Like a shorter, slower version of the great All Black John Kirwan, I have decided to speak up about depression. My life is fantastic and I get immense pleasure from my love of sport, travel and the amazing people around me. But here’s a simple statement of medical fact: I have experienced major episodes of clinical depression since the age of 18. I don’t know how that works, how the same mind that allows me to drink in life like an intoxicating nectar can also turn dog on me and drag me to the depths of emotional hell, but that is the truth of it. I do know that depression can afflict anyone, regardless of how good or seemingly enviable their life is, just as cancer, heart disease or any other illness can strike anybody, regardless of how happy, famous or wealthy they are.
Until now I dealt with my illness in secret because I grew up in a pre-John Kirwan era when depression and other mental illnesses were stigmatised, taboo, and definitely not openly discussed. I felt ashamed that I suffered from anxiety and depression, and hid it from the world. I no longer feel that way. In fact I have learned something very important, which is one of the reasons I am piping up now. It feels really good to be honest about this condition. It feels good to discuss it openly and by doing so connect with others who have experienced depression or know someone who has. There is beautiful strength to be had in sharing a heavy load with those close to you. In my experience there is only loneliness, emotional misery and a downward spiral in mood if I try to go it alone.
I now view mental illness as just like any other form of illness: something nobody chooses or wishes upon themselves but which has to be dealt with openly and honestly. As my good friend Jeff Ellis (Joffre) told me,
You can’t treat a secret.”
And another good mate of mine, Bill Moore, often and wisely states:
The truth will set us free.”
Which is why I have chosen to out myself and to stand proud. I will no longer run from depression or from discussion about it. I will no longer pretend it doesn’t occasionally get its claws into me. I would dearly love to think that by doing so I will help people, even just one person, to find a way through the darkness.
Because make no mistake, people are suffering out there. Discussion about depression may be uncommon, but the illness itself is not. It is estimated that one in six people will experience depression in their life time and one in four will suffer from significant anxiety. So the chances are that you or someone close to you could really benefit from unburdening themselves.
Another thing people need to realise about depression is that at its worst it is a fatal illness. People kill themselves rather than continue living with what they mistakenly believe is a permanent and inescapable sense of emotional pain and hopelessness. That view of the world is of course flawed, but it becomes frighteningly real for those suffering true clinical depression.
I surf and kite surf all around the world. I ski powder runs with my mates every year. I have an incredibly loving, smart and beautiful wife, wickedly good friends and a freehold home. Yet I have fantasised about death many, many times. That is not a reflection on my life but rather tells the truth about just how misleading, yet compelling and powerful, the lens of depression can be. More than 500 people a year commit suicide in New Zealand. These aren’t just empty numbers, these are real people: our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and work mates. We all know of someone in our community who has taken their own life. My own father, an immensely intelligent, big hearted and talented man, a man I am incredibly proud of, killed himself aged 49 after a long bout of depression.
WE NEED TO STOP OUR PEOPLE DYING FROM A TREATABLE ILLNESS.
We need to normalise depression, to get it out there, so those who are suffering don’t think twice about raising the subject with their friends, their family or their doctor. Depression has made a couple of significant runs at me, convincing me it would be better for all concerned if I no longer existed, that I was a burden. The scary thing about depression is that although it passes it fools people into believing it won’t. Many, many people have died when a better day was undoubtedly just around the corner.
Depression can be tricky. It can be sneaky and conniving. It has often persuaded me I should stay in bed, stay quiet, keep my thoughts to myself and battle on alone. I say fuck that. Depression thrives in the darkness, in the dead of night, in the depths of my mind. It does not do nearly as well when I talk about it with someone. It does not do nearly as well when I address it as a problem to be solved rather than an insurmountable mountain of gloom in my soul. Depression recoils when exposed to the light and to love.
I don’t suffer from depression all of the time, or even most of the time. But it is a part of my medical landscape which I have to accept. The really good news is that accepting it doesn’t mean lying down and letting it run rampant. Depression is a treatable illness. A big part of that treatment is seeking support when you need it. I sincerely thank my wife Janey, my family and my friends for the love and support given to me. You held me up when I could barely stand alone. A big part of showing my appreciation is to get well, stay well, and be there to help others along the way.
I am here today to tell anyone who cares to listen that it doesn’t matter how low you go, how hopeless and desperate things may seem, there is a way forward. There is love out there. There is help out there. There is a path back to the light, I promise you that.
And more often than not that way forward will begin with something as simple as a honest conversation with someone you trust. Try it. I did, and it worked.
Mark Thomas: Writer Mark Thomas explores the world from his home base of Hawea Flat, Central Otago, New Zealand. Currently he is chasing waves in Sumbawa. Last year he met some lemurs in Madagascar.