be standing here on this pedestal of failure tonight. I was a straight-A student at a select entry high school for academically gifted girls. I achieved a perfect 100% for my HSC English exam. I received First Class Honours for my Bachelor and Masters degrees and my PhD thesis won the prize for the best doctoral work in my discipline. I have been awarded merit-based scholarships for all my tertiary courses, and a federal grant for my postdoctoral research. My books have been on the best-sellers lists. My television documentary was a critical triumph, and my new documentary series will hit the screens on 19 August. So no belly flops or banana peels there.
My domestic life is pretty cozy too. I met the love of my life in first-year university and my husband and I have now been together for twenty-six years. (All of them bliss, he would say with only the hint of an impudent smile.) Together we are raising three delightful, healthy children, whose company we prefer to most other human or technological interaction. Our warm and hospitable suburban home is filled with food, love and laughter. We have an open door policy with friends and wildlife alike. At the moment we are breaking bread with a dog, two cats, four rabbits, twelve guinea pigs and the ever-present chooks. We have a beach house.
So it’s perhaps odd that when I was asked by the Wheeler Centre to participate in tonight’s panel, I knew immediately and instinctively what I would talk about. For me, the two little words ‘epic fail’ cast me straight back to a moment so vivid and visceral it could be yesterday.
But it is seven years ago and I am in a car. I am in my little navy blue Golf and I am driving back home to my beloved husband and beautiful family from a doctor’s appointment. I have spent two hours talking to this doctor — a woman I have never met before but who has kindly spared me eight of her precious 15 minutes appointment slots and bulk-billed me to boot. It is raining. Or maybe it is not raining but I am crying so hard that my memory requires windshield wipers to hone its field of vision.
I am in a state but I am also in a car so I’m stopping at traffic lights and watching out for pedestrians. And I’m talking out loud to myself, repeating two short sentences in a spin cycle of fear and self-loathing.
I’m sorry. I have failed. I’m sorry. I have failed. I’m sorry.
I drive and I cry and I chant this mantra to the rhythm of the rain. Or perhaps into the blinding sunshine. Does it matter? I have no idea who I’m apologizing to. But I know without a shadow of a doubt what I’m apologizing for: I have failed.
Later, I would come to think of 2007 as The Year My Brain Broke. But there in the car that day all I knew was that I’d left the doctor’s office with a prescription for antidepressants, a referral to a psychiatrist, and the assurance that ‘no strength of character or force of will’ would get me through this.
But what was this? This feeling of utter incompetence. This knowledge of my complete inability to pull myself up by my bootstraps. This incapacity to count my blessings. This malfunction of every system I had ever put in place to stave of disaster, avert catastrophe and neutralize chaos.
According to the doctor — who I had to admit was a highly skilled professional who had not merely raised her eyes above her glasses at me and reached for her prescription pad but rather listened while I oozed gloom for two whole hours — according to this doctor I had severe clinical postnatal depression.
My third child, my only daughter, had been born two and a half years earlier. We were instantly bonded in a deep and abiding connection. Every photo shows me beaming with pride and joy. With her birth I experienced a deep sense of fulfillment and a circle that I wasn’t aware was broken had finally closed.
For at least two years, I had struggled with the daily challenge to scale the summit of my own wretchedness. Most days were like snorkeling through tar. Dark, heavy, suffocating days punctuated by panic and a generalized sense of impending doom. I experienced waking hallucinations of my baby toppling down the stairs. A bomb in her pusher. Snakes crawling next to the bunny rug where she kicked happily in the back yard. At night when I slept, if I slept, which was rarely, I dreamed I was falling into a black abyss. “So this is what it’s like” I’d think wistfully as I plummeted into the void, right before I woke bolt upright, mouth dry, heart racing.
But this couldn’t be postnatal depression, could it? Depressed mums didn’t get out of bed, and cried all day, and shouted at people, and didn’t want to touch their babies, and were afraid they might hurt them. I wasn’t any of these things. I went to work, wrote and published, appeared on tv shows and made intelligent, amusing speeches. I had a hot meal on the table every night, and clean school uniforms in the cupboards. I had clean hair and happy kids.
Yes, I often felt red raw when watching the news or reading the paper, like my skin had been peeled away, gleaning on some deep gut level that it was my fault that a man had thrown his child off a bridge, or a group of teenagers had been mown down by a drunk driver, or a baby’s pusher had blown on the train tracks in a big wind.
And yes, I often started walking to the supermarket, or the swimming pool, or a café to meet friends, only to find myself frozen to the spot, certain that going to that place or doing that activity was wrong, and that I should have made a different decision, a better decision, and if I’d made THAT decision I wouldn’t be here, now, walking around in circles, unable to make up my mind whether to stay or go, pumped full of adrenalin, without a single good reason why I should either fight or take flight, but nonetheless primed for battle, certain I was going mad.
On the outside, I was a solid citizen. On the inside, I had fractured into a million little pieces.
But it was not until 45 year-old Audrey Fagan, Chief Police Office of the ACT, was found hanging in her hotel room on a Queensland tropical island in April 2007 that I started to grasp that something was seriously wrong with me beyond my own failure to stop myself from feeling so rotten and acting so crazy.
Stories on Fagan’s death all took the same line: why would such a competent, meticulous, successful mentor and mother take her own life? ‘Awesome mum solved all problems but her own’ read one headline. Amanda Vanstone was quoted saying “She was always happy, there was never any nastiness about her, she got along well with everybody." AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty said: "She was a very professional, very strong woman, and I think that's what has surprised all of us, that because she was such a strong woman, such a determined woman, it's a great lesson to all of us that everybody is vulnerable."
None of the articles said that Audrey Fagan had depression, though one story published in the Good Weekend magazine a few months after her death implied it.
Reading that piece at my kitchen table, I felt such a profound affinity with Fagan that my blood ran cold. It was not long after that I found myself a doctor.
Now that I am well again, I know, of course, that confronting the full force of my own vulnerability was not an epic fail. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Only I could make the decision to step back from the brink of the abyss. Only I could start to love myself the way my friends and family loved me. I had to find out for myself that life is not a performance sport; that achievement is a state of grace, not the sum total of relentless activity; that ego might not be a dirty work, but it can be a ruthless taskmaster; and that hard work often brings just rewards, but it’s not what sets you free.